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Myanmar courts delay verdicts in cases of sexual violence

FROM THE DVB NEWSROOM

Sexual violence against women in Myanmar has increased since the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021. Trials for rape cases have been delayed over the last three years and the victims are left with little protection, according to survivors of sexual assault. 

The judicial system in Myanmar has collapsed as courts in the country have prioritized prosecuting opponents of the military. It has delayed investigating and issuing verdicts in cases involving rape and other forms of sexual violence. An 11-year-old girl was raped and drowned in a ditch in Yangon’s South Dagon Township on Oct. 14, 2022. 

“Although the victim’s parents identified the culprit and filed a complaint at the police station, they transferred the culprit to a military court. The parents have been told to come back later. But the case went viral on social media and the victim’s family was finally able to file a lawsuit,” said a South Dagon resident. 

Another Yangon woman claimed that the military has been neglecting to prosecute criminal cases such as homicide, robbery and rape. She added that women no longer want to come forward to police with cases of sexual violence.

“One of my cousins has been dealing with a trial for two years at the district court and nothing has changed. The trial date was moved to another day if there was a political case on the day of the hearing,” said the woman from Hlegu Township. 

A Shwepaukkan Township resident who filed a complaint at a police station after she was assaulted claimed that the police officers asked unnecessary questions that made her feel uncomfortable. 

“Police said they will catch the culprit but asked me to take responsibility if something happens to him. I didn’t know what to say. Aren’t they supposed to help me?” she asked. 

A Yangon lawyer, on the condition of anonymity, explained that courts across Myanmar are prioritizing politically-motivated criminal cases, including charges of incitement, or violations of the Telecommunications and Counter Terrorism Laws. “Cases like rape and homicide consume [a lot of] time,” said the unnamed lawyer. 

A township court can sentence someone convicted of rape to a maximum punishment of up to seven years in prison. District courts can sentence perpetrators to a maximum of 20 years. But since 2021, police are working together with the military and have been ordered not to venture outside to investigate assault, according to residents. 

“People have filed complaints via phone and told us to come down to the wards to arrest them. But no one takes responsibility if something happens to us as we might end up killed. There were over 20 police officers in Yangon who have been killed,” said a Yangon police officer on the condition of anonymity. 

An unnamed source close to the North Okkalapa Township Court said some culprits were freed as the military ordered a dismissal of ongoing rape and homicide cases on Aug. 11, 2021. It stated that it would do this unless the victims filed “suitable reasons” that these cases should continue.  

The Thingangyun District Court convicted actor Min Yar Zar of rape under Section 376(1) of the Penal Code and sentenced him to 20 years. But he was released after the 2021 coup. “The victims’ family appealed to the court and he was later re-arrested,” said the unnamed source.  

The Supreme Court’s annual report stated that there were 2,782 rape cases from 2021-2023. “Most of those cases have not yet been given verdicts and many of the trials are still ongoing. This data are not included rape cases in conflict zones,” said an anonymous source from the Office of the Minstry of Justice. 

A total of 969 rape cases occurred in Myanmar in 2021 with 672 involving the rape of minors under the age of 18. In 2022, there were 860 cases with 627 involving minors. In 2023, 321 rape cases involved minors. 

“People are afraid to testify or help even if they know the truth because they don’t want trouble from the police,” said a human rights activist on the condition of anonymity.

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