BURMA: Burmese Army's Licence to Rape Is Region's Shame

Monday, July 18, 2011
The Nation
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Burma's horrific military tactics drag on thanks to Asean's silence, inaction in 1989, following the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a number of armed ethnic armies entered into a series of ceasefire agreements with Rangoon. The fighting stopped, to a degree, but deep down nobody believed it would last. It was just a matter of time before the various groups resumed fighting.

For more than two decades, the so-called peace deals rested on shaky ground with little effort to resolve differences and allow them to integrate into Burmese society and administration. The ethnic armies held their turf, running special administrative areas with a high degree of autonomy. Some entered into the lucrative drug trade. Others went into logging and gems.

The ceasefire deals were the work of former security tsar General Khin Nyunt in the years following the bloody crackdown on huge nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. But with the regime intelligence chief ousted and put under house arrest in October 2004, things haven't been the same. Hardliners in junta were determined to disband the ethnic armies and put them under the command of the country's notorious army, locally known as the Tatmadaw.

Other groups who refused to come into the "legal fold", such as the Karen National Union, continued their armed struggle. Gross human rights violations have been committed for many years as the Tatmadaw classed civilians in areas where rebel forces were active as allies of enemy fighters. Rangoon intentionally uprooted and attacked civilians in a bid to deny rebel groups any form of support. This tactic, part of the notorious 'Four Cuts' policy, displaced hundreds of thousands of villagers, many of whom made their way to refugee camps dotted along the Thai-Burma border. But the Tatmadaw didn't stop there. Rape was has long been employed as part of their ugly tactics to demoralise ethnic armies and the local population.

A hard-hitting report released in 2002 by the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) - 'A Licence to Rape' - outlined in great detail the use of such a despicable ploy. International organisations and foreign governments looked into the allegations and confirmed the practice really was occurring. That was nine years ago. The junta denied it - as they do with virtually every accusation - but things appear to have hardly changed over the past decade.

Today, with a number of former ceasefire groups facing the guns of the Burmese military, the use of rape has extended to women from these ethnic communities as well. At this moment, the northern part of Shan State is the centre of attention. The area is of "crucial strategic importance for Burma's military rulers, who are seeking to secure it for major Chinese investments, including hydropower dams and transnational gas and oil pipelines," according to a recent statement released by SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF).

"Foreign governments dealing with Burma should not be silent about these atrocities. 'Business as usual' means ongoing rape in our communities," SWAN's Hseng Moon said. The latest report about rapes in Shan State comes only weeks after the Kachin Women's Association Thailand denounced the rape of 18 women and girls during renewed fighting last month in Kachin State in the far north.

Rape brings stigma, shame, and reluctance on the part of victims to speak out about what happened to them. But an increasing number of women and girls from Burma - the ones that survived - have begun to tell of their experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the country's war-torn areas. Burmese Army deserters confirm that rapes occur regularly and usually go unpunished. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has published material that corroborates details in 'A Licence to Rape' and adds many new cases.

Nevertheless, years on, a UN investigation has yet to take place, because the military junta refuses to grant the UN access to the country. Incidents of rape continue to be reported, and the Burmese military must surely know what is happening. But the junta engages in Orwellian double-speak. It has rejected the reports, instead launching its own investigations, which are conducted in such a manner one can hardly have confidence in their credibility.

While the United Nations and a number of Western countries have spoken out against the use of rape in Burma's military campaigns, members of the Asean community have been conspicuously quiet.

In 2000, the UN Security Council recognised that gender-based violence thwarts security and adopted Resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to respect the rights of women and children, and particularly to prevent gender-based violence. In 2004, Asean governments vowed to end the impunity states like Burma have enjoyed and signed the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women in this region. But these resolutions won't mean much unless action is taken.

Burma refuses to live up to the standards of decency that Asean has set for itself. That says a lot about its government and its military. But what about Asean countries and the organisation itself? Surely more can be done. Sadly, there seems to be little political will to do anything about ongoing atrocities in Burma. Asean needs to act, because its credibility erodes every day that nothing is done.