Women, Violence, and Burma: Reporting from the Frontlines in Kachin State

The Burmese army is using sexual violence against ethnic women as a weapon of war.
Ah-Noh, Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand

In November 2010, Burma transitioned from five decades of authoritarian rule to a semi-civilian government with the election of President Thein Sein and a new parliament. Signaling a shift towards democracy, President Thein Sein initiated political, economic, and social reforms including the release of thousands of political prisoners; the peaceful election of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her National League for Democracy colleagues to Parliament in April 2012; and the re-commitment to peace negotiations with ethnic groups with whom the Burmese military has been mired in conflict for over fifty years. 

Despite these positive developments, human rights violations and armed conflict in the country continue, particularly in the resource rich and historically marginalized ethnic regions of Eastern Burma. 

Kachin State and Northern Shan State have seen an escalation of conflict and human rights abuses since June 2011. Ongoing fighting and intermittent intensive military strikes between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization) have resulted in the displacement of 100,000 people; there is limited to no humanitarian access for these displaced communities which are primarily composed of women, children, and the elderly.

One group directly responding to the conflict is the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), a grantee of the International Women’s Program.

The organization works with displaced Kachin communities living in Thailand, China, and inside Kachin State to empower women, ensure the protection and safety of women and children, and improve the well-being of the population overall. KWAT also documents human rights violations in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, and brings these violations to the attention of the international community.

We asked Ah-Noh from the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand to tell us about what’s happening on the ground.

You have lived in Kachin state most of your life. What is happening there now?

Since the government’s army launched a new war in Kachin State in June 2011, many Kachin people have fled their homes, afraid of the fighting and human rights violations. Currently, there are about 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). A majority of IDPs who live in the Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) controlled area have little access to humanitarian aid from the international community, including from the United Nations.

In January of this year, I was in the city of Laiza, near the China-Burma border in Kachin State where the KIO has control. Everyday, I heard mortars. On January 14, the Burmese army shelled mortars into the residential area, killing three civilians—including a 14-year-old. Another three civilians were seriously injured. Despite the ceasefire ordered by President Thein Sein, violence continues every day.

There is little redress in the government for these problems, given that Kachin parties were not allowed to participate in the previous and recent elections. As a result, there are no Kachin political parties in government.

What is the conflict in Kachin state about?  How long has it been going on?

The conflict in Kachin State is about self-determination, ethnic rights, and justice for the Kachin people. It has been a 52-year fight for ethnic rights. In January of 1948, Burma gained independence from the British, forming the Federal Union of Burma (after the signing of the Panglong agreement by General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, in 1947 between the Burmese government and the Shan, Kachin, and Chin peoples). However, the agreement, which envisioned an autonomous Kachin state, was never implemented after General Aung San was assassinated. Ethnic nationalities in Burma have become increasingly dissatisfied with the unfair policies and administration of the central Burmese government.

How has this conflict affected the Kachin people and women in particular? How has the conflict affected you personally?

The conflict has led to an increase in human rights violations against Kachin people in Burma, especially by the Burmese army.

These violations include attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscation, and forced labor. Women and girls are gang raped and killed by Burmese army soldiers. Within the IDP camps, pregnant women and children are suffering from malnutrition, pre- and post-natal complications (including death), and in some cases, human trafficking. Women in IDP camps try to go to China to escape and find employment, but they end up being trafficked.

My grandmother, my uncle’s family, my aunt’s family, and other relatives became IDPs in 2011. My parents and I have been supporting my nieces and nephews. My grandmother, now 76-years-old, had to flee her home twice—in 1978 and in 1987—to live in the jungle and escape the fighting. In 2011, she was forced to flee her home again. She has never experienced a peaceful life, always living in fear and danger.

How widespread is violence against women in Burma?

The Burmese army is using sexual violence against ethnic women as a weapon of war. It is not only happening in Kachin State, but also throughout the country, especially in ethnic region in Karen State and Shan State. The Burmese army soldiers live with ethnic women, often impregnating them and leaving them behind with children and no support. To them, women are only a source of entertainment. Women are also openly kept as sex slaves by military units, showing the complete impunity for the officers involved.

