BURMA : Shattered Lives

Monday, July 25, 2011
Shan Herald
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Reports emerged last week from Kachin and Shan States that rape is still being used as a tactic by the Burmese army to demoralise and terrorise ethnic communities

In the corner of an up-market Chiang Mai coffee shop, three women, spanning three generations, sort through maps, photographs and reports detailing the injuries, rapes and murders of ethnic women recently brutalised by Burmese army soldiers.

The eldest of the women, Shirley Seng, 61, leans forward and explains.

"No woman is safe from these soldiers. In the last six weeks, starting on the ninth of June, 32 women and girls in Kachin State have been raped _ 13 of those were killed."

The violent reality of living in Burma is far from the tranquillity of the inner city cafe. Oblivious to the women's grim stories, a group of university students study textbooks at the next table, a mother feeds chocolate cake to a restless toddler and Jack Johnson croons and soothes from a CD.

The other two women sitting with Shirley Seng are Hseng Noung Lintner and Charm Tong who have also been documenting similar atrocities committed by the Burmese soldiers against women in Shan State.

The three women respectively work for the Kachin Women's Association Thailand, the Women's League of Burma and the Shan Women's Action Network and they have been documenting the abuse against women for decades. Hseng Noung Lintner says it is impossible to know how many women the Burmese Army has raped.

"We are only able to document the tip _ many more cases in remote areas go unreported. Women are angry. They want to talk about it, but are ashamed, many never talk to anyone. They leave _ they don't want to stay in their village any more."

They women agree with Hseng Noung Lintner that all women living in ethnic areas of Burma grow up aware of the threat from the Burmese soldiers.

"Aunty Shirley has lived with the thought of it for more than 50 years _ today nothing has changed. Women in Burma take a risk every day of their lives. Women worry about themselves, their daughters. Age is no deterrent _ young, old or pregnant.

"When the army comes, women's lives are miserable, the more soldiers the more the misery."

Shirley Seng, Hseng Noung Lintner and Charm Tong are angry at the abuse of women, but say their anger is not enough.

"Women want them to stop.

"They just want the soldiers to leave them alone.

"These women refuse to be victims. They're strong. They've told us their stories _ that takes some strength. It is now up to us to amplify their voices."

Hseng Noung Lintner describes the case of a young Shan girl who was raped.

"They were hiding from having to be forcibly relocated. It was night, the family was asleep when the soldiers came. The father fell to his knees and begged them not to rape their daughter _ they shot him dead. The mother pleaded for her daughter to be left alone, the soldiers gang-raped her."

Charm Tong describes how earlier this month a Burmese army patrol from Light Infantry Battalion 513 looted a Shan village and raped four women and girls.

The youngest, Nang Mon, 12, was raped in front of her mother who was beaten when she tried to protect her daughter. Villagers could do nothing. Nang Lord, who was due to give birth, was thrown on the ground and raped. Nang Poeng was caught outside the village, beaten, stripped and raped."

Hseng Noung Lintner explains the names of the women have been changed to protect them from reprisals from the Burmese army.

Over the last 20 years there has been enough documented evidence to prove that soldiers do hunt down and intimidate their victims.

For example, the 1996 Human Rights Yearbook for Burma adds menace to the justification for the need to protect the identity of rape survivors. It states that in December, 1995, a Captain Aung Zeya _ a serial rapist accused of 24 _ used a gun to threaten women, who had survived his attacks. Captain Aung Zeya tried to force the women to drop all charges made against him _ even offering one young woman a measly 2,000 kyat (60 baht) compensation.

The rape of ethnic women in Burma is well documented by international human rights organisations, regional community groups and the United Nations.

In late May, in a statement to journalists, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, highlighted the Burmese army's involvement. "Systematic militarisation contributes to human rights abuses. These abuses include land confiscation, forced labour, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence."

Mr Quintana is not the only one accusing the Burma army of systematic sexual abuse. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Harvard Law School, the Thai Burma Border Consortium, the Karen Human Rights Group, Free Burma Rangers, Karen, Kachin and Shan women's groups _ have all detailed the atrocities committed by the Burmese army.

Charm Tong says foreign investment plays a huge part in the militarisation of ethnic regions, which aims to bring opposition and contested areas under the control of Naypiydaw.

