The Midnight University
Boundaries, Nation States and
the Path of Displaced Women's Struggle
พรมแดน รัฐชาติ และเส้นทางการต่อสู้ของผู้หญิงพลัดถิ่น
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(บทความทั้งหมดยาวประมาณ 10 หน้ากระดาษ A4)
Boundaries, Nation States and the Path of Displaced Women's Struggle
Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University
(Translated by Urisara Kowitdamrong and Pipob Udomittipong)
The world community is now celebrating the 21st century's new dimension, the dynamic force and cross-border activities that have united the world. It has crossed over the boundaries, which used to divide states from states not long ago. In this now-familiar "borderless world", nation states have relaxed their guard. Nationalist sentiment has subsided. Networking is prized over obstruction, cooperation over division, and diversity as well as multi-pluralism over tyranny.
Still, some old-style nation states have persisted and survived to exert nationalism. They have incessantly subjugated others, endorsed discrimination and sanctioned oppression. They have also alienated their own citizens unrelentingly.
One of these states, no doubt, is Burma.
Few Thais are aware of or are interested to know that the continued influx of people from Burma to Thailand is a direct result of Burmanization by the Burmese military junta. Burmanization is used to exert Burmese dominance over other ethnic groups, and to oppress both citizens of Burmaes ethnicity and citizens from other ethnic groups. Thailand's indifference to this fact and its profit-oriented policies only serve to strengthen Burma's military force. Worse still, while Thailand has pursued "borderless world" concept in welcoming foreign tourists, investors, business and power groups, it has treated the people fleeing from Burma much differently. The Thai government has discriminated against, oppressed, and restricted the rights of these refugees. They have been pushed outside Thailand's social structure. Consequently, Thais know about the lives and struggles of displaced persons only through illiberal phases such as "alien workers" who know only to "cause problems" or to "steal jobs" from Thais.
Naked Lives, Alienation and
the Use of Violence by an Old-style State Nation
"While in Burma, as a Shan, I was looked down upon like a second-class citizen in the eyes of Burmese government. But when I am in Thailand, I am given a refugee-card for Burmese people. Nowhere has the existence of Shan people been recognized. I now start thinking of how we can have our own nation, and our dignity".
- A Shan woman at a village near the Thai-Burmese border
Civil war in Burma has given Burmese troops license to practice sexual violence against local ethnic women with impunity...The sexual violence is systematically used for various purposes from terrorizing local communities to demand total submission, to (the use of women's bodies) declare (Burmese) military force on ethnic women's bodies so as to humiliate opposition force and reward Burmese troops during the time of war
- License to Rape, SWAN and SHRF
We no longer have farms. Burmese troops took away all our assets. There, we could not earn enough to survive. There was no job year-round. It is better here than in Burma. Wages here have allowed our subsistence lives. We have been here for nearly one year. We will not go back. We don't know how to earn a living back there.
- "Quoted in" Krittaya Archawanichkul, Tris Coett and Nin Nin Pine ??(2000: 84) [3 people say the same thing in unison...]
If the boundaries are historical records of human crossings over borders of nation states, the displaced women who crossed the border from Burma have their records full of violence against civilian women and bitter conflicts. On the relationship between nation state and its people, a warm nation is reserved for "national insiders" only. The "outsiders", on the other hand, have been constantly abused by the nation. The worst experiences, women have borne.
The migration of displaced women from Burma is therefore not just about women's hope to find jobs in a country with more economic opportunities. In fact, these women have shouldered all the harsh memories along their path. From the interviews with 173 displaced women from Burma between January 2001 and March 2002 by groups working for the displaced from Burma, Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) and Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), it was revealed that Burmese troops in documented cases had committed sexual violence against 625 Shan women and girls from 1996 to 2002. In most cases, the victims were raped in front of Burmese troops. As they were brutal rapes, more than 25 percent of victims died. Up to 61 percent of victims were gang-raped, and many of them were detained for purpose of repeated rapes. In some cases, the victims had been detained and raped for more than four months. Most rapes had been committed in the central Shan State, where more than 300,000 local people were forced to leave since 1996 to areas earmarked for relocations. Many rapes took place when girls and women went out from relocation sites to find food. Many other rapes happened during the time when the victims were forced to serve as porters without pay for Burmese troops, or happened at checkpoints manned by the troops (SHRF and SWAN 2002). These findings were the basis of License to Rape report.
Using women's bodies has become an integral part of the Burmanization, which has been sanctioned by the government. The practice has been used by the Burmese military in opposing the ethnic groups since Burma gained independence from Britain, according to Betsy Apple, author of "School for Rape: the Burmese Military and Sexual Violence". She remarked that widespread rapes were systematic as Burmese troops used rapes as a weapon for ethnic cleansing. Rapes of women from other ethnic groups, in addition to Shan, were also widespread even in areas where ceasefire agreements have been reached. In this context, the women's bodies have become battlefields for power, and powerful communications tools the Burmese nation state used to declare its dominance and victories over other ethnic groups. In this symbolic battlefield, the ethnic alienation has been imagined with ethnic groups being subjugated, humiliated, devastated and crushed to defeat.
Ethnic women in Burma suffer not only from sexual violence and memories of what happened to them, but also from their incomprehension as to why their bodies have been abused and become topography of state's violence. In an interview published in The Nation newspaper on August 23, 2002, a rape victim who survived brutal rapes and migrated to Thailand said, "I have heard about the fight between Shan army and Burmese army for many years. At that time, Shan soldiers killed six Burmese troops and I heard that the Burmese troops wanted to take revenge." She was speaking to a reporter who asked what she thought Burmese troops tortured her, her family and other Shan women. But she was clueless as to why the revenge was directed at civilian women like her, their bodies that are not related to any political conflict and much far away from battle stage.
