Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 33, December 2013

Is the Pen Mightier than the AK-47?
Tracking Shan Women's Militancy Within and Beyond

Jane Ferguson [1]

  1. While the international media lauds the current Burma/Myanmar government for its steps recently taken towards democratic reform, major unsettled issues remain. Of particular concern are the various internal conflicts and the future role of the army, the Tatmadaw, as well as the country's numerous armed, geographically peripheral power-holders. The latter include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and the Shan State Army (SSA). Indeed, the country continues to endure a decades-long ongoing civil war, and this violence has resulted in over 10,000 casualties annually,[2] and hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees.
  2. The Shan State Army has been fighting for separation of the Shan State, originally for self-determination of the ethnic Shan people, who are estimated to constitute one tenth of the country's population of 55 million people.[3] The Shan insurgent movement has been fighting the Tatmadaw since 1958, and in this protracted conflict, inevitably civilian populations have been put in harm's way. The war's adverse effects on villagers in the Shan State were brought to international attention by the 2002 report, License to Rape,[4] which was written by Thailand-based Non-Governmental Organisations, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) and the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN).[5]
  3. As was argued in License to Rape, the Tatmadaw uses rape as a weapon of war, as part of a strategy to terrorise ethnic Shan communities deemed to support the Shan insurgency. The report provided evidence—with often graphic testimonies—of the Tatmadaw soldiers and officers' rape, beating, suffocation, torture, and mutilation of a total of 625 girls and women in the central Shan State, where the Tatmadaw has been carrying out an anti-insurgency campaign.[6] Although these are case studies, evidence suggests the violence is present throughout the peripheral areas. As the report showed, most rapes were committed by officers in the Tatmadaw, and often took place in front of other troops. Furthermore, the vast majority of this violence was carried out with impunity; should survivors or their families seek to lodge complaints, they would be quickly silenced, or find themselves victims of further violence. Significantly as well, this report discussed these acts as violations of human rights,[7] thus seeking to engage international discourses regarding military crimes against humanity. The report was able to turn the issue from being that of an 'internal ethnic conflict' into an 'international debate on human rights abuse.'[8] In her discussion of the License to Rape report and the activist movement in which it is embedded, anthropologist Pinkaew Laungramsri observed that 'the campaign successfully shifted the terms of the protracted conflict between the Shan and the soldiers of the Burmese state, such that the "women's question" attained a central presence in the debates about ethnic violence, the independence movement, and sexual abuse in Burma.'[9]
  4. The assemblage of testimony and the compelling argument caused the report not only to make a splash on the human rights and Burma advocacy NGO scene,[10] but also to catch the eyes of numerous activist groups[11] and governments in other parts of the world.[12] As License to Rape earned international notoriety, one of its co-authors, a young woman named Charm Tong was invited to speak on behalf of SWAN at a number of international human rights conferences and seminars.[13] She was named one of Marie Claire magazine's Women of the World, and in 2005, she was presented a Reebok Human Rights Prize by Charlie's Angels and Kill Bill star Lucy Liu. Charm Tong was also nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, and later met with (then) United States President George W. Bush to discuss the situation of the Shan and the ongoing war in Burma.
  5. News of these accolades, as well as the presidential meeting, was widely broadcast amongst the NGO community throughout Southeast Asia—Thailand especially—and to the Shan villages at the Thai-Burma border; to some extent, news also travelled to Myanmar as well. I was in the midst of my two and a half years' ethnographic fieldwork in a community of Shan former insurgents and their affiliates at the time, and many of my interlocutors expressed their pride and delight that a Shan woman met with the US president and told him about the Shan situation. More than one research participant expressed the desire that Charm Tong's meeting with President Bush would result in a US military intervention to oust the Myanmar military government. For many Shan people, however, the fame and recognition served to allay fears that the ongoing war in the Shan State was completely ignored by the outside world. To this day, the orphanage where Charm Tong grew up continues to display a framed portrait of Charm Tong standing beside George W. Bush.
  6. Shortly after Charm Tong met Bush in 2005, the Shan monthly news magazine, Kon Khaw (Independence) not only displayed a full portrait of the young woman on its cover, but also ran a feature article on the newsworthy meeting. In the first paragraph of the story, the author states,

      It was a difficult pill to swallow for most Shan men who had risked their lives and broken their backs working for the freedom of their people. But the fact remains that their battles, whether victorious or lost, have not been accorded the honour they deserve. Instead, it has been Shan women who have burst open into the arena with their powerful report, License to Rape.[14]

