RANGOON — Land confiscation and rights abuses linked to the continued militarization of ethnic minority regions in southeastern of Burma has had particularly adverse impacts on women, ethnic Karen human rights advocates said at a press conference in Rangoon.
While the launching of the peace process in 2011 and a series of bilateral ceasefires with ethnic armed groups has lessened certain abuses, including forced labor and extrajudicial killings, new business opportunities have led to an increase in land seizures, they said.
The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) has documented the experiences of women in rural areas of Karen and Mon states and Tenasserim and eastern Pegu divisions, and has compiled four years’ worth of findings on the effects of landmines, land confiscation, forced labor, torture and violence against women in a report released on Wednesday.
The report, “Hidden Strengths, Hidden Struggles: Women’s Testimonies from Southeast Myanmar,” was based on the analysis of 1,048 documents, including 98 interviews with separate women, said KHRG advocacy officer Jasmin, who pointed out a change in the type of abuses suffered by local women since 2012.
2012 was the year the previous government reached a bilateral ceasefire with the Karen Nation Union, the largest ethnic Karen armed group whose operations span the area of study, and which also signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year.
Jasmin said, “In our report ten years ago [“Dignity in The Shadow of Oppression,” published in Nov 2006], cases of rape and forced porterage [for the Burma Army] were extensively documented. In our report this year, accounts of such abuses have lessened, with a change in the form of rights abuses.”
“Because of the peace process, we now have more business operations, and land confiscation has become the main problem,” Jasmin added. “They are losing their livelihoods and still being displaced due to that.”
Despite the signing of both bilateral and “nationwide” ceasefire agreements, the presence of Burma Army troops across rural areas continues to threaten the safety of local people, especially women, said the rights advocates.
They added that a lessening in hostilities has had the side effect of diminishing the authority of women at the village level. Over 60 years of civil conflict, with the enrollment of men in rebel armies, women have had to step forward and become village leaders. With the return of men over the last few years to their traditional positions of authority in the community, women have lost these roles.
Jasmin said the report aimed to heighten the public’s awareness “of the experiences of women and their changing roles in the southern part of the country.”
However, the KHRG advocates noted that locals in the area of study still fear to talk openly about instances of abuse, making it hard to verify and adequately document them.
The KHRG also urged the government, legislators and the Karen National Union to “improve justice mechanisms” and create secure avenues for women facing gender-based violence and abuses linked to land confiscation to file cases with local authorities, and “bring perpetrators before independent and impartial civilian courts.”
The KHRG framed these demands with reference to Burma’s obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Burma signed in 1997.
Win Mra, chairman of Burma’s National Human Rights Commission, attended the press conference and commended the KHRG’s report, which he said “fairly documents human rights violations, the situation since the ceasefires and the  election, and abuses against women.”
He stressed the importance of implementing the recommendations contained in the report, rather than merely continuing to document cases and hold seminars and workshops.
“Our [national human rights commission] is doing the same activities as the KHRG and as the Gender Equality Network. We will not stop with workshops. We will continue working to achieve results,” Win Mra said, with reference to the commission’s partnership with UN Women on empowering rural women.