Finding Dignity in Exile

Forced to flee rape, forced labor, and devastation, Burmese women living as refugees in Thailand discover that they can turn to one other for support and fierce leadership—and demand the world’s attention
Photo by Brendan Hoffman

Twenty-five women file into a room on the Thai side of the Thai-Burmese border to begin a five-day leadership workshop. Ranging in age from 16 to 60, the women, several of whom carry babies, wear traditional longhi, sarongs of woven cotton. At first, the women sit in rows by age, the eldest in front. This is how it is done among the Shan, an ethnic group from southeastern Burma. The women seem startled when Nang, the facilitator, tells them to sit in a circle. After they are resettled, Nang, a founding member of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), says everyone will have an opportunity to speak about her experiences fleeing Burma. Nang realizes it is difficult, so she starts by sharing her own story.

In 1990, when she was 17, Nang's father, a farmer, was killed by the Burmese military. Across the Shan state, soldiers were forcing villagers to serve as porters or road-builders for no pay, not even food. To resist meant death. Groups of soldiers, often under the influence of drugs, would rape and kill women and young girls. Scared and not able to finish school, Nang left her mother and siblings to venture across the border for a future in Thailand. She traveled alone through the jungle, arriving in northern Thailand, where she worked at a construction site, a factory, and a night market. As an undocumented laborer, she put in long hours, earned low wages, and feared being returned to Burma by Thai authorities.

Many women in the circle, now wide-eyed or sobbing, hear in Nang's experience an echo of their own. A safe space has been created for them to tell their own stories, some speaking for the first time about their experiences with rape and prostitution. Through piecing together their stories, the women learn how the Burmese junta, with the Orwellian name of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has especially targeted the Shan for repression because the Shan region, which was independent from Burma until 1962, has been a base for a number of opposition groups. But there is another reason why the military has relocated hundreds of thousands of people from more than 1,400 Shan villages since 1996, Nang tells the group. The SPDC has been seeking international investment to privatize natural resources in the Shan state.

By the last day of the workshop, participants have a much fuller understanding of the reasons behind their predicament—and they've learned some practical skills. They've learned how to counsel survivors of sexual violence and to teach others about HIV/AIDS, family planning, and Thai law. Nang calls the workshops a success when the women start discussing what role they can play to end 40 years of brutal military rule in Burma and when they ask her to return with more training. For many, this is the only formal education they have ever received.

Traditionally, in Shan villages, village headsmen had decision-making power, fathers assumed control in the household, and young people were expected to follow their elders. When the SPDC disrupted Shan society, forcing men from their farms to build roads for the military and leaving women as heads of households and targets for rape by the military, village headsmen could do little to protect their citizens. No longer safe in their homeland, more than 100,000 Shan made the dangerous trip across the border to Thailand. The young women who fled faced not only soldiers, but also human traffickers for the infamous Thai sex industry.

Once inside Thailand, women like Nang did not find a strong support system. Unlike other refugees fleeing Burma, the Shan have not received refugee status from the Thai government, which would entitle them to health and education services and freedom of movement. After being injured doing construction work in northern Thailand, Nang could not get medical care, nor be alone in her tent without unwanted sexual advances from her boss and other laborers. Instead, Nang rested in the shade at the construction site as a friend kept watch over her.

Like the women in the workshops she leads, Nang did not know how her experiences were connected to the larger political situation in Burma and to the global economy until she started talking with other refugees. When she began volunteering with the Burma Relief Center and the Migrant Assistance Program, civic groups that served Shan exiles, Nang met women who worked with groups like the Shan Herald Agency for News and Alt-ASEAN. Together, they talked about how Thailand benefits from the low-wage labor of Shan refugees working in pineapple plantations, massage parlors, or textile factories. Nang learned that Thailand is heralded by international financial institutions as a model of free enterprise and economic development, but has not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention or ceased its business dealings with Burma. In fact, Thailand is planning to purchase 500 megawatts of electricity from the damming of the Salween River, which runs through the Shan state.

Weaving a safety net
The women discussed what they could do for Shan people, especially women and children, and how to stop the SPDC. In 1999, Nang and 40 other women formed SWAN. The group met on weekends, so women who worked during the week could attend. Meetings made up of a circle of 10 to 25 women, with a bowl of steaming Shan-style rice noodles in the center. Together they would weave a safety net to support internally displaced women in the Shan state and those living as undocumented laborers inside Thailand. They offered late-night literacy classes for youth and adults, as well as medical and childcare, and an emergency hotline and safe house for those escaping prostitution.

They are collaborating with Thai-based women's groups to distribute posters and comic books written in the Shan language that break down the myth that women are to blame for rape and HIV infection. SWAN is now building an understanding in the Shan community that violence against women is not a woman's problem, but a human rights violation everyone must address. For example, they are working closely with a supportive headsman of a refugee village to create a women's crisis center staffed by local women who have attended SWAN workshops.

To raise funds for their programs, provide a livelihood for Shan refugees, and preserve cultural traditions, SWAN initiated a training program in which women prepared Shan food for catering events and sewed Shan clothes to be sold around the world. They conducted human-rights and gender-equality workshops on the border, networked with Shan, Thai, and Burmese organizations, and launched an ambitious internship program in which interns gain computer and facilitation skills, as well as language instruction in Shan, Thai, English, and Burmese.

As women on the border continued to report cases of sexual violence, SWAN realized it needed to get the story of the military's systematic rape of Shan women to the world. In 2002, SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation published the report License to Rape in three languages, and distributed more than 12,000 copies to UN agencies, embassies, and human-rights and women's groups. The report succeeded in focusing international attention on the SPDC's activities. SWAN members testified before the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and numerous other governmental bodies about the need to maintain sanctions against Burma's military government. It also awakened many in the Burmese opposition movement to the effectiveness of women's work.

Informed by their experiences laboring in sweatshops and watching massive projects like the proposed Salween Dam displace native people, SWAN members are joining the global movement for environmental and social justice. Several young Shan women have interned with groups such as the Bank Information Center to better understand the forces behind corporate globalization. SWAN members now have contacts at the UN and relationships with donors from places such as Australia and Norway.

Though groups like SWAN face increased surveillance by Thai authorities, the women continue to reach out to allies and other indigenous people's groups around the world. SWAN members who met women activists from Guatemala and South Africa discovered common experiences. “We share the same feeling… why do women have to face being more vulnerable to violence?” said 22-year-old member Charm Tong.

Building a movement for equality
In 1999, SWAN co-founded the Women's League of Burma (WLB) with 11 other ethnic women's organizations to advocate for greater women's influence in the Burmese resistance movement. Despite the fact that Burma's popularly elected president is a woman, Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, it was still difficult for women, especially ethnic minority women, to find a seat at the table with exiled Burmese democracy activists. WLB is pushing for gender equality to be written into the new constitution. By working closely with other ethnic women's organizations and demonstrating how pluralism can thrive in Burma, SWAN countered the SPDC's claim that disputes between various ethnic groups make democracy impossible.

When the Shan women chose not to have an executive director govern their new organization back in 1999, onlookers said, “You'll be a ship without a sail, lost and looking for direction.” Yet five years later, SWAN has grown to a membership of more than 100, touched the lives of thousands more, and not veered from a course of equality and peace for all.

Despite being refugees, without land, money, or security, SWAN challenges the Burmese military, which is well-funded from exploitation of natural resources and participation in the illicit narcotics trade, by building women's leadership capacity. The women opted for a collective leadership model where all members share decision-making power, because, as Charm Tong explains, “Everyone has an important contribution to make.”

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