What is being done to help improve the situation in Kachin state?  What is KWAT doing, and what are some recent successes and daily challenges you experience?

KWAT documents human rights violations, publishes reports on what is happening in Kachin State, raises money, helps to organize rallies at the US and Chinese consulates, and works with the media and the UN to raise the awareness of the conflict. Most recently, one of the members of KWAT testified before the US Congress. Through these efforts, KWAT has been successful in generating awareness of the Kachin situation among national and international communities.

How can organizations like the Open Society Foundations and the public support efforts to increase justice for women in Burma and on the border?

Organizations and the general public can:

  • Contribute funds to support women’s organizations that are working on justice and violence against women in Burma;

  • Spread the word—via social media, with the UN and international governments, leaders from NGOs and INGOs—about the violence that women in Burma are facing right now; and

  • Call on the UN to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes taking place in Burma, especially cases of violence against women in Burma. We need to pursue justice for women, especially those in ethnic regions.

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In 1988, we only have a few organizations like Students Union but in 2013, we have up to 100 non-government organizations in Burma. Local people requires local leadership and local action groups within the laws and rules of laws that could force the government any wrong doing in public duty. Above all, local media shall be united to against the unlawful act of any official in local issues. It is the united effort that changed our lives.

The burmese refugees living in other countries also face lot of hardships and are being denied the very basc rights, can any of yu tell us more about the conflict in myanmar and ethinic cleansing of Muslims

what can be done to stop this brutality.

A very moving account of cruel and horrifying suppression for more than six decades. Its not only the ethnic minorities who are suffering from the Army's methodical oppression but also the Rohingyas in the western part of Burma. While answering the question "How widespread is the violence against women in Burma?" Ah-Noh did not mention the current dreadful sufferings of the Rohingya women. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has ignored their plight as well as the misfortune of the Kachins (whose villages were recently strafed by the Burmese Air Force) and the Karens.

Jesus, please give us love and peace.

The Burmese army is using sexual violence against ethnic women as a weapon of war. Long time Burma ruled by Army government, there was no any religious crime but what happen to Burma an Buddhist country. I can not imagine.

Is rape really a matter for the United Nations? The Security Council has answered that question with a resounding yes by voting unanimously for a resolution describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. But perhaps the more important question is: Will the resolution give teeth to efforts to stem sexual violence against women in conflict situations?

In the resolution, passed 19 June, the Security Council noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The resolution demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.”
Indeed, the resolution stresses the need for “the exclusion of sexual violence crimes from amnesty provisions in the context of conflict resolution processes,” calls upon member states to comply with their obligations to prosecute those responsible for such crimes, and emphasizes “the importance of ending impunity for such acts.”
Regarding to above I also suggest to OPEN SOCIETY to hold a photo exhibition about sexual violence acts in various countries, to accomplish the worst humanitarian acts done by armies.
Pls. click OHCHR report below:

Thank you for your comment, Issa. As you mention above, sexual violence, particularly in conflict-settings, has been issue on the Security Council Council's agenda for several years. There are several Security Council Resolutions dating back to 2000 that bring attention to the unique ways in which women are impacted by armed conflict: highlighting the systematic use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and the need for protection and prevention; that woman have a role to play and should be included in peace processes, conflict prevention; and that they should take a leadership role in reconstruction (UN Security Council Resolutions, 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1960). You can find out more about these resolutions from a project our program has supported called Peace Women at www.peacewomen.org

Ultimately the problem is, as you say, that the resolutions lack 'teeth.' So while a great deal of women's activism and eventually UN member state political will was invested in developing these resolutions, they operate as normative frameworks, not internationally binding law. The legal/justice options available to the women of Kachin state and other ethnic women in Burma who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of the Burmese military are limited. The best options are, first, for these cases to be carefully documented by human rights and women’s rights organizations and by UN entities such as the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and second, to eventually be prosecuted through international bodies such as the International Criminal Court. However, what the resolutions can do is help elevate the status of these dynamics of the on-going conflict in Burma such that they receive international attention. Member states of the UN and human right organizations can use these resolutions and documentation for advocacy with the Burmese regime so that they stop this systematic use of violence against women and for advocacy with the international community that these crimes must be prosecuted.

