(part of The Darkness Visible series)
(Generally, forced labour in Burma is more pervasive in border areas, in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, and in all regions with a heavy military presence. ~Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro)
"I was required to provide labour usually for a total of one month per year. During this time I would do whatever the authorities asked, the gathering of firewood; the construction of a shrimp/prawn culture embankment, etc. One time I was taken to do forced labour for 26 days. The forced labour was 46 miles from my home and I had to sleep in the open along with 200 other people. 300 people from my village were involved in this work, the construction of a two-mile long shrimp culture embankment. We were not given food or water; they were expecting us to supply this. We dug a well to have easy access to water. Beatings were commonplace during this work. Some beating resulted in serious injury such as broken arms and legs. No medical assistance was provided. After 26 days of working on the project I escaped and during the next two nights I made my way back home; hiding during the day and walking at night. Some time after my return NaSaKa caught up with me and forced me to pay 200,000 kyats in compensation. To pay for this I had to sell my livestock."
~ Rohingya Refugee
In 1996 the International Labour Organization carried out a detailed investigation into forced labour practices being carried out by the Burmese Junta government. This investigation was so condemning that the report it yielded led to annual discussions about Burma's crimes. But unfortunately that is where the ability to force change in Burma ended. In 2004 Burma proved this point by executing four individuals they claimed had contacted the International Labour Organization in the 1996. This was both meant to send the message within Burma that talking to outsiders was "treason" and to tell the West to leave Burma's policies alone.
The reality of Burma's scale of "crimes against humanity" goes far beyond slavery and forced labour however. With the increase of military strength throughout Myanmar the governing body of Burma has found itself incapable of supporting its own weight. This has led the Junta to demand support from all citizens and those they consider to be less than human in the first place. This compulsory servitude is the only mechanism with which Myanmar's government has to lean upon to continue to grow its government's totalitarian rule. Without slavery there would be no Myanmar.
For the Rohingya within the Arakan this means that they are subject to unlawful seizures of land, livestock, and monetary capital. It also means that the Rohingya are expected to subject themselves to forced labour for the local Rakhine authorities, NaSaKa, and Myanmar military. Those who do not comply with these demands are subject to severe punishment and the ever present threat of death.
"The military rely on local labour and other resources as the result of the incapacity of the Government to deliver any form of support for their activities (the self-reliance policy). The Special Rapporteur has received many allegations of villagers being severely punished outside the framework of the law because they refused to perform forced labour and of the unlawful appropriation of their land, livestock, harvest and other property. While Myanmar has increased the number of its battalions nationwide since 1988, the implementation of self- reliance policies by the local military during the past decade has contributed to undermining the rule of law and damaging the livelihoods of local communities."
~ The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar talking about the Arakan
When you factor in the long history of systemic discrimination within Burmese culture against the Rohingya ethnic minority you find that in the Arakan it factors into their disproportionate abuse through forced labour. This has led to the Rohingya being singled out as the single group in Northern Arakan to be used as slave labourers when the military needs workers to build up the border region with Bangladesh. It has also led to the fact that Rohingya were the only minority used to build and maintain "model villages" along the border with Bangladesh even though the Rohingya are banned from occupying said villages.
This perversion of culture by infusing it with ideals of racial superiority and religious mandate has left the Rohingya as outsiders in their own homeland. It strips them of their ability to maintain or pursue a sense of self-determination in their own cultural practices and daily communal life. This is only further exacerbated by their constant use as slaves by NaSaKa and military officials.
The forms of abuse however range from being used as mules to being used as all out slaves in massive construction projects. In areas where the roads are poor or undeveloped Myanmar officials often force young men and boys to carry their heavy equipment and supplies. These loads are often given estimated weights but in all reality are only limited by how much the Rohingya man or boy is capable of carrying (or what their slave driver believes they should be capable of carrying). This form slave labour is often referred to as "portering". It is estimated that a man or boy from every Rohingya home in Northern Arakan is currently used in such a manner.
