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‘If they had hope, they would speak’: The Ongoing Use of State-Sponsored Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Communities

By Women's League of Burma  •  November 24, 2014


In January 2014, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) published a report which demonstrated the systematic use of rape by the Burma Army as a strategy to subjugate communities across the country. We documented over a hundred cases of sexual violence in the years since President Thein Sein took office – a number which we believe grossly underestimates the true scale of the problem. Drawing on evidence gathered by our member organisations across Burma, we argued that there are clear links between militarisation, investment and human rights abuses. We also proposed a number of steps to uproot the culture of impunity which surrounds sexual violence, and prevents survivors from obtaining justice. Whilst recent months have seen positive action taken in several areas, the pillars which provide impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses remain in place. In January, we called for constitutional reform to place the military under civilian control; the establishment of effective judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to investigate human rights abuses, particularly those relating to sexual violence, and; greater participation of women in the peace process dialogue.

Today we reiterate these calls.

Despite signals from the Burmese government of their willingness to address these issues, rape and the intimidation of individuals seeking justice continue unabated. In the months since Same Impunity, Same Patterns was published, the WLB has continued to receive reports of rape, attempted sexual violence, and intimidation of women by Burma Army personnel across the country – with a total of 14 cases of gang-rape, rape and attempted sexual assault documented between January and June, and many more women facing sexual violence but fearful of the consequences of taking action. The situation at the local level remains largely unchanged: women and girls are still denied basic human rights on a daily basis, and perpetrators of rights violations against women are not held responsible. The cases discussed below bear this out. They shed light on the dynamics of investment and human rights abuses in ethnic areas; the difficulties faced by civil society in obtaining redress for survivors, and safeguarding the human rights of women, and; the inadequate efforts of the government to deliver on their promises of reform. Moreover, they evidence how much work remains to be done to effect a fundamental shift in the culture of impunity which underpins gender inequality in Burma today.

In recent months, calls for the Burmese government to undertake Constitutional reform, and to investigate both current and historical human rights abuses, have grown. In March, United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon echoed this, further urging that the government work to safeguard women affected by violence.

‘I call on the Government of Myanmar to fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence. I urge the Government, with the support of the United Nations and its partners, to work to develop a comprehensive protection and service response for survivors.’

Despite signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, measures to improve transparency and accountability have not materialised, and the readiness of the police and judiciary to properly investigate human rights abuses remains inadequate. While the government’s National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) has been heralded as a step forwards, a number of issues raised in the CEDAW Committee’s 2008 Concluding Observations and Recommendations – which preclude NSPAW from being effectively implemented – have not been addressed. Women are denied the means to seek redress for grievances, excluded from Burma’s peace and reconciliation process, marginalised in the political realm, and remain severely disadvantaged under national law.

In January’s report, the WLB proposed a series of steps necessary to realise justice for survivors of sexual violence, and to restore the dignity of the women of Burma (see page ii). Almost a year later, the Burmese government continues to preside over myriad human rights abuses, and stands firm in its contravention of several international treaties and UN Security Council Resolutions to which it is party. Allegations that the actions of the government and military authorities may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity have not galvanised concrete action targeting their root causes. Indeed, the major findings of this report evidence that:

– Justice for survivors of ongoing state-sponsored sexual violence remains almost non-existent, owing to the lack of transparency which characterises Burma’s judicial framework, the complicity of public officials in providing the Burma Army with de facto impunity from prosecution, and the prohibitive cost of financing legal proceedings

– Rapid investment in resource-rich ceasefire areas is driving an increase in the presence of the military, resulting in burgeoning human rights abuses and undermining the safety of women

– Intimidation of civil society organisations has increased, and government support for organisations working to advance the human rights of women in ethnic communities remains severely limited

– The government’s National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) has been poorly implemented, leaving patterns of injustice and the under representation of women in political and public life unchanged

– No action has been taken to implement the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, and women’s issues have been entirely absent from peace negotiations between v (EAOs) and the government

For these reasons, the WLB is reiterating its call to the international community to pressure the government of Burma to establish effective judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to investigate human rights abuses, including an independent international investigation, truth-commissions and impartial independent national courts. Additionally, amending the 2008 Constitution to ensure that the military is placed under civilian control, and to incorporate norms of international law designed to safeguard the rights of women, is central to any attempt to ensure justice and gender equality in the future.

Initiation of a political dialogue between the Burmese government and Ethnic Armed Organizations, including discussion of socio-economic issues pertinent to each community, must also begin. Peace in Burma is predicated on resolutions to such issues – as evidenced by the conflict and deprivation which continue to threaten communities in Kachin State after the end of a 17 year ceasefire between the Burma government and Kachin Independence Organisation / Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA). Only by arriving at compromise on these questions can the complete withdrawal of the Burma Army from ethnic areas be realized, and sustainable peace be achieved.

Finally, as long as the process of peace and reconciliation is marshaled primarily by men, space for the participation of women will be neglected. Ensuring that women’s voices are heard at every level of the political dialogue is essential to ending patterns of sexual violence associated with militarisation. Taken together, we believe these recommendations will lead not only to the sustainable peace which is desired by all, but also to the safeguarding of the human rights of women across Burma.

Download the full report in English here.

အစီရင္ခံစာ ျမန္မာဘာသာကို ဤေနရာတြင္ ေဒါင္းလုပ္ ရယူႏိုင္ပါသည္။

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This post is in: Crimes Against Humanity, Ethnic Nationalities, Human Rights, Spotlight, Women

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