War On Women And Minorities In Colonial And Post-Colonial Burma – Analysis
Rudyard Kipling remarked in From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any other land you will know about.” 1 The country indeed has a unique history that has shaped its fiercely independent and authoritarian governments. Perpetual existential threats have created strong ethnic paranoia among the Burmese establishment that has recently culminated in brutal repression of minorities, particularly females.
Burma has had to fight off Chinese and Mongol incursions from the porous northeast border for countless centuries. 2 Lavish monuments, such as the gold-plated, 76-carat diamond-topped Shwedagon Pagoda, have made Chinese emperors and generals salivate at the nation’s myriad natural resources, as well as the strategic Irrawaddy River, which flows from China to the Indian Ocean, utilized in ancient times as part of the Southwestern Silk Road. 3
The British likewise felt awe at the boundless potential of Burma. Not only did Burma contain troves of valuable metals and minerals, but rice paddies and teak. By the late 1930s, Burma would come to produce 40% of the world’s rice exports. 4 The nation-spanning Irrawaddy River could serve as an extremely convenient transit hub between China and British India. As Secretary of State for (British) India, Lord Cranborne, aka Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, remarked in 1867 that, “It is of primary importance that no other European power insert itself between British Burmah [sic] and China… The country itself is of no great importance. But an easy communication with the multitudes who inhabit western China is an object of national importance.” 5 Burma was a potential imperial super-highway.
Thus, Britain proceeded to forcefully annex, in three stages, the various states of Burma between 1824 and 1886. Various British officers stationed in India, such as Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, moved east to administer the new territory. The colonial government quickly turned Burma into a commodity state. Burmese farmers were producing more and more rice, but they couldn’t keep up with the rising tax rate. As a result, half of all arable land was defaulted on by 1936, leaving them in the hands of British financiers. 6 Along with the taxes, Britain economically enslaved Burma by keeping them in the dark about industrialization, allowing the resource-rich nation to only produce raw materials and food. The colonial government thus set up tariffs that gave British companies a monopoly on the Burmese market; thus, any modern gadgets desired or needed by the Burmese had to be bought at an exorbitant markup from these foreign companies. 7 These economic tactics of colonial subjugation had already been well tested and established in neighboring colony India 8 and would lead to substantial and lasting poverty in both India and Burma. Additionally, this would lead to a culture in Burmese governance that emphasizes economic exploitation over the rights of minority groups.
The Kachin people of northern Burma have always been largely independent, naturally isolated by their mountains. Kachin’s historical homeland is sandwiched in between China to the north and the Bamar homeland to the south. As such, the Kachin people were frequently consulted by Chinese and Bamar kings and generals whenever they planned to invade the other; Kachin was also renowned for its mercenaries. 9 Due to this respect for the Kachin state’s military significance, it was largely left alone, up until the British colonial conquests of the 1800s. Even after Britain officially completed its conquest of Burma, they still had to fight for control of the hardy Kachin state. Britain’s colonial army launched a brutal anti-guerilla campaign in northern Burma to finally force the Kachin into submission. 10 60 years after Britain took control over most of the Bamar kingdom, the colonial army had to resort to mass executions, burning entire villages, branding thousands of suspects and deploying 32,000 troops to conquer the sparse, quaint Kachin state. 11 Their wide-scale destruction of rebel villages would set the template for the current repression of the Kachin. Christianity followed the colonists and Kachin state became a Christian stronghold, thus creating another cultural barrier between the reclusive state and greater Burma. 12
By contrast, the Burmese Muslims (Rohingya) presiding in the western province of Rakhine (formerly called Arakan) were protected by the British colonial government. Rakhine’s inhabitants have been traced back to the 9th century AD. 13 It became increasingly Islamic starting in the 1400s, but was nonetheless very tolerant towards Hindus & Buddhists. 14 Rakhine straddles the Bay of Bengal on its western border, so many Arabs, Afghans and other Muslims would migrate to Rakhine over the centuries as sailors, mercenaries or merchants, but most Muslims were native converts or converts from Bengal, with whom they shared a porous border. According to a famed court poet from the Arakan Kingdom, Shah Aloal, “The Muslim population of Arakan consisted roughly of four categories, namely, the Bengali, other Indian, Afro-Asian [Middle Eastern] and native. Among these four categories of the Muslims the Bengali Muslims formed the largest part of the total Muslim population of Arakan. The inflow of the captive Muslims from Lower Bengal contributed much to the ever-increasing Bengali Muslims in the Arakanese kingdom.” 15 Currently, Muslims comprise 29% of Rakhine State. 16 However, they comprise as much as 95% in Taung Pyo Tat Wal District, or 92% in Maung Daw, the third most populous of Rakhine’s districts. 17 It’s important to understand the history of Rohingya citizenship in what is now Burma to grasp the government’s current stance on the Muslim population in Rakhine.
