July 20, 2009 (DVB), For half a century, Burma's jungles and mountains have hosted a conflict where conventional weaponry has been traded for tactics designed to forever scar the ethnic population of the country.
The byproducts of the world's longest running internal conflict, grossly underreported, have been so severe that international lawyers and rights groups believe that the ruling junta in Burma could warrant investigation for war crimes. Perhaps most chillingly, young girls have been subject to appalling sexual violence at the hands of a military bent on creating a means of intimidation that will far outlast the brandishing of a gun.
System of Impunity, a 2004 report by the Women's League of Burma (WLB), describes the case of a 13-year-old Shan girl, Nang Ung, who was detained by Burmese troops on false charges of being a rebel. "She was tied up in a tent and raped every day for 10 days [by five to six troops each day]. The injuries she sustained from the repeated rapes were so severe that she never recovered. She died a few weeks after her release."
Naang Ung's story has been echoed in every ethnic region of Burma for generations. Burmese rights organisations suggest that military rape of ethnic women has been rife in the country for the last five decades since the consolidation of military rule, and shows no signs of abating.
"It can happen in homes, in the villages, in the forests, in the paddy fields, whether the woman is working alone or whether they are going to their villages," said Cheery Zahau, an activist from the India-based Women's League of Chinland (WLC). "In some circumstances they just rape the women in front of the men."
Sexual torture and violence often accompanies such acts. Testimonies from victims show cases of both old women and young girls being gang-raped by up to 20 men, while others report that women who have endured days of rape are then shot in the vagina or have their breasts cut off. Crimes in Burma, a report released in May by the Harvard Law School, said that on many occasions there had been "no attempt to conceal the bodies of dead women who were raped and subjected to other acts of violence."
Such descriptions are perhaps indicative of a military which has been partially brutalized by debasement, poverty and high levels of institutionalized corruption. Yet this cannot account for all cases. During an interview, Cheery relayed an account of a woman from Chin state whose son had just been killed by the military. After she was gang-raped, the mother was strung up on a wooden cross: "She was hanging outside of the camp the whole night in the freezing winter weather," said Cheery. "Why would they make the cross to hang the women? The cross is the symbol of Christianity in Chin state; it's one of the mockeries against their beliefs."
Religious persecution adds weight to a belief common among ethnic groups that the generals are attempting an ethnic cleansing campaign to strip non-Burmans of their identity. The regime's suspected policy of 'Burmanisation', as referred to in a number of official reports including one by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), could also help to explain such widespread attempts to impregnate non-Burmese women. While some are convinced on 'Burmanisation', the UN's torture rapporteur for Burma in 2006 reported that state-sanctioned violence against women was used as a control mechanism, and as "punishment" for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups and "a means of terrorizing and subjugating the population".
According to Ben Rogers, the Southeast Asia advocacy officer for CSW, it is important to note that "these incidents documented are not simply isolated acts by individual, badly behaved frontline soldiers". Reports have shown that a high percentage of rapes committed by the Burmese military have been orchestrated by officers. Furthermore, an alarming number have been gang rapes. Moan Kaein, from the Thailand-based Shan Women's Associated Network (SWAN), stated that 83 percent of the rapes SWAN had documented in Shan state were committed by officers, while 61 percent of all military rapes were gang rapes. Furthermore, there have been reports of officers ordering their men to rape ethnic women on threat of death. "Those who refuse to rape will be shot and killed," Captain Ye Htut from Pah Klaw Hta army camp was quoted as telling his men in the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO) report, Shattering Silences.
"When we document all these cases, none of the perpetrators are punished," says Cheery, referring to WLC's 2007 Unsafe State report. Despite international publications of reports that specifically name high-ranking officials and officers involved, no actions have been taken by the Burmese government to punish perpetrators even though such crimes are illegal under Burmese law. "This impunity suggests it is a deliberate policy, and is condoned by the regime," says Rogers.
While the consequences of rape can be horrific , they include unwanted pregnancy, contraction of HIV, and psychological damage for both victim and family , support for victims is virtually non-existent. Even women who manage to flee to the borders have no real hope of any professional psychological assistance, given that they are often not officially recognised by their country of arrival. While some women have been pushed to suicide, others are forced to keep their rape a secret in order to avoid social stigmas.
"The only solution for them is silence, and often they get rejected by their communities," says Cheery, while Moan Kaein claims that "some husbands will not accept their wives after they have been raped". Some women also get accused of "sleeping with" Burmese troops and are told to leave their villages.
There is also the real chance of retaliation from troops and government officials. Rape victims and their families have been the most severely punished when such sexual crimes have been reported. According to press releases from the Women's League of Burma (WLB), four girls aged 14 to16 from a village in northern Kachin state were arrested and jailed after they relayed to independent Burmese media about having been gang-raped by three army officers and four soldiers from a local military base.
Reports of state-sanctioned rape have been consistently met with a tide of public smears within Burma, as well as mass intimidation and deliberate distraction by the military. The problem has been further aggravated by callous retorts from the Burmese government, including the release of a report, License to Lie, attacking authors of License to Rape.
Perhaps more worrying are threats of violence and even death against those who report such cases. System of Impunity describes how the local military officers threatened to "cut out the tongues and slit the throats" of villagers who had dared speak out to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during their visit to Shan State in January 2003. On 1 June this year, Kachin News Group reported that Kachin youths had been "brutally assaulted" for having prevented the gang-rape of a Kachin girl by four soldiers.
Inaction following international condemnation has also served to dampen hope that ethnic women and campaigners will see change in their lifetimes. On the 24 June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that "If we ignore sexual crimes, we trample on the principles of accountability, reconciliation and peace. We fail not just women but all people." The statement coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Security Council's adoption of resolution 1820 (2008), which notes that "rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict zones can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide".
The irony of Ban's proclamation is that sexual crimes in Burma were ignored on his recent visit to Burma earlier this month, just as they are ignored by countries like China and Russia who supply weapons to the junta and by neighboring countries which provide no support for the raped women pouring over the borders. "We call and call," says Blooming Night, joint secretary of Karen Women's Organisation, "but nothing happens".
Increased militarization in many ethnic regions in lieu of the 2010 elections has led to increasing concern for the safety of women living there. "When we documented Unsafe State [in 2007], there were about 33 army camps. Now there are 55 camps, so they're spreading" says Cheery, adding that "as long as [Burmese] troops are there, there will be sexual violence". Burma shows no sign of abating its aggressive expansion of the military. If, as it would seem, rape of ethnic women is a byproduct of this, perhaps we should expect the stories of Naang Ung and the thousands of other women and children to continue echoing throughout Burma.