BURMA: War rape reports continue unabated as government denies accounts

Birmanie ethnic girl near the border of Thailand in Burma/Myanmar
A rural village Birmanie girl in the Rangoon region of eastern Burma/Myanmar near the border with Thailand, January 2011. In 2007, high resolution images from satellite photographs gave evidence of the destruction and burning of villages in 18 village locations inside and near the border of Thailand after a reported set of military attacks in the region on 22 April, 2007. Reported violence against ethnic minority women from the Shan, Karen, and Karenni communities has included reports of rape by military operatives. In 2002 the U.S. Department of State condemned the Rangoon military's use of "rape as a weapon" after reports gave details in an alleged 173 attacks on 625 girls and women. 83% of these incidents are said to have been committed by officers in the Burmese army, often in front of their troops. Image 2011: Diane Tell

History of conflict in Burma

After the British colonial rule in Burma ended on January 4, 1948, the south Asian country became an independent republic. But in 1962, the democratic rule ended when General Ne Win led a military coup d’etat bringing the Burma Socialist Programme Party into power. During the period, General Ne Win nationalized all aspects of society as he instituted elections through a ‘one-party only’ system.

Following the pro-democratic demonstrations in 1988, open election campaigns were allowed to begin in 1990. The party of 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s NLD – National League for Democracy, declared that they won a majority of parliamentary seats on the election.

“Despite the repression faced by opposition parties during the campaign period, in the May 1990 elections the NLD won an overwhelming victory. A total of 13 million valid votes were cast out of nearly 21 million eligible voters. The NLD won over 80 percent of the seats (392 out of 485 parliamentary seats) and 60 percent of the popular vote. The second largest opposition party, the ethnic-based Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), won 23 seats. The SLORC-backed National Unity Party won just 10 seats and just over 2 percent of the vote.,” said Human Rights Watch in April 2008.

Once election results were reported the military junta under General Saw Muang annulled the election. Following this Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest – a time of incarceration which extended for over 15 years. Su Kyi was finally fully released November 13, 2010.

Entering into arrangements following the 1989 election campaign, Burma/Myanmar’s government signed ceasefire agreements with 17 ethnic groups between 1989-1997. In 2009 tensions were brought to a critical edge. Agreements made between the government and the ethnic groups were not upheld. Tensions began rising as Myanmar’s army, and later the civilian wing of the government, began to require ethnic groups throughout the country to enlist in Myanmar’s Border Guard Force.

Under pressures the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) refused to join the Border Guard Force. Myanmar government troops attacked the military wing of the KIO (called the KIA – Kachin Independence Army) at the Sang Gang post in N’mawk (Momauk) Township in the eastern region of the Kachin State.

Since 2009, tensions and violence inside the nation has continued and increased. Women inside the region have been especially vulnerable as victims of strategic military campaigns of violence. In July 2011, a partial ceasefire was initiated by the KIA but negotiations broke down as any possibility for a ceasefire was discontinued.

Contributing to the regional conflicts, a Chinese-funded hydropower project has now entered the region. The Northern Shan State is now considered a ‘territory of strategic importance’ for the Myanmar government. This means the possibility of  major Chinese investments inside the region may enlarge to also include trans-national gas and oil pipelines, as the nation places it’s priorities on energy development.

International Support

When 12 year old Shan State schoolgirl Nang Mon was raped in her home in front of her mother, her mother tried to protect her but Nang Mon’s mother was also attacked. Tragically nearby villagers did not dare intervene when they heard the girl’s screams. During this time a 50 year old widow Nang Jarm was also raped in her home.

Human rights organization SWAN reveals much more detail on these episodes in their report about sexual violence in the region. The report outlines numerous details of human rights violations. Nang Lord, a 9 months pregnant woman from Shan, was pulled roughly to the ground and raped. Another woman, Nang Poeng, was taken hostage outside the village as she was beaten, stripped naked and then raped in a farm hut. She was found later by other villagers running naked in the jungle.

