BURMA: When Unarmed Women Are in the Hands of Armed Men

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The Irrawaddy
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

“I was terrified. I kept screaming, and then he threatened to punch my baby through my stomach if I didn't stop,” said a pregnant woman from Kachin State, describing her rape at the hands of a Burmese government soldier.

“I was so afraid. All I could do was cry while he brutally raped me,” she said, sobbing.

The woman was speaking to women's rights researchers who had traveled to war-torn Kachin State to produce a documentary about sexual violence perpetrated against women in the conflict zone. She was just one of 18 women known to have been raped by Burmese soldiers in the state, where the Burmese army is mounting a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.

The documentary, produced by the Thailand-based Women's League of Burma (WLB) and titled “Bringing Justice to Women,” makes harrowing viewing.

“If possible, I want legal action taken against the military government in Burma,” said the woman, not looking very hopeful that that would ever happen.

Kachin State is not the only place in Burma where ethnic women are targets of sexual violence. In neighboring Shan State, rights activists reported that four ethnic Shan women, aged between 12 and 50 years old—including one women who was nine months' pregnant—were raped by soldiers in July.

The film highlights the ongoing systematic use of rape as a weapon against ethnic minorities in areas of renewed military conflict in Kachin, Karen and Shan states, one year after Burma held its first election in more than two decades.

At a time when Naypyidaw is stepping up its efforts to win international legitimacy, the film, using interviews with rape survivors, community members and women's rights groups, provides compelling evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government's army continue unabated under the new military-backed “civilian” regime.

Moon Nay Li, a spokeswoman for the Thailand-based Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT), toldThe Irrawaddy, “In the war zone, women are most vulnerable and their lives and safety are at risk. Some are raped then killed by the government army.”

“The situation is getting worse instead of better, especially in ethnic areas, after the general election in 2010,” she added.

Civilians routinely become victims of forced labor, torture, rape and murder in Burma's conflict zones. The fact that such abuses have not stopped despite the supposed transition to democratic rule means that it is too early to be optimistic about recent political developments in Burma, according to Moon Nay Li.

With no signs of improvement in the army's human rights record, the WLB has renewed calls for a UN-led Commission of Inquiry (CoI) leading to the referral of Than Shwe, the chief of the ex-military regime, and other former leading generals to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

One reason the army continues to commit rampant human rights abuses is that for decades it has acted with impunity. In fact, Burma's 2008 Constitution guarantees the country's military leaders immunity from prosecution. Under Articles 443 and 445 of Chapter XIV of the Constitution, members of the current regime cannot be held accountable for their wrongdoings in the past.

Article 443 states that “the preparatory work done by the [regime] before this Constitution comes into operation, to bring the Constitution into operation, shall be deemed to have been carried out in accord with this Constitution.”

“No proceeding shall be instituted against the [ruling military council] or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties,” according to Article 445.

According to Moon Nay Li, the 2008 Constitution, which was written by handpicked representatives of Burma's various social and ethnic groups, serves only to protect those who have committed crimes in ethnic regions, and offers no security to ordinary citizens.

The WLB's documentary therefore argues that the only way to achieve justice in Burma is by calling on the government to implement the terms of UN resolutions demanding an end to acts of sexual violence carried out with impunity by members of the Burmese armed forces.

The US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, who made his third visit to the country in less than two months last week, has also called for an end to rights abuses in ethnic areas.

Speaking to reporters, he said, “We heard about the continuing conflict in ethnic areas, a continuation of decades of conflict in which many thousands of non-combatants have been the victims, and where serious abuses, including against women and children, continue.”

“We continue to be greatly concerned about these issues and we have raised these concerns with the government officials with whom we met,” said Mitchell.

Giving a live speech to a conference in Canada on May 23-25 this year, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, especially in areas of the ethnic nationalities. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and divide our country.”