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Editorial & Opinion 

      weapon of war in Burma

      The military junta is employing a special tool of war
      against minority populations: the rape of ethnic women. 

      TWO Akha girls, taken from their rural village by Burmese
      troops and used as army porters, could not have imagined
      the lethal brutality they would face during their forced
      internment. A 61-year-old village headman of the Akha
      ethnic minority living in Burma's eastern highlands told
      Amnesty International that he knew both teens and spoke
      with them after they were released by government
      soldiers. He said 15-year-old Mi Au and 16-year-old Mi
      She were ''happy healthy girls'' before they were

      ''They had been relatives of my wife and their village was
      very close to ours, so I knew them well,'' said the
      headman. ''The two of them had been raped continually for
      six nights by two or three men each night, including the
      soldiers' commander.'' Despite the multiple serial rapes,
      said the headman, the teens were still forced to labour all
      day as army porters. 

      ''After their release,'' he said, ''the two girls didn't sleep,
      didn't eat and eventually just died.'' 

      In the decade since it seized power, Burma's military has
      become increasingly dependent on the use of forced
      labour and torture to maintain power, build the country's
      infrastructure, and carry out its war against the stubborn
      ethnic resistance. Evidence is increasing that the
      Burmese soldiers and their commanders are employing
      another tool of war against minority populations: the rape
      of ethnic women. 

      The fate of the two Akha girls is not uncommon in Burma,
      renamed Myanmar by the military junta. A US State
      Department country report for Burma, released at the end
      of January, states that government troops ''continued to
      impress women for military porterage duties, and there
      were many reports of rape of ethnic minority women by

      The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma stated in January
      that Burmese troops have been abducting ''increasing
      numbers of women, including young girls and the elderly''
      who have become victims of rape and other abuses.
      Based on his report, the UN Commission on Human
      Rights Resolution on Burma of April 1998 expressed
      ''deep concern'' about violations against women in Burma
      ''in particular forced labour, sexual violence and
      exploitation, including rape''. 

      According to interviews with human rights workers, ethnic
      leaders, and elected members of Burma's parliament in
      exile, military rapes occur typically during raids on villages;
      when women are abducted for forced labour; during
      encounters with victims of forced relocations in the jungle;
      and in coerced marriages. 

      The UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution in April
      states that women most likely to be raped are ''refugees,
      internally displaced women and women belonging to
      ethnic minorities or the political opposition''. These claims
      are supported by a newly released report, ''School for
      Rape: The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence'' by the
      legal rights group Earth Rights International (ERI) which
      says that rapes also occur ''as part of a programme of
      ethnic cleansing''. 

      Thaung Tun, deputy chief of mission at the Burmese
      Embassy in Washington DC, denies the allegations of
      widespread rape by the military. ''It is hardly possible for
      rape to occur in Myanmar on a policy basis,'' he said.
      ''Maybe on an individual basis. But if it happens there are
      laws in place and people would be punished,'' he said. 

      An epidemic of rape 

      ''School for Rape'' documents a wide-array of sexual
      abuses by Burma's military forces and accuses them of
      ''the savage domination of women outside the scope of
      acceptable wartime conduct.'' It is the first in-depth study
      to document the widespread perpetration of rape by the
      army in Burma and to explore the causes for the military's
      abuse of ethnic women. The 1998 report states that ''the
      violent sexual abuse of ethnic Burmese women at the
      hands of the military occurs in epidemic proportions''. 

      The Shan village of Kaeng Kham in Kunhing was rocked
      by this epidemic of military rape. According to a 1996
      Shan Human Rights Foundation report, sexual attacks at
      Kaeng Kham village often occurred at night after the
      village men left for work at a local logging company. The
      highly specific report states that: ''A platoon of troops from
      LIB 519, led by Sergeant Hla Phyu are stationed at Kaeng
      Kham village. At night, while the men are away, Sergeant
      Hla Phyu and his men repeatedly raped the women, going
      from house to house. Every adult woman in this small
      village has been raped.'' 

      ''When soldiers rape women, there is no action taken
      against them,'' said Shan resistance leader Sao Ood Kesi
      in a recent phone interview from Chiang Mai. ''It's
      understood that they have permission from their officers to
      rape the women. They rape and sometimes they kill the
      women afterwards.'' 

      A 1997 Shan Human Rights report documents the mass
      murder of dozens of ethnic women and girls after being
      gang raped by Burmese soldiers. According to the report,
      on September 15, 1997, 120 troops led by Capt Htun Mya
      found 42 women and 57 men hiding in the forest in
      Kunhing township. The troops gang-raped all the women
      for two days and two nights. After that, all the 99 villagers
      were reportedly killed by the soldiers. 

