In this episode of That's Illegal, we sat down with our partners Naw Hser Hser and Mu Gloria from the Women's League of Burma to talk about their work on the ground and their recent experience attending the UN's Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
Transcript: Civil Society in Burma
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Welcome to "That's Illegal!" a podcast about international law in the age of nationalism. This podcast is produced by the Global Justice Center or GJC. The Global Justice Center is a legal, human rights non-profit based in New York City. Our work focuses on moving international humanitarian laws from paper to practice. Our staff consists of lawyers with international law expertise who work regularly with partners at the EU and the UN.
This week we’re sitting down with two Burmese activists who are in New York City for the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN (CSW). They’ll be talking about activism in their country and their work with the Global Justice Center.
Thank you so much both for doing this. Do you want to start by introducing yourself?
NAW HSER HSER: My name is Naw Hser Hser. I’m from the Women’s League of Burma, and I am WLB’s Secretary-1. Actually, my mother organization is Karen Women Organization.
MU GLORIA: I’m Gloria from Karen Women Organization, and I’m an advocacy team member for WLB. I was a Burma member for WLB from 2013 to 2015.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Is this your first time doing the CSW?
NAW HSER HSER: Yes, this is my first time. When I arrived, we had a good event. We also had an opportunity to participate as speakers. We learned many things from other countries. We all face similar problems. A lot of women are coming together. Events such as the CSW open doors for civil society and NGOs. We are strengthening our network and share our experiences and information. It’s very useful that we have the chance to bring some issues and information from our countries.
MU GLORIA: I would like to say special thanks to GJC for supporting us in coming here. They help WLB and our community. This is a great opportunity for us to learn and share experience from our country. We can get better strategy for the local communities in our country. Especially, when you look at the local communities in Burma, we struggle with many different challenges. For example, the registration process is sensitive to us. When we attend the CSW conferences, we learn from representative of other countries. This is helpful for us. This also gives us a chance to find out how we can better address the struggles of our local communities.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Do you want to talk about one specific event you’ve been to that you thought was really good?
NAW HSER HSER: There were some events about reconciliation from different countries. We asked questions on the process and how other countries are going to implement reconciliation processes. Some events that we participated in included us in the panel discussions. We spoke about women’s participation in peace processes and implementing democratic processes in Burma. We spoke about the difficulties that women in rural areas face right now. We have also communicated with other women’s groups and shared our reports and briefs.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Do you want to add anything else about the CSW?
NAW HSER HSER: Civil society and women’s groups came together. Many want to share their experiences and speak but we had limited time. But it helps to network and communicate with each other. We can know which women’s group focuses on which issues.
MU GLORIA: I have learned about difficulties in funding. When we are talking about the funding, stronger organizations get more money. It’s easier for them to make changes within the local community. This is very relevant to our situation. It’s not easy for us to implement registration because we have limited funds. When we meet with our donors to talk about various activities, we’re first asked about registration. Mostly, the ethnic minority from Burma have problems with the language. We can negotiate with the local community very well and implement our activities. But sometimes we don’t know how to write proposals and reports to our donors. This puts a limit on implementing changes in our communities.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: I would love to talk about the process of going to Geneva for the CEDAW Committee. Can you talk to us about what that experience has been like for you?
NAW HSER HSER: Thank you to GJC for proving us with the information and an invitation to come. Thank you for helping us with the process. If Phyu Phyu Sann didn’t help us with the registration process, then we would not get here on time. It’s also really hard to access the internet in Burma, so Phyu Phyu helped us with the registration process. We sent out our documents, and she filled out the application for us. We didn’t know that after applying for the visa, we had to send all the documents to the embassy in one week. I didn’t know that. After I got a confirmation for an interview appointment, they asked for all of my documents and information. They allowed us to submit our documents in one week. Gloria also didn’t get her passport because her passport has expired. She had to renew her passport. So I told her to send all her documents to the embassy in one week. Our funders paid for us trip. They arranged our flights and hotels. We also had Phyu Phyu help us with all the logistics and the schedule arrangements for the CSW. We have a lot of support from you. When we arrived at the airport, GJC came to pick us up. Everything was very well arranged.
MU GLORIA: Compared to other trips, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare our passports and visas. But also compared to other trips, this was the best process. This is a great opportunity. I feel very excited to be in New York and share some information. It was somewhat difficult to get here but I have people guiding me in these situations. I try not to travel a lot, so when my passport expired, I kept quiet. When Phyu Phyu called at midnight, she told me that we need to fill out the application right now. I had to go to the passport station. But I also didn’t have my house registration form, so I had to go back to my home to meet my family—because of the information wouldn’t run through. The authorities even asked for information on my siblings. But some of my siblings went to the jungle to do cultivation, so it was difficult to get this information. Thank you GJC and Phyu Phyu Sann for guiding me through this process.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Talk a little bit about what it was like in 2016 when you went to Geneva and testified before the CEDAW Committee. GJC was a part of it but we haven’t talked about what it was like for you to be a part of that.
