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Burma's army uses rape to demoralise ethnic minorities, report says

A girl watches as soldiers (not implicated) walk by her home in Thapyuchai village, in Rakhine state. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

By Kate Hodal
November 25, 2014

Women’s rights group says military uses sexual violence to intimidate women in ethnic minority communities and take control of resource-rich areas 

The Burmese army systematically uses sexual violence against women – including gang rape by soldiers – to “demoralise and destroy the fabric of ethnic [minority] communities” and establish control over resource-rich areas, according to a women’s rights group.

A report by the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), released on Tuesday to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, says the use of sexual violence is so widespread in ethnic minority areas that abuses may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law. 

The WLB is an umbrella organisation comprising 13 women’s organisations of various ethnicities. 

The report, If They Had Hope, They Would Speak (pdf), highlights 118 incidences of rape, gang rape and sexual assault in both ceasefire and non-ceasefire areas at the hands of Burma’s armed forces since 2010 – but notes that these figures are likely to be “a fraction” of the number of abuses actually taking place. A culture of impunity and intimidation prevents women from reporting the crimes or seeking redress, the group claims.

Large-scale development projects in ethnic minority communities – including mining, hydroelectric and pipeline projects – have led to an increase in poverty, sexual violence and militarisation in those areas, the report claims, with the armed forces enjoying “de-facto immunity” for their crimes.

Documenting reports of sexual violence in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Chin, Shan and Karenni states – in some cases of victims as young as eight years old – the WLB alleges that both the number and geographic scope of the abuses proves that “sexual violence remains an institutionalised practice” of Burma’s armed forces. 

“The army are not interested in accountability for sexual violence or human rights abuses,” the Lahu Women’s Organisation says in the report. “If a captain or commander commits rape, they will go to the survivor’s house to apologise, and offer some compensation. Even the highest-ranking officers are doing this. If a gang rape committed by a group of soldiers is made public, they will quickly be moved to another base before they can be held to account.”

Burma’s president, Thein Sein – who came to power in 2011 after half a century of military-led rule – has reformed the country, from the privatisation of sectors of the economy to releasing political prisoners and easing media censorship. His government has made public pledges to help promote and protect women through a national strategic plan to advance women and a UK-led declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. But no action has been taken to implement the declaration, and very little has been done to help women in ethnic minority communities, the WLB says.

“The government of Burma has worked hard to show its reformist credentials to the world, but for women in Burma’s ethnic [minority] communities, human rights abuses and sexual violence at the hands of the Burma army remain a constant threat,” said the organisation’s general secretary, Tin Tin Nyo. “Any positive changes coming out of Naypyidaw [Burma’s capital] have not improved the lived experience of women in Burma.”

In March, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on Thein Sein to investigate crimes of sexual violence and human rights abuses, as well as develop a comprehensive strategy to protect survivors. The WLB has also repeatedly called on the government to demilitarise the nation (one-fourth of all parliamentary seats are reserved for the military); investigate human rights abuses; and promote and integrate women into the peace process.

Apart from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived for nearly two decades under house arrest and is now an MP, women are largely absent from any decision-making or powerful positions. Burma’s political, economic and social structures have long privileged men, says the WLB’s joint general secretary, Naw Wah Ku Shee, and the nation has the lowest representation of female MPs of any country in the Association of South-east Asian Nations. This dearth of powerful women undermines Burmese women’s capacity to confront and address the abuses they frequently face.

“As long as women continue to be marginalised from Burmese political and public life, sustainable peace cannot be realised,” Naw Wah Ku Shee told the Guardian, adding that Aung San Suu Kyi needed to do more to help women in her country. “[Aung San Suu Kyi] has not used her celebrity to highlight the scale of ongoing abuses faced by women in ethnic [minority] communities. If she is going to champion the human rights of the women in Burma, she must not be silent on the rape, torture and displacement faced by [these] women.”

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