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One year on, still no justice for Burmese rape-murder victims

By Asian Correspondent Staff  •  January 19, 2016

By John Quinley III

TODAY marks the one-year anniversary of the brutal rape and murder of two Kachin teachers in Shan State by the Burma Army. On January 19, in Bangkok, Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) and Legal Aid Network (LAN) launched a new report detailing witness testimonies, mishandling of evidence by police, and barriers to justice for women in Burma. Finally, the report established through detailed witness testimonies that the key suspect of the murder and rape was commanding officer Major Aung Phyo Myint.

The two women, Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin and Maran Lu Ra, were devout Christians from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. They had been working for the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) as volunteer teachers in Kawng Kha village.

Human rights groups and locals blame the Burma Army for perpetrating the hideous crime. The death has caused international outrage; yet, there is still no truth or justice for the families and the community. On January 19, 94 civil society organizations (CSO) called on the Burmese government to give an official mandate and power to KBC to investigate the Kawng Kha case and to request an independent investigation from the international community, and for the National League for Democracy (NLD) to continue to seek justice for the families.

The village at the time of the murder had about 50 troops from the government’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 503, under Major Aung Phyo Myint. They arrived in the village on January 19th 2015, coming from the direction of Mong Ko, where there had been a military offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) earlier in the month. The soldiers stayed in houses around the village. According to local sources, the two teachers were fearful of the soldiers.

According to Aung Htoo, a human rights lawyer and founder of LAN, Major Aung Phyo Myint asked about the two Kachin teachers when he entered the village and if they had been married.

On the evening of the January 19, 2015, the two women went to a birthday party for a local villager’s child. After the event, they returned to their small house within the church compound. The next morning, they were found dead. Local villagers observed that the marks of boots in the dirt around the house were almost identical to those worn by soldiers.

According to KWAT and LAN, the cover-up extends to the highest levels of government. President Thein Sein said the Burma Army troops were innocent and refused to respond to appeals by KBC for an independent investigation of the case.

“The government’s priorities were clear in the Kawng Kha case – protect the military at all cost,” said KWAT General Secretary Moon Nay Li in a written statement.

When the police team was examining the crime site, Major Aung Phyo Myint ordered the villagers not to take photographs of it. They were told that if they did, their cameras and phones would be destroyed. Furthermore, according to the report, Major Aung Phyo Myint, threatened villagers stating, “Our military column has 20 mortar shells. If we are targeted as suspects, the entire village will be fired at and burnt down.” KWAT and LAN believe Major Aung Phyo Myint is the top suspect in the case.

The police dare not investigate the military; they are totally subservient to them. This perpetuates the Burma Army’s continuous acts of impunity against women.

Violence against women in Burma

“The Kawng Kha Case is one of many cases of sexual violence in Burma,” said Jessica Khkum Health Program Coordinator at KWAT at the press conference on January 19.

The Burma Army has used rape as a systematic tool of oppression with impunity against women during more than six decades of civil war. The main victims of sexual violence have commonly been non-Burman ethnic minorities such as Shan, Karen, Kachin, Karenni, and Rohingya women (not to omit the widespread sexual abuse of boys and men in places like Burma and throughout Southeast Asia which is overlooked by much of the media and research).

The Women’s League of Burma (WLB), and its member organizations documented 118 cases of rape or other forms of sexual violence committed by Burma Army soldiers since 2010 involving over 38 different battalions.

In Shan State, for example, the ongoing conflict and troop buildup which took place in the later months of 2015 particularly affected women. According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), there have been at least eight documented cases of sexual violence committed by the Burma Army since April.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group working in Burma, said in Bangkok, “The Tatmadaw’s impunity for grave abuses in Kachin and Shan states has been a defining characteristic of the ongoing war. For most Kachin, the political transition has been profoundly bitter, defined more by destruction than democracy.”

No sign of women in the “peace process”

Women should be at the forefront of the peace movement, political dialogue, and the transition to democracy. Yet, in Burma women’s voices have been omitted. Women make up over 50 percent of the country. At the Law Khee Lar Summit Meeting of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) last June, Naypyidaw agreed that at least 30 percent of women would be included in future political dialogues. This promise has not been kept. Naypyidaw has failed to ensure female participation in the peace process.

The National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed on October 15th, 2015 by the Burma government and eight other EAOs. Despite elections and reforms in Burma, many ethnic areas continue to experience chronic conflict, including an offensive that escalated in Kachin and Shan State leading to a new displacement of civilians, adding to the over 200,000 already displaced in northern Burma (See: “The Price of Conflict in Northern Myanmar”).

The two main government committees put in place to implement policies associated with ceasefire negotiations are the Union Peacemaking Central Committee (UPCC) and the Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC). There are only two women represented in both committees. Not only are women not represented in the peace process; but additionally, there are just two women in the 36-member cabinet and women make up only 28 seats in the 664-seat parliament.

Furthermore, there is only one woman, Mra Raza Lin, of the Arakan Liberation Party, on the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT).

“Women have been sidelined in this peace process since the beginning. Women organizations and networks have been calling for and pushing for women participation but it is still challenging. Women’s safety and security is not guaranteed during the peace process,” said Wahku Shee, a representative for the WLB.

She added that, “most of the time when we demand for women participation, we have been told that this is military issue.”

In regards to the peace process, the KBC has been semi-officially recognized by the UPWC. According to the report by KWAT and LAN, this, “indicates that the Kawng Kha crime – notwithstanding having the characteristics of a human rights violation – relates to the peace issue.” Furthermore, the KBC wrote several letters to President Thein Sein about the Kawng Kha case and never received a reply.

According to KWAT and LAN, the NCA and EAOs need to discuss how to formally deal with ongoing and prior human rights violations, including the murder and rape of the two Kachin teachers, as part of the peace process.

Khin Ohmar, a representative from the Burma Partnership, explained at the press conference, that the the international community and peace donors, including the EU, have shied away from the issue of systematic violence against women in Burma.

Violence against women in Burma by state actors directly affects the peace process and its legitimacy.

Despite reforms, military acts with impunity against women

According to the report by KWAT and LAN, the Burma Army, the police, the judiciary, and government offices are accomplices to the Burma armed forces in its systematic use of violence against women in ethnic areas of the country. The military’s continued control of the country and its practice of keeping its hand in every office of authority including the police and judiciary, is a major structural obstacle to justice. A new bill which was enacted, the “Former Presidents Security Bill”, grants immunity to former heads of state, “from any prosecution for actions during his term.” The bill protects and gives immunity to former presidents from domestic prosecution for any crimes committed in office.

“Whatever amnesty he grants himself in Burma, President Thein Sein is still liable to prosecution for war crimes in accordance with the Geneva Convention, to which Burma is a party, if evidence on ‘command responsibility’ is found,” said Hkawng Lum, a human rights lawyer working with LAN, in a written statement.

Additionally, Aung Htoo, the founder of LAN, said at the press conference, “we believe the crime was intentionally committed by the military regime.”

Concluding the report launch in Bangkok, Debbie Stothard, the secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights and coordinator for ALTSEAN-Burma, stated, “The reported cases of sexual violence against women in Burma is only the tip of the iceberg.”

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About the author:
John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Burma and Thailand. Find him on Twitter @johnquinley3

View the original post here: https://asiancorrespondent.com/2016/01/142061/

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