Burma's government has not supported a declaration launched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week to end sexual violence in conflict zones, as women in the country report continuing rape by soldiers amid the transition from military rule.
Despite lobbying from the British government, Burma is one of 80 UN member states that has not endorsed the declaration, which was signed by 113 member states as of this week and pledges not to allow amnesties for sexual violence in peace agreements.
The UK-led declaration also pledges to adopt a new international protocol next year to ensure that evidence collected in abuse cases can stand up in court, and to support civil society organizations to improve monitoring and documentation in cases of sexual violence.
“They don't want to admit that they have actually committed these kinds of crimes—I think that is one reason they do not want to sign,” Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of the Thailand-based Women's League of Burma, told The Irrawaddy of the Burma government's refusal to sign. “If they sign, they will have to follow up on a lot of cases of sexual violence in the country. Many crimes have happened with impunity, but the cases we have recorded have not seen any legal justice.”
She said women activists in the past have called on the United Nations to independently investigate sexual violence in Burma's conflict zones.
“Conflicts are continuing, and it is difficult for the UN agencies and other official agencies to verify the cases,” she added.
Burma has been praised by the international community for its political and economic reforms since President Thein Sein came to power in 2011. But despite ceasefires, clashes are continuing between government soldiers and armed rebel groups in ethnic minority areas, with some activist groups including the Burma Campaign UK saying they have received an increasing number of reports of rape over the past two years.
Last weekend, an historic women's forum in Rangoon saw more than 400 activists and policy makers discussing women's rights and calling for an end to gender-based violence.
“As we pass years of civil war, women have been raped and tortured, suffering many forms of violence,” said Susanna Hla Hla Soe of the Karen Women's Action Group (KWAG). She said leaders of the women's forum sent a petition to Naypyidaw on Wednesday, with 474 signatures, calling for an end to violence against women and justice for victims of past abuses.
Aung Tun Khaing, director general of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said the issue of sexual violence was being discussed as part of peace negotiations between the government and ethnic rebel groups.
“In the Myanmar [Burma] Army, we have a rigid rule against sexual violence against local people,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “Some problems remain with this issue, but not very much. According to our survey, in Kachin State, there are offenders not only in the Army, but also from some [rebel] armed groups. So now in the peace process, the government is discussing this.”
He declined to comment on Burma's decision not to sign the declaration this week. “I cannot say now [about the declaration], but the first step now is that we are trying to develop an anti-violence against women law,” he said. “This would include domestic violence and sexual violence. So this is the first step.”
The Shan Women's Action Network, a network of Shan women in Burma and Thailand, documented 173 of cases of rape and other sexual violence at the hands of government soldiers in Shan State between 1996 and 2001. Since 2002, the network has received more than 300 complaints of rape committed by soldiers, and less than a year after the government signed a ceasefire with Shan rebels in January 2012, the group said it had received more than 10 reports of rape, adding that many more cases likely went unreported.
In Kachin State, where a ceasefire broke down in 2011, sexual violence has also been reported amid continuing clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In a shocking case last year in May, a grandmother with 12 children was reportedly beaten and gang-raped by 10 soldiers in a church.
“The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict in Burma must be stopped,” Zoya Phan, campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK, said in a statement. “If Thein Sein refuses to cooperate, then international legal action should be taken to prevent these crimes.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Thein Sein to participate in the initiative to prevent sexual violence when the Burmese president visited London in July, according to Burma Campaign UK.
Hague reportedly said this week that he would continue to encourage UN member states that have not signed the declaration to do so.
At the women's forum in Rangoon, participants also called for amendments to the Constitution to offer greater legal protection for women. They urged the government to allow women to play a greater role in peace negotiations.
“The issue of sexual violence shouldn't be ignored—it needs to be brought to the table of negotiations taking place between ethnic armed groups and the government and democratic forces,” said Tin Tin Nyo of the Women's League of Burma. “This is something women's groups have been pushing for. At the very least we are looking for an apology from those who have committed these abuses. For the women of Burma, we will continue to fight in any way possible to get justice for those who have been the object of rape in conflict.”