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In Burma’s Kachin State, a Women’s Rights Advocate Aspires to Enter Electoral Politics

Leading up to Burma’s 2020 general elections, the International Republican Institute (IRI) is featuring  alumni of its Leadership Training School (LTS) in a series on female community and political leaders in Burma’s democratic transition. In the fourth part of the series, we meet women’s rights advocate Zarli Htwe.

Zarli Htwe — a 30-year-old lawyer from the rural, conflict-riddled northern Kachin State of Burma — is exploring  the possibility of becoming a candidate in the 2020 general elections. This year, Zarli took part in IRI’s Leadership Training School, which equips women with the skills necessary to run a successful political campaign.

It was not too long ago, however, that Zarli Htwe had little interest in the country’s political transition. Those seeking political solutions and democratic reforms had little faith that overtures from the central government were genuine.

“Before, I didn’t feel that politics was something trustworthy,” she said. 

With the country’s by-elections in 2012, however, opportunities arose to engage and more fully participate in Burma’s transition. Zarli Htwe decided that it was time to get involved. In a place where calls for gender equality can be perceived as in conflict with traditional values, she has dedicated much of her time to a civil society organization supporting women’s rights. She also assists women members of parliament (MPs) in the capital, Naypyitaw, and has worked on children’s rights cases.

In 2014, Zarli Htwe joined an ethnic Kachin political party in the run-up to the historic 2015 national elections, the first competitive elections in 25 years for national and provincial level parliaments. Throughout Burma, people were excited about the opening of political scale and the formation of new parties. There were more than 15 political parties on the ballot in Kachin State and nearly 100 in the country. The 2015 elections also marked important gains for women’s representation, with the number of women serving as members of subnational parliaments increasing from 3.8 percent to 9.7 percent. 

Zarli Htwe, sixth from the right, in Parliament.

This year, as the 2020 elections near, several ethnic political parties in Kachin State have merged to form the Kachin State People’s Party with the goal of greater electoral success. Zarli Htwe supports the move as reflecting the will of the Kachin people to have a more unified voice. At the same time, she wants to see greater political awareness and knowledge of democratic decision-making practices. For example, stakeholders have struggled with transparency in mining, logging and other key sectors vital to turning Kachin into a prosperous state. Greater government transparency, Zarli Htwe believes, is necessary to make headway in these areas for the benefit of Kachin’s people.

With every seat in the national upper lower houses and state and regional parliaments up for election in 2020, Zarli Htwe is working to recruit more women to run as Kachin State People’s Party candidates. She pointed out that the lack of women’s representation crosses the rural-urban divide and believes that women’s interests will be better represented in government as more women win elections.    

So far, more than 230 women have benefited from the Leadership Training School, and some 80 of them ran for office. Regardless whether she will stand as candidate in 2020, Zarli Htwe plans to continue her work with the Kachin State People’s Party to recruit more women, give them a larger voice within the party and raise issues that matter to women. Part of that work will be bringing back what she learned at the LTS and IRI’s recent conference for young political party members to Kachin and mentoring other aspiring leaders.

Read other stories in this series highlighting LTS alumni Thazin Toke, Mai Naomi Thang and Soe Soe Aye.