    While many Shan people, women especially, revelled in the significance of the meeting between such a powerful political leader and a Shan woman, the tone of this Kon Khaw article suggests dismay, or resentment that the SWAN report had somehow 'upstaged' the impact of work done by the Shan insurgency. Does shifting the terms of debate and political insurgency to include the 'women's question' necessarily come at the expense of other struggles?
  7. This situation taps into a number of complex social issues regarding the roles of women in war, gendered violence, ethno-nationalist insurgency, and the role of activism and international human rights discourses in relation to the former. Following a thumbnail sketch of the historical context of this ongoing war, this paper will unpack these issues by first discussing the gender dynamics within the Shan insurgency over the past three decades. Using testimonies from veteran soldiers from women's platoons of the Shan United Revolutionary Army, this paper will explore the ways in which the roles and expectations of women within the ethno-national separatist movement were experienced by women soldiers,[15] and how issues of gender and gender-based violence have been treated at the micro-level within the Shan insurgency as well as the Shan community. Several members of the SWAN founding cohort of 40 women in 1999 were themselves former soldiers or nurses in the Shan insurgency. Next, this paper will consider the role of the License to Rape authors as translators, as described by Sally Engle Merry in her article, 'Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle.' As Merry argued, 'Translators are both powerful and vulnerable. They work in a field of conflict and contradiction, able to manipulate others who have less knowledge than they do, but still subject to exploitation by those who installed them.'[16] Using ethnographic data from a fieldwork period of two and a half years (2004–2007) in a village of Shan insurgents and their affiliates, in this paper I will finally discuss some of the contemporary tensions expressed by Shan women, in relation not just to their former experiences as soldiers in the ethno-national insurgency, but also in relation to their changing understandings of gendered violence and expectations as a result of participation and familiarity with international feminist politics.
  8. The success of the License to Rape report in attracting international attention is testament to the media savvy research skills of the SWAN organisers. While there has been research work on the changing ways in which political groups in Burma have sought to engage with international media,[17] and how such activism has brought issues in the country to the attention of international activists[18] in this paper I examine SWAN's media activism strategy in relation to the history of the military insurgency. By harnessing a specific gendered and ethnic framework for understanding war and human rights abuses, this particular ethno-national struggle achieved international attention. By making use of human rights discourse, and describing the situation as one of gendered violence, the SWAN report sought to connect the Tatmadaw's rapes of Shan women to the suffering of women as a result of war and sexual violence elsewhere. Does this shift in framing, from rape as a local violation, to that of an international human rights abuse, necessarily detract from the goals of an ethno-national insurgency?

    Reconsidering gender and ethnicity in Southeast Asia
  9. Southeast Asia is a region which has been noted for its relative gender equality, particularly when compared to neighbouring regions such as East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Historians have profitably made use of the idea of women's relatively high status as evidence of Southeast Asian regional coherence: in an early monograph on the region, George Coedès argued that 'the importance of the role conferred on women' contributed to the region's unity,[19] and later historian Anthony Reid claimed that there is a 'distinctive Southeast Asian pattern' regarding relations between sexes.[20] These gender complementarities were chalked up to less severe mores in marriage, and the comparatively prominent role Southeast Asian women have had in trade. However, studies of nationalism, politics and economics in Southeast Asia are presented as being 'gender blind' because of the prevalent tacit assumption that these are the exclusive domains of men.[21] When specific women do appear in the historical record, they tend to be either warriors or important princesses who have transgressed their expected roles as political pawns in bride exchange between various regional monarchs. Historian Craig Reynolds suggested, 'Studying gender relations could help us untangle nationalist historiography which reads the past in the image of the nation-state.'[22] As such, gendered histories and narratives have given nuance to, and challenged these dominant narratives and have effectively demonstrated that these relationships are in constant flux.[23]
  10. Shan history as presented by historians in Shan-language presses tends to follow the dominant pattern, with male intellectuals,[24] male leaders,[25] and male soldiers constituting the majority—but not all—of the protagonists in the centuries-old history of Shan kingdoms, as well as the ethno-national struggle against Burmese domination. This is consistent with the literature on guerrilla warfare, in which armed struggle is considered a male political behaviour.[26]

