Sunday, June 7, 2009

Asia Stuff:: Sexual violence in 19th C. Burma and the military today.

This is one of those awkward posts to write. Let's begin with a blanket statement: sexual violence is bad. However there does seem to be a lot of it when one begins reading about Burma and the hazards that many refugees face or have faced in the past.

For instance, I've just finished reading "A History of Modern Burma," by Michael Charney (2009, Oxford University Press) and found it quite interesting and worthwhile although at places unpleasant reading. Not only does it contain several instances of sexual violence, but it also continuously offers a depiction of a corrupt and brutal government without ideology and a high level of general incompetence.

For instance, in chapter eight of this book we learn of the widespread student demonstrations of 1988. Beginning with a small incident that grew, in this year Burma was rocked by widespread student demonstrations, demonstrations that the government forces tried to brutally yet inefficiently put down. On page 149 we learn that in one incident not only did the government beat 200 protesting students to death but that some female students who demonstrated were dragged off by troops and gang raped.

This boggles my mind on several levels. First, it's terrible, truly terrible. And it implies much, none good, about the Burmese military. Such actions surely hint at complicity or even approval by way too many people to make them excusable as the actions of just a small number of people.

Secondly, at the risk of belittling the horror and evil of gang rape (or any rape or other sexual violence for that matter) it's grossly inefficient. Some personal background here. Although I've never actually been involved in riot suppression, I've ten years of large event and concert security experience, undergone US Army National Guard Riot training and read several books on riot control and large event security procedures. One key to successfully controlling a large group of people is to use the people you have to control them in an efficient manner choosing assignments carefully and ensuring that those involved in monitoring, controlling or suppressing the riot or demonstration are used to their fullest.

People cannot just be abandoning their assignments, whether it be to smoke cigarettes, go the bathroom, or to gang-rape people. They should, after all, have a job to do. And for a military commander, even a sociopathic military commander who doesn't care one way or the other about atrocities, to forget this is just plain stupid and inefficient. --which is just one more hint that there are several reasons why the government of Burma can't do hardly anything right.

Which brings me to a couple of personal views.

First, I try not to spend too much time reading about atrocities. When I do, I inevitably get depressed, this lowers my efficiency and energy levels and then I cannot spend as much time personally working to combat the atrocities that need to be combated.

Secondly, being, as much as anything, a historian, it's my personal view that ultimately, perhaps, the roots of everything that's going on now lie in the nineteenth century or thereabouts. At least, when one starts checking, that's where you will see many hints of such, if you go and look for them. Besides, it's my personal view that if one is going to read about atrocities, it's somehow less emotionally draining to read about atrocities that occurred long ago and from which one can distance oneself.

Which brings me to an interesting aspect of the nineteenth century and earlier Burmese military --hostage wives!

According to the book, "Armies of the Nineteenth Century -Asia, Vol. 4: Burma and Indo-China," by Ian Heath (2003, Foundry Books, Nottingham, England.) the pre-British conquest Burmese army had a rather ugly institution that, as far as I know, was unique. They held the wives of the soldiers as hostages. Should the soldiers, particularly the conscripted troops, desert or behave in an otherwise unacceptable manner then their wives would be punished up to and including being killed in a terrible fashion.

On page 17 of Heath's book we learn that unlike many armies, the Burmese preferred to conscript married men with families, instead of single, unattached males.

He quotes Father Vincentius Sangermano who wrote early in the 19th Century as writing, "Those are always preferred who have wives and children to serve as sureties and hostages." He also offers a quote offering that disobedience was "severely punished in the person's family or relations; who, for his misconduct, are spoiled of their goods, sold or even put to death."

In 1805 Father Sangermano witnessed the execution of perhaps a thousand women and children after the desertion of their husbands and kinsmen. Those executed were killed by being tied up, shut into bamboo buildings and then burned alive.

Nevertheless, it is worth reporting that Heath also concludes that historical records from this time show that desertion was fairly common among conscripted Burmese soldiers anyway.

On page 24 of this book, Heath relates an odd story about five British Indian troops, who in the 1850s had deserted from a British cavalry regiment and become artillery instructors in nearby Burma. (where the Burmese, who were apparently gullible, were much more anxious to recruit artillery instructors than cavalry instructors.) Upon being hired, the new recruits were given 150 rupees each and a Burmese wife, apparently so that the unfortunate lady could be punished should they desert.

On page 20 we learn that the standing army of Burma of the time also consisted largely of conscripts. When these conscripts were chosen, whenever possible, married men were chosen and their wives were required to accompany them to the capital, where the army was based, so that they could serve as hostages for their husband's potential misbehaviors. In some cases, women, women who Heath describes as "desperate or daring," could be hired to pretend to be the soldier's wife and thus shield the actual wife from the consequences of her husband's actions.

All in all, the system of 19th Century hostage wives in the Burmese military of the time, strikes me as both terrible and inefficient, as well as implying that the soldiers had little real interest in actually supporting the state (although elsewhere in the book, he also states that the soldiers of the time seemed to have been quite brave in battle, at least according to the British reports of how they fought). My guess is that if the system had worked well as a motivator, it would have occurred in other countries as well, and I have never heard of it used elsewhere.

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