Women As Refugees: Perspectives from Burma


The Burmese expression for refugee is dukkha-the, the "one who has to bear dukkha, suffering." In the contemporary global setting, those who are suffering overwhelmingly in the many situations of terror-warfare are civilian populations. Today approximately 90 per cent of war-related casualties are civilians and the number of casualties who are women and children has escalated. Millions and millions of people have been forced to flee wars and war-relate circumstances. Indeed, world refugee statistics (19 million refugees, and a further estimated 24 million "internally displaced" civilians) alone indicate that about one in every 130 people on earth has been forced into flight. Moreover, a greater proportion of the world's refugees are women - 70% to 80% are women and children. While the more formal United Nations legal definitions of refuges are founded upon rather narrow terms - involving crossing of territorial boundaries of nation-states - I will employ the general term "refugee" here in a broader sense to indicate persons forced to flee their homes due to violence, repression, and fear associated directly or indirectly with war.

Without dismissing direct battlefield deaths as a measure of war, I intend to focus upon civilians who suffer the terrors of war and who are forced to flee their homes. More specifically, my concern in this article is to highlight the dukkha of women in, and running from, war. This will be with special reference to women in the border areas of Burma (adjoining Thailand), where civil war between the central military regime, now called SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), and a number of ethnopolitical groups has been waged for over 4 decades.

Including Women's Experiences

Women's voices have usually been omitted from traditional state-centered analyses of war, conflict and refugee movements. This has wide ranging implications for what and how we see (or do not see), and for which issues are rendered visible or invisible. Further, the experiences assumed to represent human experience in general, and inter/national politics, war and refugee movements in particular, have been largely men's (and often elite men's) experiences. But including women and their experiences is clearly needed for more accurate understandings of socio-political life. When we start including women, we will often unsettle and transform the previous categories that shaped understandings of how and what we know. for example, by including and taking seriously women's experiences in analyses of war and its consequences, the "invisibility" or exclusion of war's violent impact and specific effects on women would be revealed. To take a more specific example, rape in war has long been ignored as a human rights abuse, and in the Fourth Geneva Convention has been misrepresented as a "crime against honor."

Many traditional strategic and political accounts of war have been approached from a distance or from "above" without due attention to the harsh experiences in people's lives: accounts of fear, pain, terror, injury, and resistance tend to be relegated to the margins. Having said that, I want to emphasize now the importance of "everyday" experiences of women refugees; their suffering, fear, and courage (whether they stay close to their homes or have to flee further). In the context of civil war in Burma, thousands and thousands of civilian women have suffered from the effects of war and many are forced to flee (either close to their homes, within the borders of their own country, or into exile across a border). The following stories are from women (mainly Karen, Karenni, and Mon) in the eastern border areas of Burma.

Civilians as Targets of Terror-Warfare

Although cease-fires are now widespread (with some exceptions in the Karen, Mon and Shan areas), civilians have long been the targets of terror-warfare tactics throughout the dirty war/"counterinsurgency" of Burma's border areas. Historically, suffering increased with the Burmese regime's notorious "Four Cuts" program which began in 1974. This was a counter-insurgency plan designed to cut the four main links of food, funding, intelligence, and recruits among insurgent fighters, their families and local villages. One Karen women as recently as February 1993 recalled:

They shouted at us, `Tell us about the rebels!' But we're just village women, we don't know anything about that.

In common with dirty war strategies perpetrated elsewhere, this constitutes a way of gaining or maintaining sociopolitical control over a population. This control or "victory" is achieved not merely on the battlefield but through the fear suffered by civilians as tactical targets. And as Aung San Suu Kyi in Freedom From Fear writes:

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood ... A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's [woman's] self respect and inherent human dignity.