      Amnesty International's April 1998 report, ''Myanmar:
      Atrocities in the Shan State'', tells the story of a
      30-year-old mother, Nang Ing, who was raped by three
      soldiers. The soldiers then poured boiling water over her.
      She died three days later, ''burned from her neck to her
      feet'' and wounded on her back. In another village,
      24-year-old Naing Mai was raped over a period of five
      days by the military. As witnessed by farmers hiding in the
      area, ''she was then covered with pieces of wood and
      burned to death'', says the Amnesty report. 

      Sao Ood Kesi provided The Vancouver Sun with a list of
      83 Shan State rape cases in 1997, in which investigators
      documented the date, place, name of the victim and her
      parents, and the battalion number and name of the
      captains, majors and sergeants who committed the rapes.
      The list indicates that many women are killed following the
      rapes. The list also appears to confirm Sao Ood Kesi's
      claims that the highest levels of the Burmese field
      command regularly participate in the rapes. ''If they make
      an operation on the area, they all do it. The commander of
      infantry does it too.'' 

      Last November, in Monghsat township, said Sao Ood
      Kesi, ''a commander, one of the majors, ordered a Lahu
      headman to send a girl for him. The headman sent a
      woman between 30 and 40 years old. The major scolded
      the village headman, 'Don't you know I am an officer from
      the government?' '' The headman was then forced to
      provide a much younger woman for the commander. 

      People's enemy 

      Burma's army, known as the Tatmadaw, plays an
      enormous role in the governing of Burma. Most of the
      ministers and deputies composing the military junta's
      cabinet are current or past members of the Tatmadaw. 

      Many soldiers are teenagers, often kidnapped by the
      army. They are given little food, forbidden contact with
      their families, and forced to beat each other for
      punishment. Abused physically and humiliated every day,
      the young recruits are then set loose among the ethnic
      minorities who they have been indoctrinated to believe are
      ''the people's enemy'' and ''internal destructionists''. 

      Yet ethnic leaders and Burmese pro-democracy activists
      assert that the rape is more systematic and sinister than
      simply soldiers out of control. Many claim, as does the ERI
      report, that violence against women is directly related to
      the military's goal of wiping out all ethnic resistance, even
      if it means genocide against a particular minority. 

      There is a growing body of evidence that a pre-existing
      plan of ethnic cleansing is in place in Burma, organised
      and carried out by the Tatmadaw. According to a
      document marked ''top secret'' and apparently issued a
      few weeks after the military takeover in 1988, a policy of
      ''blood mixing'' and Burmanisation of ethnic minorities was
      initiated which offers monetary bonuses to soldiers who
      ''occupy'' Shan women. Top officials of Burma's
      government in exile and human rights investigators in the
      region believe that this two-page document, in the form of
      a letter, originated from high levels of the ruling military

      The letter, dated Oct 10, 1988 and addressed to ''All
      Great Ruling Burmans'', has been circulating among the
      Burmese army in the ethnic areas where the worst human
      rights abuses occur. The ''top secret'' letter describes a
      plan for the takeover of the Shan territory by the Burman

      ''We must deviously attack those who are not Burman in
      economic as well as social ways,'' says the document.
      ''The easiest way to implement these ideas is to occupy
      [marry or impregnate] women who are not Burman.'' The
      document goes on to offer a monthly financial reward to
      ''anyone who can occupy a Shan woman''. 

      Ka Hsaw Wa, a Karen human rights investigator who
      co-founded Earth Rights International and organises
      fact-finding missions for Human Rights Watch and foreign
      journalists, has been working for 10 years to document
      human rights abuses in Burma's ethnic areas. In 1994, Ka
      Hsaw Wa encountered the Burmanisation letter in three
      different areas of Burma -- from two independent sources
      who showed him the letter, and a third who described it in
      detail. These sources retrieved the letter from Slorc
      soldiers and outposts in the Shan, Karen and Karenni

      Villagers in the ethnic areas have also encountered the
      letter. One Karen woman told Betsy Apple, an attorney
      with Earth Rights International and author of ''School for
      Rape'', that she once had in her possession a letter that
      told Burmese soldiers that they ''would get certain rewards
      if they would marry certain kinds of ethnic women'' and that
      ''your blood must be left in the village''. A member of a
      local women's organisation, the woman told Apple last
      year that ''the Burmese soldiers think Burman blood is the
      best. People talk about the rape a lot. People say that the
      Burmese soldiers want to make more Burman babies.'' 