    Colonial divisions and post-colonial conflict
  11. Burma was gradually annexed as part of British India following three wars that concluded in 1826, 1853 and 1886, respectively. Burma was hardly a homogenous polity, and as the historian Thant Myint-U argues, 'The territorial limits of the country, the notion of who is Burmese and who is not…all find their origins in...[the] period surrounding the fall of Mandalay.'[27] While the lowlands were later directly ruled by the British as 'Burma Proper,' the highlands were incorporated into the colonial scheme as the 'Frontier Areas' and Shan (as well as Kachin) leaders were allowed to maintain semi-autonomous authority over their subjects so long as they recognised the ultimate authority of the British. This differential integration of colonial subjects—specifically along colonial notions of 'race' and 'tribe'—effectively created a framework through which ethnicity was no longer a relatively flexible attribute of expressive culture, language and kinship[28] but rather a fixed, biological notion which was not only permanently ascribed to the individual, but also mapped and territorialised.
  12. In addition to the racial distinctions and bureaucratisation of ethnicity, numerous studies have looked at the ways in which colonialism also infused a gender system which was instrumental in the further domination of colonial subjects.[29] As an important rejoinder to this, Tamara Loos points out that the Siamese (male) elites made use of European colonial legal apparatuses to appropriate and subordinate women in new ways, thus demonstrating that such practices need not necessarily be European in origin.[30]Turning to the Burmese context, Chie Ikeya has examined the ways in which the khit kala (modern) woman who graced the covers of Burmese magazines beginning in the 1920s symbolised the problematic combination of western modernity, consumerism, as well as 'Burmese' notions of cultural authenticity.[31] During the British colonial era, some Shan women, particularly those who were members of teak trading families in Yangon, were likely to follow Burmese khit kala women's fashion. For those whose power and privilege were located in the Shan landed aristocracy, women who were perceived to be wan maü (modern) would be those who sought education or consumer products from Europe or the United States.[32] Not insignificantly, these modern women with international educations and tastes, were part of a wealthy elite in a largely agrarian peasant society.
  13. Following the Second World War, and prior to granting Burma independence, the British colonial authorities stipulated to the Burmese politicians that they would have to demonstrate consent of and collaboration with the ethnic minority groups in the area. The population of Burma is estimated to be approximately two-thirds ethnic 'Burman' whereas other remaining groups include Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Arakan, to name but a few of over one hundred groups. As such, in 1947, General Aung San[33] travelled northeast to the town of Panglong in the Shan State, to meet with a number of ethnic nationality leaders. There, Aung San drafted what has become known as the Panglong Agreement, which provided for the Shan State to join the soon-to-be-formed Union of Burma, but with the caveat that it would have the right to secede following ten years' initial membership. The leaders signed this document, and with the Panglong Agreement as evidence of inter-ethnic collaboration, Aung San was able to facilitate independence from Britain in the following year: the Union of Burma became independent on 4 January 1948. However, the country was still fraught with political problems, and by the 1950s the Taiwan-backed Kuomintang (KMT) counter-insurgency against Maoist China was using the Shan State as its base. In response, the Burmese government imposed martial law and dispatched more and more troops to the Shan State. The KMT antagonism therefore resulted in the Tatmadaw becoming the most powerful political force in the country.
  14. With prospects for Shan independence increasingly unlikely, in 1958 Saw Yanta formed the first armed Shan insurgency: the Num Serk Har or 'Brave Young Warriors'.[34] In 1964, after thousands more young Shans joined independence forces in response to the Tatmadaw's police state, the three largest rebel groups in the Shan State, the Shan State Independence Army (SSIA), the Shan National United Front (SNUF) and the Kokang Resistance Force merged to form the Shan State Army, the SSA.[35] This is of particular interest not only because it marks one of the first collective political organisations of groups identifying as Shan, but also because of its auspicious female founder: Nang Hern Kham, the Mahadevi of the Yaunghwe. In this particular case, we have an example of a strong elite woman using not only her symbolic capital, but also her organisational skills to draw together disparate groups for the collective goal of ethno-national separatism. Women's participation in the Shan insurgency, however, is far more pervasive than just the actions of Nang Hern Kham.

    Women in the Shan Insurgency: experiences from the early 1980s
  15. Recalling the quotation from the Kon Khaw magazine article about License to Rape's notoriety being a 'difficult pill to swallow' for Shan men who had fought in the insurgency, one might assume that the ranks of the insurgency were populated only by men. This is hardly the case. In fact, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) actively recruited women soldiers. Women soldiers were also glorified in the SURA media, namely its journals, as well as in the form of a rock song about Shan women soldiers.
  16. Muay Kham, now 47-years old, was one of my principal and most consistent interlocutors in the Shan village of Wan Kan Hai, where I carried out my ethnographic fieldwork from 2004 to 2007. She has a formidable presence, and is a very vocal and active member of the community. When she rolls up her shirtsleeves to prepare to slaughter a chicken, she reveals elaborate sets of Shan warrior tattoos on her forearms. She hails from Möng Pan, a town in the southern area of the Shan State. As the fourth child in a family of ten children, Muay Kham has a responsible, authoritative air about her. She praises her father's organisational skills, and the fact that he worked hard to ensure that all of his children got an education. He budgeted carefully so that they all went to the local government elementary school, where the language of instruction was Burmese. In Möng Pan, the few ethnic Burmans were by and large government employees and their families. Although Muay Kham was a quick student and a diligent worker, she felt that the Burmese teachers would give preference to the ethnic Burman pupils in the classroom, sometimes deriding Shan pupils for speaking Burmese with a Shan accent.
  17. The tension increased and, at the age of 16, Muay Kham got into a schoolyard fight with a Burmese student. Muay Kham was the one who ended up in detention, while the other student was not punished at all. At that point, the injustice, combined with Muay Kham's teenage determination, and the coincidence of a poster advertising for women to join the SURA, led Muay Kham, along with her best friend, Hseng Lao, to leave Möng Pan to join the insurgency. At this time, there were a number of women's battalions within the SURA, and they often worked alongside the men's battalions. However, the actual ranking officials within the military hierarchy were invariably men. Other women worked in the camps, with numerous relevant occupations. Although cooks, teachers, farmers and nurses did not go to military training, they were very much directly involved in the insurgency. The Shan United Revolutionary Army would hold military-style weddings should troop members marry, and to complete the ceremony, the newly married couple would exit through a tunnel constructed of soldiers holding their rifles above them. All of my female SURA veteran informants had married male soldiers, though not all were still married to them at the time of my ethnographic fieldwork.

    Figure 1. A platoon of SURA women soldiers circa 1980. Source: Provided by an informant, and used with permission.

