by Cheery Zahau
- Burma / India -
Burma has become well known to the world, not with good reason but for its worsening human rights violations perpetrated by the military junta ruling the country. According to Amnesty International, the regime now has more than 1,300 political prisoners, 175 of whom are women according to the Burmese Women Union Report. Last summer, the women of Burma showed their courage by resisting the junta’s many injustices during the Saffron Revolution. The regime responded violently to the protesting unarmed women citizens, nuns and monks.
In August 2007, the military junta increased fuel prices unreasonably. When student activists demonstrated against the policy the regime responded by harassing the activists and their families. After a month, the fire of dissatisfaction amongst Burma’s people spread until monks, nuns and ordinary citizens demonstrated against the junta, demanding social, economic and political change. The junta responded with bullet fire causing several deaths. Twenty-seven women activists were imprisoned while hundreds more had to flee to country. About 2,000 people were arrested and detained. Relatives of the protesters were interrogated. In Burma, the more people want justice and freedom, the riskier their lives become.
This is especially true for Burmese women who are often targeted for supporting the political activities of their husbands, brothers or fathers. These women are taken repeatedly from their homes and interrogated. Sometimes they are arrested on the spot when their male relatives are away.
In my work, I have come across several women who have been targeted by the regime for their desire to implement political and social change within the country. I know that the women in Burma live with fear and worry for their daily existence because of the junta’s economic mismanagement. They worry about the ongoing increase of food prices as they struggle to feed their families. They fear that they won’t be able to send their children to school or seek healthcare for their family members. I admire them for the sacrifices they have made for the betterment of our society.
I cannot do much to help them, but I can show my solidarity by helping them tell their stories to the world. The following story is just one among many, but shows how the women in Burma face incredible abuses and injustice. I met with Mrs. Tluang Ngam, 46, in Malaysia and recorded her story.
I arrived in Kualampur, Malaysia on February 13, 2008 from the Chin State of Burma. I was sentenced to prison for six and half years in Burma. I am one of the few political prisoners who was released after the Saffron Revolution, the popular monks uprising in Burma in September 2007.Here in Malaysia I met with my children and husband after waiting for almost seven years to see them. My four children have left Burma while I was in prison. But the place we met and stayed together as a family was not safe, because I was arrested by the Malaysian thug group called the RELA and was handed over to the Malay immigration department where they detained us for several days without a proper trail.
I thought I had been arrested unjustly only one time, but here it was repeated again. It is very common in Malaysia that the RELA arrest Burmese refugees and migrant workers. About 150 women from Burma have been arrested and sold to the commissioners at the Thai-Malay border who then demand Malay RN1800-2000 (US$503-559). Almost everyone is frightened by the RELA or Malay authorities for their ill-treatment of refugees and migrant workers.
I was arrested by Burmese military authorities on a “Suspect Case” because of some guests who stayed with us for three days in 2001 at our village in Chin Stat. It is common culturally to host travelers who cross the villages from time to time.
I was beaten on the back by the army officer and slapped across my face because I could not answer all their questions since I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my children. That was the most bitter experience of my life.
I was put in Malamaid Jail in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Division. I was sentenced to seven years and taken to court about five times. The judge asked me the same questions every time I was taken to the court. There was no lawyer provided for me.
[Inside the jail] I worked as a cleaner of the women's dormitory, which was very dirty. Almost every hour I had to work. Verbal abuse was very common by the women police. I hardly had a visitor [so] the roommates and authorities looked down on me. The food was so horrible, a small portion of rice, some kind of peas and bad quality salt. Some officers were very abusive and treated us like animals, but some were not so bad. The authorities kept changing every six months.During my sentence, I kept worrying about my children as the youngest was only 11 when I was arrested. I also heard that my husband could not go back to our village for fear of interrogation and arrest. Every night, I wondered where my children would be - Were they cold, hot, hungry or happy? I cried so much because I missed my children.
I constantly lived with worry and fear. The only way I could comfort myself was by praying. As a consequence, I developed a heart condition and other mental health problems. Sometimes [even now], I don't want to speak to anyone, including family members. Sometimes I complain about life negatively even though I know it will create problems within my family. My children have grown up without their mother, which keeps their relationship distant with me [to this day].
I decided to tell you my story to let the world know that we, the women in Burma, face extreme violations of our basic rights under these unjust rulers. I want the world to know that we need a change in Burma in order to save thousands of innocent lives. For me, every night, I pray for my friends who remain in jail without a free and fair trail and their families who are traumatized, too.
I wish that one day they will enjoy freedom, justice and peace of mind. - Mrs. Tluang Ngam, 46
Burma’s military regime has used different tactics to oppress and persecute its own people, resulting in the flight of more than 450,000 Burmese refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, India and Thailand. About 600,000 of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been uprooted while approximately 140,000 refugees live in the recognized camps in Thailand. The routine attacks against Karen State civilians, the massive forced relocations in Shan State, the constant forced labor of the already poor villagers in Chin State, the economic assimilation of Kachin State with Chinese business people, and the more than 50 projects in other parts of Burma that favor the junta over the people, have caused severe suffering all across the country.
While ignoring the political, economic and social crises endured by its own citizens, the Burmese military junta makes an enormous and constant income from selling natural gas, hydropower, timber, minerals and gems. It uses none of the profits for the betterment of the people.
As a women's human rights activist, I come across Burmese women who are routinely victimized by the army troops. They clearly know they suffer because of the country’s bad governance. They protest despite the danger it poses their families because they know what needs to be done. Whenever I see them, I become more determined to work harder to create effective interventions, policy, laws and ultimately government that will protect and promote women's basic human rights. It is now up to the international community, the UN Security Council in particular, to add their voices to the chorus of protest against Burma’s regime. If the UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is not used to protect lives in Burma, will it merely remain on paper forever?
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.