May Sitt Paing: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss sexual exploitation of girls in Alantaya in Mon State’s Thaton Township by a man called Khun Tan, also known as Zat Lite, which was reported last month. It came under the spotlight on social media and also attracted the attention of authorities after the father of one of the victims filed a complaint. According to locals and authorities, Khun Tan sexually exploited at least six girls between 2014 and 2016 in Alantaya. However, such cases happen not only in Alantaya, but across the country. Director of Rainfall Gender Studies Organization Ma Pyo Latt Han and The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Ko Kyaw Kha will join me to discuss this. I’m May Sitt Paing of The Irrawaddy.
Regarding the Alantaya case, there were reports of sexual exploitation of girls by Khun Tan who took advantage of their religiosity. Ko Kyaw Kha, to what extent do you think such cases may exist across the country besides Alantaya?
Kyaw Kha: I have contacted women organizations and inquired about the incidence of such cases in order to collect reports. Khun Tan’s case came under the spotlight only because it drew widespread attention. But there are many other cases that have gone unreported. Apparently, such cases exist in communities of all religions in the country as a result of religiosity being exploited by religious leaders. In some cases, families of the victim try to hide their pregnancy by sending them away. There are many cases of sexual exploitation in connection with religiosity that happen both in areas of Central Myanmar and ethnic regions, not only in Alantaya.
MSP: In those cases, women are sexually exploited due to their religiosity. But some of them are not aware that they are being exploited and they continue to follow their exploiter. And some continue to cling to [the exploiter] despite the knowledge that they are being exploited. What do you think should be done to educate them?
Pyo Latt Han: Before talking about educating, I’d like to mention the number of rape cases in 2016. According to official sources, there were 1,100 rape cases nationwide and 671 of them were child rape cases. So, considering this national figure, the security of women and children is a subject for concern. Again, speaking of religiosity-related abuses, in fact some cases are not related with religiosity. Especially, regarding culture, we usually view it as a fixed set of principles. But it fact, it is a man-made thing. And we have come to notice cases of sexual exploitation only after the case of Khun Tan came under the spotlight. In fact, women in society are exploited daily in different ways. For example, there is a notion of ‘women’ being viewed as the ‘object’ and ‘men’ being the ‘subject.’ Such notion makes both sexes believe that women are submissive. Women themselves willingly accept that notion. First of all, we need to address the circumstances that make women accept that notion. This is also a problem of misguided belief. For example, that women willingly accept that they are inferior to the male sex is a form of misguided belief. So we need to question all forms of discrimination on the basis of sex in our daily lives. And speaking of educating, many people think that the educator is superior and the receiver of the education is inferior. In fact, we need to work together to find answers to those problems in question. The way such cases happen differs from one place to another and the problems and difficulties facing women are different from place to place. Problems facing women in urban areas are different from those facing their counterparts in rural areas. We need to take different conditions into account. Speaking of sexual exploitation, some usually do blame the victim, saying that they deserve it because they are naïve. But why don’t they question the norms that make them willingly accept the notion they are submissive? So rather than differentiating the roles of educator and receiver in educating, we should take time and make questions and find answers together. Then, we will be able to see certain change, I think.
MSP: You’ve made a good point. So you argue that established norms and customs contribute to exploitation. But such attitudes are rather deep-rooted in society. What actions do you think should be done to shatter the glass-ceiling?
PLH: First of all, we should view ourselves the same rather than viewing as ‘they’ and ‘us.’ We were all oppressed under the same system. So, I think no one is better to take the role of educators. The structure of our society appears to have two levels of hierarchy. We should question this structure and, as I’ve said earlier, we should think together about how to solve the problem. Again rather than viewing the problem as a ‘women only’ issue, we must be aware that it is an issue that concerns all of us. Both men and women are subjected to exploitation by cultural norms in the name of religion. But women are more vulnerable because of the concepts that women are the inferior and weaker sex. This is a view that women have willingly accepted. We should identify the causes of this, and forget the hierarchy of educator and receiver, and all come together and think how to solve the problem, then there will be a certain change, I think.
