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The Burma Government Must Stop Condoning Sexual Violence in Conflict Areas

By Burma Partnership  •  June 8, 2015

imagesOn 5 June 2015, Burma Campaign UK released a briefing paper that illustrated the Burma Government’s lack of action towards eliminating sexual violence since it signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (the Declaration) last year. As a signatory to the declaration, Burma agreed to prioritize prevention of sexual violence and to hold all perpetrators accountable to the full extent of the international law, amongst other related commitments.

Unfortunately, not only has Burma ignored its commitments to the Declaration, it is also actively violating it, as cases of rape and sexual assault continue to emerge from conflict areas. According to Burma Campaign UK, “Given the widespread nature of sexual violence by the Burmese Army, the refusal to act, and now the violation of commitments made in the Declaration, it can only be concluded that the use of rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army is condoned at the highest level of the government and the military.”

In January 2014, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) released a detailed report, titled “Same Impunity, Same Patterns,” on the extent of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burma Army. The report stated that since President Thein Sein stepped into power in 2011, there have been over 100 documented cases of sexual violence committed by the Burma Army soldiers. However, due to the logistical and security challenges associated with obtaining testimony in conflict areas, and also taking into account the fear of reprisals and the fact that victims of sexual abuse are reluctant to come forward as a result of the associated cultural taboo, it is believed that the actual incidence of sexual violence is much higher.

Since this WLB report was published a year ago, the use of rape and sexual violence against ethnic minorities by the Burma Army has been documented numerous times including in the WLB’s follow up reportIf they had hope, they would speak: The Ongoing Use of State-Sponsored Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Communities.” Renewed conflict between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army has also resulted in an increase in cases of sexual violence. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand reported that the Burma Army has been responsible for over 70 cases of rape, gang rape and sexual violence since the original ceasefire agreement broke down. In addition, refugees from Kokang, the conflict-heavy region of Shan State, spoke out about government soldiers using rape as a weapon of war since conflict broke out on 9 February 2015. A Kokang refugee stated, “The [Burma Army]…comes at night, when you can’t see them, because they think that the local people are working for [Kokang commander] Peng Jiasheng. If they see a woman, they will rape her. They tie her hands up with wire, twisted tight with pliers, so that it tears into her flesh. When they are done raping her, they let her go.” These perpetrators have yet to be held to account for their heinous crimes.

Most recently, on 20 January 2015, two female Kachin volunteer teachers, were brutally raped tortured and murdered, allegedly by Burma Army soldiers. However, these tragic events will continue to unfold due to the impunity of the Burma Army from prosecution. Unfortunately, this impunity is entrenched in Burma’s 2008 Constitution, which allows members of the military who are convicted of human rights violations to be tried in a private military court. Adding further insult to injury, the Burma Army released a statement that they would take legal action against anyone claiming that Burma Army soldiers were responsible for the rape and murder of the Kachin teachers.

Considering the number of sexual violence cases occurring in Burma’s conflict areas, it is crucial for the Burma Government to address this issue as a priority during ongoing peace talks. The UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1820 urge all actors to incorporate gender perspectives in peace and security efforts and to immediately and completely halt acts of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones, respectively.

Unfortunately, the draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement has failed to adequately provide concrete steps on how to address and end sexual violence during the peace process. The lack of gender equality throughout the peace process has been highlighted in a recent briefing paper from the Swedish Burma Committee, which noted the importance of including women in the process as a means of achieving gender-sensitive nationwide ceasefire agreement. Most importantly, though, unless the judiciary is able to charge and try soldiers for heinous crimes, such as sexual violence, there will be no rule of law in Burma, and impunity will prevail. Without accountability, there is no deterrent, and such crimes will continue to be perpetrated.

While the Burma Government has so far failed to address the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burma Army, the ongoing peace talks present an opportunity to engage and include women as a means to prevent further sexual violence and other human rights violations. If the Burma Government wishes to demonstrate its commitment to the Declaration, it must start by ensuring that its Army can be held accountable.

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