"Whereas previously civilian porters were forced to work by a battalion for several weeks on end, it is now more likely that a column of soldiers will pass through a village and demand “emergency porters” to carry goods to the next village where they will be released if other porters can be secured. SPDC soldiers typically show up in a given village and demand porters to carry rations and ammunition. Alternatively, they send order documents to the village head, who must then take responsibility to arrange the stated number of labourers."
~ National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma
The work these porters are made to do is extremely difficult even for the most able bodied individuals. The loads are often made excessively heavy so as to maximize the amount of ammunition and supplies the Myanmar military is capable of transporting. Absolutely no care for the safety and well-being of the Rohingya slave is given by the government of Burma or the military commanders. Instead the Rohingya are forced to march without rest or face beatings and the constant threat of death.
"Usually carried in woven cane or bamboo baskets, with straps across the shoulders and an additional strap across the forehead. When excessive loads were carried for prolonged periods, the straps of the basket and the basket itself dug into the flesh of the shoulders and back, causing serious injuries and sometimes exposing the bone. Injuries to the feet were also common."
~ International Labour Organization
Rohingya who are taken as porters are rarely told informed of how long they will be expected to work. Rohingya abducted for this form of slavery right outside their homes or farms are not allowed to tell their families where they are going or why. This absolute disregard for the Rohingya worker's family and community once again shows the embedded hatred the Rakhine authorities hold for the Rohingya ethnic minority. It also shows that abduction of Rohingya for any reason would be hard to prove due to longstanding policies that provide criminals cover due to prior government sponsored activities in the area.
In addition to porting for the military, police, and NaSaKa forces, Rohingya are expected to subject themselves to forced labour as as to help in construction and repairs of state property. This means that Rohingya can be abducted or ordered as entire villages to help build roads, bridges, military bases, police stations, model villages, and any other structure the NaSaKa, military, or local authorities demand.
In 2008 Rohingya from around Buthidaung and Maungdaw were called upon to repair a road between the two townships. Hundreds of Rohingya were forced out into the mud and dirt to work as slaves as the military enforced this action. They were given up to ten day shifts that they were demanded to work. Children as young as 10 years old were called upon to do the hard labour. Those who could not keep up pace with the demands were extorted for their "shortcomings" and then beaten and dismissed.
The most humiliating, and most indicative evidence of ethnic cleansing, form of slave labour in this form is that of forcing Rohingya to build "NaTaLa". These are model villages that are commissioned by the Ministry of Development of Border Areas and National Races. The villages are meant to help steal land from Rohingya while funneling it to Rakhine settlers that the NaSaKa either import from Bangladesh or other areas throughout Burma itself. These settlers are then persistently reminded that their new homes are "under threat" by the very people that built the villages they come to inhabit.
In 2005 the NaSaKa commissioned a model village just outside of Maungdaw. This village was made possible by first confiscating Rohingya land and then demanding that two to three hundred Rohingya build the village to house Rakhine settlers. In 2008 the village was expanded upon by once again seizing Rohingya farmland and once again ordering Rohingya slaves to expand upon the village so that one hundred more Rakhine settlers could be imported to the area. This time the Rohingya slaves were expected to build not just homes but also a school and pagoda for the new Rakhine immigrant settlers.
Once construction projects are completed the Rohingya are then called upon to maintain the structures or the Military, NaSaKa, or Police stations they were forced to work for previously. This form of slave labour is simply referred to as maintenance work and is a form of slave labour that Rohingya are forced to carry out year round. Unlike construction, a seasonal form of slave labour, maintenance never end.
Recent reports reveal that NaSaKa used around 30 Rohingya slaves per day to maintain a golf course they had built near Kyin Kan Pyin. This goes to show that Rohingya are thought of in much the same way as African Americans were thought of by white slave owners in the old south. It helps to prove that Rohingya are most definitely not considered equals and are clearly considered to be less than human by their fellow countrymen.