The Rakhine kingdom became completely autonomous from Bengal and its other neighbors by 1531, taking advantage of Mughal India’s invasion of Bengal. Rakhine enjoyed business and diplomatic relations with Portugal, Afghanistan and the Arab Middle East for centuries. However, they always had a tepid relationship with the Bamar kingdom. The Bamar under King Bodawpaya invaded and conquered Rakhine in 1784. 18 It was a bloody conquest; the Bamar killed a sizable percentage of the population and many of the survivors became refugees in neighboring Bengal. 19 Among those who remained, Bodawpaya enslaved over 20,000. 20 By default, Britain then assumed control of Rakhine after claiming victory in the First Burmese War in 1826. They encouraged countless starving and war-displaced Rohingyas to establish roots in Rakhine. 21 Buddhist Burma came to deeply resent the Muslims as abettors of their colonial subjugation. This animosity was amplified during World War II when British loyalist Rohingyas were caught spying on the liberating Japanese for Britain. 22 The WWII schism created further distrust between the Rohingyas and the Burmese government.
This colonial history has largely shaped the current ethnic conflicts that plague the country today. After Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the new political entity sought to rally around the Buddhist majority. Burmese culture was officially promoted over those of minorities and Buddhism was declared the state religion in 1961. This led to the formation of the Kachin Independence Organization, enforced by the complementary Kachin Independence Army. 23 The Burmese government has been at war with the KIO, almost unabated, ever since. Burma’s junta fights the Kachin not just for power, but for their huge reservoirs of gold, jade and timber, as well as the commercial route that Kachin provides between China and greater Burma. 24 Monolithic China has replaced the British Empire as the main external actor in the economy of Burma, 25 but countless other nations play a part in the current era of globalized markets, increasingly including the US. From 2012 to 2013, the US rewarded the junta for undertaking democratic reforms (establishing a civilian government) by opening up imports to Burma and increasing the purchase of exports: in the span of this one year, US to imports went from literally nothing to $29.9 million and exports increased by $80 million. 26 During that same span of time, tourism to Burma literally doubled, from about 1 million to 2 million. 27 Inter-Asian and international dollars directly fuel the conflict.
The Kachin Plight
Since the Burmese Army broke the cease-fire agreement with the KIA in June of 2011, they have unleashed a brutal war against the Kachin people. There are wide scale reports of endemic human rights abuses being committed by government forces. Villagers are frequently enslaved, also referred to as “portering”, by troops. 28 Comprised of mostly women, children and the elderly, these slaves are forced to act as minesweepers and human mules for army supplies. Female porters often became sex slaves, additionally. This doesn’t stop troops from preying on local women to gang-rape. KWAT has documented the rapes of girls from the age of 9 to women as old as 50. In one documented case, soldiers from the 37th Battalion troops gang raped and then killed 39 year old Ma Kaw, alongside her 17 year old daughter, Ma Lu. 29 This endemic sexual violence is supported by and also perpetrated by senior military officials. Two young women in Myitkyina, Kachin’s capital, were raped in public by multiple officers. The Burmese military’s official policy of mass rape was explicitly stated to Mansai villager Kai Nu, who was told by troops that, “they have been ordered to rape women.” Porters, activists and other villagers are also subject to indiscriminate torture. 30 One porter, when professing innocence and pleading with his torturer, was told, “villagers and KIA are one so you should be beaten.” Murder is also common, especially amongst victims of rape and torture. Army shooting rampages often plague villagers, such as on December 6, 2011 by Lung Bum Hkaraw Ravine, where 200 Burmese troops launched a sneak attack on 34 villagers, killing 3 and wounding more. 31 In the Kachin state, the enemy and the people are one and the same.
