In Burma, the horrific tools of war Rape, forced labor are among the methods of maintaining power

July 26, 1998|By Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean

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 girls and spoke with them after they were released by government soldiers.

He said 15-year-old Mia Au and 16-year-old Mi She were "happy, healthy girls" before they were kidnapped.

"When they returned, their faces and skin were yellow," 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, the teens were forced to labor all day, according to the Amnesty report. "After their release, the two girls didn't sleep, didn't eat and eventually just died," said the headman.

In the decade since it seized power, Burma's military has become increasingly dependent on the use of forced labor and torture to maintain power, build the country's infrastructure and carry out its war against the stubborn ethnic resistance. There is growing evidence 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 1998 U.S. State Department report on Burma says government troops "continued to impress women for military porterage duties, and there were many reports of rape of ethnic minority women by soldiers."

According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar (Burma), Burmese troops have been abducting "increasing numbers of women, including young girls and the elderly" who have become victims of rapes and other abuses. The Burmese Women's Union reported to the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 that "women have been raped in an organized and systematic way" by the military. "Rape may be outlawed under the international rules governing conflicts," stated their report, but "ethnic women have been raped in their homes or in their villages by army soldiers."

Reports of rape also are to be found in other documents. A 1996 landmark U.S. lawsuit against the oil companies Unocal and Total, filed on behalf of the "tens of thousands of people" who have been victims of a range of abuses in Burma, states that "girls and women have been raped in the presence of family members or within hearing distance of family members." The court, which ruled that Unocal could be held liable for the rapes commited by its military partners in Burma, will hear the case in 1999.

According to the April 1998 U.N. Commission on Human Rights Resolution, women most likely to be raped are "refugees, internally displaced women and women belonging to ethnic minorities of the political opposition." Military rapes occur typically during raids on villages, when women are abducted for forced labor, during encounters with victims of forced relocations in the jungle and in coerced marriages.

An epidemic of rape

Rape is systematically used by Burma's military as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing, according to interviews with rights workers and exiled pro-democracy officials. Bolstering those contentions is a new report by EarthRights International, a legal rights group, accusing Burma's military of "the savage domination of women outside the scope of acceptable wartime conduct." The report also says 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 Hunhing was rocked by this epidemic of military rape. According to a 1996 Shan human rights report, sexual attacks at Kaeng Kham village often occurred at night after the village men left for work at a local logging company. "While the men are away, Sergeant Hla Phyu and his men repeatedly rape the women, going from house to house," said the report. "Every adult woman in this small village has been raped."

"When soldiers rape women, there is no action taken against them," said Sao Ood Kesi, a Shan ethnic leader. "It's understood that they have permission from their officers to rape the women. Sometimes they kill the women afterward."

Sao Ood Kesi provided a list of 83 Shan State rape cases last year, in which investigators documented the dates, places, names of the victims and their parents, and the battalion numbers and names of the captains, majors and sergeants who committed the rapes. Many of these women were also murdered.

A 1997 Shan Human Rights report documents the mass murder of dozens of ethnic women and girls after being gang-raped by Burmese soldiers. It says that 120 troops 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. Then all 99 villagers were reportedly killed by the soldiers.

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