MSP: Ko Kyaw Kha, how do you assess it?
KK: Those cases, I think, are resulted from low levels of education, lack of knowledge and religiosity. The media should expose such cases. Some women organizations have information about abuses that involve religious leaders, but are concerned about the possible impact if they reveal those cases because religion is a very sensitive subject and disclosing those cases can exacerbate the tensions. I have made many reports about women being sexually abused by religious leaders. The media should make thorough investigative reporting of such cases. Likewise, the government should take harsh actions against the perpetrators, and then we’ll be able to solve it. Mostly, such cases tend to happen in places of low levels of education and religiosity. So, there is a need to disclose those cases and take tough actions.
MSP: Do you think such cases happen more in ethnic areas than urban areas? The way women in ethnic areas are exploited is different from urban areas. Women in urban areas have a certain degree of awareness, but their peers in rural areas are very honest and simple. What are the differences in patterns of exploitation between urban and rural areas?
PLH: A Karen female friend told me yesterday that she didn’t like being called an honest ethnic woman, and that she felt like by honest, it was implied that she was naïve and being exploited. The way women are exploited is different [between rural and urban areas], but it is very difficult to say in which area abuse cases are more frequent. Anyway, there are more opportunities in urban areas; there are media and greater chances to read—I mean, more factors that encourage us to report abuses. I’m afraid it would be somewhat imperious, just my opinion, to say women in rural areas are exploited because of low levels of education. Taking a look at the education system of our country, one of its objectives is to establish a fairer and more just society. And we should also be aware that we have no space to question the fairness of the current situation.
As I’ve said, it is difficult to say in which area exploitation is more frequent. There are two forms of exploitation—one is visible, like Khun Tan, and another is invisible, for example the stereotypical description in advertisements of women as housewives who have to do household chores, and women mainly responsible to do daily chores for their children, and films and movies also promote the notion that good women make sacrifices [for their family]. This is also a form of exploitation. So, though the patterns of exploitation are different, women of both urban and rural areas are exploited. And it is difficult to say which area is more vulnerable.
MSP: These days, there are also male activists alongside female activists who demand women’s rights besides the prevention of sexual abuses. To what extent do you think the measures to change widely-held perceptions have gained progress?
KK: It will depend on the degree of cooperation. For example, education campaigns will be required to prevent sexual exploitation like in the case of Khun Tan. Especially, women’s organizations, non-governmental organizations [NGOs] and the government should work together to educate women against sexual exploitation in those areas. If there is cooperation of the government, it would be fine. In fact, such cases of sexual exploitation should not happen in Myanmar. Frankly speaking, the cooperation of government is not that active. NGOs and women’s organizations mostly have to work on their own. The cooperation of government is essential to get rid of such exploitation. It is time education campaigns were undertaken. There are other types of abuses besides sexual abuse. For example, probably in 2015, the case of the witch doctor who killed children in Twante Township. So, there is a need to conduct effective education campaigns. The government should take an active part in cooperation with NGOs and women’s organizations.
MSP: Ma Pyo Latt Han, what measures, including education and legal protection, do you think should be taken to prevent sexual exploitation of women and protect their rights?
PLH: We need to cooperate with legal experts. And it is important to understand clearly that we have to protect women not because they are weak and ignorant, but we have to protect them against things and circumstances that make them weak. Again it is critically important that the decision makers who would enact the laws are knowledgeable about women’s issues and can view things from a feminist perspective. So, the scale of legal protection for women depends on their decision. And we should better prevent than cure. As I’ve said, the issues facing women are different from place to place across the country. So the government should take a lead role and in cooperation with women’s organizations and media, and think about how to listen to the voices of women.
MSP: Thank you for your contributions!