Rape as a Terror Tactic

With particular regard to women, another form of terror which functions as a tactical weapon, although it may or may not be an explicitly stated military policy, is rape. (While it is perpetrated against both women and men and youths of both sexes, rape is preponderantly inflicted on women). It often occurs during the course of war to punish a group of civilians for perceived sympathies with armed insurgents and to demonstrate the soldiers' control and domination over civilians. Not only is rape, therefore, an egregious attack targeted directly at individual (usually) women themselves, but through them it is also often aimed as a deeper attack on the "social body" of entire communities.

It is worth noting here that, as one veteran (woman) major from the Karen army has pointed out, while rape is intended to demoralize the opposition, it just makes them more willing to fight. Or, consider this quote, (a husband's reaction to the rape of his wife): "...I'm furious at the Army. It makes me want to fight them" (February 1993). In addition, Cynthia Enloe, a feminist academic writer, notes that as a result of the more gender sensitive reporting from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, rape has received more attention as a state generated act, rather than simply a private (but despicable) act. It is evident that suffering takes place at the level of both individual women and whole communities, and it is as a mainstay practice of horror and acquiesce in war that we understand rape (as a weapon).

Fleeing War

By focusing on the plight of refugee (whether internally displaced or cross-border), we can show how war extends beyond usual conceptions of what is meant by "war zone" and "war." In other words, being out of the proverbial "line of fire" is not being out of the war at all. It is also important to note that people fleeing terror will often try to stay as close to their homes for as long as possible before fleeing further distances, or across an international border. (For example, considerations include staying close to other family members, the need to tend fields). The words from a woman (aged 49) from a border refugee camp in late 1993 bear out these points:

Now in our area it is getting almost impossible for the villagers to survive. In the past the Burmese army stayed in the plains and the Karen army controlled the hills, so when the Burmese [army] harassed the people they could run to the hills at clearing time and harvest time ... and burn the place before it's ready to be burned, spoiling it. Other times, they deliberately wait until harvest time, then come and steal or destroy the crops...every year we have to run and stay in another place. Sometimes we can't even stay in one place for a whole year-only a few months or even a few days in each place. That's why the villagers have become destitute, can't buy clothes and can't even get enough food.

Or consider this woman (aged 28) farmer's plight (May 1994):

Major K - ordered us to move ... they gave us three days to move out of the village and said that after that, if they see anyone in the village they shoot them on sight... We could only take some of our things with us... It was the rainy season so it was very hard to travel and we couldn't go back everyday. When we got back, a lot of things had disappeared; most of the planks from our houses and all of our livestock were gone. It was terrible... I cried and cried. I don't want to stay in the new place, I want to go home. But we can't because the soldiers are patrolling around there all the time, and if they see anyone they grab them, punch them and beat them... Now we face the problem of starvation because we can't work on our farms, we can't do anything.

The accounts of these women, along with many others, illuminate some of the everyday problems of their constant forced movement, their dukkha, in terms of both practical and psychological consequences.

The majority of displaced people from this war zone are internally displaced they have not crossed an international border (in this case the Thai border). The documented figures on refugees and internally displaced people worldwide noted earlier indicate that there are more people forced to flee who have remained within the territorial borders of their own country than those who have remained within the territorial borders of their own country than those who have crossed an international border. (Further, these figures must be considered conservative estimates. In relation to international figures on internally displaced persons, there are many more who share this same fate but who never reach researchers' attention and, therefore, are not represented in the statistics). The case of Burma illustrates graphically the extent to which all those fleeing war suffer problems during and after flight-physical resources such as food and healthcare), homelessness, separation from family members during the chaos of running, and then an often precarious exile. Internally displaced persons and cross border refugees alike are not far from the problems they are escaping and encounter new dangers and difficulties.

Internally displaced people in particular are often sheltering very close to danger (because they will often try to stay as close as possible to their homes) and far from any official humanitarian aid provided to cross-border refugees. Nonetheless, there are currently 78,000 refugees living in border camps (self administered by indigenous committees) in Thailand and receiving basic humanitarian relief from a consortium of non government organizations (the Burmese Border Consortium). It is often final desperation that has driven these people to find cross-border refuge: "I came here because we've suffered so much for so long that we just can't suffer it any more." While at last in cross border safety, there are still many problems. Their refuge may be precarious; for instance, their status is highly unstable and is not guaranteed in official, legal terms (with merely status of illegal immigrant). For women in cross border refugee camps the experiences associated with war are clearly not over.

