The Karen are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, with a population estimated to be around 7 million. The Karen people have long faced severe repression and oppression there, an historic reality that is now tragically (and surprisingly openly) repeating itself. Under centuries worth of the rule of Burmese kings, the Karen people faced near-lethal discrimination, ethnic abuses, and were consistently used as slave labour … a pattern that has recurred with alarming strength, and in increasingly violent and blatantly public ways since the early 1980's. As with most Third World conflicts, women bear the brunt of the involved abuses.
Burma's harsh dictatorship continues to this day to launch military and cultural offensives against the Karen people. The United Nations has described this systemic violence as deliberately targeting civilians, and therefore breaching the pertinent Geneva Convention mandates. One more conflict-ridden country finding itself committing war crimes on a virtually hourly basis.
In Karen State and the neighboring Shan and Karenni states, more than 3,500 villages have been destroyed in the past 15 years — far more than in Darfur, Sudan. There are upwards of half a million internally displaced people, many of whom the dictatorship successfully blocks from receiving basic humanitarian assistance, and subjects them to forced labor as long as they are strong enough to work.
In other words, slavery.
The rather novel practice of ‘electing' women as village chiefs has spread through the lowland Karen areas of Eastern Burma since the mid 1980s, as Burma's military regime (the SRDC, ironically denoting the State Peace and Development Council) has expanded iron-fisted control and ramped up the assiduous persecution of these war-torn people and their poverty stricken communities. With local men dying at a rapid clip due to the ongoing violent conflicts (and increasingly reluctant to risk their lives as chiefs), Karen women have voluntarily or involuntarily stepped in to assume the dangerous burden of village leadership.
These highly unusual female chiefs collectively have fervent hopes of mitigating the mind-numbing atrocities and abuses against their people … but often inevitably become chronic victims themselves. They were certainly not exempt from the brutality of the Burma Army, and have faced ongoing and cruelly systematic abuse … featuring the war crime of gender-based violence. Which is a terror tactic slash weapon of war that shows no signs of being halted anytime soon.
SPDC troops also periodically rape family members to threaten and punish the vulnerable women chiefs. When one chief tried to flee following a heinous attack on her village, the Burma Army troops arrested her 15-year-old daughter and gang-raped her for revenge: “They tortured, gang raped and physically abused my daughter. I have six children. Five were boys and I have only one daughter. I feel so much pain that I cannot express my feelings anymore. My daughter's life became a nightmare. She was so desperate she wanted to commit suicide. This ﬁnally resulted in her breaking down and becoming mentally ill.”
Several of the chiefs also described being gang-raped themselves. One shared this sad tale:
I worked with our ﬁrst female village chief before I took over the position. One time she was called to the base by Burma Army soldiers 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 beat, tortured then gang raped her. While she was the village chief she was raped by the Burma Army soldiers four times. After her release she could not tolerate that any more so she killed herself.
Many of the women chiefs described enduring the “water torture” carried out by the SPDC. This horrific technique involves wrapping victim's heads in plastic and then either pouring water on them or submerging their heads in water. Many of the women chiefs endured this torture themselves, as inducement to remain subservient. Hundreds of villagers have been tortured then beheaded by Burma Army troops, as a gruesome warning and incentive to the rest of the community to reject the Karen resistance movement. These acts are part and parcel of a deliberate policy to terrorize local civilian populations into submission, to enslave them for forced labour and to oppress the population of this ethnic region.
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.
Another charming terror tactic of the SPDC is to arrest ‘uncooperative' villagers, and order them to dig a huge, deep hole. They then put the victims in the mass grave, and order them covered with the adjacent pile of earth up to their necks. After a torturous waiting period, they stomp on the villagers heads, stab small cuts and leave vicious burns on their necks and faces — and then complete the ‘burial' while the victims are still conscious. Their village and family are not only forced to watch, but frequently the victims' wives, mothers and daughters are gang raped and tortured in front of the grave before the final stage of the burial is reached.
In urban Rangoon, another type of oppression is practiced — chronically poor women and children are being systematically victimized by the enormous Burmese and Thai industries of prostitution and/or sex slave and human trafficking business. Accurate figures of the number of sex workers are carefully hidden and difficult to come by, but media reports indicate that in Rangoon alone there are more than 3,000 entertainment venues such as karaoke places, massage parlours or nightclubs where there are sex workers, and that there are an estimated five to ten sex workers in each venue. Many of which are treated like disposable merchandise, as a fresh crop in from the country villages will soon arrive. It is estimated that 60 percent of Burmese sex workers are under 18.
Women and girls ‘employed' as commercial sex workers routinely die of HIV/AIDS or the botched abortions that follow hundreds of pregnancies. Should a girl suggest to a john that he use the condoms provided for birth control and their safety, they are routinely beaten for the impertinence. The incidence of violence and abuse of these workers is so very common as to be expected, even accepted.
They have asked for it, after all.
Be they in a position of importance in their village, or subjugated and sold in the urban areas, the women of Burma share the same fate: their bodies and lives do not belong to them. Human rights groups around the world endeavor to make their plight known and addressed, but progress is painfully slow and repeatedly impeded. Meanwhile, these women plod along each day with courage and determination … and do their best to support each other.
For us—the women of Burma—we know that we are not alone. The messages of solidarity from the international community keep us going. They keep us working together, believing that one day there will be change in Burma.
~ Human Rights Activist Charm Tong