The Myanmar central government has consistently denied its soldiers have systematically used rape as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities. But according to numerous reports, despite recent political reforms, Myanmar’s army has continued to rape, torture and kill civilians of the ethnic minorities.
In 2011, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said: ”Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.”
President Thein Sein has denied the allegations, instead stating in October 2012 that, ”our military is very disciplined, there is no reason for the military to commit acts of rape or murder”. As long as the central government does not acknowledge the gross human rights violations systematically committed by its military, there will be no genuine peace between the Myanmar people and the ethnic minorities.
There have been countless reports of the Myanmar army’s systematic use of rape against ethnic women. These reports, including from the Karen Women’s Organsation (KWO), Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), as well as the United Nations and international non-government organisations, clearly indicate that rape is being systematically used as an instrument of war against all ethnic minorities, and has at least the tacit approval of higher authorities in the Myanmar government.
A more recent report documenting systematic rape came out in September last year. ”State Terror in the Kachin Hills”, written by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), details the experiences of 26 civilians, including women and children, who suffered from abuse by the Myanmar military since last September. KWAT has also reported at least 64 cases of rape and sexual assault in Kachin State. However, the organisation has said that there could be many more cases, but that NGOs were unable to make contact with many rural areas and villages under government control.
Previous reports of rape being used as a tool of war include ”Walking amongst sharp knives”, ”State of terror”, and ”Shattering silences” by the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) in 2010, 2007 and 2004 respectively.
One of the more famous reports, ”Licence to rape”, published by the Shan Women’s Action Network in 2002 clearly demonstrated that the Myanmar military is systematically using rape as an instrument of war and for ethnic purification.
The reports show that these crimes are being committed by senior military officers, and even though Myanmar is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention, there are no indications the government has taken any initiatives to enforce international humanitarian laws amongst its army.
Indeed there are very few known cases of military personnel being punished for such acts.
The fact that rape is occurring in Myanmar military bases is evidence that this horrific crime has become widespread practice. The numerous reports make clear that rape is used by the Myanmar army to terrorise, intimidate and break the will of ethnic peoples.
This issue goes beyond the issue of conflict between the armed groups and the Myanmar military, and treating the issue through such a narrow lens will not help bring an end to the suffering of hundreds of women living in conflict-affected areas.
For example, a report in 2005 completed by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland and the Woman and Child Rights Foundation Project documented the use of rape by the Myanmar army against ethnic women in Mon state, despite a 10-year ceasefire agreement in that area. Rape is also widespread because there are no enforcement mechanisms in place, village women are vulnerable, and according to documentary evidence, it’s because of a government policy of ethnic purification.
In mid-2012 the National Human Rights Commission reported claims of abuses against civilians in Kachin state, including the systematic use of rape by the army. However, the commission has been severely criticised by numerous local and international organisations for failing to challenge the government on such sensitive issues, its lack of transparency and reporting, and the lack of substantive action it has taken. Its most recent ”report” on human rights violations by the military stated that, ”The commission does not wish to make any comment on the interrogation of the suspects by security forces for security reasons and on their prosecution in accordance with the law”.
Special Rapporteur to the UN, Tomas Ojea Quintana, noted the seriousness of the situation in ethnic areas in his special report of March 2013, highlighting ongoing abuses such as attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence. The report also noted the large gap between reform at the top and implementation on the ground.
So what can be done to end sexual violence in conflict-affected zones? Several steps can be taken. According to Blooming Night Zan, a member of the KWO Central Committee, the KNU has drafted a code of conduct for the proper treatment of women. In an interview, she said that both sides need to understand what the code of conduct is, and what constitutes violence and abuse against women specifically. The next step after the ceasefire will be to work with the NGOs to educate both sides about the proper conduct of soldiers, and make sure there is a system of accountability by NGOs and the Myanmar government itself.
Thein Sein’s government cannot credibly claim that Myanmar is becoming more democratic whilst such abuses against ethnic groups continue unchecked and unpunished.
True, fundamental change in civilian control of the military, and Myanmar military culture will take time, but action needs to be taken as soon as possible. If not, foreign governments with their business and development projects in Myanmar will only be approving and rewarding the suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
*Christine Leah is a research analyst on military and strategic issues in Asia; Nan Paw Gay is a founding member of www.karennews.org
This article appeared first in Bangkok Post on 25 March 2013.