This article was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on 17 March 2017.
When the iconic democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi won her historic, landslide election in Burma (Myanmar), she was met by soaring expectations, as well as by the formidable challenges of violent conflicts, a stuttering economy and the significant constraints of sharing authority with a still-powerful military.
Not surprisingly, she has fallen short.
Since taking office just over a year ago, she has been navigating a thorny and complex landscape with great caution. Many say too cautiously, but getting that balance right will be critical for a successful and peaceful transition.
A photograph of José Vela Zanetti’s mural “Mankind’s Struggle for Lasting Peace” at the UN Conference Building , coutesy United Nations Photo/flickr
This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 17 June 2016.
Earlier this week, a damning report from advocacy group The Syria Campaign accused the United Nations of breaching its humanitarian principles by prioritizing cooperation with the Assad government “at all costs.” This is not the first time that such charges have been leveled. An internal inquiry into the UN’s response to the final days of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war found that officials privileged maintaining good relations with the Colombo regime over their responsibilities to protect human rights.
What is more, the UN has recently been at the receiving end of an avalanche of revelations that it has succumbed to pressure from it member states over its reporting and language:
- Australia lobbied hard to ensure that UNESCO removed the Great Barrier Reef from a list of endangered world heritage sites, despite near universal consensus among scientists studying the reef that it is, indeed, deeply at risk as a result of climate change and runoffs from coastal farms and industrial plants.
- Saudi Arabia threatened to defund UN programs, and to encourage other Islamic countries to do the same, if the UN did not remove a report’s references to patterns of violations against children in Yemen committed by the Saudi-led coalition.
- Morocco threatened to withdraw support for UN operations in retaliation for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referring to Western Sahara as “occupied,” despite the fact that this is precisely the legal situation in that part of the world until a referendum on its future can be held.
- Myanmar insisted that UN officials refrain from using the term “Rohingya” to refer to an ethnic minority in that country and has threatened to withdraw cooperation with any that do. Some, such as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Satish Nambiar, have complied with the regime’s demand, overlooking the right of groups to self-identify. Others, such as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee continue to use the label and have faced vilification because of it.
Kachin rebels in front of a gaming shop that closed after fighting broke out again. Source: David Brenner.
Hopes were once high that Myanmar’s transition to semi-civilian government in 2011 would be accompanied by the settlement of its decades-old conflicts with its ethnic minorities. However, many of the country’s insurgencies have escalated since then, plunging the north back into renewed civil conflict. As things currently stand, government forces are battling various ethnic armed groups – including Kachin, Kokang, and Palaung movements – resulting in heavy losses on both sides and the displacement of up to 200,000 civilians in Shan and Kachin States. » More
US President Obama with Myanmar President Thein Sein. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Since 2012 the United States, followed by Australia, has extended military assistance and relaxed restrictions on defence cooperation to Myanmar. Then Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced that the US would extend military assistance to Myanmar if the leadership continued to implement democratic reforms and improve human rights conditions.
Within a year the then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard announced a relaxation of restrictions on defence co-operation with Myanmar in recognition of its “critical reforms”. Australia wanted to encourage the development of a modern, professional defence force in Myanmar which continued to support democratisation and reform, she said. » More
Three women engaged in peacebuilding in Myanmar, here during a training session on peace negotiations by swisspeace and the Shalom Foundation in Yangon, Myanmar, in October 2012. Photo: Rachel Gasser.
When we think of efforts to bring peace to Myanmar, the main picture most of us have in mind is that of Aung San Suu Kyi. Even if today she is still an essential element of the Myanmar transition, the road to peace and democracy is paved by many other female characters whose faces are less familiar to us.
At the Negotiating Table
As in many other contexts around the world, it is mainly men who sit on both sides of Myanmar’s negotiating table. However, the recent dialogue between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU) was an exception in that it was the first time talks were headed by a woman: Naw Zaporah Sein, the current Vice-Chairman of the KNU. In addition to the head of the delegation, several members of the KNU peace negotiation team are also women, among them an influential legal expert. Additionally, several women sit in the negotiation room as observers and provide feedback to both sides after negotiations. » More