  18. During this period, Shan insurgent media actively acknowledged the role of women solders in its nation-building project. In the 1984 issue of the annual journal, Söng Le'o or Freedom's Way there is one Shan nationalist poem which is illustrated with a cartoon drawing of a woman insurgent soldier. The poem urges men to pay attention to and value the hard work that women do as part of the insurgency. Following the poem is an historical article entitled, 'Connecting the history of our brave Shan women,' about various strong and famous women, starting in the third century of the common era (CE) in China, and later offering information about important Shan women in the twentieth century.

    Figure 2. Ma Lae Baw Phen Gaw Sai or 'Come on, men!,' the title of a poem in the Shan journal, Söng Le'o (Freedom's Way), encouraging men in politics to see the strength of women soldiers. Source: Söng Le'o (Freedom's Way), January 1984, p. 26.

    Figure 3. Image from the article, Sueb Puen Ying Tai Hat Haarn Hao Ta (Connecting the history of our brave Shan women). Source: Söng Le'o (Freedom's Way), January 1984, p. 27.

  19. The article also details the work of a woman writer, Nang Kham Ku, who made important contributions to the development and dissemination of the Shan written script, as well as the articulation of Shan culture.[36] The ultimate message of the article is not only to respect the history of strong women, but also to understand the situation of current oppression, and not to forget the role that women have to play in resisting Burmese domination.
  20. The early 1980s also saw the emergence of a Shan nationalist rock star, Sai Moo. In addition to writing and recording numerous songs about Shan nature, the Shan struggle for independence, he also wrote and recorded a song, Nang Harn (Brave Woman) about the women soldiers of the SURA. Sai Moo also worked as a teacher within the Shan insurgent territory schools, and from there penned many Shan language children's poems and rhymes which made their way into the elementary school primers. His songs are popular to this day amongst Shan State Army soldiers and their affiliates.
  21. Although the explicit admiration of strong Shan women in both insurgent publications and songs can be looked at from a progressive point of view, did it really advance the cause for Shan women at the time, or change the situation for the majority of women in the Shan state? On the one hand, we can see the active acknowledgement of women and their existence in the popular media as being included within Shan insurgent history-making and history re-telling. But, on the other hand, the Shan United Revolutionary Army, in spite of its positive stance toward women in its ranks, was still controlled largely by men. The work of these women fits well within the particular strategic goals for the Shan United Revolutionary Army at the time—and their rank was still subordinate to that of their male superior officers—and they were admired in public discourse. Crucially as well, these media, honoured the important role that women played historically. However, the contributions of the media, rather than subverting gender norms, instead framed them as deeds of exceptionally strong women. This is not to say that these women did not encounter sexism in their daily interactions with other troops. Married soldiers expressed past anger and frustration, for example, when they learned their husbands had gone to visit border-town brothels.
  22. Although the SURA grew and was very active throughout the 1970s and 80s, by the mid-1980s its power was eclipsed by that of another Shan rebel force, the Shan United Army or SUA. This group was led by the later infamous 'Opium Warlord,' Khun Sa. This insurgent group had taken over much of the profit from heroin trafficking following the 'forced retirement' of the Kuomintang in 1984. Soon, the SUA and SURA effected a merger (which was more like a takeover since the former had surrounded the latter) and the new army became the Möng Tai Army, MTA. The MTA, in the late 1980s would grow to control the entire territory of the Shan State east of the Salween River, all the way to the Thai border. Unlike the SURA, where women were actively recruited as rank and file soldiers, the MTA was run much more like a business, or a class-based state. With the merger, the SURA lost most of its autonomy, and among other concessions, women were barred from being foot soldiers within its ranks. The women soldiers of the SURA suddenly found themselves demoted. Hseng Lao told me that after the merger, she knew that going back to Möng Pan would be risky, as the Burmese authorities would likely learn of her affiliation with the insurgency. Because of her experience teaching the Shan language, Hseng Lao became a schoolteacher, but did not return to her original village.
  23. For Muay Kham, however, her ongoing role in the Shan insurgency was less clear to her. At this point, she was a seven-year veteran of the SURA, and active combat and campaigns were all she had known since the age of sixteen. Given her militant spirit, Muay Kham was unwilling to 'retire' to the domestic sphere so easily. Furthermore, Muay Kham's husband had attained a high rank within the SURA, and was thus still working within the insurgency.
  24. With a total troop base of fifteen thousand soldiers, dozens of schools, shops and even factories under the management of the MTA, there were still many useful ways that a group of women soldiers could contribute to the nation-building project. One of the MTA leadership's ideas to employ the former Shan women soldiers was to allow them to staff a furniture-building workshop in one of their border encampments. They even hired a Thai carpenter to come to the camp to teach the staff his craft. Muay Kham participated in the workshops.
  25. However, one evening the carpentry teacher had invited her to his residence for 'special lessons.' When she arrived, she saw the carpenter masturbating, and he exposed his penis to her, pulling off a red condom to dangle in front of her face while he chuckled perversely. Muay Kham wouldn't have any of this, and as a former soldier she still carried her pistol with her. She drew her gun and fired a bullet above the head of the carpenter exhibitionist. 'I wasn't going to hurt him,' Muay Kham told me proudly, 'I just wanted to give the pervert a good scare.'[37]
  26. And that she did, although later she would have to pay a price for doing so. The man later reported Muay Kham to Mong Tai Army authorities, and she ended up having to spend an entire week in their military prison as a result of firing her gun at the carpenter. As she tells me the story, she laughs, talking about how the carpenter was a pak kat long or a 'cabbage' which is the Shan equivalent of a pervert. As Muay Kham explained, 'Look at the cabbage. The leaves are ugly, old and dirty on the outside, but as you peel them away, they get younger and fresher on the inside. He thinks he's like that.' The carpentry instructor's 'cabbage' tendencies were noted and not appreciated by other women attending the workshop, and thus many of them considered Muay Kham the hero of the day by giving the pervert what he deserved. They objected to her imprisonment, especially since the carpentry instructor got off without penalty or reprimand.
  27. According to Muay Kham, the (male) superior officers thought that the carpenter was more valuable to them, and Muay Kham as a (dismissed) soldier should simply stand punishment for her own actions just so that the carpenter would continue to work for the MTA. This is similar to the situation in El Salvador's FMLN described by Norma Vázquez in which the movement's leadership was aware of violence against women within the ranks of its soldiers, but found it impractical to respond to the issue.[38]
  28. Because her husband was with her, and she had become literate in the Shan language through participation in the insurgency, Hseng Lao worked as a teacher in the MTA. But, Khun Sa surprised most of the MTA troops in 1996 when he surrendered to the Burmese authorities in exchange for protection and the right to continue his business. This surrender allowed the Tatmadaw to claim much of what was once Shan insurgent territory, and concurrently, many civilians were forced to flee across the border to Thailand. Following Khun Sa's massive surrender Hseng Lao continued to work as a teacher, later running her own kindergarten for children in a predominantly Shan village just inside the Thai border. At one point, she said to me, 'I was a teacher when the MTA was great, and I'm still a teacher. I guess that's all I'll ever be. I hope that in my next lifetime, maybe I'll be born a full citizen in the country.'[39] What is telling about Hseng Lao's quotation is that in spite of her high status within the community, she sees a teacher as something not as glorious (perhaps) as being able to be a full citizen in her own country. It was in the years following the surrender of Khun Sa and the mass displacement of Shan people in the Shan State that there was a corresponding expansion of NGO presence in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, and it was in this context that SWAN was founded.

