For decades, mothers and daughters in Burma’s border areas have lived on high alert. While ethnic rebels in their homelands fought bloody wars with government troops, women of all ages were vulnerable to human rights abuses, including rape and other sexual violence, if caught by government soldiers.
Now, nearly a year after Naypyidaw signed ceasefire deals with rebels in several states, and despite reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, little has changed on the ground for them, local sources say.
In Burma’s northeastern Shan State, which attracted international attention a decade ago after a prominent women’s group documented systematic sexual violence by government soldiers there, women say they continue to live in fear.
“The villagers and women continue to complain about sexual violence being committed by the [government’s] Burma Army,” Charm Tong, a co-founder of the women’s group, the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told The Irrawaddy on Friday in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after a recent trip to Burma.
The government agreed to a ceasefire with Shan rebels in January this year, but dozens of clashes were reported in the following months and the region remains highly militarized today.
“Even though a ceasefire was signed, there’s still fighting,” a housewife in the northern town of Namtu told The Irrawaddy, speaking anonymously because she feared for her safety. “When fighting breaks out, villagers flee their homes and hide in the jungle … Rape cases are still happening.”
The government’s army began operating in Shan State in the 1950s, as ethnic rebels fought for greater autonomy and basic rights. Under the country’s former military junta, which handed power to Thein Sein in March last year, government soldiers used anti-insurgency campaigns to target civilians, hoping to stop villagers from joining the rebel forces.
SWAN, a network of Shan women in Burma and Thailand that was formed in 1999 to combat violence against women and children, rose to international prominence a decade ago when it published a report alleging that sexual violence was part of the military’s strategy to demoralize ethnic rebels and terrorize local communities.
Co-authored by the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the “License to Rape” report documented 173 cases of rape and other sexual violence, involving more than 600 women and children, at the hands of Burmese soldiers in the state between 1996 and 2001.
Rape was condoned by military authorities, the report said, alleging that 83 percent of cases were committed by military officers. Of all 173 cases, it said, only one perpetrator was punished by a commanding officer.
The regime’s mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, said nearly all of these cases were fabricated, according to reports by The Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN).
Since 2002, SWAN has received more than 300 more complaints of rape committed by government soldiers, Charm Tong told The Irrawaddy on Friday. More women have likely been affected, she said, because multiple women are often attacked in a single case of gang rape.
Since January this year, when the government signed a ceasefire with Shan rebels, she said SWAN had received more than 10 reports of rape, including two reports while they were in Rangoon for three days late last month.
Those figures are likely vast underestimates, she added.
“In some cases, authorities have given villagers money to keep them from reporting instances of sexual violence—to make the cases disappear,” she said.
SWAN cofounder Ying Harn Fah said the cultural stigma toward rape kept many women quiet, as did fears that coming forward would result in repercussions from the military.
Some of the group’s Thailand-based members traveled for nearly three weeks to 11 towns and cities in Shan State this month and noted lasting militarization.
“The [Burma Army] battalions were everywhere,” Ying Harn Fah said. “In every township.”
In addition to fighting ethnic rebels, government soldiers are providing security for a project with high economic value: the Chinese-backed Shwe Gas and Oil Pipeline, which is being built to transport oil from the Bay of Bengal off Burma’s western coast to China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, across the border from Shan State.
While visiting Hsipaw Township, where the pipeline runs, Charm Tong said some people expressed concerns that increased militarization would mean more human rights abuses. During a prayer ceremony with more than 300 farmers, monks and lawmakers to protest against the pipeline, a mother told SWAN she was worried her daughter’s safety would be threatened if more Burma Army soldiers arrived to secure the pipeline.
“Communities are living in fear,” Charm Tong said, adding that villagers forced off their land for the project were especially vulnerable to rights abuses.
She said SWAN also met with women from Kachin State, who also reported sexual violence by government soldiers in the past year.
Kachin State, in Burma’s far north, has seen heavy fighting after a ceasefire broke down in June last year, with more than 100,000 people displaced in the conflict since then.
Little Room for Recourse
As Burma transitions from military rule, SWAN says some legislators from Shan State have tried discussing human rights abuses in Parliament.
“But even if they raise their voices in Parliament, it’s little help,” Charm Tong said, adding that ethnic groups lacked adequate representation in the legislature, where 25 percent of seats are reserved for unelected military representatives.
Sai Thurein Oo, a lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said lawmakers who tried discussing sexual violence in the past have been criticized for falsely attacking the military.
He added that Shan lawmakers had been unable discuss the problem in Parliament this year due to continued fighting on the ground.
“We can’t raise the human rights issue to Parliament because it’s hard to access the conflict zones where these rights abuses are reported,” so it’s hard to come up with data about the situation, he said.
“We can’t say there is fully peace in Shan State because fighting between the government troops and Shan rebels is still happening,” he said, adding that reports of forced labor, rape and other rights abuses continued to surface on the frontlines.
The government’s chief peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, reportedly discredited SWAN’s 2002 report about rape in a recent interview with Radio Free Asia, according to SHAN.
“‘License to Rape’ was written after hearing things with one ear,” the peace negotiator said in the Nov. 26 interview, as quoted by the Thailand-based Shan news agency. “Now that they are hearing things with both ears, I hope they will learn the way things really happen.”
Charm Tong said many people in Shan State were offended by the minister’s statement.
“When our people heard about his comment—people who know what’s happening on the ground, who have suffered from these abuses—they were upset,” she said. “It’s disgraceful to say something like this to our people. It’s their blood and tears and lives he’s talking about.”
Charm Tong urged political dialogue between the government and Shan representatives, as well as a withdrawal of troops from the state.
“As a first step, end militarization,” she said. “If fighting continues, so will abuses.”
She also called on state officials to prosecute military soldiers accused of rights abuses.
“Rapists should be brought to justice,” she said. “That’s something very basic that the government can do for the people.”
With additional reporting by Saw Yan Naing