      ''The policy does not just apply to the Shan women, as it
      says in the letter, but to other ethnic groups as well,'' said
      Apple in a phone interview from New York. ''It seems to
      have originated from the commander level,'' she said, ''but
      we're not sure how high.'' 

      Bo Hla Tint, American Affairs Minister for the Burmese
      government in exile based in Washington DC, believes
      the document originated from the ruling junta, although its
      source cannot be proved. Elected to Parliament in 1990,
      Bo Hla Tint helped form the National Coalition
      Government of the Union of Burma after the Slorc nullified
      the election results which voted it out of power. He first
      encountered the letter in a Karen outpost in 1992, when it
      was intercepted over the airwaves from a communication
      between two Burmese military commanders. Prime
      Minister Dr Sein Win, the elected official who heads the
      government in exile, says the document most likely
      originated from the Defence Ministry Department of
      Psychological Warfare. 

      ''Regardless of the source or intent of this document, it
      accurately represents an ethnic cleansing policy of the
      Burmese military,'' he said. ''There is no doubt that the
      widespread rapes by troops are fuelled by the policies
      expressed in this document.'' 

      Even more bizarre than the grandiose posturing of the
      letter by the ''Great Ruling Burmans'' to ''diligently convince
      Shan women to gradually bow to Burmanisation'', is the
      common belief among soldiers that they can win over
      ethnic women through giving them sufficient sexual
      pleasure to induce them to fall in love. The technique of
      inserting metal or glass balls in the penises of new, young
      soldiers has become popular ''because women can get
      more feeling'' in the words of one soldier. 

      ''I interviewed many former soldiers who actually showed
      me their penises with the balls inserted,'' said Ka Hsaw
      Wa. ''It is a common practice. Even if the women are
      raped, the soldiers believed that they would come back for
      more because of the pleasure.'' 

      It is not known how widespread this practice is. The
      soldiers are not required to undergo the surgical process
      -- which is done without anesthetic -- but, according to Ka
      Hsaw Wa, they are ''indirectly encouraged'' to do it. Six
      soldiers from one battalion told Ka Hsaw Wa that their
      sergeant suggested they do it. ''There was no way for
      them to refuse it, because they were afraid,'' said Ka
      Hsaw Wa. One soldier told investigators that half the
      members of his battalion had been implanted with the
      metal balls. 

      ''School for Rape'' concludes that rape is being used to
      change the ethnic balance in Burma. ''By forcibly
      impregnating ethnic minority women, Burmese soldiers
      can increase the majority population through more Burman
      births [the offspring is considered to bear the ethnicity of
      the father only] and decrease the number of ethnic
      minorities through death resulting from sexually
      transmitted diseases, botched abortions, suicides, and
      actual injuries from the rapes,'' says the report. 

      Crimes against humanity 

      Jennifer Green, staff attorney with the Centre for
      Constitutional Rights who specialises in international
      women's rights, is convinced that the Burmese military is
      guilty of crimes against humanity. 

      ''The facts presented in 'School for Rape' indicate that
      these acts of violence against women are both
      widespread and systematic, that there is a pattern of rape,
      and that civilians are targeted for political reasons or
      because they are part of a certain ethnic group,'' she said. 

      Green is co-counsel for a landmark federal lawsuit against
      the oil companies Unocal and Total. The 1996 case,
      initiated by 14 Burmese plaintiffs, was filed on behalf of
      the ''tens of thousands of people'' who have been victims
      of a range of abuses in Burma. ''Girls and women have
      been raped in the presence of family members or within
      hearing distance of family members,'' says the complaint
      for the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Los Angeles. 

      The complaint includes rape in its charges of crimes
      against humanity, violence against women and torture.
      ''There is a growing acceptance that rape is not just a form
      of humiliating treatment but is an extreme form of violence
      and should be regarded as torture,'' says Green. 

      The War Crimes Tribunal is mandated only to deal with
      violations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Attorney
      Jennifer Green, researchers for ERI, and leaders from
      Burma's elected government in exile are now urging that
      the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence
      Against Women and its Causes lead a mission to
      investigate the claims of systematic rape by the Burmese

      ''In a situation where you've got serious allegations of this
      nature, they should be brought to the attention of any
      international mechanism that could weigh in,'' said Regan
      Ralph, acting director of the Women's Rights Division of
      Human Rights Watch. ''Since people have documented
      this happening in Burma, it is critically important to secure
      accountability for it.'' 




      Note: They are freelance journalists.