    Post-insurgent militancy
  29. Within the echelons of the MTA hierarchy were Shan people with a higher level of education, or those who had been of middle-class backgrounds. At its height, the MTA had a total army of up to 20,000 troops, but the accountants, translators, schoolteachers and doctors within the insurgency were more likely to come from Shan elite backgrounds. One MTA doctor I interviewed had earned his medical degree at Mandalay University in Burma. These people were often able to make use of existing networks and settle somewhat more comfortably in Thailand than their foot soldier counterparts. For women like Muay Kham, Hseng Lao and other research participants that I worked with, they may have received some education in Burma, but they became fully literate—and much more politicised—as a result of their participation in the Shan insurgency. One analysis suggests that the Shan insurgency provided a liberating experience for Shan women in that by being soldiers, they were able to 'jump scale' and leave the private domestic sphere and enter the public sphere of the nation.[40] But, as we see from the experiences of these participants in the Shan insurgency, work divisions were never clearly defined, and within the insurgency movement, the role of women was repeatedly contested.
  30. In her article on Shan women's activism, anthropologist Pinkaew Luangramsiri has argued, 'For Shan women, one of the shared experiences in their involvement with the male nationalist project was double marginality in which their inferior status is derived from the intersection between being Shan (subordinate ethnicity) and being Shan women (subordinate sex).'[41] This 'double marginality' is not additive; this draws from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw who put forward the idea of 'intersectionality' whereby, for example, Black women in the United States experience racism and sexism in ways that are unique from their Black male or white female counterparts, and political movements have been dominated by groups that experience discrimination, yet often fail to acknowledge the ways in which the intersection of these categories affects others.[42] Nira Yuval-Davis argued that various social divisions have differing ontological bases, and are therefore irreducible to one another.[43] In regards to the internal conflict in Peru, Pascha Bueno-Hansen observes that ethnic minority women find themselves trapped at the 'crosshairs of gender, racial, language and class subordination.'[44] Lourdes Benería and Martha Roldan similarly interrogated how gender and class intersect.[45]
  31. For the Shan women interviewed, participation in the insurgency gave them skills, ranging from practical survival, such as killing and eating jungle badger, to theoretical analysis such as guerrilla strategies. It also gave them the confidence to follow through with plans they had drawn. But, it was their experiences of being subordinated by men in the insurgency that would later give some of them the drive to continue to organise and fight on behalf of the Shan women in particular. With the foundation of SWAN, and its call to incorporate any Shan woman interested in dedicating time to working for women's issues and equality, several former SURA soldiers eagerly joined this charter. Their former experiences within the insurgency, as Shan-language schoolteachers, nurses, or as typesetters at the Shan-language printing press gave them useful skills which they could readily apply to NGO work. While License to Rape brought international attention to the issue of Burmese soldiers using sexual violence against ethnic minority women and girls as a weapon of war, for all of my interlocutors, the issue was hardly news—they knew of the kinds of violence that took place in the Shan State. Nevertheless the issue in the report was compiled and organised in a way to which the international media could effectively relate.
  32. To some extent, SWAN activism affected the ways in which Shan women talked about local events as well. One incident that Hseng Lao brought to my attention would prove to be an uncomfortable reality for some of the activists: a male Shan State Army soldier had been found guilty of raping a local young woman in one of the villages just on the Thai side of the Shan State border. The village headman ordered that the soldier pay 1000 Baht (about $35) to the family to compensate for his violation of their daughter. Hseng Lao told me about an argument she had with her husband over the issue, as she felt that the crime was not taken seriously enough.
  33. According to Hseng Lao, her husband had echoed the point made by the village headman that the soldier didn't have very much money, so should not have to pay a hefty compensation. But, Hseng Lao retorted that a rape was still a rape, and there should not be such a dismissive attitude toward the problem, especially now that License to Rape had brought the Burmese officers' rapes of Shan women and girls to international attention. As Hseng Lao later asked me rhetorically, 'Who cares if the soldier hasn't got much money? It doesn't mean that it's OK for him to rape the girl.' Hseng Lao's frustration with the lack of appropriate punishment harks back to Muay Kham's experience of being punished for standing up to the Thai carpenter's sexual harassment. In both cases, women are frustrated when the male-dominated political sphere does not take gender violence seriously.
  34. In thinking of these sobering anecdotes, I cannot help but think back to the years of work carried out by Muay Kham, Hseng Lao and their many comrades in the Shan nationalist cause, and their frustration with the insurgency's inability to take violations against women seriously. Why should the status (or ethnicity) of the perpetrator affect the gravity of the crime? Does a political report make the act a human rights violation? The issue challenged Shan women activists, as some wanted the issue of rape within the Shan State Army to be brought to greater attention, while others did not want any public discussion of rape committed by Shan soldiers as they feared this would detract from the power of License to Rape and be of embarrassment to the Shan, a group already marginalised by two larger nation-states.

