Women on the Front Lines
Since the failed coup attempt of 1 February, at least 755 people have been killed by the illegal military junta, with 4,484 arrested and 3,448 remaining in arbitrary detention. While the eyes of the world are drawn to the inhumane acts of the illegal military junta on the streets of Myanmar, where millions have risked their life and liberty to voice their staunch opposition to the illegal junta – it is important not to become complacent when it comes to the 3,448 people in detention. Of particular concern is the impact detention is having on women detainees, and the differential treatment they face in comparison to their male counterparts in the form of sexual and gender-based violence, sexism and misogyny. In an escalation of arbitrary arrests, over 110 student activists were abducted by the military junta last week, with some of their beaten and bloodied faces plastered over the junta’s propaganda mouthpiece, MRTV. The whereabouts of detainees, conditions of detention and treatment of detainees by security forces is often unknown, leading to anxiety for their families, and many are also denied legal representation – an affront to the rule of law.
In recent weeks, harrowing first hand accounts from those who have been released are beginning to emerge and the true horror of the situation inside detention facilities is coming to light. A young woman detainee, along with her mother, were arrested by Myanmar security forces following their participation in a morning protest in Yangon on 14 April. Before being transferred to an interrogation center, this young woman was verbally and sexually harassed by police at No. 24 Police Station in Sanchaung Township. Once at the interrogation center she recounts the abuse of a fellow woman detainee, Khin Nyein Thu, who was brutally tortured during interrogation, including being beaten with a metal pipe, kicked in her groin, tortured and sexually assaulted by soldiers. Soldiers did this because her boyfriend is Muslim, which they forced her to disclose and then unleashed a racist and misogynistic tirade of violence against her and her boyfriend. A disturbing comparative pair of photographs of her before and after abduction, showing her virtually unrecognizable beaten face illustrates the extreme cruelty and specific targeting by the military, especially against women. In addition to this account, there are reports of security forces groping, manhandling, forcing women to dance in the street for their entertainment and other instances of sexual harassment. All of these instances are reflective and indicative of the long entrenched systematic and widespread pattern of sexual and gender-based violence committed by Myanmar’s military, persisting for years with impunity, particularly against ethnic minority women and girls in armed conflict areas.
In another disturbing incident, security forces kidnapped a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old nephew of National League for Democracy official, Jar Lay, in a disgusting and villainous act to elicit his whereabouts, using children as pawns. There are many similar cases of family members being abducted if authorities do not find their intended target. The legitimate, interim government of Myanmar – National Unity Government – has received many other reports of such sexual violence committed by the junta’s security forces, and its Ministry of Women, Youth, and Children’s Affairs has stated its commitment to ending violence against women and to ensure justice and accountability.
The terrifying ordeal of Ma Khin Nyein Thu highlights the experience of women in detention in Myanmar since 1 February, and her account is part of a wider pattern of using sexual and gender-based violence as a tool of warfare by the military. With decades of unchecked impunity for sexual and gender-based violence under their belts, the Myanmar military is further emboldened to perpetrate these crimes. Women in ethnic areas have experienced sexual and gender-based violence at the hands of the Myanmar military over decades of civil war, a tactic used to suppress and demoralize women and their communities. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar and ethnic women’ organizations, in particular, have catalogued irrefutable evidence of the widespread and systematic use of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and gang rape, forcible public nudity and sexual slavery, amounting to crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention.
The LGBTQ community has also been specifically targeted due to the criminalization of their identity in Myanmar’s laws and due to bigotry against their sexual orientation and gender. Ma Khine Khine, a transgender woman, was arrested, beaten and forced to strip off her clothes and wear men’s clothing by junta security forces. Thus, many remain vulnerable in detention, and for this reason many are being forced into hiding or fleeing Myanmar. LGBTQ activists have been staunchly opposed to military rule, not only using the protests as a platform to advocate for democracy but also for full realization of their rights, to “stand united and proud in the skin we feel most comfortable in.” Transgender woman and activist, Diamond says “I want the future generations of Myanmar to know the LGBTQ community risked everything and stood valiant against the military.”
