Jamalida Begum (Myanmar/Bangladesh): A Brave Voice Refusing To Be Silenced

At this time, when the world has been watching as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the situation of the Rohingya population in Myanmar as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, RAW in WAR wishes to use this opportunity to pay special tribute to Jamalida Begum, a brave Rohingya survivor of rape by Myanmar security forces, currently a refugee in Bangladesh, who, in 2016, spoke out about her own rape and that of three other women in her village and continued to denounce their treatment publicly, at severe personal risk.

In so doing, Jamalida Begum played a significant role in drawing the world’s attention to the grave human rights violations being committed against the Rohingya population, including sexual violence committed against Rohingya women and girls, in Myanmar. She is a Brave Voice Refusing To Be Silenced and joins a growing RAW community of women survivors and activists who speak out against atrocities and violations against civilians in conflict zones around the world.

On announcing the winners of the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Leila Alikarami, 2009 Award winner from Iran and a member of the 2017 Award Nominations Committee, said:

“It is very important to acknowledge Jamalida Begum as a Brave Voice Refusing To Be Silenced. It is crucial at this moment to shed light on the situation of Rohingya women. Many women from ethnic groups like Rohingya Muslims, women from conflict zones, from countries that are in war like Syria, Yemen and Palestine are fighting for peace, human rights and justice. They put at risk their lives. They have lost their loved ones. We cannot imagine the gravity of their pain. But what we can do for them is to give them a voice, is to support them by making their stories known, by sharing their pain and by contributing to their cause.

International recognition of the struggle of women in conflicts zones, as well as in closed societies would help them to not give up hope. We are far from conflict zones but it is our duty to stand by our sisters in conflict zones and give them hope. I believe that only humanity makes right human rights. Awards such as the Ana Politkovskaya Award, have strengthen the women’s movement in many countries, including in Iran, and we become stronger.”

 Jamalida Begum – a 26-year-old Rohingya woman was gang-raped by the military in her village in December 2016 and several days later her husband was killed by the military. She had the courage to speak out to the Government Investigation Team and to journalists about her rape and the rape of other Rohingya women and other atrocities.

She complained to the Myanmar Investigation Team which visited her village in December 2016. Her interaction with the investigators was filmed and subsequently several minutes of it broadcast on Myanmar state TV. The BBC described it thus:  “It is extraordinary footage, not just because of the way Jamalida is browbeaten by the translators, but because the Burmese state broadcaster didn’t translate what Jamalida is saying to the investigators in the Rohingya language”. Ten days later she was filmed again, this time by a group of hand-picked journalists brought to her village by the government. There was some discrepancy between her first testimony and the second one. Jamalida was again shown on State TV, paraded as a liar.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook page subsequently called Jamalida’s story an example of ‘Fake Rape’.

After the interview, the man who helped interpret for the journalists in the village was killed by the military. Jamalida fled to a near-by village and heard that the military went door-to-door with her picture looking for her. Then she fled in January 2017 to Bangladesh with her 7-year-old son and her elderly father.

While in the refugee camp, rape survivor Jamalida kept speaking out to journalists about the rape she and other Rohingya women suffered and the human rights violations she witnessed. Apparently an official from Myanmar came to the camp in Bangladesh to meet her and persuade her to go back. She does not feel safe even in the Bangladesh refugee camp.

On accepting the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Gulalai Ismail, paid a special tribute to Jamalida Begum:

“While I receive this award wars, gun violence, and genocides continue in many parts of the world. Refugee camps are becoming homes to millions of people. People are getting denied their right to self-determination. New brands of religious extremist organisations keep on emerging, with every new brand beholding much more severity of violence. The world seems to be in its darkest period, but I want to tell you that no matter how dark the world is, there is HOPE as well. Hope in the form of Jamalida Begum from Myanmar, who is a brave survivor of rape by the Myanmar security forces, and despite threats to her life she Spoke up and refused to be silenced. If there are conflicts, there are brave women too and this award is not only my recognition as a person, but a recognition of all those brave women who have spoken out, even if the cost was intimidation, threats and murder.”

RAW in WAR urges the government in Myanmar to end the killing of the Muslim population and the sexual violence against women and girls in Rakhine state immediately. RAW in WAR calls on the government of Bangladesh and the international community to provide the necessary protection to refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, including to Jamalida Begum and her son and father.

Jamalida continues to speak out about what she witnessed and about her and other women’s rape at the hands of the Myanmar military. Zahra Rasool from Al Jazeera made a film about Jamalida called “I am Rohingya” (it is Al Jazeera’s first Virtual Reality documentary), which premiered in September 2017.