“Burma Army troops are being given free rein to rape children, the pregnant and the elderly,” said Hseng Moon from SWAN. “We strongly condemn these war crimes,” she added.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, has also mapped a continuing impunity by Burma’s military officials on issues surrounding rape violence. “The Burmese military deliberately target civilians of the ethnic minority groups and rape is commonly used as a weapon of war. These human rights violation and sexual violence have been going on for decades. No real action has been taken against it still,” he said recently in an interview with Women News Network – WNN.

For human rights and women’s rights campaigners inside the region there is a critical need for international support on the issues. “As the Burmese Government is not accountable for the violation of rights, there needs to be a concerted effort globally for the women in Burma,” said Diana Sarosi, Manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

“Foreign governments dealing with Burma should not be silent about these atrocities. ‘Business as usual’ means ongoing rape in our communities,” outlined Hseng Moon.

Today Myanmar is an active member of the United Nations and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). International efforts to investigate war crimes in Myanmar are now pushing forward in hopes to establish an official UN Commission of Inquiry. The goal is to bring clear investigative evidence forward with transparency to the international stage.

“Even since the election and convening of parliament, the regime has shown it is not willing to provide accountability for the victims,” said Shirley Seng from KWAT. “Now is the time for the UN to investigate the regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. As Burma is a member of ASEAN and UN, these two institutions have a responsibility to pressure the Burmese regime to end human rights violations and support the Commission of Inquiry.”

Reports indicate that violations of human rights are continuing as ethnic women in the region face increasing conflict violence.

“Firstly, there is an urgent need for the establishment of the UN Commission of Inquiry into the violation of Human Rights in Burma,” said Sarosi from the Nobel Women’s Initiative. “Secondly, bodies like ASEAN need to play a bigger role in holding the Burmese responsible and accountable for such crimes.”

In March 24, 2011 a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed “…serious concern that previous calls to end impunity have not been heeded, and therefore strongly renews its calls upon the Government of Myanmar to undertake, without delay, a full, transparent, effective, impartial and independent investigation into all reports of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, forced displacements, forced labour, arbitrary detention, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and to bring to justice those responsible in order to end impunity for violations of human rights, and also strongly calls on the Government of Myanmar to do so as a matter of priority and with appropriate attention from the United Nations.”

To date the government of Myanmar has refused to face reports of human rights violations, extreme sexual violence and crimes against humanity as reported by women victims and by others inside the affected regions.

“Lastly and importantly, there is also a need for a better justice mechanism in place. The military is so powerful that these people feel helpless against such offensives,” said Sarosi.


1997 Nobel Peace Laureates and ‘People’s tribunal judges Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams, along with others from the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma as well as other international participants and partners, took part in an ‘International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Burma,’ – March 2, 2010. The Tribunal brought women survivors forward to give personal eye-witness accounts of atrocities committed against them and others in their presence. The Tribunal’s aim was to work as a ‘people’s tribunal’ to bring information to the public and to encourage the United Nations to take formal action on issues surrounding severe violence against women in Burma/Myanmar – a violence that is continuing. “The goal is to present evidence of war crimes and violations of human rights that have not necessarily been presented in courtroom…,” said Tribunal Moderator Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director and Senior Scholar, at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers  University (U.S.). This 3:32 min video is a March 2010 production of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.


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WNN gender news correspondent and social justice reporter in India, Shubhi Tandon, completed her degree from Cardiff University – UK with a dissertation examining the pervasive societal attitudes towards women in India. Gender discrimination, and the crimes committed against women have been a focus of Tandon’s since her undergraduate days in English Literature from Delhi. Shubhi believes strongly, through reporting on the struggles that women face every day, she can help usher a shift in global attitudes and awareness about women.


Additional information for this article has been supplied by the Burma Campaign UK, Open Society Foundations – The Burma Project Southeast Asia Initiative, SWAN – Shan Women’s Action Network, Asia Society, Science Magazine, OHCHR – United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Harvard Law School – Human Rights Clinic, Women’s League of Burma, U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch, KWAT – Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, Amnesty International and Peacewomen – WILPF – Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.


©2011 Women News Network – WNN
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