Burma’s military regime has used violence as a tool of repression against the civilian population and particularly ethnic minorities. The state armed forces continue to be the main perpetrators of human rights violations, including systematic rape.
“There appears to be a concerted strategy by the Burmese army troops to rape Shan women as part of their anti-insurgency activities. The incidents detailed were committed by soldiers from 52 battalions. 83% of the rapes were committed by officers, usually in front of their own troops. The rapes involved extreme brutality and often torture such as beating, mutilation and suffocation.” License to Rape, Shan Women’s Action Network, 2002
After Burma’s independence in 1948, the country enjoyed relative peace until a 1960 coup d’état ushered in the era of a single party state, as well as signaled the military’s heavy influence in country affairs. The period brought persecution of ethnic minorities and numerous uprisings against the military throughout the country.
During mass student protests against the regime in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the leading pro-democracy leader, taking the reigns of the National League of Democracy. The protests ended with mass killings and a coup resulted in the military junta taking power of Burma. To appease popular discontent, elections were held in 1990, with Suu Kyi and her party participating and emerging victorious. Yet, the junta refused to validate the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon, which was intermittently prolonged until 2011.
With elections in November 2011, the Burmese government has taken some measures of reform as a result of pressure from the international community, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s victory in recent by-elections. Despite promises for ceasefires in the eastern insurgencies, Burma still has taken no concrete steps towards stopping the human rights violations or investigating its own security forces.
“Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights, especially in areas of ethnic nationalities. Rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by the armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and divide our country.” Aung San Suu Kyi
The Burmese state security forces have systematically used violence and terror tactics against the populations in the areas where rebellions are taking place. Ethnic minorities in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states continue to face significant persecution and violence by the Burmese military. In spite of repeated ceasefire agreements, the junta has engaged in military offensives in all three states over the last years. The conflict has resulted in high numbers of displacement.
The Rape & Gender Violence
Despite the challenges of monitoring human rights violations in Burma, grassroots women’s organizations have for years documented cases of rape and gender violence. Due to their efforts there is significant evidence to demonstrate that the Burmese state forces are engaged in systematic rape of women of ethnic groups and that rape is used as a weapon in conflict by the military.
Rape is used as a weapon to intimidate, and with many of the ethnic women attacked—to break or weaken the bonds of their communities and families. Survivor support is still difficult to obtain, especially for women in displaced communities, with the stigma attached to gender violence remaining significantly high.
“Due to the well-known impunity for rape, survivors and their families are extremely reluctant to complain about rape. In the rare cases where victims or their families actually do complain to military officials, army personnel often respond with violence.” No Safe Place: Burma’s Army and the Rape of Ethnic Women, Refugees International, 2003
It is also clear that despite repeated alarms raised by local groups and the international community, including the United Nations, Burma has taken no steps to investigate the crimes committed by its troops.
Moreover, international groups have expressed concern that despite small steps towards democracy, the military still commits atrocious human rights violations, while providing perpetrators will full amnesty. The new constitution places the Burmese military outside the jurisdiction of civilian courts and grants state officers an amnesty for war crimes, including crimes of rape and gender violence—in violation of international law.
“The Secretary-General has cited Burma for violating Security Council Resolution 1820’s protections for women in conflict situations and for giving impunity to the Burmese military’s ongoing sexual violence against ethnic women in conflict areas. Yet, Burma’s new constitution accords the military constitutional guarantees of immunity, including for using rape as a weapon of war.” Putting Democracy Out of Reach: How Burma’s New Government Violates the Law of Nations and Threatens Global Peace and Security, Global Justice Centre, 2012