CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Human rights advocates have raised objections to the Myanmar military chief’s assertion that his troops do not use sexual violence against civilians and that the Tatmadaw was taking “harsh and stronger actions against … offenders” who violate this policy.
Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing made the comments on Monday to a special envoy of the United Nations Security Council who was making a two-day visit to the country. The UNSC envoy’s inquiries were focused in part on allegations of sexual violence against Rohingya women during the Tatmadaw’s recent military operations against Muslim militants. The militants’ attack on security forces triggered anti-terrorism operations in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw and Buthitaung townships in October 2016 and August 2017.
“Sexual violence [is] considered a despicable act according to the tradition, culture and religion of the country and actions [are] being taken against any offenders,” the state-run English-language newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar quoted Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing as saying on Tuesday.
Punishments have only been handed down in those rights violation cases that have received widespread attention, such as the case involving Mong Raw villagers in Shan State and the Inn Din case in Rakhine State, advocates say.
No action has been taken against soldiers accused of committing sexual violence in ethnic minority areas, despite the cases having been publicized for a long time, they say.
The human rights advocates voiced strong criticisms of the Army chief’s comments, saying they had witnessed such sexual violence in the past, especially in areas involving ethnic conflict.
U Aung Myo Min, a human rights educator and the director of Equality Myanmar, said such a comment is “totally unacceptable.”
There has been much evidence and documentation of human rights violations and sexual violence against women, especially in minority ethnic areas in Kachin, Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states, dating back to 1988, he said.
“Sexual violence by the armed forces is more common in conflict areas, partly because no action is taken and the offenders become more audacious due to this impunity,” U Aung Myo Min said.
Numerous reports documenting abuses have been issued by ethnic women’s organizations and ethnic human rights foundations, including the License to Rape report in 2002 by the Shan Women Actions Network and Shan Human Rights Foundation.
Kachin, Karen and Mon women told The Irrawaddy that human rights violations and the use of sexual violence as a weapon are common in conflict areas. Hundreds of cases have been documented in reports by numerous women’s organizations, they said.
“Women are being targeted for sexual assault, which has been used as a weapon in conflict areas, including in Kachin State,” said Moon Nay Li, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT).
Both KWAT and the Women League of Burma have documented evidence of abuses. Moon Nay Li said that even in the period from 1994 to 2011 when a ceasefire was in effect between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw, Kachin women, including high school-age girls, were subjected to gang rapes. The practice has not stopped, and continues whenever the Tatmadaw troops enter their villages, she said. There have been more troop deployments in the areas since the ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down in June 2011.
Even when cases are reported, there is no action taken and offenders enjoy impunity, the Kachin rights advocate added. “We want everyone outside of the conflict zones to know that security for women and young girls will be in a worrisome state so long as there is neither responsibility nor accountability in these cases,” Moon Nay Li said.
Prominent cases include the abduction and alleged rape of Kachin woman Sumlut Roi Ja in October 2011 by the Tatmadaw’s Light Infantry Battalion 321 near the town of Loi Jel in Kachin State; and Tatmadaw soldiers’ alleged rape and murder in January 2015 of two Kachin schoolteachers from Kawng Kha village in Kut Kai Township, northern Shan State.
Justice has yet to be served in either of these cases. The Tatmadaw has stuck to its denials and victims’ families who filed complaints have even been subjected to further legal persecution, said U Aung Myo Min, the Equality Myanmar director.
“This is not only about sexual abuse. It is about covering up violations of human rights. When this happens, it discourages victims from speaking up and allows the perpetrators to commit more crimes,” he said.
Tatmadaw leaders have denied such cases since the period when the country was ruled by military juntas, and continue to do so, U Aung Myo Min added. “Thus Myanmar has a notorious human rights record.”
The rights educator added that military leaders should accept the reality and avoid making further denials. Instead, those who violate basic human rights must be subject to legal action so that Myanmar’s image will improve, U Aung Myo Min said.
“Leaders should consider both punishing individuals who do wrong and changing the system if the system makes matters worse,” he said.
“The [Tatmadaw] always denies any allegations, not only of sexual violence being used as a weapon,” echoed Naw K’nyaw Paw, the general secretary of the Karen Women Organization. The KWO documented rapes against Karen women by Tatmadaw soldiers during the regimes of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the State Peace and Development Council in a 2004 report, Shattering Silence.
However, Naw K’nyaw Paw said, to this day, “We have not found any justice at all, even in cases where sexual violence happened in mixed-control areas under the [Myanmar] Army. When women are raped, they dare not report it because of the fear of repercussions. No, there is no justice at all.”
She told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, “I am sure in Rakhine, in western [Myanmar], sexual violence against Rohingya women is happening, as it happened to other ethnic groups in Kachin, Karen and Shan.”
Cases of rape and sexual violence seem to have declined in southern Myanmar, especially in Karen and Mon states, partly due to the ceasefires there, which started in 2012, and partly because the local communities are better trained in how to protect themselves from abuse.
Referring to the latest standoff and military deployment in Papun district of Karen State, Naw K’nyaw Paw added, “Our Karen communities do not dare face the [Myanmar] Army for many reasons. They are afraid of being killed; women are afraid of being tortured and raped, so they run away ahead of time [before the Tatmadaw columns arrive in their areas], and they do not dare return to the area.”
In Mon State, victims of the Myanmar military’s sexual violence against girls have not been able to seek justice in public courts, according to Mi Htaw Chan, coordinator of the Women and Child Rights Project led by the Human Rights Foundation of Mon Land.
“The victims’ families are too afraid to confront the perpetrators as they are Tatmadaw soldiers, so they tend not to speak out,” said Mi Htaw Chan, referring to cases dating to 2013-14.
The family of a 13-year-old girl who was raped by personnel from the Tatmadaw’s Infantry Battalion 31 in Ye Township in December 2013 settled the case after the Tatmadaw paid them compensation of 500,000 kyats. Later the family moved to the Thailand border, fearing further abuse at the hands of the soldiers, she said.
Another girl of the same age was raped by a soldier from Tatmadaw Battalion 315 in Than Phyu Zayet Township, Mon State in late 2013. The family did not receive justice; they were simply informed by the Tatmadaw that the offender was being punished by a military court, Mi Htaw Chan said.