"Northern Shan State is of crucial importance, the [Burmese] army is trying to secure the area for major Chinese investments, including hydropower dam sites and transnational gas and oil pipelines. The Burmese army now has a quarter of its battalions based there. Where there are pipelines, dams, timber and other natural resources there are well-documented cases of abuse of local people," says Charm Tong.

She says foreign governments and investors working in Burma need to speak out about the atrocities. "Business as usual means ongoing rape for women and girls in our communities. They can't hide behind 'We didn't know'."

In January, Physicians for Human Rights released a report "Life Under the junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma's Chin State", that found 17 documented rapes were all committed by Burmese soldiers. The report also noted that people were targeted because of their ethnicity.

"More than 90% of all households reporting family members being raped believed the military targeted their families because of their Chin ethnicity."

The report cites the case of an 18-year-old single Chin wom
an who recounted how the Burmese military raped her at gunpoint in June, 2009, in her rural village. She believes she was raped because she was Chin.

The report notes that since the rape the young woman is in "very poor health" and is unable to obtain medical care.

In February, 2010, the Karen Women Organisation (KWO) published a report, "Sharp Knives", based on the testimonies of 95 women chiefs. The report explains that women are replacing men as village chiefs because men "are more likely to be killed by the Burmese army".

The report points out that the reason women became chiefs was that "men were reluctant to risk their lives as chiefs, women stepped in to assume leadership in the hope of mitigating abuses".

The 95 testimonies of the women chiefs proved that not to be the case _ they faced constant threats, systematic abuse and sexual violence from the Burmese army.

The testimonies are harrowing. A women chief tells how she was punished by the soldiers for running away when her village was attacked _ in retaliation they gang-raped her 15 year old daughter.

"I worked with our village chief before I took the position. The Burmese soldiers called her to the base and I accompanied her. When we arrived the soldiers did not allow me to go with her _ I had to wait outside. They took her into the room and raped her. While she was village chief Burmese soldiers raped her four times. She could not tolerate that any more so she ran away."

In October, 2008, the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) released a report, "Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma", detailing murders, enslavement, forced relocation, torture and rape. The TBBC report highlights that "committing rape or any other form of sexual violence as a weapon of war is prohibited by customary international law, is considered a war crime, and can constitute a crime against humanity".

The TBBC is a group of 12 international non-governmental organizations from 10 countries that delivers food and shelter to refugees and displaced people from Burma.

The report cites the testimony taken by the Shan Human Rights Foundation of a young woman, Naang Mawn, who had just finished work on her farm when 13 Burmese soldiers from Infantry Brigade 246, stopped her. They took her to a remote spot and all 13 soldiers raped her.

The report quotes the UN's former, special rapporteur to Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, who said that Burma's military regime failed ''to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for rape and sexual violence has contributed to an environment conducive to the perpetuation of those acts against women and girls in Myanmar [Burma]''.

In February, 2007, the KWO released a report, ''State of Terror'', based on 4,000 documented cases of human rights abuses by the Burmese army. The report stated that, ''rape has been, and continues to be used as a method of torture to intimidate and humiliate the civilian populations, particularly those in ethnic states''.

As in reports by other organisations, KWO found that ''many of the rapes are perpetrated by senior military officers or done with their complicity''.

The thick KWO report is filled with stories of despair. Women are taken at gunpoint from their homes, farms and places of work and raped by single soldiers or by predatory packs. Women have nowhere to hide from the soldiers. Case 118 says: ''Three soldiers took Shee Shee Paw to the nearest bush and two of them raped her''.

The content of the report is relentless in its brutality. Case 57 and 58, two 23 year old women were repeatedly raped vaginally and orally by a soldier under the command of Maj Pone Tint in Dooplaya District. ''If we didn't do it he would shoot us dead.''

Case 43: ''After raping her they killed her by shooting into her vagina, no action was taken [against the rapist].''

The KWO report makes for depressing reading. The report's final case, No959, illustrates no woman is safe, irrespective of their connections. The wife of a Burmese army sergeant was raped and killed by Lt Win Naing from Light Infantry Battalion 337. After he raped Naw Say Paw, Lt Win Naing cut her throat and stabbed her three times in the chest.

In October, 2006, the Women's League of Burma in a paper titled, ''War Crimes in Burma,'' reported that the Burmese army was targeting women for rape and various forms of sexual violence.

''Rape is being used by the regime's army as a strategy of war against different ethnic groups, to attack them, humiliate them and demoralise them, in order to establish control over their land and resources.''

