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Burmese government soldiers continue to perpetrate sexual violence against women on a widespread scale with impunity, according to a Women’s League of Burma (WLB) report issued on 25 November, which the UN recently designated as “The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.”
The report—entitled “If they had hope, they would speak: The ongoing use of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma’s ethnic communities”—contains excerpts from interviews that WLB conducted with various civic organisations, including the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma). One interviewee from ND-Burma quoted in the report described how intimidation faced by sexual violence victims and NGOs hinders their ability to obtain justice.
“Making information public is still a big problem – a lot of people are still very scared to speak out about their problems. When survivors live near to a military base, perpetrators surround their village. We get a lot of information that we can’t publicise because people are too afraid. Our field staff regularly face intimidation as well – it puts us in a very difficult position because we often have to forgo justice to keep our staff safe,” said the ND-Burma interviewee.
The WLB report also described how the growing number of large-scale development projects in ethnic areas has led to an expansion of the government’s military presence in these regions, resulting in “burgeoning human rights abuses and undermining the safety of women.”
In the course of implementing development projects in resource-rich ethnic states, the WLB said that across the country, “the military has been violating the terms of ceasefire agreements signed with Ethnic Armed Organisations, and directing harassment and persecution against ethnic communities and human rights defenders.”
Another NGO interviewed by WLB, the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), indicated that it is difficult—if not impossible—to file a legal complaint for sexual violence in ethnic areas, especially in places where armed conflict is still ongoing.
In the report, a KWAT member was cited as saying, “The government says survivors can lodge a complaint with the Myanmar National Committee for Women’s Affairs [MNCWA], and then follow legal procedures from there. But where are the MNCWA in conflict zones? The government is doing nothing to raise awareness about how women can obtain justice. That’s why people stay silent— they want justice but they don’t know how to get it.”
In a press release accompanying the report, WLB said that in order to “achieve sustainable peace and help safeguard the rights of ethnic women” the Burmese government “must immediately stop its military offensives in the ethnic areas, pull back its troops, and begin political dialogue with the ethnic armed groups towards genuine federalism.”
Emphasising the direct connection between sexual assault and Burma’s overall peace process, the press release quoted WLB General Secretary Tin Tin Nyo as saying: “The Burma Army must be brought under civilian control, and there must be a negotiated settlement to the civil war that will grant ethnic peoples equality under a genuine federal system of government … If these actions are not taken, state-sponsored sexual violence against women of ethnic communities will not stop.”
The press release also noted that although the Burmese government has made official commitments to advance the status of women—such as creating a “National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women”—little has been done to improve the lives of women in ethnic communities.
“The absence of concrete and time-bound plans of action has meant that amidst Burma’s ‘transition’, the country’s women continue to be denied their basic human rights,” said the statement.
Another factor which has contributed towards the marginalisation of women’s issues in Burma is the absence of women’s voices in Burma’s political and public life, according to the WLB.
The group’s press release said, “The dearth of women in formal decision-making positions, and the persecution of civil society organisations—in which women play a more active role—further undermines women’s ability to address the challenges and abuses they face.”
Following the release of the WLB report, Burma Campaign UK released a press statement which said that more than 2,000 postcards were delivered to the British Foreign Office calling on the UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to support the establishment of an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese army.
The Burma Campaign UK’s statement noted that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called on Naypyidaw to investigate crimes of sexual violence. It also noted that Burma’s government made an international commitment to end violence against by signing the Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Although the declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity, promote accountability and provide justice and safety for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, Burma Campaign UK’s statement says that Burma “appears to have taken no steps to implement the declaration,” an egregious omission which the NGO says “further strengthens the case for an international investigation.”
The London-based group added: “Given the fact that the Burmese government is ignoring the call for action by the UN Secretary-General, and has failed to comply with the International Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is time for the international community to conduct its own investigation into sexual violence by the Burmese Army.”
The London-based NGO’s Campaigns Manager, Zoya Phan, thinks that Britain should take the lead in such an investigation.
The group’s press statement quoted her as saying, “As a country with a strong commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict, Britain should take the lead in building global support for an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese military.”
Although the WLB report documents 118 incidences of sexual violence against women since 2010, it also says that WLB believes this figure only represents “a fraction of the actual number of cases that have taken place,” and that such abuses are so widespread and systematic in Burma that they “must be investigated, and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law.”