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THE NATION: ETHNIC CLEANSING: Rape
- Subject: THE NATION: ETHNIC CLEANSING: Rape
- From: bll@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Sun, 31 May 1998 00:29:00
Editorial & Opinion
ETHNIC CLEANSING: Rape as
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
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
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.
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
''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
''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.''
BY DENNIS BERNSTEIN and
Note: They are freelance journalists.