"I can't describe it to you..."

For individuals (and their families and friends) pain, like fear, usually resists verbal description. Consider this woman's story:

At night we all had to sleep on the ground, like dogs or pigs. At night - it was terrible. The soldiers raped me. They pointed a gun, and forced us to follow them. I can't describe it to you. I can't talk about it.

Elaine Scarry observes the verbal inexpressibility of physical pain, and I would extend this to other experiences of fear and terror. Some of the sufferings of women in the border areas of Burma include rape, torture, forced porterage (of military supplies), slave labor, and road guarding. It is important that these experiences are documented.

The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), an indigenous organization with some foreign staff, is well known and respected for undertaking such detailed documentation in the field on extremely limited funds. The raw data of human rights abuse documentation in the field gives voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard. KHRG, in the introduction to their February 1993 testimonies of women porters, report that women have shown great courage by speaking of these things when interviewed, recognizing the severe emotional strain involved in just recalling their experiences. Some choose not to face the pain of speaking of their worst experiences. Some choose not to face the pain of speaking of their worst experiences, while others have limited the detail of their descriptions. Furthermore, proceeding with such documentation must be conducted with extreme care, because when not carefully controlled, the collection and use of this information could help, not to eliminate the pain (and record it), but to encourage its further infliction.

Changing Roles and Status

Women and children are frequently left alone in their villages because the men have fled ahead of troops who come to collect them as (forced) porters to carry military supplies and to act as human mine sweepers on front lines.

I arrived here yesterday. I came because we had no more money to pay porter fees, so I didn't dare stay in the village any longer. Most of the men have already run away so the soldiers try to catch the women, and I was afraid to stay. My husband doesn't know I came here because when I came he had already fled from them. I don't know where he is...

It is reported older women (at least (45-50 years) often become the village head as no man would dare take the job (male headmen are always tortured) and younger women are targets for rape at the military camp. (Village heads are usually ordered to report to the military camp where s/he is interrogated about all movements of the resistance forces and beaten if insufficient information is given. Verbal orders regarding upcoming slave labor and porter requirements are also issued along with written orders posted in the villages.) Women by themselves, however, do not remain free from forced collection as porters, slave laborers, "comfort women," or all of these. Consider this woman village leader's story concerning why she fled her home:

I was a village leader. Sometimes the Burmese ordered me to follow them, even though my baby was still young and needed milk. They also took my husband as a porter, and are all my rice... My daughter was a porter for two months, and I had to go as a porter too. They took everything in our house an we become poorer and poorer. They forced us to sleep on the road and guard it all the time... They tortured me by pouring hot water in my mouth. I couldn't sleep well or eat well any more, so we came here.

They catch villagers in the hill rice fields. The villagers can't tell them anything but they slap their faces and pour hot water in their mouth... They catch women and men too. When I left they were doing this to many people. We couldn't bear it.

There are women more women's stories illustrating their suffering due to forced porterage, slave labor, and rape, along with stories of responsibilities and courage in war. Most of the women are not directly involved as combatants, but they live in a militarized environment, living in fear of and fleeing from war. While it is important, however, to highlight the particular suffering of women and invoke gender specific analyses of refugees and war, it must be stressed that women are not always simply victims. Women take on additional roles in their communities as noted above and, as I will describe in the next section, employ a number of creative actions to mitigate and resist the insidious impacts of war.

