Women as Peacemakers
Message given at Woodside Church, Sunday, Feburary 8, 2004
by the Rev. Jean Munro

Matthew 5:9 reads: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." What does this mean for us today? The word peace is never only a negative state; it never means only the absence of trouble; it means everything that makes for a person's highest good. We wish, want, and work for the presence of good things for all people. In this beatitude it must be noted that the blessing is on the peacemakers, not necessarily on the peace lovers. There is a distinction between the two. We may, for instance, allow a threatening and dangerous situation to develop and take the stance that to "keep the peace" we will not take any action. The peace which the Bible calls blessed does not come from the evasion of issues, but from facing them, dealing with them, and conquering them. This beatitude demands not the passive acceptance of things because of the trouble of doing anything about them, but the active facing things and the making of peace, even when the way to peace is struggle
Most of you know that within the last ten days I have returned from a trip to Thailand to work on the Thai-Burmese border with refugees from several ethnic groups. Each ethnic group had their own compelling stories stemming from the civil war in Burma that has been going on now for more than fifty years. One particular group, the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), captured my attention and my heart. This is due to the role they have played in speaking out against the use of rape as a tactic by the Burmese army to force cooperation and to tear down social structure
Shan traditional dance at a festive occasion, Design by Kham Pang, Notecard by SWAN, for sale by BRC-USA, $2 each

Let me give you some background about these people called the Shan. The Shan State is one section in the eastern part of Burma, and at one time it was an independent state. It borders Thailand, China, and Laos. The people of the Shan State, like other areas of Burma, suffer from abuse inflicted by the Burmese military regime. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Asia, this regime is one of the worst in the world. The abuse inflicted on the Shan people by the military has forced many people to flee for their lives to Thailand. The Thai government, however, does not recognize the Shan people as refugees and, unlike other ethnic groups, such as the Karen and the Karenni, has not allowed them to set up refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Consequently, the Shan are forced to enter Thailand illegally, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Despite this, Shan people are still coming to take refuge in Thailand. The estimated number of Shan working illegally in Thailand is at least 300,000. That is more than two and a half times the population of Flint.

One of the things SWAN has done is to give women raped by the Burmese army a voice to speak out against these atrocities. They have also sought legal action and international sanctions. But, of course, the Burmese army and officials deny all these reports of the Shan girls and women and claim them to be fabrications. I'd like to share stories from women ranging in ages from 13 to more than 60 who have come from different parts of Shan state and are now living in a sheltered home in north Thailand. They say they have come to Thailand to escape abuse, torture, and rape by Burmese troops

Map of Burma showing State and Division Borders
Graphics by Radio Burma Group, from Human Rights Year Book, 1995, Human Rights Documentation Unit (NCGUB)

Huddled together, the group reminds one of the faceless chorus of a Greek tragedy, the ones who are always in the back, in the shadows, emerging only to sing plaintive, sad, and forlorn songs before they slip back into dark anonymity.

The stories they are telling today are quite similar to tales that have been coming across the border for years--one day or night, Burmese soldiers show up in a village, clean out the houses of anything of value, rob the villagers of their cattle, then cast their eyes on the women or girls who haven't managed to flee in time. Next follows the use of rape as a means of coercion and a tearing apart of the social structure. The "lucky" women get out alive. Many don't.

To listen to the survivors' stories in the flesh is to be forced to push the imagination to a terrible limit. The women's diminutive voices are pitched at virtually a whisper. Sometimes the whispers fall to a soft wail. There are scars on their foreheads, wrists, limbs. Their skin even seems to exude a peculiar smell of sadness and traces of suppressed anger.

Can anyone stage manage this sort of thing?

In June of 2002, SWAN launched its report License to Rape, documenting the systematic use of sexual violence in Shan State by the Burmese military regime. The report gained immediate and widespread international publicity. Published only a month after the regime had released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, it clearly exposed the real nature of the regime and its insincerity in implementing democratic reform.

In July 2002, the US State Department issued a statement that it was appalled at the report of sexual violence by the Burmese regime. After sending its own team to investigate the issue on the Thai/Shan border, it issued a further statement supporting the findings of License to Rape.

The Burmese regime has repeatedly denied the findings of the report and has staged its own token investigation in Shan State to counter the accusations that it is using systematic sexual violence. Other groups such as the UNCHR conducted their own studies and again supported the findings of License to Rape.

Although License to Rape only documents incidents of sexual violence committed by the regime's military in Shan State, such sexual violence has been happening in all of Burma's ethnic areas and is continuing today. The systematic use of sexual violence by the regime is clearly an integral part of its strategy to divide and conquer Burma's people. SWAN believes that as long as the regime remains in power, the security of girls and women will remain at risk.

Whether we feel called to join in SWAN's fight for social justice or feel called to seek justice in another area needing action, we can learn and do much using SWAN's objectives.

  • Promoting women's rights and the rights of children;
  • Opposing exploitation of and violence against women and children;
  • Working together for peace and freedom in our society;
  • Empowering women for a better life;
  • Raising awareness to preserve natural resources and the environment;

The first letters of these objectives spell the word POWER. By following these objectives, we can do much to be peace-makers and to work for the presence of all good things for all people.