Sadly, the violence against the displaced women has not ended at the borderline. Today, their torture is ongoing but in different forms and different locations. The scenes of torture have changed from villages in Thai-Burmese border to orange farms, factories, houses, construction sites and police stations on Thai soil. Their abusers have changed from troops to employers and Thai government officials. The displaced women, rejected by both their homeland and country they have sought refuge in, still have naked lives without any protection, solace, or rights as civilians should have. They have lived their hidden lives with worries and vulnerability to abuses, intimidation and tortures. They cannot ask for help from anyone.
In the course of struggle
"My only plea is for Thailand to allow Shan people to take refuge here and to set up their settlement with support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees"
- A member of Shan Women's Network
"The original Shan people who live here do not want to return to Shan state. They are tool aged and are already taken as Thais. We know that the "Tai Nok" people are struggling for independence in order that they can freely communicate with us again. They used to live there in peace."
- Sunanta, Baan Mae Ai Luang, quoted in Aranya Siriphon in 2005
For migrant women, it is very hard to fight for social acceptance. The narrow vision concerning nationality of both Thailand and Burma with the emphasis on cultural and ethnic unity makes the existence of plural society almost impossible. Under this circumstance, migrant women have to choose various ways to bargain and fight for the wider notion of citizenship beyond the realm of nationality and statehood.
Mobilization and advocacy among organizations of migrant people since 2002 to expose human rights abuse in Burma including the release of License to Rape by SWAN and SHRF is an example of their attempts to educate public to come to term with sufferings of these ethnic women and how the junta in Burma has built their power on extreme brutalization. These women are marginalized in two respects. On one hand, they belong to ethnic minority, and on the other hand they are women. Therefore, they have to take up all risks to fight to make their voices heard. The brave actions of these women bear fruit in a growing awareness across the border. People the world over are aware of brutalization and exploitations waged by the outdated regime of Burma against its own people and many have become involved with efforts for major changes in the country. In Thailand, the state and society in general often lack understanding or hold on to narrow views toward the plights of these migrant people from Burma. They are perceived of being illegal migrant labors who have come over here to evade economic hardships in their own countries. However, the continuous campaign of these brave migrant Shan women sheds light on the fact that a growing number of migrants has been directly attributed to the use of sexual violence and the perpetuation of traditional powers in Burma, which over the years have become more violent. The migrant labor registration policy of Thai state has done little to increase understanding and led to no solutions for the issues.
The ongoing brutalization of
Shan people by the Burmese junta over several decades has caused great influx
of migrants across the Thai border. Yet, the Thai state still refuses to
allow these migrants to set up their own refugee camps here. As a result,
many Shan migrant women have to struggle for their survival in Thai society
through available options including relying on mutual help among their relatives,
their association with the existing Shan communities in Thailand or even
setting up their own settlements. These women do not perceive themselves
merely as "alien labors" as defined by the Thai state, but as
members who are instrumental in the growth of society. Many of them have
fled from Burma long enough to have their children grown up here. However
close their relationships with the country, they are still not counted as
"Thai" and are subject to "statelessness".
The long road ahead
An activist woman gave an interesting remark that relationships between the nation and women are weird. Although theoretically, women can fully become members of a nation, but in actuality, they are often discriminated against by the nation (or the nation state). As a result, they are sometimes treated as being part of the nation, and sometimes not. The experience of migrant women from Burma perfectly attests to this inconsistency. They are brutalized by the nation state and are marginalized in their own society, the act of which becomes a basis for interaction between them and the nation. Their being non-Burman ethnic group in Burma justifies brutality unleashed by the nation state against them. Meanwhile, their non-Thai ethnic characteristics differentiate them as being alien labors and thus have no access to due welfares and social acceptance.
Despite such pressure, many marginalized migrant women do not succumb to their fate. They attempt to challenge the narrow perception and the archaistic state mechanisms. On one hand, they fight to broaden perception toward citizenship beyond the existing criteria based on territory, sovereignty or cultural unity. They claim that these criteria not only outdated, but justify brutal treatment by the state against its own people. They promote the notion of cultural citizenship that embraces ethnic and cultural diversity and differences and should be essential part of the definition of citizenship. Against the Burmese junta, the fight will take a long way to go. But in Thai society, social democracy here should be a key factor that leads to reflection and change of concepts and attitude from inflicting on migrants "otherness", to a more understanding and acceptance of migrants as being part of Thai society.
Krtittiya Artwanichkul, Tris Coett, Nin Nin Pine (2000) Gender, Reproductive Health and Violence: Life Experience of Migrant Labors from Burma, Nakhon Pathom, Demographic and Social Research Institute, Mahidol University
Aranya Siriphol (2005), In the course of migration: Experience of Shan communities and labor trade along Thailand-Burma border from social and cultural perspectives, part of the research project "Power, Space and Ethnic Identity: Cultural politics of the Nation State in Northern Thai Society", Faculty of Sociology, Chiang Mai University, with support from the Thailand Research Fund
Apple, Betsy. 1998. School for Rape: The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence.
Shan Human Rights Foundation (2002) Charting the Exodus from Shan State: Patterns of Shan refugees flow into northern Chiang Mai province of Thailand (1997-2002).
Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women's Action Network (2002) Licence to Rape. Chiang Mai: SHRF
The Nation 8/23/2002
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