The Burmese army has been following a policy of systematically raping women and girls to subjugate the country's rebellious ethnic minorities, according to a new report.
The latest conflict between the militant Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese military reveals widespread use of rape by the military as a psychological weapon.
The Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT) reports that at least 37 women were raped by state soldiers over June and July alone when the fighting erupted.
Women's rights groups operating along the Thai-Burma border have documented 81 cases of rape of women and girls over the course of eight months of fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic armed forces. Of these, 36 women were killed by the soldiers.
Over the last decade the Women's League of Burma (WLB), an umbrella organisation for various ethnic women's groups, has documented hundreds of cases that suggest that rape is not a by-product of war but a deliberate strategy used by the military.
"By looking at the nature of violations and the worsening situation during conflict, we can say with confidence that the military is precisely using rape as a weapon against women," Shirley Seng, founder of KWAT, told IPS.
"Our aim is to collect information on sexual violence to understand the root causes and to publicise it to the international community," Seng explains. Seng is the widow of the founder of the militant Kachin Independence Organisation.
"Whenever rape cases happen, we get information from our partners and we also go and interview the victims and conduct our own field investigations," she said.
"How do we know that rape is being used as a weapon? Because the civilians who are attacked are told this by the soldiers attacking them," said Seng.
Victims of rape may be in continuing danger not only from the perpetrators, who enjoy impunity, but also from their own communities due to the social stigma attached to rape, local reports reveal.
Conflicts in northern and eastern Burma that erupted between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups in the Shan and Kachin states in March and June are reported to have led to displacement of more than 30,000 civilians.
Soldiers also regularly persecute the Rohingyas who are not recognised as citizens by the Burmese government, although they have lived in western Arakan state for generations with established roots, ties and property.
Stories of displacement, violence and persecution involving ethnic minority communities such as the Karen, Shan and the Kachin have been commonplace since the formation of the Burmese state in 1948 when ethnic representatives demanded autonomy.
When armed groups sprang up among these minorities the government responded by heavily militarising the homelands of these remote communities.
Amongst the most vulnerable in this struggle are women. Sexual violence has been a constant theme among ethnic minority communities living along the borders of the country. There are continuing reports of deliberate displacement and intimidation, with women targeted as part of a campaign to weaken the social fabric of the different ethnic groups.
"I was only four years old. My mother told me that we had to run away, otherwise they would kill us," says 21-year-old Rahima, describing her flight from her home in the western Arakan state. During her flight across the country to the Thai-Burma border Rahima, and others like her, sought refuge in railway stations that were often raided by the military.
She describes soldiers taking away the "attractive" women who would be returned later with obvious physical injuries but hidden mental wounds as a result of sexual violence and torture.
Rahima's sister was raped by Burmese soldiers. But due to the social stigma and ostracism that would follow in the local community, no one in her family spoke about the incident.
"It is very shameful in my culture to talk about rape. In my whole time there, dozens of women were taken. Not one of them ever told of what had happened," said Rahima.
Narratives resembling Rahima's are common in conflict zones where evidence suggests that the military uses rape as a psychological weapon to intimidate civilians, shame the men in the community, and to 'Burmanise' these populations by mixing bloodlines.
It is difficult to verify how explicit 'orders to rape' from the state military could be. But what is verifiable is that renewed conflict situations have coincided with concurrent and drastic rise in sexual violence.
Seng believes use of rape is not only encouraged but also ordered by Burmese military officials. Her peer at the WLB, Charm Tong, who leads the Shan Women's Action Network, co-authored the report ‘License to Rape' in 2002, which documented 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burmese army troops in Shan state.
Tong continues to travel to Shan, where she and her colleagues have documented cases of pregnant women and their daughters being raped inside their homes by state soldiers raiding villages.
The International Criminal Court recognises rape, sexual slavery "or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" as war crimes when committed as part of a systematic practice.
WLB's goal is to mobilise support for an investigation by an international body to examine the trends, patterns and extent of sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers in Burma.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, United Nations Human Rights rapporteur for Burma, expressed concern over "continuing human rights abuses such as forced labour, land confiscation and rape in ethnic minority communities," and called for an independent investigation commission during a visit to the country in September.
Following Quintana's visit, the Burmese government set up the Myanmar (as Burma is also known) National Human Rights Commission to "safeguard the rights of its citizens" as announced in the state run newspaper ‘New Light of Myanmar'.
Rights groups point out that any accountability mechanism for crimes must be followed by a remedy process and that any permanent remedy can happen only when militarisation ends in these areas