In military-ruled Burma's Karen state, tradition and a male-dominated social order have long guaranteed men the role of village chiefs. But this order is crumbling in the country's eastern region, giving rise to the new phenomenon of women village chiefs.
'More Karen women are taking on leadership roles in villages, but this is not recognised,' said Blooming Night Zan, joint secretary of the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO), a group with over 49,000 members championing the cause of Karen women. 'The responsibility that they are taking on needs to be appreciated.'
This trend adds another dimension to the way women of the Karen ethnic community have been viewed in an area torn apart by conflict, she revealed in an interview in this northern Thai city. 'Due to the conflict, people only think of women as victims. But we are now seeing that they have also being taking on leadership roles that are very challenging.'
'This role requires a lot of courage for they are dealing with the Burmese army,' Blooming Night Zan added. 'But Karen villagers themselves are surprised by the emergence of women as leaders in their midst.'
It is a view echoed in a just-released report, which chronicles this gender shift in an area that has witnessed Asia's longest separatist conflict since rebels of the Karen ethnic minority launched a military campaign against the Burmese state in 1949.
This ethnic conflict, one of the many in Burma, also known as Myanmar, erupted a year after the country gained independence from British colonialism.
'After the fall of the Karen Headquarters in 1995 and subsequent loss of large Karen territory, the (Burmese) army's presence spread further into lowland areas close to the Thai border, and more villages in these areas began appointing women village chiefs,' revealed the 105-page report published by the KWO.
The women were stepping into the vacuum that was being formed as more Karen men fled their villages to join the Karen resistance or avoided taking on their traditional leadership roles out of fear of persecution.
'As (the Burmese) army's persecution of male village chiefs became more intense, fewer men were willing to risk their lives in this position, and women were increasingly asked to be chiefs,' added the report entitled ‘Walking Amongst Sharp Knives'.
But the testimonies in the report also reveal that being village leaders has brought mixed fortunes for the women leaders, whose ages range from 25 to 82 years. Some of them have been local leaders since the 1980s, when the Burmese military escalated its fight against the Karen resistance.
'My family and some other villagers don't want me to be leader, but I chose to do it because I am thinking about the future of my community,' said one woman village chief who was among those the KWO publication describes as displaying 'a remarkable degree of strength and determination to protect the rights of their communities, regardless of all the risks and personal sacrifices.'
Another said: 'I became the village chief in 1985 and I have served for 20 years. The community here likes me very much because I fight for the villagers.'
But being the head of a community also invites abuse from the Burmese military, known for gross human rights violations that range from extortion, forced labour, portering and torture to extrajudicial killings. 'They started to beat and torture me. They beat me on the chest, then tied me up and beat me with a bamboo stick until the stick broke. I was then shoved into a dark room and left for two days. I felt incredible pain through my body,' revealed one of the 95 women chiefs interviewed in the report.
'When I was village chief and was forced to be a porter, they tied me up with ropes at night and pulled me from this side to the other. I could not endure the torture anymore and they raped me,' another woman confides, talking of a trend where 'most women village chiefs were raped' by the Burmese military or forced to supply ‘comfort women' for the troops.
Despite the abuse they suffer, these women are not suffering in silence, as has been the case with men when confronted by the Burmese military. Their display of anger — which has often included shouting back at Burmese troops — has also been noted in the region home to the Shan ethnic minority, which has faced similar abuse due to another decades-long separatist conflict.
'Women in these situations resist more strongly to help their community,' said Charm Tong, a founder member of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), a group of Shan women in exile championing the rights of their community. 'They show a lot of bravery talking back to the soldiers as a way of protecting their people.'
This is the result of so many years of conflict including in areas like the Shan state, where the Burmese army has pursued a 'scorched earth policy,' Charm Tong told IPS. 'It has resulted in a departure from the traditional roles expected of women, who are often brought up in a passive way.'
KWO's latest report is the third publication that highlights the fate of women in a conflict that, together with conflicts faced by the Shan and Karenni ethnic minorities in their respective homelands, has seen over 3,500 villages destroyed in the past 15 years.
The scale of the levelling of these villages, which exceeds the number documented in Darfur, Sudan, has prompted calls by the KWO and other human rights groups for the U.N. Security Council to establish a war crimes commission to inquire into these 'crimes against humanity.'
The north and eastern corner of Burma, close to the country's borders with Thailand and China, is also home to some 500,000 internally displaced people. Among them are girls and women who have been raped by members of Burma's military as a weapon of war, a trend that SWAN documented in a disturbing 2002 report called ‘Licence to Rape'.