  35. In histories of conflicts, in the rare instances in which women's stories are brought to the fore, such violence against women is nearly always presented as 'collateral damage.'[46] By putting the issue of violence against women and girls at the forefront, and framing it in human rights discourse, SHRF and SWAN effectively moved the issue from the status of 'collateral damage' to that of a central strategy affecting the ongoing insurgency as a whole, and transformed the framing of the issue from a local conflict to one involving international human rights abuses. Returning to Merry's notion of translators, here the fraught nature of that problem is brought into greatest relief. Shan women activists compiled the report to inform the world of human rights violations taking place in the Shan State, and that the soldiers of a political (and ethnic) opponent take advantage of local women and girls and rape with impunity. But a rape of a Shan woman by a Shan soldier was responded to with indifference by local Shan political power holders, and at the same time, some Shan women would be cautious about speaking out on the issue. The activists in SWAN, in the research and authorship of their report were 'signifying agents actively engaged in the production and maintenance of meaning.'[47] These Shan women translators had to consider not just the international human rights discourses in their framing of the issue but also their sympathies with the Shan insurgency; by focusing on the atrocities of the Tatmadaw, the SWAN activists and the Shan insurgency had a common enemy.
  36. An important point worth considering is that the women working in groups such as SWAN are not pervasively anti-militarist; many of them are embedded in social networks affiliated with the Shan insurgency, and politically, are staunch advocates of Shan nation-building and look to a future Shan nation-state in its own right. They are anti-militarist when it comes to the Burmese military, and Shan women and men are very outspoken when it comes to condemning the atrocities committed by the troops of the Tatmadaw, or the mismanagement of the Myanmar government. This resonates with Lydia Liu's essay on Xiao Hong's novel, The Field of Life and Death, where a raped Chinese women is an important icon in anti-Japanese propaganda during the war. As she argues, 'since the nation itself is at stake, the crime of rape does not acquire meaning until it is committed by foreign intruders.'[48] In these cases in the Shan state, rape does not become a weapon of war, or a human rights abuse, unless it is effectively framed as such by translators speaking the language of human rights discourse. As we can see from ethnography, though, this translation process is not without contestation, and not without a deeper history of antagonism which, for various reasons to do with the framing process, cannot make it into the report. What is also an important point to be learned, although it is not necessarily triumphant, is that the history of the ethno-nationalist project, and its male-dominated nation-state discourse, is what frustrated its female participants, yet they still hold onto and protect the Shan nation in their ongoing work. To respond to the initial question posed by the title of this paper, is the pen is mightier than the AK-47, in terms of international accolades and the power of human rights discourses, the written word triumphs, but the bearer of the pen is cautious if her husband or brother is the one wielding an AK-47.


