The following comes from a speech given by CHEERY ZAHAU, co-ordinator of the Women’s League of Chinland, to a UN conference on state-sanctioned rape in Burma. Held late last month, the conference took place in New York at the 51st session of the Commission on the Status of Women...

My name is Cheery Zahau, a Chin woman from Burma. Burma is a Southeast Asian country that shares borders with China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. Burma has a population of over 50 million people comprising eight major ethnic nationalities: Burman, Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Chin, Kachin and Arakan. 

"Burma’s ethnic groups demand equality, autonomy and self-determination. But these demands are denied by the regime and met with systematic human rights violations."

I was born and I grew up in a Chin village. I left for India in 1999 because I did not feel safe as an ethnic woman in my own state. 

Before 1988 there were two army battalions in Chin State. However, the regime has now increased that number to 13 battalions spread across 33 military outposts in Chin State. This increase in troop levels demonstrates the dramatic militarization of Burma, particularly in the ethnic states, over the last 20 years. 

Burma’s ethnic groups demand equality, autonomy and self-determination. But these demands are denied by the regime and met with systematic human rights violations, which include forced labor, forced relocation, religious persecution, arbitrary arrest and detention, destruction of thousands of ethnic villages, the driving out of hundreds of thousands of ethnic civilians to neighboring countries, and forcing an estimated one million peoples to be internally displaced persons.

Worse yet is that Burmese military soldiers are raping the ethnic women and girls with impunity. Ethnic women and girls from Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Mon, Karenni and Arakan States have long suffered from state-sanctioned sexual crimes perpetrated by the Burmese military. Rape incidents in ethnic areas are higher because it is a part of the regime’s strategy to punish the armed resistant groups or to the suppression of various ethnic peoples as a tool for ethnic cleansing. Although rape has been used by the regime to control the population for decades it took years and courage of many women to document these crimes. 

Pioneered by the Shan Women’s Action Network report License to Rape in 2002, a number of reports documenting the use of rape as a weapon of war in Burma have since been published by the Karen Women’s Organization, the Women’s League of Burma, and the Human Rights Foundation of Monland. The total number of rape victims documented in these reports totals 1,859 girls and women. 

As a result of these reports, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma has repeatedly raised concerns about the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence by the regime’s troops. However, the (Burmese regime) has continued to deny this, and the sexual violence continues.

I would like to particularly highlight the situation in Chin State. Over the course of six months in 2006, my organisation, the Women’s League of Chinland, documented 38 cases of sexual violence in Chin State committed by the Burmese military troops. 

Please bear in mind that it is extremely difficult to collect this information in Chin State because of the geographical isolation and the tight control of the area by the Burmese military. At the same time, the women dare not speak out because of their fear of the army and the social stigma of rape from their community. We believe that the rape cases we have been able to document represent only the tip of the iceberg. 

Of these 38 cases, five of them were girls under 18 and the youngest was 12 years old. The circumstances of the rapes clearly show that women and girls are under constant threat of sexual violence during their daily lives.Women and girls were raped in their homes, while working at farms, collecting firewood, walking back from church, traveling to market and to schools. They are also raped while doing forced labor and working as forced porters for the Burmese army. 

"Often the rapes have been carried out with extreme brutality and in some cases resulting in the death of the victim. In one case, a woman was stripped naked and hung on a cross, in a deliberate act of mockery against her Christian religion."

Often the rapes have been carried out with extreme brutality and in some cases resulting in the death of the victim. In one case, a woman was stripped naked and hung on a cross, in a deliberate act of mockery against her Christian religion. This indicates that sexual violence is being deliberately used as a weapon to torture and terrorize local ethnic populations into submission. 

Almost half of the rapes were gang-rapes, showing that there is a collective understanding among the troops that they can rape with impunity. And about third of the rapes were committed by officers, sometimes in their own army camps. Again, this is a clear example to the troops that rape is acceptable under their command. 

None of these rapists are prosecuted. In some cases, people reporting the cases were even threatened. In only a few cases was some punishment meted out to the solders, but all the victims or families got in return was a small amount of money, or the knowledge that the rapists were transferred to another army post. This clearly shows that the regime has no rules of law to protect women. The soldiers can act with impunity, knowing that they are above the law. Because of the lack of redress for these crimes, it is clear that Burma’s state policy is to willfully ignore and indeed condone rape by soldiers against women. 

Rape survivors face many challenges after being raped. They are often severely traumatized and some become mentally disturbed. For instance, a woman from Tedim Township in Chin State was raped and tortured by the two soldiers in November 2003 on her way to go to market. She was deeply upset about her life and she became mentally imbalanced. In some cases, the rape survivors carry unwanted pregnancies and subsequently face stigma in their own communities. Rape is one of the factors forcing Chin women to flee as refugees to India and other countries. However, as India does not recognize Chin refugees, they are subject to forcible repatriation at any time. 

We are convinced that only genuine political change to democracy, restoration of the rule of law, establishment of a civilian government, and a withdrawal of Burma Army troops from ethnic areas will bring an end to the systematic sexual violence in Burma. We therefore urge the United Nations Security Council to pass a binding resolution on Burma that will help bring about these changes. At the same time, we would like to urge Burma’s regional neighbors, particularly India, to reconsider their economic and military engagement with the Burmese military regime, and to review their policies on refugees.

We also would like to request the governments of China and Russia to reconsider their positions and support the UN Security Council’s intervention in Burma. By opposing the UNSC resolution on Burma in January 2007, China and Russia gave the wrong signal to the Burmese military regime to continue killing its own people and to rape more women and girls. We need UNSC intervention in Burma immediately. 

The text of the speech was provided by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Representatives of the organisation recently accompanied a joint Chin and Kachin delegation, including Cheery Zahau, to London, Brussels, Berlin, and Washington, DC, to raise awareness about human rights violations in Burma, including sexual violence, human trafficking and religious persecution. For more information, visit www.csw.org.uk.