In July, 2005, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland and the Woman and Child Rights Foundation Project in a joint report, ''Catwalk to the Barracks,'' found enough evidence that in spite of a 10-year ceasefire agreement with the main Mon political party and the military regime, there was ''widespread conscription of women into sexual slavery by the Burmese army troops''.

The report documents 37 incidents of sexual violence against 50 women and girls aged between the ages of 14 to 50. The rapes included that of a five to six month pregnant woman, aged 20, who was arrested and kept as a ''sex slave'' for two months by soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 586.

During her ordeal the woman was repeatedly raped by officers and soldiers and at times gang raped.

Brigadier Myo Win, ordered 15 Mon villages to provide two to four ''pretty unmarried women'' to take part in a ''fashion and beauty show''. Villages that refused the brigadier's bizarre order were fined. The young women had to spend several nights at the barracks to practise on a ''catwalk'' in front of officers and troops. While on the ''catwalk'' the women were sexually molested.

In April, 2004, the KWO report, ''Shattering Silences'', exposed 125 cases of sexual violence _ high-ranking army officers committed half of the reported rapes. In May, 2002, the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women's Action Network released a hard-hitting report, ''Licence to Rape'', that details 173 rapes and other sexual crimes, involving 625 women and girls. The sexual violence involved 52 Burmese army battalions operating in Shan State. The report reverberated around the world and resulted in Charm Tong being given an hour to discuss its contents with the US president George W Bush at the White House.

Nearly 10 years later and Charm Tong says little has changed, the regime still denies any wrong doing, Asean is silent and women are still being raped.


In a series of interviews with Burmese army defectors, both officers and soldiers, there is little denial of the rapes.

A Burmese army officer shed light on how soldiers are encouraged to treat ethnic people.

''We don't respect them. Why should we? We're told the army is always right, but the army is above the law, it does what it wants _ abuse villagers, rape women and recruit children as soldiers. Women are taken to [army] camps to cook, clean and [are] used for sex.''

The officer explained that in designated ''black zones'' (under opposition control) soldiers are ordered to shoot on sight and no soldier to his knowledge has ever been punished for raping or shooting villagers.

''Forced labour is everywhere, child soldiers are everywhere and rape is everywhere.''

Maung, a foot soldier, disagreed and said it is not the lower rank soldiers who were responsible for sexual offences.

He and a number of other interviewed defectors insisted it was sergeants and officers who raped.

''I saw many women taken by officers. After they used the girls they sometimes passed them down to the lower ranks. Afterwards the girls are killed.''


In January this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva examined Burma's human rights record as part of its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Burma's delegation, led by Deputy Attorney-General Dr Tun Shin, categorically denied state-orchestrated widespread, systematic and persistent human rights violations against the people of Burma. Throughout the three-hour UPR, numerous concerns, including the issue of political prisoners, treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, and impunity for perpetrators of gross human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity were raised.

The Burmese delegations brushed aside the accusations against the Burmese army and said: ''The armed forces have a zero tolerance policy towards serious human rights violations, including sexual violence.

''There is no widespread occurrence of human rights violations with impunity.''

Charm Tong says the Burmese government's denial made her sad when it denied the abuses and crimes.

''It's even sadder when the UN Assembly and Asean are silent _ their inaction is letting the perpetrators get away with it. It proves once more, that in spite of all the documentation, nothing happens to the regime. The Burmese generals still send their children overseas to get expensive educations, they fly to the regions best hospitals for treatment and they continue to luxury shop and invest in properties outside the country.''

The three women all agree it is crucial for foreign governments doing business in Burma to speak out against the atrocities. But Hseng Noung Lintner warns that ''business as usual means more rape in our communities. The army take women for forced labor and at night they are used as disposable sex slaves.''

Shirley Seng concurs. ''We need concentrated international pressure, especially from China, to force the regime to put in place a nationwide ceasefire and to start a real political dialogue with the people of Burma. If the international community does not do anything, they are responsible for letting the impunity continue.''

Charm Tong says there is too much evidence for Asean, the UN and the international community to keep ignoring that Burma's human rights abuses are linked to development projects.

''Maybe 20 years ago, they could say they didn't know. Now Asean and the UN Security Council's inaction are letting the rapes and crimes against the Burmese people go on and on. There's no way they can stay in the middle, they need to get off the fence and do something like they have in many other places like Libya, Bosnia and African countries.''