    [1] I wish to thank Margaret Jolly and Hilary Charlesworth for including me in this fascinating and stimulating conference, and for their constructive comments not just at the conference, but also their careful reading and helpful feedback for my revision of this paper. I am also grateful for the engagement with, and suggestions from Sally Engle Merry, whose work has guided and challenged my thinking on these issues. Thanks also go to the two anonymous reviewers who provided exceptionally detailed and constructive comments and suggestions for further reading. I am, however, responsible for all errors and shortcomings of this paper. The fieldwork component of this work was partially supported by the International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship program of the Social Science Research Council with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the William J. Fulbright Foundation, the Research School of Asia and the Pacific of the Australian National University.

    [2] Martin Smith, Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights, London: Anti-Slavery International 1994, p. 34.

    [3] Ethnic Burmans are estimated to comprise two-thirds of the country's population.

    [4] Although this was the first such report about rape specifically committed against Shan women and girls, it was not the first such report about rapes committed by the Burmese army. In 1998, Earth Rights International released an 82-page report by Betsy Apple, School For Rape: The Burmese Army and Sexual Violence, An EarthRights International Report, 1998, online:, accessed 29 November 2013, in which she argues that the structure and nature of the army, its recruiting, ideology and lack of accountability provide a context for widespread sexual crimes against minority women.

    [5] See Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), 2013, online:, accessed 28 November 2013; and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), 2013, online:, 28 November 2013.

    [6] SHRF and SWAN, License to Rape: The Burmese Military Regime's use of Sexual Violence in the Ongoing War in Shan State, Chiang Mai: Shan Human Rights Foundation, May 2002, p. 1, online:, accessed 18 December 2013.

    [7] An explicit goal of the report, as stated in the introduction is 'to end the continuing violations of the human rights of women, in particular forced labour, forced relocations, abuse, torture, sexual violence, exploitation and abuse in detention and summary executions, often committed by military personnel and especially directed towards women who are returning refugees, internally displaced, or belong to ethnic groups or the political opposition. See Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), License to Rape, Chiang Mai: Shan Human Rights Foundation, 2002, p. 2.

    [8] Pinkaew Laungramsri, 'Imagining nation: women's rights and the transnational movement of Shan women in Thailand and Burma,' Focaal, vol. 47 (2006): 48–61, p. 48.

    [9] Pinkaew Laungramsri, 'Woman, nation, and the ambivalence of subversive identification along the Thai-Burmese border,' Sojourn, vol. 21, no. 1(2006): 68–89, p. 68.

    [10] Groups such as the UK-based Burma Campaign UK, online:, and the US Campaign for Burma, 2012, online:, publicised the report, as did the Norway-based news group, Democratic Voice of Burma, 2013, online: All websites were accessed 19 January 2013.

    [11] For example, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom featured and publicised License to Rapeon its website. See Peace W♀men, Peace for Women + Women for Peace, online:, accessed: 19 January 2013, as did the documentary project on rape and sexualised violence. See Women Under Siege, 2013, online:, accessed: 19 January 2013 as well as the women's human rights group Isis International, online:, accessed: 19 January 2013.

    [12] SWAN activists were invited to discuss the report further in 2005 by US President George W. Bush; in 2009 with the Australian secretary for international development assistance, Bob McMullan; and in 2010 by Canada's Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, to name a few instances.

    [13] Significantly, other researchers and organisers of the report lacked passports, and thus were not able to travel internationally to receive these awards, a point Charm Tong has always graciously acknowledged. The majority of Shan migrants in Thailand hold quasi-residence cards which preclude them from acquiring Thai passports, and applying for a Myanmar passport (particularly before 2009) was not only prohibitively expensive, but nearly impossible for those lacking current residence and evidence of citizenship in the country.

    [14] Quoted from the Shan monthly magazine 'Shan women honored,' Khon Kaw, vol. 22, no. 220 (2005): 35.

    [15] This is not to say that women's active roles in the Shan insurgency have ever been limited to being soldiers only. See C. Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women's Lives, London: Pluto Press, 1983 for a comprehensive look at how women have always been a part of the military, and in many capacities.

    [16] Sally Engle Merry, 'Transnational human rights and local activism: mapping the middle,' American Anthropologist, vol. 108, no. 1 (2006): 38–51, p. 40.

    [17] See Amporn Jirattikorn, 'Shan virtual insurgency and the spectatorship of the nation,' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 42, no. 1 (2010): 17–38; Lisa Brooten, 'Global communications, local conceptions: human rights and the politics of communication among the Burmese opposition-in-exile,' Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio University, 2003; and Jane M. Ferguson, 'Revolutionary scripts: Shan insurgent media practice at the Thai-Burma border,' in Political Regimes and the Media in Asia: Continuities, Contradictions and Change, ed. Krishna Sen and Terrence Lee, London: Routledge, 2008, pp. 106–21.

    [18] Linnea Beatty, 'Democracy activism and assistance in Burma,' in International Journal, vol. 65 (2010): 619–36.

    [19] Barbara Watson Andaya, The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, p. 1.

    [20] Anthony Reid, 'Female roles in pre-colonial Southeast Asia,' Modern Asian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (1988): 629–45, p. 629.

    [21] Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, Oxford: Berg, p. 97.

    [22] Barbara Watson Andaya, 'Studying women and gender in Southeast Asia' Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 4 no. 1 (2007): 113–36, p. 116.