Other forms of slavery in the Arakan include but are not limited to forced guard duty (or sentry duty) and agricultural development and cultivation.
Sentries are called upon by the NaSaKa to basically encourage Rohingya to spy upon their fellow Rohingya to supply NaSaKa with information to use to obtain extortion and to commit arbitrary arrests. It is also employed to harass Rohingya villages and communities by keeping them under constant watch and depriving the individual of sleep and security. This form of slavery serves to drive a wedge in targeted villages by implanting distrust and suspicion amongst the community. In many cases if the individual called upon to serve does not turn in suitable information than he/she is punished instead. Thus fulfilling the reason behind this form of slavery in the first place.
"The current regime in Burma pursues limited market economic reform with no pretence of democratic political, social reforms. Control of land and property has been central to state authority in Burma since independence and many laws concerning property rights in land have been passed. There is lack of ownership rights, no right to transfer and lease, buy and sell, or right to use land for growing crops of one’s preference."
~ Hudson-Rod and Htay in; Arbitrary Confiscation of Farmers’ Land by the State Peace and Development Council Military Regime in Burma
One of the most common forms of slave labour imposed upon Rohingya within the Arakan is that of agricultural labour. It is a stinging form of slavery in the fact that Rohingya are not allowed to keep the food they grow. They are not allowed to cultivate the land they call their own and yet are forced to cultivate the land the government claims they do not own. The food they grow is used to feed the mobs that have targeted them in countless pogroms. The work they put into the land saps them of strength while their stomachs go empty routinely.
Agricultural slavery can be applied in three basic ways in Burma. It can involve the Rohingya being dragged out to government owned land (all land in Burma is technically government land) where they are forced to cultivate the land for NaSaKa and military use. It can also require that Rohingya give up random chunks of their land to government authorities. It also can require that Rohingya grow specific crops upon their own land to be handed over to Rakhine upon harvest. The last method also serves to leave Rohingya vulnerable to extortion if the crop is less than demanded.
In the recent bout of ethnic cleansing this form of slavery has been used to implement a campaign of ethnic cleansing through forced famine. The famine however was not a new concept since Burma has been moving toward this policy for decades now. Through confiscation of cultivable Rohingya land and the forcing of Rohingya to grow inedible crops the Burmese government has been increasing starvation amongst Rohingya communities for decades.
"Farmers will no longer need to buy diesel for their tractors and vehicles if they grow such a profitable crop. So, physic nut plants should be grown on vacant lands, and on the areas where no other crops thrive for environmental conservation, raising the income of local people, and contributing towards fulfilling the future fuel requirement...Now, thanks to the visionary [sic] of the Head of State, farmers can enjoy fruitful results directly. I would therefore like to exhort farmers to grow physic nut on a commercial scale for their brighter future."
~ Senior General Than Shwe
In 2005 General Than Shwe launched a campaign to increase the land upon which physic nuts could be grown. Publicly the campaign was to increase the supply of an alternative fuel source. In reality it was a campaign to force Rohingya to grow a crop that they could not eat nor would have access to anyhow. The "vacant lands" mentioned by Than Shwe in "The New Light of Myanmar" were those occupied by the Rohingya within the Arakan state. As with most Burmese authorities, Than Shwe did not see the Rohingya as human and therefore had no reason to respect their needs or their lands. In addition the campaign he put in place would serve to deplete the Rohingya of food and substance upon which to survive.
In the end the use of forced labour is according to the International Criminal Court as a "crime against humanity". It is a crime that is punishable in many ways including formal sanctions. However it is also a crime that has rarely been persecuted due to the toothless nature of the ICC.
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court:
~ Article 7 (1)
For the purpose of this Statute, ‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:... (c) Enslavement
~Article 7 (2)
“Enslavement” means the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.
~Article 7 (1) (c)
1. The perpetrator exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty.
2. The conduct was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.
3. The perpetrator knew that the conduct was part of or intended the conduct to be part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.
