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Last week, as the city of Mandalay soaked in the revelry of Thingyan [New Year] celebrations, a young woman was attacked and beaten by a group of men, a social media video appears to show.
Amid the drunken revelry of the festival, many similar incidents may well have occurred. But what has set the Burmese internet alight is that in this case, a large crowd stood idly by and watched as the young woman – whose identity is as yet unknown – was set upon by a group of men.
“It is very ugly to see people standing by and no one helping a woman who is being beaten up by a bunch of men in plain sight,” said a 29-year old Buddhist woman from Mandalay who did not want to be named.
The video appears to show half a dozen men assaulting the woman, landing heavy punches on her head, while 100 onlookers stand by, unperturbed. Seemingly dazed, she walks behind a car and out of frame, followed by her chief attacker.
There is no evidence to suggest that this fight was politically or religiously motivated. But allegations of rape and sexual violence are not uncommon in Mandalay and such attacks – or the belief that an attack has occurred – often have strong racial and religious implications that provide a pretext for further violence.
In July of last year, mobs armed with knives and steel pipes attacked a string of Muslim targets in the city centre, ostensibly to defend Buddhist women from the alleged “threat” posed by Muslim men. To a large degree, these would-be religious warriors have been spurred on by a coterie of ultra-nationalist monks such as Wirathu, who operates out of Masoeyein Monastery in the city – loosely organised under the banner of the anti-Muslim “969” movement and its related political offshoot, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese-language acronym, Ma-Ba-Tha.
The nationalist monk leaders of Ma-Ba-Tha – many of them from Mandalay – were recently able to push through legislation that would place limits on religions conversion and interfaith marriage, justified on the grounds of protecting women.
If you buy into the talk on the street, it would be easy to imagine that Buddhist women face a barrage of threats – particularly from Muslims – and are in need of paternalistic protection.
“[Last year], when rumours circulated about a Buddhist woman being wronged in an attack that no one actually witnessed, mobs appeared everywhere, calling themselves Myochit [literally, people who love and cherish their own race], demanding the protection of women,” the female resident recalls.
‘Inevitable’ violence against women
Burma’s police force counted 654 rape cases in 2012, the last year that such statistics were made publicly available. However both structural and social impediments to women reporting violence would suggest that the frequency of attacks on women is much higher.
“Burma’s Code of Criminal Procedure does not contain any specific provisions regarding prosecution and testimony in rape cases. There are very few — if any — legislative protections for the taking of evidence from victims of rape,” reads a 2013 report by NGO the Gender Equality Network (GEN), which champions the case for anti-violence against women laws.
This has lead to a dearth in quantitative data relating to violence against women in Burma. Qualitative reports, such as the ground-breaking study Behind the Silence, also compiled by the GEN, go some way to filling the gap. The study collected evidence from more than 150 women across Burma.
“Many women expressed feelings of fear or insecurity when they moved in public spaces,” the 2014 report stated. Among 48 in-depth case studies recorded by GEN, “there was often an element of resignation – that the risk of experiencing sexual harassment and violence was inevitable.”
This would suggest that attacks on women in Burma are likely to be much higher than records indicate. The true statistics seem to be belied by social pressure on women not to come forward.
“When women do experience violence – within or outside of the intimate partnership – ‘ideas about appropriate social behaviour … create a mentality that blames the victim for what she suffers … contributing greatly to the shame that accompanies rape, and increasing women’s fear of reporting sexual violence,’” Behind the Silence quotes from academic literature.
The muted Ma-Ba-Tha
The public reaction to the aforementioned social media video goes some way to exposing a double standard in the narrative around violence against women. Despite the social media outrage directed at the Thingyan thugs in Mandalay, the response from ultra-nationalist sympathisers has been decidedly muted, particularly compared to last year’s outburst of violence.
In July 2014, following false allegations – spread on social media – that the Muslim owners of a teashop in the city’s Muslim quarter had raped a Buddhist employee, a hundreds-strong mob stormed the premises, baying for the blood of the owners. The crowd moved on, indiscriminately sacking Muslim businesses and destroying cars.“The failure of hardliners to react to abuses suggests that it is ownership of Buddhist women and girls – rather than their protection – that motivates Burma’s Buddhist ultranationalists.”
This violence was carried out in the name of protecting Buddhist women – those same women who are subjected to dark abuses across the country by men of all faiths and creeds with regularity.
It appears, however, that only Muslim perpetrators – often falsely accused – deserve violent retribution.
Despite an opening of democratic space in Burma over the past four years, conservative and ultra-nationalist monks such as Wirathu have once again become a visible and influential force in national political life.
The 969 movement’s rainbow-coloured logo – with three lions at the centre of the mandala – remains a visible symbol of this ascendancy across Burma’s cities, towns and villages. It is affixed to taxis, warning Muslims not to flag them down; placed on the front of homes, shops, and offices, in a chauvinistic show of pride, although it’s unlikely many 969 supporters quite view the movement in those terms.
If 969’s protective message were genuine, the presence of its logo might identify a safe place for women who are otherwise routinely abused in public spaces in Burma.
Were the 969 movement and Ma-Ba-Tha genuine in their desire to protect women, why is it that they did not issue a call to protect that 50 percent of the population ahead of the annual flare up in sex-crime that has come to characterise Thingyan? Many women fear falling victim to violent crime in the city’s dark corners, out of sight of the glitzy stages and thumping techno music.
“For a group of just two or three women, it would be practically impossible for them to go out to celebrate by the moat by themselves during Thingyan– they would be torn to pieces. Every woman who has experienced Thingyan in Mandalay knows that,” the interviewee told DVB.
The failure of hardliners to react to abuses suggests that it is ownership of Buddhist women and girls – rather than their protection – that motivates Burma’s Buddhist ultranationalists.
The set of four “race protection” bills that the group helped to charter have now been all but cemented into law, including elements that prohibit a Buddhist woman from marrying outside of her faith – an effective declaration that Burmese girls belong to Buddhist men.
Yet the hardline movement, which now has an official foothold in Burma’s legislative process, has shown no public support for anti-violence against women measures currently being drafted into a bill by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. That process has taken over a year. The relative swiftness in which the “race protection” bills were tabled would suggest that the Ma-Ba-Tha’s influence could go a long way.
“These so-called myochit worry about protecting women from people of a different religion, but allow Buddhist men to treat women however they please,” the Mandalay woman said.
“At this moment, our country cannot comprehend women’s rights. The issue of women is only used to gain political advantage. In reality, women here have no protection whatsoever.”
969 had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.