Burma may save its tigers and not its women

Cora Weiss reports on the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma - an overwhelming day of stories told by remarkable women of all ages of inhumanity leaving the listeners wondering how the women could have survived.

Cora Weiss
4 March 2010

The World Bank is determined to play conservationist and protect the last of the 3200 wild tigers, down from 100,000 a century ago, most in Burma, but finds it is “shackled from doling out aid” to this South East Asian nation. But shackles also seem to be in place when it comes to a robust policy to demand freedom for Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, her National League for Democracy adherents and thousands of Burmese members of traditional ethnic groups jailed or abused following a democratically held election in May 1990 which gave her party 80% of parliamentary seats. The military coup following that election has left the natural resource wealthy country drowning in the most egregious human rights abuses including documented child soldiers, sexual violence, forced labour, slavery, destruction of entire villages of the many ethnic groups, extra judicial killings, over a million internally displaced persons and a record of being condemned for this by the UN for the past 15 years.

This is the background that led to the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma, held on March 2nd in New York City as one of nearly 200 parallel civil society sponsored events during the United Nations 54th Commission on the Status of Women annual conference.

Recommendations from the judges, Nobel Peace laureates, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi, Thai law Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn and Prof. Heisoo Shin of Korea’s Women’s University, include those to Burma’s military regime to: 

STOP all forms of violence against women;
STOP attacks and persecution against ethnic nationalities and groups;

RELEASE immediately and unconditionally all political prisoners;
GRANT access to UN agencies and NGO humanitarian groups;
PROVIDE access to and cooperate with United Nations and human rights organizations to monitor human rights within Burma;
RATIFY all human rights treaties…;

To the Asia-Pacific region including ASEAN to:


IMPEL Burma to comply with the ASEAN Charter and international legal obligations and human rights standards;
INVITE the ASEAN Human Rights Commission to submit reports covering particular issues related to Burma;
SUPPORT the establishment of the ASEAN Commission for Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, including consideration of the situation in Burma;

To the international community, particularly the United Nations, to:
URGE states to take collective action to ensure the implementation of SCRs 1325, 1820, 1888,and 1889 guaranteeing women’s full participation in post conflict reconstruction and freedom from all forms of sexual violence;

URGE the UN Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court,

To civil society to:

CONTINUE to actively engage with the peoples of Burma inside and outside the country and to 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.

Convened by the Nobel Women’s Initiative  and the Women’s League of Burma, the Tribunal brought 12 Burmese women to testify on Violence Against Women, Civil and Political Violations, and Economic, Social and Cultural Violations. They wanted to raise the visibility of Burma’s crimes against women; produce findings by eminent judges that respond to the testimonies and assign responsibility for human rights violations; engage members of the international community to their global responsibility to protect citizens whose governments are unable and or unwilling to do so; join others in calling for the release of political prisoners including Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San whose movement liberated Burma from Japan in 1945 which was followed by Burma’s independence as a democratic state in 1948); encourage support for activists working to promote justice, democracy, peace and equality for Burma; promote dialogue between women; value women’s perspectives in all movements to achieve peace and democracy; and to bolster the spirit of change for people within Burma. And they did just that. It was an overwhelming day of stories told by remarkable women of all ages of inhumanity leaving the listeners wondering how the women could have survived.

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi asked, after we heard the list of recommendations, how we can expect the military dictatorship to respond to the demands of refugees from Burma. “We need to find a way for Burma to carry out our desires. When non democratic governments are accused, they use sovereignty as their excuse, saying we can’t interfere in their internal affairs.”

Shirin should know. She has defended human rights in her own country of Iran and is no longer welcome to practice law there. “We live in a globalized world. Globalization can only be effective when it can stop injustice and inequality. We’ve heard sad stories today. There are no courts and no justice. How long can we wait for these injustices to stop? We ask international organizations to listen to our recommendations. We urge the full participation of women in all post conflict decisions”, she said.

Jody Williams reminded us of the words we heard from the brave women who had the courage to participate, who broke the silence of the women still suffering unimaginable brutality, humiliation, and violations. Women who told their stories saying, “This is my witness”, and “We are prisoners in our own country”, “I am a refugee child of refugees”, “This story is a common story, so common as to become normal”. Jody promised to “amplify your cries, which will contribute to an end of impunity. Women should no longer be invisible”.

Before the proceedings began, I asked Jody why the NWI was doing this. “Justice hasn’t come to Burma. Our sister, Aung San Suu Kyi, is imprisoned (under house arrest). It’s a case of foiled democracy. The international community is not taking a consistent stand that will lead to justice for the people of Burma.”

