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In conflict, it is often the most vulnerable that become the victims. Burma has been engaged in civil war for more than 60 years, and throughout that time there have been consistent reports of abuses against women and children committed by the military.
In part two of a special DVB Debate show, panellists discussed the widespread use of sexual violence in conflict.
In 2014, the Women’s League of Burma released a report that documented more than 100 victims of sexual violence at the hands of the Burmese Army since Thein Sein’s government took power. Panellists discussed whether sexual violence is used as a strategy by the military.
“People are questioning whether there is a hidden policy behind this,” said Dr Sui Khar, joint general secretary of the Chin National Front. “I would say there is.”
Arr Khon, from the Kachin Women’s Peace Network believes rape is use systematically by the Burmese military as a weapon of war.
“This is systematic rape. It is a systematic strategy to create a war mentality amongst the ethnic people and instigate war,” she said.
“Whether it is systematic rape or a non-systematic rape, it is a violation of human rights. There is no reason to accept it,” said Mi Mi Thin Aung, Gender Based Violence National Coordinator at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Rape is prohibited under domestic law, yet seemingly systematic rape in conflict areas continues across the country, and perpetrators are rarely punished.
Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, any crimes committed by military personnel are to be tried by a military court, granting almost complete impunity to the armed forces.
Panellists discussed whether rape in conflict violates international law, and debated whether something should be done on an international level.
“Can we only end the abuse of women if we have signed these conventions or treaties?” asked May Sabae Phyu from the Gender Equality Network.
Law professor Myat Min Zan argued that signing an international convention is not the most effective way to end sexual violence in conflict.
“I don’t mean that these cases can only be solved if the treaties are signed. What I mean is that it is almost impossible to report systematic rape as a war crime in the International Criminal Court. I am saying we need to face reality,” he said.
Mi Mi Thin Aung said that no one knows the extent of sexual violence in Burma, but argued that now is the time to act.
“The cases [from the Women’s League of Burma report] are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath this goes many miles deeper and we still can’t reach the deepest point, so we don’t need to wait until thousands of cases have been reported,” she said.
In June 2014, Burma signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The international agreement is a commitment to end the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The studio argued about how to make that happen, and what needs to change to stop these atrocities.
“In the conflict areas, there is only the rule of soldiers. There is no rule of law at all.
Those who have the weapons can do whatever they want. Human rights are being violated and the government needs to acknowledge that this is happening and be willing to solve these problems,” said Thin Thin Aung.
The studio also discussed increasing awareness about rape in conflict areas so that victims can be better protected, and generally agreed that there should be more pressure on the perpetrators.
“We need to educate our society. If there is a rape, the society doesn’t blame the rapist, it blames the woman who is raped,” said Nyein Chan May, Vice-President at Rangoon University of Foreign Language Students’ Union.
Thin Thin Aung said current campaigns to raise awareness are not effective. She said the onus is placed on women not to get raped, rather than telling men and boys not to rape.
“Some billboards posted by the police force say, ‘to prevent women from being raped, please be careful what you wear, don’t go out at night, don’t let your daughter go out with strangers’. These campaigns are putting responsibility on the women. The campaign should be targeted at the criminals and the emphasis should be on not committing this crime,” she said.
May Sabae Phyu noted that because soldiers are among the main perpetrators of sexual violence, the campaigns should be aimed at them.
“The awareness training is only given to ordinary citizens. Shouldn’t we educate the soldiers that this is a war crime and they will be seriously punished if they commit these crimes?”
Guests in the studio agreed that perpetrators of sexual violence need to be punished, and that military impunity must be addressed to stop sexual crimes in Burma’s conflict zones.