Women's Actions

In recent years a number of women's groups have become active along the border. Dr. Cynthia, who is the only indigenous woman doctor working along the Thai-Burma border, has created a revolution in health care for the people of the border areas in which she works. She left for the border in September 1988, thinking she was coming just for a few months, and started her clinic in Mae Sot (Thailand). Within two years she was receiving regular non governmental organization funding. Dr. Cynthia has a clear vision of her role for providing health care to the border populations of Burma, with a particular focus upon women and children. Her clinic near Mae Sot provides health care to the Burmese students and other refugees in the area. She has also set up health care operations in the border areas within Burma, with vital mobile medical teams who travel each month into remote jungle areas-often dangerously close to Burmese army outposts treating thousands of villagers who would not otherwise receive medical care Dr. Cynthia also trains medics and midwives from the border villages. Over time, more and more women have come to the clinics to take her advice. This is in a context in which maternal and child care is unavailable to thousands of women and children and in which whatever health care is available is stretched to the limit as medical workers try to reach remote villages and communities. Malaria remains the most serious and prevalent problem in these parts, particularly for women and children who are often malnourished and, thus, too weak to withstand its recurring onslaughts. Another recent development is the Indigenous Women's Development Center (IWDC) which was set up in April 1993 in Thailand. IWDC states its goals as: providing educational opportunities and resources to indigenous women and children; improving the health of indigenous women's organizations have recently been set up along the Thai-Burma border. These include the Karenni Women's Organization which was formally established in March 1993 with its headquarters in Mae Surin Camp on the offer support and advice to women in their daily struggle for survival, to educate women with particular regard to the political situation so they can have the same opportunities as men in the running of the country, and to expand its work to other areas and thereby strengthen the position of women throughout Karenni state. The organization plans to expand its weaving program and offer more employment opportunities to women and funds for travel and other expansion of its work.

Another group is the Karen Women's Organization. It was initially formed in 1947, along with the Karen liberation movement itself, but did not become active until it reformed in April 1985. Its aims are to provide opportunities for women to earn an income and thereby raise their living standards, to raise the political consciousness of Karen women, and to promote equality of women in Karen society. The organization operates at village, township, district and central levels and has well established networks. Programs include supplying food, clothing and medicine to widows and other families in need, promoting improved hygiene at home and in the community, encouraging vegetable gardens, and offering adult literacy and running a school for orphans. The Mon's Women Organization was formed in 1988 and currently has its headquarters in Pa Yaw refugee camp in Thailand, presently the most stable of the camps in Thailand. In July 1994 Halockhani camp-which had been forcibly relocated off Thai territory by the Thai authorities earlier in the year-was attacked by Burmese army troops, forcing the 6000 residents to flee back across the border post into Thailand. Because of ongoing military repression in the Mon area, the organization finds it increasingly difficult to maintain its networks throughout Mon State. Its aims are: to enable women to take charge of their own lives so they can be most effective in their communities, to unite Mon women and increase solidarity between Mon women and other women's groups. Because of frequent relocation, however, long term programs have been difficult to implement. Their work has concentrated on serving the immediate needs of communities by offering assistance in health care hygiene.

Shan women in the Mong Tai Army (MTA) area have also set up an organization in December 1993 called the Women's Association of Shan State. There is great concern for Shan women because particularly high numbers are recruited through deception and force or all of these into sexual slavery/prostitution into Thailand.


I have argued here for sensitivity to women's dukkha in and fleeing from war. Challenging the frequent absence of women in more traditional "top-down" accounts of war and forced migration, this article has first and foremost urged the need to recognize the particular experiences and roles of women so as to provide a more accurate portrayal of war and its impacts. While of course not contending to represent the position of all women at all times, nor claiming to be the foundation of a theory of knowledge, but by drawing on illustrations from refugee women's own accounts documented in the field, we engender their experiences as worthy, indeed essential, for attention and analysis. We thereby hear about issues and concerns previously elided. And, as Michel de Certeau writes about the importance of the "everyday," the ordinary person (and in this article the focus is upon the woman) is the "murmuring voice of societies," and in all ages comes before texts. We can, therefore, address a previous exclusion of voices and recognize the need for critical approaches that challenge established epistemological systems.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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