Burma after the By-elections: Taking Gender and Human Security into Account

By staff contributor Cait O’Donnell

For an audio recording of this event, click here.

Five years ago, this panel would not have happened. Even a year ago, Burma did not receive a lot of media attention. Now, in March-April 2012, Burma is in the news. One of its major political contenders is former prisoner, democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Global Gender Program and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies of George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs held a panel discussion on April 3 entitled, “Burma after the By-Elections: Taking Gender and Human Security into Account.” With recent news of landslide by-election victories for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, this discussion proved timely and relevant.

Panelists included: Christina Fink, Professor of Practice, the Elliott School of International Affairs, GW; Tom Malinowski, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch; Mark Taylor, Senior Coordinator, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, State Department; Wenchi Yu, Senior Advisor, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, State Department. The panel was moderated by Deepa Ollapally, Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, GW. Christina Fink organized the event.

Christina Fink opened the event by discussing the April 1 by-election results as well as campaign and voting irregularities. According to Fink, Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign, as head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was hampered in two major ways.

First, she was not allowed to use stadiums to campaign and thus had to hold rallies in places that were difficult to access.

Second, there was vote buying and intimidation by the ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development (USDP). Voting rolls were missing names of eligible voters, repeated names of eligible voters, and included names of dead people, children, and people who no longer lived there. In a number of polling booths, wax was placed over the National League for Democracy’s spot which needed to be peeled off in order to vote. 

Vote counting, however, was transparent. International observers were allowed to come in, though only a week or two before the elections.

The elections show the beginnings of increased social diversity. The NLD fielded twelve female candidates, and some NLD representatives include social activists and former political prisoners. Because the NLD was able to win seats, the campaign and voting irregularities will not be of immediate concern, though they will be important for the next election.

Tom Malinowski commented on the 1988 Burma elections when Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won seats but were not allowed to hold them. In the 2012 by-elections, voters in Burma again overwhelmingly chose to vote for the democratic opposition. Malinowski asked, “Why did it take so long to get what they wanted in 1988?” He described the Burmese democratic opposition as “uniquely strong and legitimate,” “determined and clear,” and having strong leadership, which is atypical of most repressive societies.

Malinowski stated, “The good news is that Aung San Suu Kyi swept the table. The bad news is that Aung San Suu Kyi swept the table.” Because this was a by-election, it accounted for only ten percent of parliament’s seats. Nothing will be settled until 2015, when twenty percent of the seats will be up for election. Now, the important question is, as Malinowski asked, “Will the military allow free and fair elections or use their trump cards to stop them?” He believes that the United States should respond positively by lifting some of its sanctions and extending leverage to Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.

Mark Taylor turned the focus to human trafficking and forced labor. As the only country with an International Labor Organization (ILO) imposed sanction and, along with North Korea, a state-sponsor of forced labor, Burma is on the lowest tier of trafficking. According to Taylor, 92 percent of Burmese citizens surveyed in Chin state have experienced some form of government-sponsored forced labor.

Over the last 24 years, Thailand’s economy has come to rely on the over two million people who comprise the Burmese labor force in fishing, construction, agriculture, and domestic labor. Women and girls are disproportionately represented among migrant workers and the official ban on migration of young women results in high-risk, high-debt migration. There have been some recent improvements, including the government’s gradual recognition of human trafficking as a problem, a cessation of mandatory rehabilitation courses for citizens returned from China, and proactive actions by the military to prevent child recruitment of soldiers.

Wenchi Yu spoke about the current state of women and girls in Burma where there are a half million more women than men. As a recent development, more women than men have received secondary or higher education. According to Yu, for every hundred men in Parliament, there are four women. Women are also disproportionately affected by poverty. Reproductive health challenges include under-serviced health care facilities, a shortage of midwives, low accessibility to birth control, and difficulty with obtaining birth permits leading to high-risk abortions.

Burma has signed onto CEDAW. The government is currently drafting a five year women’s national action plan to identify interventions and anticipated results. As a member of ASEAN, Burma will take up chairmanship in 2014. Yu identified this as a chance to “cultivate” government officials who are interested in women’s issues. Yu touched on donor coordination, asserting the importance of a gender lens in implementation, monitoring, and evaluation and emphasized the need to support women’s groups on the borders.

A 75 percent vote is needed to change a constitution which cedes an incredible amount of power to the army, including the ability to control its own budget, to dismiss the president, to be free from judiciary control, and to be guaranteed twenty-five percent of parliament seats.

How will Burma’s democratic opposition be able to challenge the country’s constitution? As Malinowksi said, the Burma by-elections are a hopeful “impulse toward freedom.” Looking ahead to the 2015 elections, one can hope that this impulse toward freedom continues to bring positive change to Burma.

For more information: Wenchi Yu suggested: Kelley Currie’s Burma in the Balance: The Role of Foreign Assistance in Burma’s Democratic Transition.

Cait O’Donnell is a program assistant for the Global Gender Program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Ukraine, 2009-2011), a University of California, Berkeley graduate and a Blum Center for Developing Economies fellowship recipient.

 

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