The Rohingya Plight
Rohingyas are also official targets for oppression. Burma doesn’t recognize them as citizens, despite their documented presence in Rakhine going back to at least the 9th century AD. Even Burmese human rights advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the validity of the Rohingyas’ citizenship. 32 The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 deliberately made it almost impossible for most Rohingyas to obtain citizenship. Section 4 of this draconian law unilaterally gives the Council of State the authority to decide if any given ethnic group is considered to a national group or not, while Section 8 (b) also gives the Council of State the power to revoke citizenship for anyone who isn’t a “citizen by birth” 33 Simply being born in Burma doesn’t automatically qualify a person for citizenship; Burmese law thus effectively leaves every Rohingya child born stateless, a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 34 Section 3 states that anyone whose ancestors have lived in the country since 1823 are considered citizens of Burma. 35 It’s been proven by a long line of independent historians, anthropologists and archaeologists that the Rohingya people have been in modern-day Burma since well before this imposed 1823 minimum. In spite of the facts, the official Burmese government narrative continues to state that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; U Shwe Mg of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party declared to al-Jazeera that, “The so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while.” 36
President Thein Sein commissioned the Rakhine Investigative Council, ostensibly to study the strife; they released their findings in the Rakhine State Action Plan, which referred to the Rohingyas both pejoratively and inaccurately as “Bengalis” 37 and demanded that the Rohingyas refer to themselves likewise. 38 One Sittwe woman declared that she would rather, “be a beggar than signing those documents the government is pressing onto us to allow our resettlement, because in those papers they state that we are Bengali.” 39 Ahead of a May 29, 2015 conference in Thailand on the issue of the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Burmese delegation stated their refusal to attend if the term “Rohingya” was used. 40 Lieutenant General Ko Ko summed up the goals of the government’s plans for Rohingya situation as being the, “tightening the regulations in order to handle travelling, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, constructing of new religious buildings, repairing and land ownership and right to construct buildings of Bengalis under the law.” 41
Continuing the legal maneuvers set by the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 against the Rohingya people are Sections 42-44. Since the Rohingyas don’t meet the “1823” qualification for citizenship according to the bureaucracy in Naypyidaw, they would have to seek “naturalized citizenship” instead. Under the tenets of Section 43, you can only apply for naturalized citizenship if at least one of your parents is already registered as one of the forms of citizen. Thus, all children born to a pair of undocumented Rohingya parents are summarily denied citizenship. According to Section 42, it’s also possible to achieve naturalized citizenship, provided that you are able to procure “conclusive evidence”. This is simply impossible for Rohingyas by and large, due to the fact there were scant few family registry records recorded in pre-industrial colonial Burma. 42 Even the average American would have to shell out good money on a site like ancestry.com to try accessing pre-1950s family records. There is also a third tier of citizenship, “associate citizenship”, but the deadline to apply for that was October 15, 1982. 43
After independence from Britain, the non-citizen Rohingyas were paradoxically barred from seceding. Their movements within Burma have been highly restricted by the government since the institution of Act VII of Registration of Foreigners Act, 1940. 44 A displaced Rohingya living in a camp outside the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, Muhammad Uslan, summarized the current situation, “We are caged like animals here. We cannot work or go to the town to buy things. Our young people grow up knowing they will never be able to go to university.” 45
Rohingyas are, like their fellow Kachins, subject to portering; not only are they not considered citizens, they are also forced to work for the state that doesn’t accept them as such. Rape is an endemic form of violence that is likewise used to subjugate the Rohingya people. In one northern Maungdaw village alone, human rights activists recorded 13 different rapes on the night of February 20, 2013. 46 Mass rape has been documented as a weapon used against the Rohingya people since at least 1992, a time when the government was undertaking an anti-Rohingya campaign. 47 Prominent Buddhist monks, like Wirathu, preach Islamaphobia that has incited massive pogroms. Wirathu told Time Magazine that Muslims, “are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them.” 48
Hundreds of Muslims have been killed since the junta fell in Islamaphobic riots that are increasingly being considered by outside observers to be genocide. 49 140,000 were internally displaced in 2012 alone due to the violence, while another 86,000 fled the country.50 Human Rights Watch has concluded that the Burmese government and security forces were not only complicit in the anti-Rohingya violence of 2012, but were active participants. 51 About 1500 Rohingya refugees have been imprisoned by human traffickers in Thailand, awaiting “deportation.” 52 Thai newspapers report that 40,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have been trafficked last year in Thailand, often with the help of the Thai authorities, who want the refugees out of the country. Many of the women and children are specifically funneled into Thailand’s lucrative sex industry. 53 The wave of refugees continues as the Burmese government turns a blind eye — and sometimes participates in — to the Islamaphobic pogroms in Rakhine.
The Burmese government and their multinational corporate partners are interested in tapping Rakhine’s massive oil and gas reserves. 54 Rakhine’s strategic location by the Bay of Bengal also creates a demand for Burmese commercial access to the area. State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is funding $2.5 billion on the Kyaukpyu (a Rakhine port city) Shwe Gas Pipeline, which will shuttle oil in between China and the Bay of Bengal. 55 Locals have staged protests against it, complaining that all the proceeds from the endeavor will go to either Chinese businessmen or Burmese politicians. Thus, the recent opening-up of Burma’s economy to the outside world must be viewed with a critical eye, rather than just with blind praise.
