The Limitations of Tea-Break Advocacy – Women sidelined in Burma’s Peace Process

27 September 2016

With former political prisoner and current State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi arguably being the country’s most recognisable figure, it is understandable that many assume the women in Burma are playing an active role in the country’s current period of reform. The reality, however, is worryingly to the contrary. An upsetting pattern is emerging of female peace activists being forced to approach men on their tea breaks from negotiations in order to ensure their voices are in some way heard. This practise has not gone unnoticed and has even gained the title of ‘Tea-Break Advocacy’, a phrase encapsulating the troubling exclusion of women from a peace process aimed at solving the country’s internal conflicts in which women have so many vested interests.

To understand the impact of the ongoing internal conflicts in Burma on women is also to understand why women’s place at the negotiation table is so fundamental to achieving a sufficiently comprehensive agreement. In August of this year, Human Rights Watch composed a report on this very issue, highlighting that Burmese women are often left behind in these conflicts and are subsequently highly susceptible to sexual violence and abuse from the Burmese military. These abuses, which occur predominantly in Kachin and Shan States (the latter of which HART has a local partner   working on such issues), have continued to occur for decades. In recent times the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) has stated its intention to tackle the sexual violence that comes with the country’s domestic conflicts stating: “If there are women being abused in the conflict areas, we want them to make complaints to the MNHRC, but they haven’t done it so far.” However, women in Burma have reason enough to be sceptical given the fact that the Commission has a virtually empty track record in delivering justice for victims and rights groups question its’ ability to do so. With such little action thus far to counter the sexual violence that comes with conflicts in Burma the increased presence of women in peace negotiations could be an incredibly positive step to countering this devastating practise.


In addition to this, the legal context of Burma further consolidates the dangerously weak position of women in conflict areas. Currently, there is still no existing complaint system for victims of sexual violence by members of the Burmese military and if a trial does occur it will do so in a military court away from public view. This naturally has a highly detrimental effect on the integrity of the legal process and fuels the worrying precedent that those in the military are above all civilian law. In 2015, two young ethnic Kachin school teachers were brutally raped and murdered in Shan state. The main suspects of this crime were Burmese army soldiers. The military vehemently denied the allegations after conducting their own investigation and have threatened legal action against anyone who publicly alleged their responsibility. The case remains unsolved and is yet another example of the importance of female representation in social political forums, namely the ongoing peace negotiations.

Women in Burma must also contend with gender discriminatory laws such as the Monogamy Law, as well as an absence of legal protection against domestic abuse. Human Rights Watch has highlighted that the Monogamy Law has the potential to deter rape victims from reporting the crime out of fear of being prosecuted for adultery. In an environment where the legal infrastructure often does not work in their favour, women’s significant representation in politics is a crucial necessity and the first part of achieving this could be their increased involvement in the important peace talks that are attempting to unite the country.

Arguably, this continued abuse of power from the Burmese military should be reason enough for a prerequisite of mandatory female representation at these talks. Moreover there is much evidence that proves that conflicts in countries at a similar stage of development as Burma typically have numerous additional severe consequences that negatively affect women. For example, in Burma, more women than men tend to die from indirect consequences of the ongoing internal conflicts, including reduced access to health services, food and clean water. The commonplace exclusion of women from peace negotiations in Burma has a direct knock-on effect causing the absence of sufficient commitments to the necessary reforms and rehabilitation to alleviate these issues. The Transnational Institute additionally reasons that ‘international experience shows that failure to incorporate women’s gendered needs and priorities in peace agreements will greatly undermine the potential for sustainable peace.’ When issues related to the reduced access to vital services that come with conflict do not arguably have their most appropriate and strongest advocates, it is difficult to dispute this affirmation.

In the most recent of these peace negotiations, the 21st Century Panglong Conference, 750 stakeholders gathered to discuss politics, security and land amongst other issues. Noticeably absent from this cohort was significant female representation. The Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) analysed that just 14% of official participants were women, in spite of the fact over half of the population were counted to be women in the most recent 2014 census. Open Democracy discussed the issue with Nang Phyu Phyhi Lin, the chair of AGIPP, who reasoned ‘Women are half of the world. If you do not allow women to participate in the peace process, you will miss half of the world’s voices.’ Indeed, the absence of a significant role of women in these negotiations can only result in the continued neglect of the serious realities of these conflicts for women. On top of this, any agreement reached is far more likely to falter at these issues as there is not the sufficient amount of directly affected advocates for them.

For many Burmese women however, the battle truly begins after they manage to get themselves into the negotiation room. A public relations expert for one of the ethnic groups present at the 21st century Panglong Peace Conference stated to Human Rights Watch that ‘Women’s role is to ease tensions’ and that they are not diplomatic actors. This persistent attitude that ceasefires and any negotiation relating to security is solely a men’s game is perhaps the highest wall female peace campaigners must climb to get their voices heard. Women’s rights and peace activist May Sabe Phyu suggested that the problem was not just with men, and that also “women who are at the decision-making level – for example Daw Aung San Su Kyi – do not think that women should be at the peace table.” These widespread attitudes among men and women seem difficult to deny when considering there have only been 10 women among the 195 senior delegates in the eight major peace talks since 2012. Therefore the inclusion of women in peace negotiations will not solve the entirety of the problem alone; Burma must simultaneously address these dated and harmful attitudes in order to realise significant change.

Nonetheless, it would still be highly encouraging if future peace talks at the very least strictly abided by the 30% female quota suggested in the early 2015 Union Peace Conference in order to help standardize their increased presence. It would also be positive to include women’s rights groups, such as HART’s local partner Shan Women’s Action Network, more significantly in these talks. Whilst women are resigned to negotiating in the tea room it is unlikely these attitudes will be broken down, thus leaving these issues improperly addressed. On top of this, by failing to act, Burma will also continue to renegade on the commitments it made signing and ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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