March 8, 2010

International Womenís Day: Women Fighting For Democracy In Burma


 
Ang San Suu Kyi is the internationally recognized face of the women of Burma – but there are  many more women fighting the same fight as her for human rights and democracy. These women are victims of systematic cruelty such as torture, rape and displacement by the Burmese military regime. Women from ethnic minority communities are often especially abused.

 
 
“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity.” Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the internationally recognized face of the women of Burma – but there are many more women fighting the same fight as her for human rights and democracy. These women are victims of systematic cruelty such as torture, rape and displacement by the Burmese military regime. Women from ethnic minority communities are often especially abused.

The number of political prisoners in Burma doubled from 2004 to 2008, now numbering 2200. Of these nearly 190 are women, including Buddhists nuns, journalists, labor rights activists and members and sympathizers of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that Suu Kyi heads.

In the middle of February a group of politically active women were put in jail with a two year term including hard labor. There crime was giving religious literature to a Buddhist monastery. According to the military regime they were “disturbing the peace”. The women had earlier, despite the risk but with strong political conviction, regularly prayed for the release of Suu Kyi. Jailing these women will not silence them.

Among the imprisoned women is Nilar Thein, a former university student leader, sentenced to a 65-year prison sentence for her prominent role in a peaceful protest movement in September 2007 that saw thousands of Buddhist monks come on the side of the oppressed and launch street protests.

Hla Hla Win was given a 20-year-prison sentence for her work as an "undercover journalist" distributing information from inside to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based news organization of exiled Burmese journalists.

54-year-old Cho Mar Htwe, was released in 2009 after serving a 11 year long sentence for brining a fax to the NLD office demanding the release of Suu Kyi and all political prisoners. Now in freedom in Thailand, she still wants to be politically active.

Women in the ethnic minority communities of Burma have shown convicted spirit to fight oppression, but they have had to pay a heavy price for this. According to an Amnesty International Report ‘The Repression of Ethnic Minority Activists in Myanmar’, victims of repression include Buddhist nuns, a Karenni female activist protesting the flawed 2008 referendum and girls from the Kachin State accused of informing international media about being raped by Burmese soldiers.

Amnesty International documented that women in ethnic areas often take a leading role in political activity, but they also get repressed because of their actions. A representative from Amnesty International is quoted to have said "They (the junta) are not soft on women."
 
According to a report by the Karen Women’s Organization, 'Walking among Sharp Knifes', the brutality directed at women in the Karenni State is unimaginable and shows the challenge women face when assuming leadership in a patriarchal and militarized society. In the Karen State, many women have been elected village chiefs, a traditionally male role, as the men have been tortured and killed by the Burmese Army. Among the abuse of Karen women are crucifixion, burning people alive, rape and gang rape, including of girl children, torture, beatings, water torture, burying people up to their heads and beating them to death, arbitrary executions, beheadings, slave labor, and forcing them to provide so called comfort women to the Burmese Army.

The public political activity and leadership of women in Burma is on the rise in connection to the upcoming elections. These activists know that they can be sentenced to unreasonably long prison terms and that women are victims of certain forms of abuse in jail – such as verbal and mental torture, and refusal of access to medical supplies, but still they are not ceasing their activity.  

The Burmese opposition is expected to boycott the upcoming elections, as they are anticipated to be everything else but free and fair and since the new Burmese constitution has taken oppression to a new level. According to the new constitution the military rule is cemented: the commander in chief (male), not the president, will be the center of power and a large part of the parliament seats will be taken by military officials (male).

In doing so, the military rule further condones criminal actions by the military – such as torture and rape – and perpetrators are give amnesty. The constitution effectively discriminates against women: in order to become president, military experience is a precondition – excluding women from running.     

There is an acute need for immediate action by the international community with regards to Burma. The Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams last week called for last week called for the Security Council to refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court. While waiting for the UN to take action we must, quoting the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma, "actively engage with the peoples of Burma inside and outside the country and [...] mobilize public pressure at all levels to raise consciousness of the crimes and violations being committed by the Burmese military regime against the peoples of Burma, especially women and children".

Sources:
The Sydney Morning Herald
Inter Press Service
openDemocracy

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