New report details ongoing sexualized violence in Burma

By — January 13, 2014

On November 27, 2012, a 26-year-old woman was gang-raped by seven Burmese soldiers.

When the woman’s husband returned home, the soldiers threatened to kill him. “Even if you tell other people, there is no one who will take action,” they said. “We have the authority to rape women.”

This case, and those of several other attacks, are outlined in a new report released today by the Women’s League of Burma. The report, “Same impunity, same patterns: Sexual abuses by the Burma Army will not stop until there is a genuine civilian government,” provides ample and troubling evidence of the Burmese military’s continuing, extensive, and systematic use of sexualized violence against ethnic women.

A snapshot of a map shows concentrated numbers of rape cases. To see the full map, go to page 21 of the report.

The report outlines the sweeping reforms that are necessary to ensure justice for women, including amending the current constitution to give the civilian government authority over the military and to remove the provisions that grant the military complete impunity for its actions. It also details specific recommendations for actions to be taken by the Burmese government, the international community, and ethnic armed groups to end the long-standing and pervasive pattern of sexualized violence.

Overall, the report confirms that despite the civilian government’s rhetoric regarding reform, ethnic women in Burma continue to endure a broad range of human rights violations, including sexualized violence.

Unfortunately, the Burmese government has thus far resisted the fundamental political changes necessary for true democratic reform and has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses committed by the military. The international community, too, seems more interested in embracing the potential for economic investment in this resource-rich country than in following through on its repeated commitments to ensuring true democratic reform and ending sexualized violence in conflict.

In Burma, token talks of peace
After a military coup in 1962, a dictatorial military junta has ruled Burma and engaged in armed conflict with Burma’s numerous ethnic groups. In 2010, the military undertook a program of “transition” to “democracy,” adopted a (military-drafted) constitution, and held “democratic” elections. But Burma’s political landscape remains tightly controlled by a military regime more interested in offering token reforms in order to legitimize itself than in fostering genuine democratic change.

As part of this plan, the civilian government has sought to sign peace agreements and ceasefires with ethnic groups. Between December 2011 and December 2012, 11 new peace agreements were signed, yet armed offensives characterized by human rights abuses continued unabated. According to the report:

Even while ethnic armed groups were meeting with government representatives in Kachin States to discuss a proposed nationwide ceasefire accord in November 2013, the Burmese military were attacking villages in southern Kachin State, displacing around 2,000 people. … This is the latest sign that surface reforms obscure the reality of ongoing abuse in ethnic areas.

The findings also note that foreign countries appeared content to accept a “simplistic narrative on current developments in Burma, overlooking the fact that such a narrative is only one side of the story.” The international community has lifted longstanding economic sanctions, encouraged foreign investment, and directly provided aid, including to ongoing peace negotiations. All this has occurred while the military continues to systematically perpetrate human rights abuses, including sexualized violence, against ethnic populations.

Moreover, the peace process has marginalized women; no women negotiate peace on behalf of the government, and women’s issues, such as sexualized violence, are entirely ignored.

Systematic, militarized acts of violence
“Same impunity, same patterns” details multiple instances of sexualized violence committed by Burmese soldiers since the 2010 elections. Scores of women have been subjected to sexualized violence since then, the report says, including at least 47 gang rapes with victims as young as 8 years old. More than 28 women have been killed or died from their injuries.

It is crucial to note that more than 35 townships and 38 different battalions are implicated in these assaults, indicating that the crimes are not random, isolated acts by rogue soldiers but instead systematic violations that are used as a weapon of war and oppression.

Most violations are linked directly to military offensives in resource-rich areas, including Kachin and Northern Shan states, which indicates that they may be part of military strategy or retribution for alleged support to armed ethnic groups.

The report describes the case of one woman, Ma Kaw (not her real name):

The wife of one of the men arrested in the headman’s house was detained with other villagers in the church hall. At 7 p.m. in the evening of September 2, she requested permission from the soldiers guarding the hall to go and see Major Zaw Tun Hang, commanding office of [Light Infantry Battalion] 138, to beg for her husband's release. When she went to see [the Major], in another house, the officer threatened her and accused her of being linked to the [Kachin Independence Army], then raped her. She returned crying back to the hall at 9 p.m.

