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In a report reopening allegations of the Burmese army’s persistent and systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) has reignited calls for an international commission into violence against women in Burma.
“The widespread nature and scale of rape and sexual violence incidents meets the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the BCUK report reads, citing the UN’s repeated use of the terminology which define those legal terms in statements made on sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army.
In a 2008 report, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, alluded to instances of sexual violence, which “are not simply isolated acts of individual misconduct by middle- or low-ranking officers, but rather the result of a system.”
Despite this, the UN has at no level initiated any investigation into sexual violence described by BCUK “as an organised means of dominating and subjugating ethnic populations”.
Nor has the seemingly reformist current Burmese government.
Thein Sein, despite appearing to have positioned himself as a counterweight to hardline military conservatism, has failed to acknowledge the possibility of rape and other grievous crimes against women by the army. “Our military is very disciplined. There is no reason for the military to commit acts of rape or murder,” Thein Sein guaranteed in 2012.
Nor does domestic pressure exist which might force the government to make such an admission. The 2008 constitution provides legal foundation to a culture of impunity surrounding grievous human rights violations by the Burmese military. Article 455 states “no proceeding shall be instituted against … any member of the Government, in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”
As the ruling government remains inextricably linked to the military there is a vested interest on the part of nominally civilian parliamentary representatives to suppress their own past indiscretions. BCUK’s report notes that 45 incidences of military rape were chronicled between 1996 and 1998 in the immediate area surrounding Kentung, eastern Shan State. There, at that time, Thein Sein himself commanded troops during Burmese army offensives that resulted in the displacement of 300,000 villagers.
Tin Tin Nyo of the Women’s League of Burma said she believes that since coming to power, Thein Sein has done nothing to improve the situation of women’s rights in Burma.
Whilst constitutional Article 455 belies the need for a national-level inquest into sexual violence and other human rights abuses by the Burmese military, the British government has acknowledged the need for international acknowledgement of the issue of the systematic use of sexual violence by the Burmese armed forces.
Through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, the UK government has provided funds in the region of US$500,000 for legal training for women and counseling to victims. Further to this, Hugo Swire of the UK Foreign Office met President Thein Sein and armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing in January in Naypyidaw, where he lobbied for Burma’s signature on the 2013 UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
However this alone will not solve the problem, according to BCUK director Mark Farmaner. “We need to see a commission on sexual violence in Burma along the lines of the UN commission of Inquiry on North Korea.” Farmaner told DVB. “It must be able to take evidence and make an assessment as to whether violations of international law are taking place.”
Seng Shadan, of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, agrees that the international community must probe violence against women in Burma’s peripheral ethnic areas. “Rape has been used as a weapon by the Burmese military for over 60 years,” she told DVB on Thursday. “To change this would require a shift in the attitude of the government, which I don’t think will happen without international pressure.”