Friday, April 25, 2008

Burmese army reign of terror against Karen people targets women

While the world’s attention has been on the protests in Burma’s cities against military rule, a government campaign to wipe out the country’s ethnic minorities has been underway in the countryside in the northern and eastern provinces of Myanmar.

The Karen people, an ethnic group with ancestral ties to Tibet, have been particularly targeted by the Burmese military. Burmese soldiers have “shoot-on-sight” orders as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Karen have been forced to flee their homes to refugee camps in Thailand or hide in the jungle.

Reports now from the Karen Women’s Organization are that women have become targets of rape and slave labor by the Burmese army. This from Reuters:

Soldiers in eastern Myanmar are raping with impunity, according to a rights group.

Their victims, villagers from the Karen minority, have reportedly included children and nuns.

Activists say that in one case a young woman was gang-raped by four soldiers in her home. They then killed her by shooting into her vagina. No action was taken against the soldiers.

The Karen, a predominantly Christian minority, make up about seven percent of Myanmar's population. Karen rebel groups have been fighting for greater autonomy in the east for decades. But Myanmar's military junta is widely accused of targetting civilians as well as rebels in a campaign of terror which has forced many thousands to flee for their lives.

Many of the rapes are perpetrated by senior military officers or done with their complicity, according to the
Karen Women's Organisation. They say the perpetrators know that most villagers will be too afraid to complain.

Evidence of the systematic rape and abuse of villagers is highlighted by the KWO in the latest issue of
Forced Migration Review which is devoted to the massive displacement crisis in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The KWO says village chiefs risk abuse and torture if they fail to comply with the military. When women take on the role - as happens in the absence of men - they face the added risk of rape. Some are forced to have sex with soldiers as the price of protection for themselves, their families and communities.

Women and girls from across Karen State have also been forcibly recruited to help build roads and bridges, clear landmines and carry military supplies, the KWO says. Recruits include elderly women, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and schoolgirls as young as 11.

One woman told KWO how she has been forced to work as a porter for the army. "Every day we had to carry up the mountain and down again," she said. "I was sweating and couldn't breathe because I am very old and the soldiers prodded me with their guns because I am slow. I felt like my heart was breaking."

The KWO works in refugee camps on the Thai border and with people displaced inside Myanmar. Last year it published a report called
State of Terror which drew on thousands of documented cases of murder, rape and torture of Karen women at the hands of the junta.

The army has designated Karen State and neighbouring Karenni State as black zones. Black areas are 'free-fire' zones where the army can kill anyone it comes across, says David Eubank, director of
Free Burma Rangers, which provides help in conflict areas.

Writing in Forced Migration Review, Eubank describes how the army regularly launches sweeping operations in which soldiers often mortar and machine-gun a village before looting and raping. They then lay landmines in and around the village. Sometimes they burn down entire settlements.

A Karenni pastor quoted in the article asks: "Why do the Burmese soldiers come to burn our villages? We do not go to burn theirs. Why do they want to come and bother us? We only want to have our farms, do our work and live in peace. Our life in the mountains is already very hard. Why do they want to make it harder?"

In the current military offensive - the largest since 1997 - over 30,000 people have been displaced. Many are hiding in the jungle, others have fled to Thailand.

"The disruption of food production, burning of homes and the shoot-on-sight orders of the Burma Army have made staying in their homeland untenable for thousands," Eubank says.

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