Unveiling the hardships of ethnic women in Myanmar


Yangon, Myanmar

“I always have to investigate my stories in conflict zones”

I am 32 years old. I live in Yangon but I am originally from Myitkyina, in Kachin state. I am a journalist.

My mom still lives in Kachin state, she used to be a teacher but she is now retired, and my dad used to work for the ministry of nature and agriculture, but he passed away in 2004. My family was middle class. My husband supported me to become a journalist but my family doesn’t like what I do.

I have 5 brothers and 2 sisters. My mom doesn’t like the fact that I am a journalist because she thinks it doesn’t suit women. And also, I always cover stories about conflict areas, I always have to investigate my stories in conflict zones, and when I go there, I power off my phone, so my mother can’t contact me, and that worries her.

“When we left, we left everything”

The war started in 1964 and there was a cease fire in 1994 which was broken in 2011. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) wants federalism since the Panglong agreement in 1947. When Myanmar got independent, we agreed to make Myanmar a federal state. But then Aung San was killed and the government never held its promise (see article “The ethnic minorities of Myanmar“). That’s how the war started. In Kachin state there are many natural resources, and both the army and the KIA are fighting for those resources. But the Chinese also want to invest there, so there is a lot at stake in the area. And it’s a vast area, people live in houses that are very far apart. There is also a little road connecting Burma with China, India and Nepal that was built by the British during the colony. It’s kind of a strategical road for business, and the control over this road was one of the reasons behind the war.

Our original town is 50 miles from Myitkyina, and there, we got trapped between the two armies. So when they started fighting, we had to run. After that, we came to Myitkyina but we couldn’t do anything, we didn’t have any money. From 1986 to nearly 2000, we didn’t have any money so we couldn’t have a land and we couldn’t go to school. My mom used to be a teacher and my dad also worked for the government, so we could learn at home with them. But most kids couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have any money. When we left, we left everything, my parents didn’t have jobs anymore, we left our house too, we had to start all over again in a new town, and back then, the government didn’t help. Plus, if you ran away it was very dangerous, both armies were saying: “if you run away from us, you will be shot”. At that time, my family chose to stick with the government army because my parents were government employees, it seemed like a safer bet.

But all that period was just absolutely terrifying, having all those soldiers around. I think it was affecting men and women the same. But the armies were harassing and raping women, we know it happened. No one talked about it though, there was no occasion to speak up at that time, and if you did, they would kill you so everyone kept it quiet.

“One of my younger brother was with KIA, and another one was with the Burmese army”

In Kachin we have so many conflicts taking places, it’s very very complicated there. We’ve had to move a lot. Before 2000, if there was any government employee in a family, no matter the position, it was a safe situation for the whole family, including women. At that time, the KIO started to organize, they called students above grade 7 or 8 for a working duty in KIO, only for the ethnic Kachin. They could become teachers or learn about medicine, or the political process. If you were Bamar, it was a difficult situation. My family’s problem is that we were ethnic Kachin but on our identity cards we were Bamar, this was a difficult situation to deal with the KIO and with the government, for us there was discrimination on both sides.

After 2000, the situation changed, the KIO tried to change to be an organization. At that time, the main problem for women was that they didn’t know what to do, there was less opportunities for women. At that time the governmental army was expending their area of occupation and there were more soldiers in Kachin state. Kachin women had less opportunity for their work, so many of them were finding work as entertainers, as singer or dancer. There were many cases of women being kidnapped and raped by soldiers from the government, especially when someone in the family had joined the KIA, it was a sort of retribution. My mom’s relatives joined the KIA, but my dad joined the government’s military. In the end, the family didn’t really split, we could still all eat at the same table! One of my younger brothers was with the KIA, and another one was with the military. Yet, they still ate at the same table. One day I asked them, “what will you do if you meet in the battlefield?” They said they would shoot up in the sky.

“Human trafficking is a consequence of the war in Kachin state”

In 2013, I was planning on going to live abroad but I saw a vacancy to work at a newspaper so I chose to become a journalist instead. When I started to be a reporter, I went to Singapore as a house maid to investigate. However, at this time, the government didn’t grant permission to go to Singapore. Yet, some overseas recruitment agencies were sending girls to Singapore to work as housemaids. So I went there because I wanted to know about the living conditions of Burmese housemaids in Singapore and report on it. Then I came back and I also tried to go to Dubai, to investigate on how housemaids are treated there.

I have also investigated women trafficking in China. In order to help women, I always report about them and I ask many questions to them. Whenever I interview women, first, I share my housemaid experience, to build trust between me and them during the interview. For this specific story about trafficking, it was hard for the women I interviewed to share their story because if people knew their story they would shame them, so they were afraid that people would find out about them, they were ashamed and afraid of people’s reaction. When I interview women on sensitive topics like this one, first, I have to build trust with them.

In Kachin state, many women are trafficked to China. Women are afraid that people will start to ignore them if they happen to know their story. Human trafficking is a consequence of the war in Kachin state. Many of them go to China and think that they will find a job but they end up being trafficked. They don’t necessarily become prostitutes, but what happens is that some Chinese men pay Burmese families to send their girls to them. So what happens is that the girl and her family think that she’s going to go to China to get married but the truth is that she’s just going to have a baby and then she will be sold off to another family to have another baby.  In China with the one child policy, there was a preference for boys so now there are more men than women in their population. This is why they bring women from elsewhere to have babies, because they can’t find a wife in China.

“That’s my fight”

For this story I met with 15 women, and 8 of them said they never wanted to come back to Myanmar because they were ashamed, and the other 7 wanted to come back but they were too afraid that there family wouldn’t accept them. One of them went to three different houses, and had 3 babies, another went to 2 houses and had 2 babies, another one had also 2 babies in 2 houses and now she is a prostitute. The other thing is, once they are sold off to another house, they can no longer see their baby. I went to China to find those women, but it wasn’t easy, and the Chinese police caught me.

I was really worried to come back to Kachin. Before I went to China I contacted some officials but they didn’t allow me to cross the border so I went unofficially. I was extremely worried, I was afraid to die. Then I got caught in China and sent back to Myanmar. But I think I could go again, illegally of course! Because so many women are over there living this terrible situation. According to the records I have, I think they must be around 2 000 over there, that’s my fight, I want to keep fighting for them. The KIO also has records and in their records, it’s nearly 10 000 women who ended up in this situation. But it’s not only Kachin women, it’s ethnic women in general.

“After my article went out, even men journalist were covering this issue”

Now I am working on ethnic women working in Yangon in clubs and entertainment places. In those places, most female workers are ethnic women. It is hard for them to get other jobs, sometimes because of their illiteracy, they are less likely to be educated because in the states they are from, there are not enough schools or sometimes it’s very far away from their home, or even sometimes there is no school at all. Usually there are primary schools in the villages but often there is no middle or high school after that. So if women are from the countryside, they are not likely to be educated. Also, teachers only speak in Burmese so the ethnic children can’t understand.

Women get less education, they have no right to education, and they always have basic jobs. In the Kachin society, women work more, women take all the responsibility of the family but they don’t have the right to speak up, the situation is difficult for them in Kachin state.

As for me, I am not really afraid that people won’t take me seriously just because I am a female journalist.  After my article went out, even men journalist were covering this issue. Even if they didn’t go to China, they covered about the government’s management of the problem and how they got to repatriate some girls from China. It became an issue they were interested in. Now I found 6 different stories about that, covered by men journalists, one was translated from English to Burmese, so that means even foreign journalists were covering that topic.

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