CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The presence of Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) troops in eastern Shan State to protect a mining project has led to human rights abuses against civilians, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), citing the recent alleged rape of an elderly woman by a soldier in Monghpyak town.
On the morning of April 2, the 73-year-old woman from Wan Huay village in Monghpyak was found lying on the ground with her sarong torn from her, with injuries to her head, including her ears, from which earrings worth about 150,000 kyats (US$115) had been ripped.
The old woman was hospitalized at Keng Tung Hospital and later transferred to Monghpyak Military Hospital, but three weeks after the attack she remains unable to talk or walk, according to Sai Tip Yee, Wan Huay village administrator.
The family filed a case at Monghpyak police station, but police have only filed a case of slashing and robbery, not rape, partly because the old woman is still weak and unable to talk about what happened on that morning, Sai Tip Yee told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Police detained the alleged perpetrator, Private Nay Myo Thu, on the same day, but he was later transferred to military custody, so the case is no longer under civilian jurisdiction, said SHRF spokesman Sai Hor Hseng.
“We heard from the military that he [Private Nay Myo Thu] will be brought to the military court and they will take responsibility for this case, but we want him to stand trial in the civilian court in order to ensure justice for the victim,” he said.
Shan rights advocate Sai Hor Hseng added that they “want justice for the victim and to end this sexual violence, because it is very dangerous for the public, especially women.”
Such cases are not uncommon. In a case documented by the SHRF in 2015, a soldier accused of rape in Tachilek was transferred back to his base in Monghpyak and there was no further news of whether he would face legal action.
In a separate case in April 2015, an elderly Kachin woman, also 73, from Kachin State’s Momauk Township was the victim of an attempted rape by a Myanmar Army soldier, who was later sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for trespassing, illegal drug use and violating the military’s code of conduct. She died a year later in June 2016, without ever receiving justice for the sexual assault, despite a civilian court having accepted her case, according to a report by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand.
The SHRF said military impunity for sexual violence “must end,” describing it as a threat to women nationwide. “SHRF therefore welcomes the new report by the UN Secretary General on conflict-related sexual violence, which blacklists the [Tatmadaw] for being ‘credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape,’” the organization said in a statement Monday.
The militarization of Shan State has increased despite the ethnic Shan armed groups, such as the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South and the Shan State Progressive Party /Shan State Army-North, signing bilateral ceasefires with the government in 2012, and the former being a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
In Monghpyak town alone, there are about 1,000 Tatmadaw troops stationed. The town has a population of about 6,000.
“Such a large military-civilian ratio is a constant source of fear for local residents, particularly women, given the ongoing military impunity for sexual violence,” the SHRF statement reads.
According to Sai Hor Hseng, the huge military presence in the ethnic areas, especially in areas with ongoing conflicts, is partly to protect natural resources extraction companies, including Australian-run Access Asia Mining. The companies seek protection from the military for security, but it has a large impact on local residents.
Access Asia Mining plans a 150,000-acre gold-mining venture in Monghpyak. It is awaiting final approval from the Shan State government, SHRF said.
“We would like the company and army troops to withdraw from the areas,” Sai Hor Hseng said, adding that when giant companies enter the areas to conduct business, the military takes responsibility for their security, and the arrangement has high social and environmental costs.