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The war on Burma's women

IT HAS BEEN three years since the report ''License to Rape" exposed to the world how troops of the Burmese military regime have been committing systematic sexual violence against women in Shan state, one of the ethnic regions of Burma where civil war has been continuing for more than four decades. The report, by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women's Action Network, documented the rape of more than 600 women by Burmese troops.

Regrettably, despite increased international awareness of the problem of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma following the report, the suffering of women in the wartorn ethnic areas of Burma is continuing. The Burmese regime is still using rape as a weapon of war to terrorize, demoralize, and control local communities. Hundreds more women have been raped during the last few years.

Burmese military personnel, including high-ranking officers, are raping with impunity. Women who are seven months pregnant are being gang raped. Girls are being kept for forced labor during the day and raped at night for periods of months. Mothers and daughters are being raped together. Girls as young as 4 are being raped.

Some stories are hard for many of us today to imagine. A woman, now insane, weeps over the photo of her 14-year-old daughter, who was raped and burned alive by Burmese troops.

Another woman tells how a commander dragged her to a bed in a hut, raped her, then beat her unconscious. She awoke to find herself lying naked and her sister's dead body outside the hut.

The sexual violence is happening not only in Shan state but in other ethnic areas. Last year, the Karen Women's Organization released a report detailing 125 incidents of rape by the regime's troops in Karen state. The Women's League of Burma, an umbrella organization of 12 women's groups, also released a report entitled ''System of Impunity" exposing a nationwide pattern of sexual violence by the regime's troops.

Women and girls throughout the country are increasingly at risk from military sexual violence, whether they are in civil war zones, cease-fire areas, or ''nonconflict" areas.

The recent rape and murder of the young daughter of a Burmese Army soldier by a fellow officer in April 2005 has shown that even families of the regime's army are now suffering the consequences of the ''License to Rape" policy.

The countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations and other neighboring states bordering Burma continue to disregard human rights abuses in their dealings with Burma. There have been constant calls by women of Burma, particularly ethnic women, to condemn the regime and push for genuine political reform in Burma. This is the only way to end the regime's rape policies.

Some ASEAN countries have properly felt compelled to debate in public whether the junta should assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006. The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus, composed of members of parliament from throughout the region, is calling for political reform. If the ASEAN legislators want a real change in Burma they must not ignore sexual violence authorized by the military junta.

Political repression in Burma has intensified in recent months. Last February, Hkun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and other Shan state leaders were arrested by the junta and remain imprisoned. Ethnic resistance leaders who had made cease-fire agreements with the regime are now being forced to disarm and surrender. Fierce military offensives along the Thai-Burmese border are causing increased numbers of internally displaced persons and unabated flows of refugees into Thailand.

But does this mean we will surrender to this regime, with its battalions of rapists? The answer is no. We owe this to the women who have dared speak out about the sexual violence committed against them. Women who relate their stories say that each time they talk about rape it is like they are being raped again. Yet they have been brave enough to speak out in order that one day the violence can end.

Rape survivors say that all they want is to return home and to live in peace, without fear of the regime's troops. Last week we marked the 60th birthday of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Burma's capital. Let us be inspired to continue the struggle to restore democracy and peace in Burma, and to fulfill the wishes of these brave women.

Charm Tong is an advocacy team member of the Shan Women's Action Network and recipient of the 2005 Reebok Human Rights Award.

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