Women as targets
Women as targets
Eleven women and girls from Shan State recently slipped into Thailand with grim accounts of rape, robbery and murder by Burmese soldiers
Story by VASANA CHINVARAKORN
In the eyes of the Burmese State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the stories of 11 Shan girls and women who recently slipped through the Thai border are fabrications. The women, ranging in age from 13 to 60-plus, come from different parts of Shan State. They are now living in a sheltered home in the North.
They say they have come to Thailand to escape abuse, torture and rape by Burmese troops.
Huddled together, the group reminds one of the faceless choruses of a Greek tragedy, the ones who are always in the back in the shadows, emerging only to sing plaintive, sad and forlorn songs before they slip back into dark anonymity.
The story they are telling today is quite similar to tales that have been coming across the border for years _ one day, or night, Burmese soldiers show up at a village, clean the houses out of anything of value, rob the villagers of their cattle and then cast their eyes on the women or girls who haven't managed to flee in time. Next follows hours, sometimes days, even months, of individual and gang rape. The ``lucky'' women get out alive. Many don't.
To listen to the survivors' stories in the flesh, though, is to be forced to push the imagination to a terrible limit. The women's diminutive voices are pitched at virtually a whisper. Sometimes the whispers fall to a soft wail. There are scars on their foreheads, wrists, limbs. Their skin even seems to exude a peculiar smell of sadness and traces of suppressed anger.
Can anyone stage-manage this sort of thing?
Some of the tales are so gruesome you would fervently hope they were not real. Middle-aged Naang Yord talks about the time around two years ago when her village was relocated to a new site where the land was less fertile. Together with her eldest daughter and a niece, Naang Yord set out to sneak back to the family's old rice fields. They wanted to harvest some rice to pay for the funeral of Naang Yord's husband, who had just passed away. But they were spotted by a Burmese patrol and a nightmare began.
``They put a plastic sheet over my head and then, one by one, they assaulted me,'' said Naang Yord, battling a lump in her throat. ``I didn't see what they were doing to my two girls. I could just hear continuous moaning. Then two gunshots.''
Finally the soldiers left. Naang Yord staggered to her feet. She saw her niece's body not far away.
``She was shot in the waist, probably while trying to crawl away. Her fists were still dug hard into the grass,'' said Naang Yord. As she shows how the girl's fists looked, tears roll down her cheeks. ``There was another shot at the back of her neck.''
As Naang Yord talks, another woman in the room cries silently. It turns out that she is the sister of the victim.
Now Naang Yord too breaks down. ``I walked back to our family hut, hoping my daughter would have returned by then. But there was only my youngest girl; she was whimpering about how hungry she was, asking why nobody had returned.
``Then I ran back to the [first] spot, searching for my daughter. And finally, I found her, lying there, naked, not breathing. The only thing left was her sarong folded up to her waist.''
The Burmese soldiers had taken everything the Shan woman held dear _ the lives of her daughter and her niece, her chastity. A gold necklace which had been kept to help pay for her husband's funeral had also disappeared from her eldest daughter's sarong.
There was no question of recourse. Naang Yord reported the incident to her village head, only to be told she had better keep silent.
Many complainants in the past have been forced to pay fines after being accused of trying to ``defame'' the army.
A month later, she says, the soldiers returned. They must have recognised Naang Yord. One of them approached her, tapped his hand on her private parts and on her buttocks, laughed and asked ``what do you call these?''
Perhaps memories like this are better blanked out. The daughter of 37-year-old Naang Laao, for one, has apparently succeeded in getting rid of hers. The 13-year-old now lives in a world of her own, her eyes dart wildly, registering nothing. Every now and then, a smile lights up on her lips _ the smile of an innocent, of someone clammed up in her own realm, severed from everyone.
A year ago, says Naang Laao, the girl was asleep, guarding the family's rice barn, when she was discovered and gang raped by soldiers. Naang Laao heard her cries, rushed out, and was also raped herself.
``My parents were up in the house. They were too old to come down. If they had, who knows what could have happened to them?
``Look at my daughter's forehead. That scar was made that night, probably by a rifle butt.
``This was not the first time our family was struck by disaster. Two years ago, my eldest son was going for a bath when he met a group of Burmese soldiers. They tied him to a tree, shoved his head inside a plastic sheet, took off his clothes and stabbed a knife right through his heart.''
There is another uncontrollable sob.
``When we found him, his guts had spilled out. My husband was shocked. He died a couple of months later.''
What courage it must take to retell these stories. How many times can a person survive events like these?
Naang Laao decided to seek a better life away from her homeland. She started to walk, sometimes carrying her daughter on her back. After a day of walking, there were two more days and nights on a bus, at a cost of 5,000 kyat per person, before the pair reached the Thai border.
Now a new ordeal is just starting. Suffering the murder of a son and the rape of a daughter does not, technically speaking, qualify Naang Laao for refugee status in Thailand. The Thai government has so far not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and people like Naang Laao and Naang Yord are likely to be sent back to Burma eventually.
Nor is there much hope that they will see justice done, that the wrongdoers will be put on trial or punished in any way for their crimes.
The SPDC regime repeatedly denies that its troops are involved in rape, like it denies involvement in the drugs trade. A recent article in the New Light of Myanmar (August 4) said the ``real'' culprits behind the rape allegations are the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) in collaboration with the Thai (referred to as ``Yodaya'') army.
Naang Luen, 22, a Shan, insists that it was Burmese soldiers who raped her two years ago. A group of 20 dragged her into the woods and took turns assaulting her for a whole day and night. Later, her husband was beaten up. Naang Luen said he then became mentally imbalanced and has since disappeared.
That was not the first time that the young woman had encountered soldiers. They had previously raided her village from time to time, ordering villagers to move from one site to another, forcing them to do hard manual work for free, and snatching any valuables to be found.
There was no escape from the hell, she said. If you tried to bargain with the soldiers, they hit you. If you were slack at the jobs they set you, they would kick you and slap you. Naang Luen has a tattoo on her right wrist which she says was meant to dispel ghosts. It was powerless in the face of living persecutors.
``They kept accusing us of being SSA [Shan State Army] sympathisers. But we're not. We're just ordinary rural people.
``Those people [the soldiers] have a human shape but their hearts aren't human. It is muek [a Shan word for brutal], worse than animals. I want my son to become a soldier to fight them back. If I could, I would join the army too.''
Forgiveness is clearly not on the cards yet for these women _ for now, they just hope for a chance to recover from their traumas and find a way to live reasonable lives, like anyone else.
Naang Yord says that all she wants now is to live peacefully, as far away as possible from the SPDC and its menacing battalions.
``Those who have died are gone. What matters now is those who have to go on living. I don't need much, just to be able to work my land without having soldiers coming after me all the time. Is that too much to ask?''