As the report points out, even more troubling is the fact that many of the perpetrators are high-ranking officials in the military, such as captains, commanders, and majors. All levels of the Burmese Army evidently use sexualized violence to demoralize and destroy ethnic communities.

The report also provides crucial and damaging evidence of a pattern of sexual abuse within the context of larger human rights abuses, such as “confiscation and destruction of property, forced displacement, forced labor, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearance and killing.” Reliable empirical information and firsthand data are difficult to come by, given security concerns and the inaccessibility of certain areas, sometimes due to governmental restrictions. In addition, ethnic women are reluctant to come forward with their stories for fear of retribution against them and their families.

For these reasons, data in the report is likely the tip of the iceberg, reflecting just a small portion of the actual number of instances of sexualized violence.

Little room for redress
To date, few, if any, perpetrators have been punished and few victims have received redress or reparation. Justice is prevented not only by unwillingness on the part of the military to punish or stop such crimes, but by structural barriers enshrined in the constitution that have led to a culture of pervasive impunity for crimes of sexualized violence.

The constitution itself prohibits justice for victims. The constitutional governing framework designed by the military does not give the civilian government the legal capacity to enforce any laws against the military, including international laws prohibiting war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The cases of sexualized violence detailed in the report would be considered such crimes under international humanitarian law

Moreover, the military can never be held accountable for its actions, given the impunity guarantees enshrined in Article 445 of the constitution. The United Nations and the Security Council stress the need for the exclusion of sexualized violence crimes from amnesty provisions, yet no foreign government has called for amending these provisions. 

Another major structural barrier is the constitution’s establishment of military courts with an unrestricted mandate and overly broad power to hear all military matters.  Even decisions of the military courts are not definitive since the constitution provides that on all military matters the decision of the commander-in-chief is final and conclusive. Further, civilian court judges don’t have the expertise, the independence, or the impartiality to adjudicate cases. Therefore, constitutional reform must go hand in hand with deep reform of the judiciary.

These judicial shortcomings, coupled with structural barriers enshrined in the constitution, ensure that victims of sexualized violence committed by the military have no means of redress or reparation.

Without international pressure, justice is unlikely
In recent years, the international community has made significant commitments toward ending sexualized violence in conflict. Recognizing that this was a matter of international peace and security, in 2000, the Security Council passed its first resolution to combat sexualized violence in conflict (Resolution 1325) and passed six additional resolutions reiterating its commitment, including Resolution 2106, which was adopted in June 2013. Since 2008, the Security Council has had a specific agenda item on conflict-related sexual violence, linked to the broader agenda of women, peace, and security. 

In 2013, a UK-led initiative to prevent sexualized violence called for practical and political commitments to end impunity, promote accountability, and provide justice and safety for victims of sexualized violence in conflict.  The campaign attracted the support of 137 countries, but Burma has yet to sign the declaration.

Unfortunately, none of these initiatives have helped the ethnic women of Burma. Thus far, the international community has rewarded the regime and refused to publicly condemn the military’s actions, despite the apparent international consensus against sexualized violence in conflict.   

The Women’s League of Burma has outlined specific recommendations to the Burmese government, the international community, and ethnic armed groups for action to be taken to stem the tide of sexualized violence. The recommendations include amending the constitution; reforming the judiciary; ensuring that women’s concerns are taken into consideration during the peace process and that women are able to participate in the peace negotiations; instituting a meaningful forum for hearing human rights complaints (both past and future); and adopting specific laws for the protection of women in Burma. 

But the report makes one thing clear: Any meaningful changes will come only after a fundamental reshaping of the political philosophy of the military ruling party and the military itself. Unfortunately, without international pressure this appears unlikely to happen.  

To read our in-depth analysis of how sexualized violence is used in a tool of war in Burma, please click here.