Child Sex Abuse Cases Spark Community Outrage, Calls for Harsher Sentences

By Nyein Nyein 30 December 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — After a number of recent high profile cases, campaigners have become increasingly strident in their demands for harsher punishments to be meted out to perpetrators in child sexual abuse cases.

The lack of effective judicial deterrent has been a source of outrage, with many appearing in court on sex abuse charges sentenced to prison terms of 12 months or less. Compounding the problem is a common pattern of denial by parents when asked to confront instances of child sexual abuse within their families, leaving victims vulnerable to future attacks.

In one recent example, a doctor working as an obstetrician and gynecologist in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy the case of a 7-year-old girl, who was brought to her clinic by her mother after an extended period of vaginal bleeding. The mother thought she had begun menstruating, but the checkup revealed the girl had been raped.

“But the mother could not believe it,” she said, adding that parents often did not want to accept their children had been subjected to such a heinous crime.

Meanwhile, those subject to attacks suffer from lifelong trauma, chronic health problems, and in the worst cases, die from their injuries.

Not Safe with Neighbors

It remains customary for ordinary mothers and fathers in Burma to trust their neighbors with the care of their children, particularly in rural areas where older members of the community need to work the land.

Yet in almost all cases of child sex abuse, particularly those widely reported on in recent months, neighbors are the alleged perpetrators. Reported cases of immediate family members abusing their young siblings or children are also on the rise.

In two separate cases in Moulmein, a girl under the age of four and a five-year-old girl were sexually assaulted by their neighbors. Both perpetrators came before the same judge. Both men were immediately granted bail.

In one harrowing instance, a 14-year-old girl was abducted from her home in Mon State’s Kyauktan village and taken to a house in the border town of Myawaddy, where she was shackled and raped repeatedly over four days. Her kidnapper remains at large despite her rescue.

In October and November, the rape of two girls aged four and eight in separate cases sparked an outburst of public anger in Sittwe. One of the perpetrators was serving as a soldier in the Burma Army, while the other had recently deserted. Both victims died from their injuries.

The perpetrator in one case was quickly handed over to a military tribunal, which quickly sentenced him to 12 months in prison. Following a riotous protest outside Sittwe’s central police station, the accused is now before a civilian court.

Khin Than Htwe, a community worker in Moulmein, told The Irrawaddy the case of a young girl repeatedly raped by her older brothers in Mon State’s Nyaung Gone village, who were sentenced to only five months’ imprisonment.

“There is no protection for her. She had to live with her brothers again after that,” she said.

Law Favors Culprits

Sexual abuse of young children are the most common rape cases, according to police records published in local media.

In Burma, children under 14 are afforded a wide range of legal protections under the Child Law, but there are little or no legal protections for children vulnerable to abuse. Aye Nu Sein, a Sittwe-based lawyer and vice-chair of the Arakan National Party (ANP), pointed out that there is no difference in charges or sentencing between those rapists who attack adults and those who sexually abuse children.

A handful of lawyers, politicians and activists have called for legal reform to increase sentences for those who engage in child sexual abuse, but so far, attempts to legislate harsher punishments for perpetrators have failed.

Part of the reason for the deadlock could be attributed to the demands of the more strident campaigners, including a concerted push to mandate the death penalty, a demand from which incumbent lawmakers have quietly recoiled.

Outgoing lawmaker Thein Nyunt of the New National Democracy Party has spent years campaigning for an increase in prison sentences and the imposition of capital punishment for child sex abusers, a view he reiterated to The Irrawaddy.

“There have been many things we have done to prevent sexual assault of children, but cases have increased,” he claimed. “We must prevent it by trying to put fear in the perpetrators. Therefore capital punishment should be imposed. One punishment could prevent at least 20,000 children from being sexually assaulted.”

Thein Nyunt’s views appear to be gaining traction. Kyaut Sein, a social activist helping the families of the victims in Sittwe, is outraged at the lenient sentence handed recently handed down by the military court. Echoing widespread sentiment in the town, she agreed that perpetrators guilty of child sexual abuse should be subjected to capital punishment.

“The death penalty should be given to those rapists, to prevent further rapes against the children,” she said.

Lawyer Robert San Aung, noted for his involvement as defense counsel in a number of high profile human rights cases, agreed that execution was a just punishment for the crime, citing the need for a strong deterrent to protect Burma’s “stability”.

“As cases of rape against young children are on the increase, harsh punishment is desperately needed,” he told The Irrawaddy. “It seems we have to accept capital punishment. The more the increase in the child sexual assault, the more it will impact on the stability of the country.”

Others, while conceding the need for stronger punishments, stopped short of supporting mandatory capital punishment, saying that more focus was needed on prevention mechanisms and awareness.

“The death penalty is a strong word, said Htoot May, an ANP member recently elected to an Upper House seat in Arakan State. “We need to protect our children, and we need stronger laws to do that.”

Khin Oo Tha contributed to this report.