But despite all this the ICC finds it hard at best to find it within their jurisdiction to prosecute Myanmar's leadership for blatant abuses and countless crimes against humanity.
“A man from NaSaKa came to my house. He kicked the door and told me I had to go and work as a sentry instead of my husband. I had to go immediately with my young child and without food. Later in the evening while I was at my post someone else from NaSaKa came. He told me ‘your husband is not there, I will stay with you; I want to live with you’. That night the man raped me in the shed in front of my boy.
We (women) feel at peace in Bangladesh. There is no food and some problems, but there is no rape, we have peace”
~ Rohingya Woman, 26 years old.
Sex is a weapon unlike any other form of terror experienced by its victims. The use of rape as a weapon has been a horrific hallmark of war since the beginning of time. It is also a defining trait of dictatorships and tyrannical governments. Plus, it has been used almost every time governments begin to practice genocide against a targeted community.
In Burma the government has identified rape as a means of dividing Rohingya communities while also providing a perverse moral boost to its military troops. Myanmar's troops are allowed to rape Rohingya girls without mercy and without repercussions. Rohingya women have no rights.
In 2002 Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women's Action Network published "License to Rape". In this publication the organizations spelled out just how Burma's Junta style government has allowed their troops to commit mass rapes. It spells out ‘173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burmese army troops in Shan State, mostly between 1996 and 2001.’.
"the Burmese military regime is allowing its troops systematically and on a widespread scale to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic peoples of Shan State. The report illustrates there is a strong case that war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the form of sexual violence, have occurred and continue to occur in Shan State."
~ License To Rape
From 2002 through the present day UN affiliated organizations investigated the claims made by "License to Rape". Organizations throughout Burma joined the fight to combat the epidemic rape culture within Myanmar. Refugee International provided 125 cases of rape in Karen State between 1988-2004, 37 cases of rape in Mon State between 1995-2004, 38 cases of rape in Chin State between 1989- 2006, and 26 cases of rapes across Burma between 2002-2004.
"Widespread rape is committed with impunity, both by officers and lower ranking soldiers. Officers committed the majority of rapes documented here in which the rank of the perpetrator was known. The culture of impunity contributes to the military atmosphere in which rape is permissible."
~ Refugee International
Some of the cases involved gang-rape. Others were cases in which the victims were raped in front of family and friends. Most were rapes in which the attacker was not alone but accompanied by other military comrades.
"According to information received, in all states in Myanmar, both in conflict areas and in ceasefire areas, Government forces subject women and girls to multiple forms of violence including abduction, forced marriage, rape, including gang rape, mutilation, suffocation, scalding, murder, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence. These acts are reportedly often committed by commanding officers, or with their acquiescence. In many cases, women and girls are subjected to violence by soldiers, especially sexual violence, as ‘punishment’ for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups. Women and girls are in these cases reported to have been detained and repeatedly raped by the soldiers, sometimes leading to their death."
~ UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women 2006
For the Rohingya today in the Arakan this warning is just as important as it was in 2006. During recent pogroms committed by Rakhine extremist the Rohingya reported countless cases of rape and sexual violence. Their reports of sexual "punishment" are almost identical to those depicted in the 2006 report. Their stories mirror the culture of rape the organizations first recorded in 2002. And yet the UN still to this day shows little ability to punish the Burmese government for their depraved crimes.
In 2007 the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention lodged a complaint with Burma. In this complaint they depicted the gang-rape of four Kachin girls between the ages of 14 and 16.
"Army officials gave money to the girls and their parents to persuade them not to report their case to the police. However, in late February, the incident was reported by an independent news agency. After the information was released, the four girls were immediately arrested and are now detained at Putao Prison, Kachin state."
Today this same incident is playing itself out over and over again. Rohingya girls and women who attempt to flee or have their stories leaked out are often subject to the same arbitrary arrest by Burmese police. Once they have been victimized by the military they are open to constant harassment by NaSaKa and police forces throughout Burma. If their victimizer even believes that their victim has told somebody they can have the girl killed or arrested (a fate that often leads to death anyhow).
