This is my witness

The human voice has a way of piercing through you. Emily Stokes listened to the testimony of the women of Burma.

Emily Stokes
5 March 2010
Women UN limited logo and link

Until 1988, Saw Mar was a housewife in her home country of Burma. Born into a well-educated, middle-class family in Rangoon, she spent her time looking after her two daughters, cleaning the house, and cooking for her husband. She had never worked for a living. But on a rainy morning in August, she witnessed a massacre by army troopers, and decided to join the fight to replace the military government. She became the Organizer for the National League for Democracy, working closely with the party’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. One year later, Saw Mar was arrested, interrogated and sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour. In prison, she witnessed disturbing abuses of power, and was herself tortured by prison guards.

On Tuesday, Saw Mar – who has lived in the US for the past decade – was one of twelve Burmese women to testify at the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma held in New York, a event organised by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma. The twelve testimonies were heard by an audience of 150, and by a panel of four judges: human rights experts Heisoo Shin and Vitit Muntarbhorn, and Nobel Laureates Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi. The logos of the Nobel Women’s Initiative in the tribunal hall acted as a reminder to those watching the tribunal of the ongoing struggle to free a sister Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest in Burma, where she has been kept almost continually since she won the election in 1990.

The first four harrowing testimonies heard on Tuesday dealt with women’s experiences of violence, rape, sexual violence and trafficking. Dr. Heisoo Shin – who recently founded a new NGO, the National Movement against Sex Trafficking – told me after the tribunal that, despite having worked with “conflict women” for the past 30 years, she had rarely heard such “cruel and brutal” narratives. Dr. Shin was particularly disturbed, she said, by the way that Burmese authority figures – community leaders and teachers, for instance – punished, rather than protected, the female victims of the militia. She cited one of the testimonies, in which a schoolgirls were gang-raped by a group of SPDC soldiers – an atrocity that the BBC had reported in the international media. Rather than being protected by their communities, the girls were expelled from school for bringing dishonour to the Burmese government and accused of prostitution. Dr. Shin, who has worked on campaigns to protect the sex slaves of Japanese soldiers, suggests that – while men in Korea have come to understand that Korean women are not to blame for being abused – the same shift of awareness has yet to happen in Burma.

Saw Mar’s testimony, which was heard in a group of narratives about torture, imprisonment and persecution, similarly spoke of the social isolation experienced by female victims of torture and violence. “Even after I was released from Inseim prison,” she told the audience, “the regime still checked on me. I lost all of my friends; they would not come to visit because of the military’s intimidation.” When Aung San Suu Kyi was freed briefly from house arrest in 1990, Saw Mar and her family leapt to her assistance – but were harassed by the government for doing so. In 1997, Saw Mar and her husband were wrongly accused of bombing the relic of the Buddha’s tooth in Rangoon; the government even provided faked video footage. Finally, in 1999, Saw Mar became so distressed by threats to her safety that she left Burma – and her husband and children – to seek asylum in the United States.

As Jody Williams told the tribunal’s audience, the testimonials represented the voices of thousands of women in Burma; they were, Williams said, “common – but we should remember that they are not normal; this should never be normal.” Similarly, Dr. Shin believes that the violations of human rights in Burma are “systematic”. Since the SLORC (now the SPDC) refused to allow the winning NLD to form a new government in 1990, the military’s power has been almost impossible to resist by individuals in Burma. “If you are the military, you can do anything,” Dr. Shin told me. “You kill, kidnap, rape. There’s no rule of law. It’s an embedded system within the regime that allows the military to do anything.” 

However, Dr. Shin is hopeful about the impact that this tribunal will have, citing the positive effects of the 1993 Vienna and 1995 Beijing tribunals. Professor Muntabhorn similarly believes in the tribunal as a practical tool for change: “This is a civil society tribunal, it’s not a court of law,” he explains, “but it is important from the perspective of global awareness – mobilizing people in terms of advocating the rights of Burmese women.” On Thursday, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebaldi presented their findings to US Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon; more meetings are to follow. The tribunal proves, says Muntabhorn, that the violations of human rights in Burma constitute both war crimes and crimes against humanity. Burma has ratified treaties concerning human rights including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention of 1929 – and has consistently failed to take action to prevent violations of these treaties. Individuals must be held responsible by the state – and, most importantly, the state must be held responsible by the international community.

Professor Muntabhorn, who has read thousands of testimonials over the course of his career, told me how the spoken word has a different power from words on a page; the human voice, he says, has a way of “piercing through you”. Despite the fact that several of the testifiers were unable to enter the US for the tribunal, requiring that their testimonies be read by others, the emotional effect of the words were not lost; as Jody Williams echoed, “This is my witness . . . this is not something that has been told to me . . . this is my witness”. The tribunal was symbolic in giving women a chance to be heard and supported as they faced up to their own painful experiences. As Saw Mar summarized when I spoke to her after the tribunal: “We are Asian women. We have no voice in Burma. We dare not speak about these things because of the shame. Because of that, the government is taking advantage.”

For Saw Mar, who spoke passionately in her testimonial, occasionally breaking into English as if to make sure that her message reached the audience, the tribunal was the opportunity she has been waiting for. Since seeking asylum in the United States in 1999, she has lived in the Bay Ridge area of San Jose; her husband and two daughters joined her in 2004. After the tribunal, she explained to me how she sometimes feels as if she is living two lives; when she isn’t working for an electrics company in the Bay Area, she spends as much time as she can working with organizations such as the Burmese Democratic American Alliance BADA and the Burmese American Women's Alliance BAWA. “When people are interested in my name and ask where I am from,” she says, “that’s a great opportunity. I take their hand, and I tell them my story. I speak, speak, speak…” She tries to tell her story whenever she can, to spread awareness of the political situation in Burma – but she often feels that her words are not being heard.

Speaking at the tribunal wasn’t easy. “My knees were shaking,” she tells me. But, she says, once she started, she didn’t see the audience at all: “I just saw the 1988 crisis happen; I saw the story I was telling in front of my eyes, and how I suffered in jail, and the horrible night, and the way the wardens treated us...”

Saw Mar’s messages to the international community, to the SPDC, and to civil society are loud and clear. “In Burma, the women are very quiet because they are afraid of the military government. I would like to tell them: You are not alone. Don’t be afraid. We are fighting for you – wherever we are – to get freedom.” For the United Nations and all the international governments, she says: “Please, go inside Burma and give us protection. Give Burma a chance to develop like other countries.” Her final message is the most heartfelt, and the most urgent. In 2010, elections will take place in Burma, but Aung San Suu Kyi – along with many other politicians who are also imprisoned – is currently unable to fulfil her potential to bring democracy to Burma. Like the judges at the tribunal, Saw Mar urges that Aung San Suu Kyi be released: “Let her talk, let her meet with the people.” When I ask Saw Mar when she last saw her friend, she sighs. “The last time I saw Aung San Suu Kyi was in 1997,” she says, sadly. And then she looks more hopeful: “But I always listen to her voice.”

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