NAW HSER HSER: GJC has been working with us for a long time, including helping us with report writing, workshops, and many other activities. We greatly appreciate that—especially your assistance with the CEDAW. I was highly involved in the process as well as a representative of Karen Women Organization. Before we came, we had a brief discussion with many other women’s groups, especially those who came to Geneva. Other women had experience of travelling to Geneva or lobbying at the UN but I was selected as the speaker. I was very nervous but I thank GJC and Phyu Phyu for training me very well. I didn’t have any experience speaking given the time limitation. I had some problems with the pronunciation as well. I learned many lessons from her and got inspired by her training. On behalf of GJC, Phyu Phyu did very well. We also thank Michelle for helping us in many ways. GJC has extensive technical support, which is why we’ve worked with you for a long time now.
Coming to Geneva gave us an opportunity to also meet with the CEDAW Committee and share our women’s issues in Burma. We see that our information leads to some pressure on the governments to act. We now have ways to lobby and advocate with the CEDAW Committee. We also invited a representative from Nepal to come and share Nepal’s experience in implementing initiatives. We can follow up and work with other groups.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: In terms of our audience, what do you want them to know about the work you do in Burma?
MU GLORIA: When we look at the local communities and women’s groups, we can make alliances and work with other women’s groups. Sometimes other groups within our network don’t want to hear WLB’s strong message on violence against women. So we have to speak strategically. We must speak about the military using violent tactics against women—especially in remote, rural areas. On the other side, we still need to think about our network groups. Some groups cooperate with Burma’s government. We also cooperate on some activities and meetings. One of our goals is to cooperate with the government and other groups. But when we do cooperate with them, we can’t speak openly. We need to think carefully about what our message is. We have limitations and cannot speak openly. Other groups often say nice things about the government. Compared to other groups, WLB feels as if it’s speaking the truth. Sometimes the local authorities are not happy to hear negative thing about what is really happening.
NAW HSER HSER: I would like to share the situation in Burma at a national level. We have been in conflict for over seventeen years now. Burma faces challenges in the peace process. It’s not in the peace process yet. It’s in a cease fire agreement. It also depends on the political situation. We still have fighting in the Northern Shan and Kachin states. Some areas, such as Karen state, have signed cease fire agreements. But last week, in the beginning of March, fighting happened again. As a result, there are a lot of IDPs.
In a way, the international community thinks that Burma has changed and improved. In reality, it’s not really changing. While Burma hopes to be a democratic country, in reality, it’s not practicing democracy. Women’s groups often analyze the situation in practical terms. So we’re going to meet with peacemakers and have other activities to think about issues in the overall political dialogue and the cease fire agreement processes. We’ve already had peace conferences (such as the Union Peace Conference—21st Century Panglong) but nothing changed. We didn’t see anything change after the conference.
Also, the state excluded women’s participation. WLB always insists if there are no women, then there will be no peace. We’re still excluded from the process. We push the government and those who are involved in the peace progress. We get involved in many different ways to include our recommendations. I would like to ask the international community to monitor and evaluate the current situation in Burma. Oftentimes, Joint Peace Fund doesn’t know if that funding goes to the local community and helps the peace process. If they’re going to meet with the government, they will say very good things. But in reality, you have to engage with the civil society and the local community. Some of the local groups and organizations face funding limitations. That’s why we advocate for monitoring the peace process in Burma. It’s mostly the local organizations that implement peace processes. Those groups work deeply on the ground and get advice from the ground.
I would also like to talk about the refugee and internally displaced persons situation in Burma right now. Even though cease fire is on the other side, we still have refugees on the Thai-Burma border and IDPs in Burma. We’ve had an increase in the number of IDPs in Kachin states. We have to think about humanitarian aid for them. Some of the refugees in camps commit suicides. We have gotten that kind of information. Some of them ran out to fight but got arrested by the Thai police. There are many problems. There are nutrition problems, a lack of health care, and no access to schools. There are many problems with the refugees right now. Although some armed groups have signed cease fire agreements, they are still feared. So I would advise to look at the context of Burma carefully. There needs to be an understanding of the political situation but also communication with civil society who are working on the ground level.
MU GLORIA: Now everyone is very happy to talk about our peace process. Even our donors ask us if various groups are aware of gender equality. What we see is that if some organizations don’t work around gender equality, then they worry that they will not get funds from their donors. So what these organizations do is take information from women’s groups and put it in their agenda. This is not the way to do this. If they would like to implement gender equality, they should consider the issue at the grassroots level. Did you get the information from the local community? When we look at the peace process, some organizations don’t go to the community. We worry that sometimes the message doesn’t come from the local community. They need to get information from the ground level.
NAW HSER HSER: I would like to thank GJC for providing us with information and full technical support. It gives us a chance advocate. It’s good for us to continue communicating and collaborating. We think that we need to strengthen our advocacy on the regional and international levels. We hope that GJC continues to work with us and helps us with advocacy and lobby processes on an international level. We can support each other as well. GJC is very supportive. When we need anything, we can call. We thank GJC and Phyu Phyu for providing us with everything—including food. It’s also good that you have someone who speaks Burmese, so we can communicate and understand each other. Thank you very much.
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Thank you for joining us. Tune in next month for more.