Meet the women behind Myanmar’s ‘death to rapists’ campaign

Women’s Defense Association members Thin Thanda (L) and Hnin Yee Aye attend a protest outside a Yangon courthouse on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Jacob Goldberg
Women’s Defense Association members Thin Thanda (L) and Hnin Yee Aye attend a protest outside a Yangon courthouse on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Bodybuilder Thet Thet Wai left the gym on the morning of Feb. 22 without changing out of her workout clothes. She wanted to be on time to a protest demanding the death penalty for convicted rapists. As she ran through the streets of Yangon, her desire for mortal vengeance on abusive men was reaffirmed over and over again.

“The whole way here, I was harassed by men,” she told Coconuts outside the Yangon Eastern District Courthouse in Thaketa Township, where a well-known rape suspect was on trial.

“I had to swallow my pride and take it, because if I responded every time a man harassed me, it would only make things worse.

“That’s how it is in this country,” she went on. “Girls don’t dare to respond to harassment, and the ones who do sometimes find that it escalates the situation to the point that they are raped. So, we find ourselves having to endure everything.”

Women like Thet Thet Wai have been breaking this silence by staging a small rebellion across Myanmar over the past several weeks. The rebellion has come in response to a slew of recent events, starting with the brutal rape and murder of Shwe Yee Win, a 26-year-old civil servant, by her taxi driver on Jan. 20.

Two weeks later, a 2-year-old girl was raped and murdered in Madaya Township, Mandalay Region, sparking local protests attended by thousands. Around the same time, the Ministry of Home Affairs released its national statistics, showing that the number of reported rapes shot up from 1,100 in 2016 to 1,405 in 2017, further fueling the public fury.

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A growing number of Myanmar women see these events as proof that authorities have no ability or interest in preventing sexual violence. The legal system, they say, excuses the violent behavior of men and places the onus of avoiding rape squarely on potential victims, primarily women and children.

“In this country, when a rape case is prosecuted, the court will often give the defendant a sentence, but that sentence is never actually carried out. Most are released from prison due to good behavior or amnesty,” said Hnin Yee Aye, a leader of the Women’s Defense Association, which organized last month’s protest. “We believe that these sorts of reduced sentences increase the amount of rape crimes, and we want to tell the court that we are not satisfied with the way the justice system handles these sorts of cases.”

Bodybuilder and activist Thet Thet Wai attends a protest
Bodybuilder and activist Thet Thet Wai attends a protest outside a Yangon courthouse on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

The members of the group say there’s one policy that can both prevent repeat offenses and change Myanmar’s culture to better protect vulnerable populations: Kill the rapists.

In Myanmar, as in most countries, girls are born into a society that gaslights them into thinking sexual assault is their fault. When the Ministry of Home Affairs released its national rape statistics in early February, they were accompanied by a directive to “wear suitable clothing in order not to tempt fate.” This was followed later that month by an opinion piece in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar that said women must only go out at night in the presence of a “companion” and must avoid “fashion clothing and trendy outfits showing too much of the body,” lest they “invite criminals” or “be mistaken with the call girls or hookers.”

What the government and spokespeople fail to realize is that victim-blaming is both morally and tactically bankrupt.

“Many recent rape cases did not happen exclusively to girls wearing short skirts,” said Hnin Yee Aye. “Many of these rapes are happening to old grandmother-aged women and to kids playing on the street with snot covering their faces.”

Furthermore, she pointed out, expectations that women stay home at night have no place in the modern world.

“Realistically speaking, many women have to finish work and return home late at night, and if we had anti-rape laws that we could count on, we could do so without fear.”

Women's Defense Association members attend a protest
Women’s Defense Association members attend a protest outside a Yangon courthouse on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

The members of the Women’s Defense Association are under no illusion that Myanmar will enact the death penalty for rapists and say they have little faith in a parallel movement that has launched a public petition calling on parliament to enact the penalty. Instead, by bombarding the public with their apparent thirst for blood, they hope to drive home the realization that if Myanmar society wants to be rid of sexual violence, then potential perpetrators – primarily men – must be taught a lesson, literally.

“Rapes happen because there is no sex education in this country. It’s worse in the case of boys. They learn about sex through other boys who hear about it from other boys. Learning about sex through kya zaga (locker room talk) is making everything worse,” said Hnin Yee Aye. “Rather than these boys learning incorrect things in secret from each other, it is better to openly teach them correct information.”

And if men fail to learn this lesson quickly enough, they will continue to have a small army of women calling for executions.

“Until the death penalty is carried out, this will keep happening,” said Thin Thanda, another member of the Women’s Defense Association. “We need to make an example of at least 10 of these rapists. If we make an example of them, like they do in other countries, this problem will be greatly lessened. It won’t totally solve the problem, but it will reduce it.”

Additional reporting by Aye Min Thant.

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