In solidarity with the enduring struggle of all of those in detention and those participating in the protest movement, civil society organizations from around the ASEAN region joined together in The Southeast Asian Peoples’ Summit on Myanmar to voice their condemnation against ASEAN for inviting Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting on Myanmar. They also urged ASEAN to accept the will of the people of Myanmar by recognizing the National Unity Government (NUG). Among the speakers was Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, Minister of Women, Youths and Children Affairs of NUG, who in an emotional moment during the post summit press conference, apologized for not speaking up against the plight of ethnic communities, including the Rohingya, during her previous term in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and hopes to open a new chapter where all ethnic peoples can come together to build a nation without discrimination. Such an emotional and genuine apology from a lawmaker is a crucial step in the right direction that the NUG as an interim people’s representative government must take towards healing, reconciliation and accountability and should be used to gather momentum for a future federal Myanmar. Meanwhile, the 5-point response from ASEAN to the crisis in Myanmar has been woefully inadequate to deal with the mass murder of peaceful protesters and the humanitarian crisis – women protesters, along with human rights defenders and members of Generation Z and civil disobedience movement, and ethnic freedom fighters, give us hope for Myanmar to open a new chapter to establish a genuine federal democracy and dismantle the junta’s rule.
Strikingly, women comprise over 60 percent of peaceful protesters. They are the backbone of the movement in Myanmar and are bearing the brunt of violence inflicted by the junta. We must stand with them to ensure justice and accountability for those who have had to endure torture, harassment and sexual and gender-based violence for their defiance against the illegitimate military but also to address past impunity. This requires the international community to take real actions – no more condemnation statements or resolutions expressing concerns without consequence. As such, this requires justice and accountability measures for the victims and survivors of these crimes, including the UN Security Council referring the situation of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, and in the interim strengthening the UN International Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, as they continue to collect evidence of atrocity crimes. Swift and meaningful action from the United Nations, States within the General Assembly and UN Security Council is essential in supporting women on the ground, who are exercising their basic human rights and seeking a genuine federal democracy. Urgently, the military violence and atrocity crimes must be halted without any further delay and for that, a coordinated UN arms embargo must be imposed by the international governments accompanied by further targeted sanctions against the junta’s leadership.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 13 Indonesian Civil Soceity Organizations
By 41 Karen Community Organizations Worldwide
By 92 Myanmar Ethnic Community Organizations
By 403 Myanmar Civil Society
By 744 individuals, 402 civil society organisations in Myanmar and 444 in other Southeast Asian nations and globally
By 88 Generation Peace and Open Society
By All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress
By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
By ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma News International
By Chinland Defense Force
By European Union
By Free Burma Rangers
By Global Witness
By Human Rights Now and Justice For Myanmar
By Human Rights Watch
By Justice For Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Kachin State Peoples’ Strike Committees
မူတြော်ခရိုင်/KNLA အမှတ်(၅) တပ်မဟာနယ်မြေတွင် အာဏာသိမ်းစစ်အုပ်စု၏ လေယာဥ်ဖြင့် ဗုံးကြဲပစ်ခတ်ပြီး ၎င်းတို့ ပြုလုပ်သည့်သတင်းစာရှင်းလင်းပွဲမှ ဗိုလ်မှူးချုပ် (ဇော်မင်းထွန်း) ၏ ပြောဆိုရှင်းလင်းချက်အား ပြန်လည်ကန့်ကွက်ခြင်း
By KNLA Brigade 5 (Mutraw District)
By Malaysia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
By Mon State National Guard
By PEN International
By PEN International and Japan P.E.N. Club
By Rohingya Solidarity Organization
By Shan Nationalities League for Democracy
By The Monywa Gazette
By World Kachin Congress
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”