It is so awfull for the women in Burma, we need international power to fight them and need international intervention to ptotect the women fromsexual violence by military there.

Please help stop the violence.

There needs to be much more media coverage of the sexual violence that is occurring in the tribal areas of Burma. The Burmese Army functions with impunity and singles out women for intimidation and rape.

I know a little about Burma and Kachin State from having studied Burma for my MSc at LSE in the early 1960s. It's a wonderful country whose people have suffered more than most from military brutality.
Sexual violence is always horrible. When it is used as policy, it is beyond horrendous, whether it is by Serbian soldiers against Muslim women in Bosnia or by Burmese soldiers in Kachin State. We must all take whatever action we can to draw global attention to this and make it stop. I shall post these comments and links to the websites describing this evil, and urge all others to do that and whatever else you are able to do.

Thank you for your comment, Harald, and for your commitment to spread the word about these atrocities. We need to give this issue in Burma as well as in other places in the world, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and Mali where the conflicts continue to be heavily gendered (e.g. high rates of conflict-related sexual violence). I applaud your willingness to take a stand against women's rights violations and advance an agenda of non-violence, justice and equality.

God can protect to women. Therefore If you believe to Jesus Christ, you must be pray to them and Myanmar Country. God can do everything. And then He open to many ways for country.

Yeah, that's not working. How about we do something about it?

Firstly, May I take this opportunity to express deep sadness and pain for the communities in Burma and neighbouring countries affected by the autrocities being committed by the army in Burma and other parts of the world, eg Africa. I also wish to express my heartfelt appreciation to everyone that is taking the initiative to contribute constructively to assist the affected people in Burma. I call upon DR Nkosisana Dlaminini Zuma, Head of the African Union to intervene on behalf of the Burmanese people and meet with their government, together with other World Leaders and the United Nations to help the Burmanese people.
Although, Burma falls outside the AU mandate, I strongly believe Dr Nkosisana Dlaminini Zuma is passionate about eradicating human rights violations, and would make an urgent appeal and will assist by adding her voice to save the people of Burma as a short term intervention.
On the long term plan, I suggest a World Summit be set up with participation of all countries being present, whereby human right violations mainly caused by armies not only in Burma, be addressed and an Independent Intervention Committee be set to neutralize the situation and stabalize any country in the world and impose heavy sentences for the offenders.
Governments have too much to deal with, therefore the Newly Formed Independant Committee can act swiftly and restore order and lawlessness.

Almost same situation was in Nepal at the time of War. War victims (rape survivors) are still yet to receive justice in Nepal. We are fighting for that.

Burmese army going to develop global war land in the world this is very bad for world peace. So we protest this aliment and we can stop this violence. Peace is a Muslim symbol and needs to be a global millennium goal.

empower women and make them fight against the violence they are facing. we can not help them until and unless they don't stand against it.

Being born and raised in Nepal, I grew up thinking how terrible women right is in Nepal, now I am in US doing my Phd reading and knowing about women worldwide and it is the same everywhere...............can't men get together to build a global anti rape society, is it only a women/feminist issue?

Great to see this post and friends at OSF and KWAT keeping up this good work to end abuses in Kachinland. The documentation in Kachin by Fortify Rights is consistent with KWAT's findings. Sensible recs, good to see mention of the need for a COI.

As there is no rule of law, the military-dominated Supreme Court in Naypyidaw had thrown out the case of a citizen who suffered rape and abduction by its soldiers. The law does not protect citizens; instead it defends the vicious soldiers who commit gang-rape.

In a press release issued last week highlighting the recent rape case, a KWAT spokesperson suggested that the Burmese legal system’s refusal to probe the Sumlut Roi Ja abduction case gave the army a green light to continue to target ethnic women. The message from the Naypyidaw Supreme Court is clear: the Burmese military can rape and kill ethnic women with impunity, said KWAT director Moon Nay Li.


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