Update: Empowering Indigenous Women of Burma


In 1994, women of Burma's ethnic minority groups continue to be systematically abused by the regime's military. Teenaged girls of the Rohingya Moslem nationality are being taken from their families and bought to government army bases for long-term "training programs." The Rohingyas fear that this is a disguise for sexual slavery, which has been a constant feature of the army's occupation of the Moslem area of western Burma. Cross border trade in indigenous women to Thailand and China for forced prostitution has continued, often exploiting very young girls. They are held against their will in brothels and exposed to AIDS infection. The human rights group Asia Watch released a searing report on the situation in 1994 called, "A Modern Form of Slavery." Sexual abuse of female refugees from Burma by Thai immigration police also continues, as well as rape of women seeking asylum in border areas by Thai security forces.

Fighting back against this dire situation, Burma's ethnic minority women have increased their underground organizing, development work and international networking. Indigenous women's groups include:

Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE)

A non governmental organization started in 1990 to support indigenous women's groups of Burma and Thailand. WEAVE works with refugee populations and with women in Burma's frontier regions, in activities such as teacher training, handicrafts promotion, appropriate technology projects and distributing educational/health materials in indigenous languages.

Indigenous Women's Development Centre (IWDC)

A support organization set up in 1993 by a Karen woman, Esther Saw Lne, to assist indigenous women's groups through educational and health training, cultural activities and networking. The aim of IWDC is "to provide resources and training which will enable women to become financially self-reliant and make independent decisions in their families and communities."

Kawthoolei Women's Organization

Based in the "liberated areas" where the Karen nationality fights the central regime for autonomy, the KWO has been in existence for many years. It seeks to encourage Karen women to participate in political activity, including village-based projects such underground organizing can be high, as KWO members are targeted for violent abuse by the regime's soldiers. An account of one such incident from the Karen Human Rights Group, an independent monitoring group, reports, "Sergeant Ba Kyi and his men captured nine women and accused them of supporting the Kawthoolei Women's Organization. They were all beaten brutally by Sergeant Be Kyi. The soldiers burnt off all of Naw Heh Say's head hair and then her public hair as well. Sergeant Ba Kyi raped her. She was also kicked in the face with army boots... Naw San Win was also raped... and they stabbed her in both thighs with a bayonet... Now the women are still in Toungoo Jail. There has been no trial and we get no news of them."

Karenni Women's Organization

The women's group for the Karenni nationality was founded in 1993 with support from the IWDC. The activities have been centered in refugee camps just over the Thai border and include running a nursery school and "encouraging" backstrap weaving so that existing skills are not lost."

Mon Women's Organization

This group was founded in 1988, at a time when women began taking an increasing role in the Mon rebel military and underground political organizing. The Mons are now a particularly threatened people, due to heavy military presence in their area, brought on by a gas pipeline venture initiated by multinational corporations (UNOCAL of the U.S. and Total of France). Many Mon communities have been relocated by the regime's troops and refugee villages have been destroyed by Thai border guards. Mon women are frequently abused by Thai immigration police. The MWO seeks "to enable women to take charge of their own lives, to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men, to maintain the indigenous Mon culture." Under the present unstable conditions, activities center on health and nutrition. Last April, a "Skills Training Course" for 32 Mon women included classes in Political Science, Mother and Child Health CAre, Leadership Techniques and Collecting/Reporting Human Rights Violations.

Women's Association of the Shan State

Recently formed, this organization has already published educational materials in the Shan language, including information about AIDS. All of the indigenous women's groups anticipate increased activity in AIDS awareness, as well as economic empowerment to help prevent girls from being lured into prostitution.

Kachin Women's Association

Based in northern Burms near the China border, the KWA started in 1977 and has increased its activities in recent years. A wide variety of health, educational and development activities are now sponsored by the KWA. Pre-natal care, nutritional advice and AIDS information are offered in the indigenous languages, in very remote areas. The Kachin area currently has a cease-fire, but the indigenous people continue to be threatened by the regime's use of slave labor, rampant heroin addiction and an extremely high HIV infection rate.

Dr. Cynthia Maung, a physician who has founded health care programs in the frontier areas and refugee camps, continues to expand her projects. The mother of a boy named "Liberty," she is about to give birth to her second child and keeps traveling to remote villages to teach pre-natal and post-natal care to mothers. Her network of mobile clinics and a border hospital treat war casualties, victims of diseases such as malaria and new strains of cholera, and train medical workers. AIDS education, prevention and treatment continue to be a high priority for Dr. Cynthia, a Karen.

What you can do to support Burma's indigenous women

Write to the Prime Minister of Thailand and demand that abuse of refugee women from Burma, including forced prostitution, be stopped. ADdress: Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Office of the Prime Minister, Government House, Thanon Nakhon Pathon, Bangkok 10300, Thailand.

WEAVE offers exquisite handicrafts and notecards which can be sold by overseas organizations to assist the WEAVE programs for refugee women. Address: WEAVE, PO Box 58, Chiangmai University, Chiang Mai 50002, Thailand.

For information on handicrafts and contact with the other ethnic women's groups (which can always use educational/training materials from overseas organizations), contact IWDC at: PO Box 169, Chiangmai University, Chiang Mai 50002, Thailand.

To help Dr. Cynthia's efforts (visiting foreign doctors, medical supplies, etc.), contact: CM Clinics, PO Box 67, Mae Sot, Tak Province 63110, Thailand. Asia Watch report available from: Human Rights Watch, 485 5th Ave., New York, NY 10017.

How you can help:

Write the chairman of the SLORC. Demand that the junta hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi's elected National League for Democracy, the best chance for peace and fair treatment of all ethnic groups: Gen. Than Shwe, State Law and Order Restoration Council, Ministry of Defense, Signal Pagoda Rd., Yangon, Burma.

Write the foreign ministers of Thailand and China and demand they stop supporting the SLORC, begin treating refugees from Burma humanely and keep their hands off Burma's forests: Mr. Prasong Soonsiri, Foreign Minister, Foreign Ministry, Government House, Nakrn Pathom Rd., Bangkok 10300, Thailand; Mr. Quian Qichen, Foreign Minister, Foreign Ministry, 225 Chaoyangmennei Daijie, Beijing, People's Republic of china.

Two Major U.S. oil companies are in joint exploration ventures with the SLORC despite an abusive military presence in their concession areas. Write their chief executive and tell them to terminate their relationship with the SLORC: H. Laurence Fuller, Amco Corp., 200 East Randolph Dr. Chicago, IL 60601; Earl R. Johnson, Texaco Exploration, Inc., 2000 Westchester Ave., White Plains, NY 10604.

The other major U.S. company in Burma is PepsiCo, owner of PepsiCola, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Frito-Lay. Burmese students and human rights groups have called for a boycott of PepsiCo products. Write and tell PepsiCo to stop doing business under the SLORC: Wayne Calloway, Chairman of the Board, PepsiCo, Purchase, NY 10577.

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