    [23] Barbara Watson Andaya, Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 2000; Neloufer De Mel, Women and the Nation's Narrative: Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka, Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2001; Jean Gelman Taylor (ed.), Women Creating Indonesia: The First Fifty Years, Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 1997; Diane Lauren Wolf, Factory Daughters: Gender, Household Dynamics and Rural Industrialization in Java, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992. See also, Clara Sarmento, 'Culture, politics and identity: critical readings on gender in Southeast Asia,' Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 19, no. 3 (2012): 437–67, p. 437.

    [24] For example in the book, Pün Ku Maw Lik Tai Hok Sao (The History of Six Shan Literary Scholars) Shan Education Committee, 1996, five of the six featured scholars are men.

    [25] Two such Shan history books are Pün Möng Tai Lae Kan Pai Möng Möng Tai (History of Shanland and Shan Politics), 1986; and Pün Tai Ho Ti (Shan History from the Beginning), no publication details available.

    [26] Linda M. Lobao, 'Women in revolutionary movements: changing patterns of Latin American guerrilla struggle,' Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 15, nos 2/3 (1990): 211–32, p. 211.

    [27] Thant Myint-U, The Making of Modern Burma, London: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 10.

    [28] This 'ethnic flexibility' within groups of the region is the subject of Edmund Leach's work in anthropology, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, Oxford: Berg, [1959] 2004. As Leach observes, Kachin people engaged in swidden agriculture, and 'anarchic' forms of political organisation can and do sam Tai or 'become Shan' by joining their wet-rice modes of production and feudal hierarchy, with language and kinship systems in tow as well.

    [29] Antionette Burton, Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities, London: Routledge, 1999.

    [30] Tamara Loos, Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand, Ithaca: Cornell, 2006.

    [31] Chie Ikeya, Refiguring Women, Colonialism and Modernity in Burma, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011.

    [32] In the past two decades there has been a mini-boom of published autobiographies of Shan elite women, including that of an Austrian woman who met and married a Shan prince while she was studying at the University of Colorado, USA. See Nel Adams, My Vanished World: The True Story of a Shan Princess,Cheshire: Horseshoe, 2000; Patricia Elliott, The White Umbrella: A Woman's Struggle for Freedom in Burma, Bangkok: Friends, 2006; Sao Sanda, The Moon Princess: Memories of the Shan States, Bangkok: River Books, 2008; Inge Sargent, Twilight over Burma: My life as a Shan Princess, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.

    [33] The father of the present National League for Democracy Member of Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi.

    [34] Sao Kyan Möng, Pün Möng Tai Lae Kan Pai Möng Möng Tai (History of Shanland and Shan Politics), no publication details available, p. 136. Although I have translated this as 'Brave Young Warriors' as this group is often translated, it is important to note that 'Noom' is an appellation for young men only.

    [35] Kong Si Söng Tai Luk Phuen, Puen To Kaep Lae Kaw Pong Kwam Sao Gon Söng (Shan Revolutionary Council: Accumulated history and speeches of Gon Söng), Tai Revolutionary Council (TRC), 1990, p. 3.

    [36] Nang Lawn Tai 'Söb Puen Ying Tai Hat Han Hao Ta,' in Söng Le'o, no publication details available, 1984, pp. 27–28.

    [37] Information taken from discussion with Muay Kham noted in my filednotes, October, 2005, Wan Kan Hai Village.

    [38] Norma Vázquez, 'Motherhood and sexuality in times of war: the case of women militants of the FMLN in El Salvador,' Reproductive Health Matters, Abortion: Unfinished Business, vol. 5, no. 9 (1997): 139–46, p. 143.

    [39] Information taken from discussion with Hseng Lao noted in my field notes, January, 2007, Wan Kan Hai Village.

    [40] Pinkaew, Imagining Nation, p. 52.

    [41] Pinkaew, Imagining Nation, p. 52.

    [42] Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics,' University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1989): 139–64, p. 140; Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,' Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99, p. 1242. See also Kathryn Henne, 'From the Academy to the UN and back again: the travelling politics of intersectionality,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 33 (December 2013), online:

    [43] Nira Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' European Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 13, (2006): 193–210, p. 195.

    [44] Pascha Bueno-Hansen, 'Finding each other's hearts: intercultural relations and the drive to prosecute sexual violence during the internal armed conflict in Perú,' International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 12, no. 3 (2010): 319–42, p 323.

    [45] Lourdes Benería and Martha Roldan, The Crossroads of Class and Gender, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    [46] Mónica Zapico Barbeito, 'Género y conflicto armado: Causas y consecuencias de la victimización de la mujer in la Guerra,' in X Congreso Nacional de Sociología Jurídica: Legalidad y Legitimidad:Confrontaciones Sociales en torno al Derecho, Córdoba, 12–14 de noviembre de 2009, pp. 193–201, p. 200.

    [47] Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, 'Framing processes and social movements: an overview and assessment,' Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26 (2000): 611–39, p. 613.

    [48] Lydia Liu, 'The female body and nationalist discourse: the field of life and death revisited,' in Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pp. 37–62, p. 44.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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