I wanted to know why some of the 150 people in the audience decided to attend. Pam Yates, documentary film maker whose Reckoning is about the International Criminal Court, told me that the “Nobel Women’s Initiative is the most important organization for peace and security” and she senses that the cause of the Burmese women belongs in the ICC. Dr. Susan Maloney came from Los Angeles where her organization, Sister of Holy Names, works on trafficking of women and children. It is a coalition of 17 religious communities of women, not related to the Catholic Church, she said. Rhonda Copelon, the woman who helped to get rape during conflict declared a war crime in the Rome Statute, and who founded and led the CUNY International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic, hoped that “these testimonies and the recommendations of the judges will become a force for governments, especially the US and the UN to consider their legal obligations either under international law, UN resolutions or the Charter to protect the people of Burma. When a government fails to protect its people there is the Responsibility to Protect resolution. We hope this event will be a vehicle to see the urgency- to do something sooner rather than later.”

May-Oo Mutran, a constitutional scholar, read the testimony of a woman we’ll call Ruth Tha who was imprisoned when she was five months pregnant for five years of hard labour for some violation of Art. 17.1 a law which she knew nothing about. Her job in her “death cell” was to catch 25 flies a day and if she didn’t she was beaten, which happened daily. Medical care was only available if the prisoners could pay for it, and having no money they received no treatment. When summoned to the so called clinic it was inevitably for sexual abuse.

We heard 12 such testimonies, each more devastating and brutal than the next. A middle school girl was kidnapped and I’ll spare you the details, but hard as it was for us to listen, think of how unbearable it must have been for these young women to have survived the ordeals and relive the experience every time they tell the stories.

Charlotte Bunch, founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, wrote the guiding manual which was used to organize this Tribunal, following experiences of a previous tribunal in Tokyo. She served as moderator and explained that they wanted to “call attention to the suffering and resiliency of women in Burma and support their efforts.”

Walking Amongst Sharp Knives, the 106 page report from the Karen Women’s Organization was released the day before the Tribunal. It details testimony from 95 women between the ages of 25 and 82, who have become village chiefs, and suffer unbelievable torture and abuses. The increase in the number of women as chiefs, a role traditionally played by men, is because the men have been brutally treated and killed by the Burmese Army. The women have been elected chiefs through the lowlands of Eastern Burma where the Karen ethnic minority of 7 million people try to live. Karen women have documented abuses including: 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 labour, and forcing them to provide so called comfort women to the Burmese Army. This remarkable report shows the challenges women assuming leadership face in a patriarchal and militarised society.

The Karen Women’s Organization report, like that of the Commissioners who served the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, calls for a UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity inflicted by the Burmese military.

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the past 20 years and is barred from participating in the elections promised for this year which will no doubt result in continued militarisation with a parliament.

There is a long list of actions taken by US administrations from 1997 when Pres. Clinton banned investment in Burma, and Congress banned imports or loans, and Condi Rice called Burma an “outpost of tyranny”, and Bush likened Burma to Belarus and Cuba and the list goes on. But Chevron, which includes Unocal still works Burma’s gas fields; and while US companies cannot have clothes made there, they can profit from Burma’s oil and gas. China is building an oil pipeline, Thailand has rights to over a million cubic feet of natural gas and India has 5 trillion cubic feet! France, Thailand and Chevron have a pipeline which, according to a recent issue of Mother Jones, gave the junta a profit of over $1Billion. The economic ties are huge. Burma is a member of ASEAN with which the EU is negotiating a free trade agreement; China is heavily invested in Burma’s oil, gas and hydro electric power development. China and Russia have refused to let a Security Council resolution get passed even without language of genocide, or crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s appeal to be released from house arrest after the provocative and insane act of an American who swam to her house and whom she took in to dry was rejected by the Burmese Supreme Court last week. While the visit of a UN envoy in February prompted the release of an 82 yr old man held for 7 yrs under house arrest. And also this past month an American of Burmese origin, working for democracy, was sentenced to five years of hard labour on charges of carrying a forged identity card. Press about Burma is considerable, and action is zero. There is a full page horror story of the Rohingya refugees, a Burmese ethnic group, who sought refuge from military abuses in Burma, being seized, beaten, persecuted and abused in Bangladesh where they have lived for years. They are being forced back to Burma, now called Myanmar by the military junta, where they will face brutal treatment. Bangladesh offers no documentation, no identity, and they have no rights to education or other government services. Robberies, assaults and rapes have significantly increased, and according to the director of the Arakan project, they are either arrested, jailed or pushed back over the border.

The International Tribunal was a civil society model of a remarkable inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes. The United Nations should be doing this. And the Commission on the Status of Women, which meets annually and is reviewing and appraising the Beijing 4th World Conference on Women held 15 years ago, should have welcomed this to its meeting. The Beijing meeting was dedicated to Equality, Development and Peace. But the CSW has sadly ignored the peace leg from Beijing which should have been on its agenda. It is left to civil society to press for peace and for women to fully participate in the peace process.

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


  • Website of the International Tribunal on Crimes and Women of Burma.



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