As of 2008 the UN Secretary-General hinted at the situation the Rohingya face in his report following the Security Council Resolution on Women and Peace and Security.
"In Myanmar, recent concern has been expressed at discrimination against the minority Muslim population of Northern Rakhine State and their vulnerability to sexual violence, as well as the high prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated against rural women from the Shan, Mon, Karen, Palaung and Chin ethnic groups by members of the armed forces and at the apparent impunity of the perpetrators."
As for seeking help amongst the Rohingya themselves...
Refugee International notes:
"The military’s use of rape to control both eastern and western Burma has been documented for at least fifty years. Despite the longevity of this brutal practice, talk about rape has never been acceptable. Such discussion among Burma’s ethnic women is considered taboo and is usually conducted in hushed tones and with lowered heads. For women to acknowledge that they have been raped is to declare openly that they are “unclean,” and to face possible discrimination at the hands of their family and community members who hold them responsible. For men to acknowledge it is to admit they have been unable to protect their wives, mothers and daughters. For communities to discuss it is to confront the pain, shame, and impotence of people under siege by their own country’s army."
The uncomfortable nature of facing the rape leaves many Rohingya women in a prison comprising of their own hearts and minds. Trapped by a crime that was thrust upon them, these victims find it hard to admit that they were victimized. Many find it even harder to admit to their families that they were attacked. And even if they can tell others there is the possibility that others will hold this crime against them.
"This is contributing to double victimization, first for having been sexually violated and second for having to bear the fear, shame and stigma that surrounds sexual violence, and to a culture of silence that essentially impedes victims’ access to justice and remedy, and allows impunity to persist."
~ UN Security-General
For Rohingya who are victimized there is no possibility that they will find justice. If a rape was ever reported there is never the actual possibility that the authorities would investigate. For the most part there is a well understood policy to never investigate a rape against ethnic minorities. This allows the rapist to commit his act without fear of reprisal. It permits the rape to be committed without allowing the victim the ability to ever fight back.
"In most cases, especially when the perpetrators are Government officials, victims do not lodge complaints to the authorities on any acts of violence committed against them, for fear of retaliation by the perpetrators. In many instances, those that do complain are invariably instructed to accept meagre compensation under the threat that if they do not retract their complaint, they would be subjected to more violence. Alternatively, they are arbitrarily arrested and detained until they withdraw their complaints. Sometimes the families of the victim are threatened as a means of exerting pressure on the victim. On one occasion, a community leader who reported a rape of one of his villagers was beaten and tortured to death by the military. It is also reported that medical personnel who treat a rape victim are reluctant to take any action with the authorities out of fear of possible reprisals against them. As a result of this, victims are entirely discouraged from making complaints; investigations are as a result rarely initiated and perpetrators are seldom brought to justice. The existence of such as widespread culture of impunity exacerbates the magnitude of violence against women and girls in Myanmar."
~ Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women
The added aspect of a deeply patriarchal society only further embeds the fear women hold in reporting rape. In following many rather conservative forms of Islamic law the Rohingya women are especially vulnerable to the cruel realities rape brings both during and after it has been committed. Then when you add upon the Islamic culture the fact that their society is being oppressed you have the possibility of these victims being further victimized by community members.
In many cases during previous genocides the victims of rape in religiously conservative communities have suffered ostracizing by their own community, blackmail by other women, and corporal or capital punishment by community leaders. This leads many of the rape victims to hide their "shame" at all cost. It also leads to repeat victimization of the rape victim through indirect and direct consequences of the initial crime itself.
"The Committee expresses its deep concern at reports that Muslim women and girls in northern Rakhine State endure multiple restrictions and forms of discrimination which have an impact on all aspects of their lives, including severe restrictions on their freedom of movement; restricted access to medical care, food and adequate housing; forced labour; and restrictions on marriages and pregnancies. The Committee is also concerned that the population in northern Rakhine State, in addition to being subject to policies imposed by the authorities, maintains highly conservative traditions and a restrictive interpretation of religious norms, which contribute to the suppression of women’s and girls’ rights."
~ UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
The complex situation that arises out of this horrid crime is one that has perplexed UN officials and Human Rights activist around the world. In the past, highlighted in Bosnia, we as a world community have been incapable of adequately facing this crime head on. However despite our shortcomings when addressing sexual violence and rape, we do know that this crime is in fact a "crime against humanity". That point we can all agree upon.
And yet the evidence of this heinous crime against humanity mounts in the Arakan...
"Information received from over 30 interviews with Myanmar Muslim women from Rakhine state and other women from areas of armed conflict indicated that a large number of rapes by entire groups of Myanmar military had been taking place. Many women provided testimony that women in villages relocated by the army were rounded up and taken to military barracks where they were continually raped. In other circumstances, women have allegedly been taken by the military when the husband, or other male in the family, had fled at the approach of the army. Often, the "pretty" or young ones were raped immediately in front of family members and then taken away. Women who had returned to their villages stated that some of the women among them had died as a result of the continual rapes. Two female health workers interviewed by the Special Rapporteur reported that in their clinic, women with rape wounds had been admitted and had later died from bleeding or subsequent infection."
~Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar noted in a 1993 report.
"Female headed-households are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuses, including rape. Women and teenage girls are also at risk when left alone at home while their husbands forcibly work as sentries or are absent. NaSaKa patrols routinely enter homes at night searching for unlawfully married couples or unregistered guests. Girls have also been raped while collecting firewood."
~ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 2008
"In many of the incidents documented, the women were not only raped, but were also physically tortured in other ways, including being beaten, suffocated by having plastic put over their head, and having their breasts cut off. In the following ex-ample, the woman was beaten unconscious and raped, and her pregnant sister murdered."
~ Refugee International, "No Safe Place" report.
International law is very clear on rape however. It was defined by the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda:
"Like torture, rape is used for such purposes as intimidation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, punishment, control or destruction of a person. Like torture, rape is a violation of personal dignity..."
However during most prior cases in which rape was brought up as a subject of trial in the International Criminal Court the definition of rape had involved the penetration of the penis into the vagina. In Burma it is important to note that the ICC had expanded upon the definition of rape in international court while reviewing cases that arose out of the former Yugoslavia.
"The actus reus of the crime of rape in international law is constituted by: the sexual penetration, however slight: (a) of the vagina or anus of the victim by the penis of the perpetrator or any other object used by the perpetrator; or (b) of the mouth of the victim by the penis of the perpetrator; where such sexual penetration occurs without the consent of the victim. Consent for this purpose must be consent given voluntarily, as a result of the victim’s free will, assessed in the context of the surrounding circumstances. The mens rea is the intention to effect this sexual penetration, and the knowledge that it occurs without the consent of the victim."
And was finally fully defined later with the following ICC definition.
"International criminal rules punish not only rape but also any serious sexual assault falling short of actual penetration. It would seem that the prohibition embraces all serious abuses of a sexual nature inflicted upon the physical and moral integrity of a person by means of coercion, threat of force or intimidation in a way that is degrading and humiliating for the victim’s dignity."
Yet here we are in 2013 without a single case being brought up against Myanmar and its brutal military. While courts have well defined rape as a crime against humanity we have yet to see a Burmese soldier or general brought up on this crime before the ICC.
These two crimes are often combined. In so many cases the Rohingya man and boys are forced away from the home as slave labour while the women and girls are raped. Both are tools of ethnic cleansing that work toward the same end result. These are weapons that the Rakhine extremist not only support but fully implement in their goal of ethnic cleansing.
If these two methods were even remotely removed from the arsenal of the Burmese regime countless Rohingya lives could be saved. Without these two tools the Myanmar government would have just a little less control over the Rohingya community. But more importantly it could save many Rohingya the indignity that these two crimes manifest.