Women in Burma
Women in Burma have been historically much enfranchised. They had a lot of freedom in public and respect in the household. It was common for women to work outside the home and they were generally treated as equals. 56 Kipling and Orwell, being raised in the shadow of Victorian culture, were very impressed by the Burmese woman’s spirit. However, decades of rule by the junta has caused a precipitous drop in respect for human rights, particularly for women. From opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Thin, any woman who has made the military regime feel uneasy has been hunted by the police. 57 Women who are incarcerated for political crimes are often raped, tortured, killed or “disappeared”, such as student activist Thin Thin Aye. 58
This has led to an environment that undermines all women and girls. Rape is endemic in areas under Army occupation. Pregnancy termination is banned in all but cases in which the mother’s life is endangered. 59 A woman can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for illegally terminating her pregnancy. 60 There is very little access to contraceptives, either. According to the research of Liz Sime at Marie Stopes International, 2/3 of the population has inadequate access to contraceptives. 61 Even sex education is forbidden, as evidenced by the arrest warrants for Phyu Phyu Thin and other reproductive health educators. Research done by the Reproductive Health Response in Crises Consortium imply that over half of maternal deaths were due to post-abortion complications. 62 These dismal statistics are unlikely to change anytime soon, even with generous pledges from sponsors of the Millenium Development Goals ($300 million); the program director of the Burma Medical Association, Saw Nay Htoo, lamented that, “Even with ceasefires with the ethnic groups, direct support from the Burmese government is still not there. There is no concrete progress we can see.” 63
Paradoxically, there is a 2-child policy amongst the Rohingyas, enforced by fines and imprisonment. 64 This eugenic policy is meant to gradually reduce the Muslim population; in 3rd World countries, the replacement fertility rate can be as high as 3.4. To use a frame of reference, the fertility replacement rate in East Africa is 2.94; lowering the birth rate to 2 would lead to an eventual generational population decrease of about 1/3. 65 The military and government are almost exclusively male. This hegemony is maintained by the persecution of female opposition leaders like Suu Kyi and women’s rights advocates. Even minority guerilla groups are dominated by men. Moon Nay Li of KWAT noted that, “it’s a bit difficult to talk about women’s participation in this process and in politics, because in our culture and tradition, the men feel the [sic] man have to do [this], it is their duty.” 66 Everyone in every faction of Burmese society, military and governance must work to include the thoughts and actions of women (half the total population) in local and national policies and mediation. Moon Nay Li then warns, “If women are not involved in the ceasefire process, and I mean at every step, every level of the process, if women are not participating, the consequences might be a longer conflict in Burma, and the fighting will not stop.” 67
Even the name of the country is ethnically divisive. It was changed in the aftermath of the wide-scale ‘88 Uprising, from Burma to Myanmar. 68 The junta derided the colonial name and presented “Myanmar” as the post-colonial alternative, inclusive to all ethnicities. The British colonial government derived the name “Burma” from the Bamar people, the traditional inhabitants of the Irrawaddy Valley and long-time majority group in the region that would become a future nation. 69 However, critics have pointed out that “Myanmar” is the term that the Bamar people called themselves. 70 Thus, “Burma” and “Myanmar” have the same denotation. During the colonial era, everyone in the country unified under the term “Burma”, becoming used to the name. Ethnic minorities saw the name change as just another unwelcome reminder of the Bamars’ dominance of government. Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition continue to avoid using the term “Myanmar”, as they connotate it with Bamar oppression of other ethnicities. 71
British colonial rule paved the way for the strict authoritarianism that Burma is now at least attempting to move away from with “civilian rule”. For too long, the Burmese government has, like imperial Britain, used oppression as an official tool to stay in power, using draconian and deliberate laws and wide-scale violence against primarily women and children. Bamar ultra-nationalism has led to the systemic disenfranchisement of minority groups, to the extent that the Rohingyas aren’t even considered citizens. Local Burmese intellectuals joke that George Orwell wrote not only one book about Burma, but a trilogy: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. 72 The government and domineering military will have to immediately suspend its persecution of minorities and then negotiate for the extraction and sharing of indigenous commodities. Burma’s President-Elect must also act to stop the hate-mongering invoked by prominent monks and intervene in any future pogroms; he can no longer look the other way when it comes to anti-Muslim rioting. Full suffrage should be granted to the Rohingya, in order to fully facilitate Burma’s transition from junta to democracy. All of Burma’s ethnicities must ultimately play a part in the reconciliation and redemption of the country and should have an equal role in shaping its democratic future.