by Cheery Zahau
– Burma / India –
In the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, international scrutiny highlights the military junta that rules Burma, a Southeast Asian country that shares borders with China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. Adding greatly to the number of victims claimed by the storm, the Burmese government prevented aid from entering the country until pressured by the international community. Burma’s notorious military regime seems to enjoy watching its people suffer, turning deaf ears to victims in need, denying entrance of international aid groups and failing to properly prepare the region, despite prior warning from regional weather centers.
And though there has been recent talk of the junta’s deliberate failure to protect its people, ethnic Burmese groups have experienced constant severe human rights violations in their daily lives for years.
With a population of over 50 million people, Burma is comprised of eight major ethnic nationalities: Burman, Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Chin, Kachin and Arakan. Burma’s ethnic groups demand equality, autonomy and self-determination, but are systematically denied their rights by the junta. Instead, they are met with human rights violations: forced labor, forced relocation, religious persecution, arbitrary arrest and detention, destruction of thousands of ethnic villages, the driving out of hundreds of thousands of ethnic civilians to neighboring countries, and the forced internal displacement of an estimated one million people.
Worse yet is that Burmese military soldiers are raping the ethnic women and girls with impunity. Women and girls from the Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Mon, Karenni and Arakan states have long suffered under these state-sanctioned sex crimes. Rape incidents in ethnic areas are higher than anywhere else in Burma because they are part of the regime’s strategy to punish the armed resistance groups or used as a tool to repress various peoples in the larger agenda of ethnic cleansing.
Although rape has been used by the regime to control the population for decades, it took years and the courage of many women to document these crimes. In recent years, the different women’s groups operating in Burma started documenting the systematic sexual violence against ethnic women by the State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) military soldiers. The total number of rape victims documented in these reports from Chin, Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin states totals 1,859 girls and women, with some accounts going back as far as 1995.
As a result of these reports, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma has repeatedly raised concerns about the widespread use of sexual violence by the regime’s troops. However, the SPDC has continued to deny this atrocity and the sexual violence continues.
In 2006, my organization, the Women’s League of Chinland, documented 38 cases of sexual violence in Chin state committed by the Burmese military troops. One should bear in mind that it is extremely difficult to collect this information because of Chin state’s geographical isolation and the tight control of the area by the Burmese military. Before 1988 there were two army battalions in Chin state. Now the regime has increased that number to 13 battalions, spread across 33 military outposts, demonstrating the dramatic militarization of Burma, particularly in the ethnic states, over the last 20 years. Still today, the numbers of deployed army battalions are only increasing.
At the same time, most women dare not speak out for fear of the army’s retribution and the social stigma that rape carries in their communities. We believe that the rape cases we have been able to document represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Of these 38 cases, five were girls under 18 and the youngest was just 12 years old. The circumstances of the rapes clearly show that women and girls are under constant threat of sexual violence during the course of their daily lives. They have been raped in their homes, while working at farms, collecting firewood, walking back from church, traveling to market and going to school. They are also raped while doing forced labor and working as forced porters for the Burmese army. Often the rapes are carried out with extreme brutality, sometimes resulting in the death of the victim.
Ma Iang was abducted by Burmese soldiers in May 2003 while returning home from a nearby village where she had been helping her sister build her home. The soldiers took the girl and another hostage into the forest where they raped the girl while forcing the man to watch and drink alcohol laced with poison. After villagers from Paletwa New Town realized the two were missing, they reported the disappearance to local army officers, who insisted that they should not search for the victims. When the villagers discovered their bodies, they reported that Iang’s face seemed contorted. Her panties had been stuffed in her mouth, and her skirt covered her face. The boatman appeared to have been poisoned. Iang’s parents tried to file the case with military authorities, but received no response.
In another case, a woman was stripped naked and hung on a cross, mocking her Christian religion and indicating that sexual violence is being deliberately used as a weapon to torture and terrorize local ethnic populations into submission.
Almost half of the rapes were gang rapes, showing that there is a collective understanding among the troops that they can rape without consequence. And according to the women we interviewed, about a third of the rapes were committed by officers, sometimes in their own army camps. Again, this is a clear example to the troops that rape is acceptable and even encouraged.
None of these rapists have been prosecuted. In some cases, those survivors who were courageous enough to report the cases have even been threatened. In only a few cases was some punishment meted out to the soldiers, but all the victims or families got in return was a small amount of money, or the knowledge that the rapists were transferred to another army post. This clearly shows that the regime has no formal rules of law to protect women and gives the signal to its soldiers that they are above the law. Because of the lack of redress for these crimes, it is clear that Burma’s state policy is to willfully ignore and indeed condone rape by its soldiers.
Rape survivors face many challenges after being raped. They are often severely traumatized and some become mentally disturbed. Mang Cin Sung and her elderly parents live in Thlan Tlang. One night in October 2003, soldiers came to their house and forced Sung’s parents out of their bedroom. The soldiers then took turns raping Sung while her parents were held at gunpoint, unable to call for help and forced to listen to the attack. When Mang Cin Sung’s fiancé heard about the rape, he broke off their engagement. Sung now has severe psychological problems. In some cases, rape survivors carry unwanted pregnancies and subsequently face stigma in their own communities once their children are born.
Rape is one of the primary factors forcing Chin women to flee as refugees to India and other countries. However, as India does not recognize Chin refugees, they are subject to forcible repatriation at any time.
I am convinced that only the genuine political shift to democracy, restoration of the rule of law, establishment of a civilian government, and a withdrawal of Burmese Army troops from ethnic areas will bring an end to the systematic sexual violence in Burma. We therefore urge the United Nations Security Council to pass a binding resolution on Burma that will help bring about these much needed changes. It is crucial that Burma’s regional neighbors, particularly India, reconsider their economic and military engagement with the Burmese military regime, and review their policies on refugees.
And what about China and Russia? The Burmese people often urge them to reconsider their positions and support the UN Security Council’s intervention in the country. By opposing the UNSC resolution on Burma in January 2007, China and Russia sent the wrong signal to the Burmese military regime, essentially encouraging the junta to continue killing its own people and raping more women and girls.
Burma needs immediate intervention from the UNSC, and real action not just political statements. Otherwise the SPDC will continue neglecting its obligations to the international conventions it has ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Otherwise the Burmese people will continue to suffer.
About the Author
Cheery Zahau is a Chin activist working to restore democracy and human rights in her country. She left Burma when she was 17 and settled in India, where she works extensively on women’s capacity building within her local Chin communities. She also campaigns to protect women’s rights in Burma. She has spoken at the United Nations and with representatives from governments around the world including India, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Germany and the United States about the systematic sexual violence committed by Burmese Army soldiers against Chin women.