To begin chronicling the history of sexualized violence in Burma, you have to go back through 50 years of accounts of women suffering subjugation through rape, mutilation, gang rape, and sexual slavery.
Half a century ago, in 1962, General Ne Win overthrew efforts to establish a multiparty democracy in Burma through a military coup and commenced a long line of military junta rule that reaches to the present. Since his takeover, the military regime has dominated the South Asian nation. Burma is home to a diverse, multicultural population and home to many different ethnic groups that speak more than 106 languages and dialects. Burma is administratively divided into seven regions and seven states—the largest difference between them being that whereas states are comprised of mainly one dominant ethnic group (Shan, Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin, and Mon), regions are more ethnically diverse. Additionally, Burma’s diverse population observes several religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Religious, ethnic tribal customs and culture determined separate roles and subordinate roles for women in the family, religious life, employment, and decision making in the community, village, or country in Burma. The history of Burma is one replete with a variety of religious and political ruling structures, ranging from monarchies to traditional animist societies, Japanese occupation, British colonialism, small feudal states, democracy, and contemporary military dictatorship.
Religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced relocations of indigenous communities, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, the use of civilians as human mine sweepers, slave labor, and gang rapes, occurring particularly in the ethnic states, have been documented by women’s rights NGOs from Burma operating on the Thai/Burma border, as well as by international organizations and bodies, such as Amnesty International and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The military regime has used sexualized violence, particularly against women in Burma’s ethnic states, to quell opposition movements as well as to generally maintain its own power since its inception in 1962. Unfortunately, due to the closed-off nature of the regime, it has been particularly difficult for international organizations, as well as the United Nations, to actively investigate and document these occurrences over the 50-year time span. However, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Rajsoomer Lallah, affirmed in 1998, “These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehavior by middle- and lower-rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level, entailing political and legal responsibility.”
Two women await care at the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Center in Yangon. HIV/AIDS is just one consequence of sexualized violence in Burma, where fallout also includes injury to reproductive organs, depression, shame, and, in some cases, drug addiction. (Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita)
In a massive show of defiance, hundreds of thousands of people marched on August 8, 1988, (8/8/88), to demand an end to military rule. These peaceful demonstrations were violently crushed by army troops who fired relentlessly on the unarmed crowds in the old capital of Rangoon and other cities, killing more than 10,000 students, civilians, and Buddhist monks protesting throughout the country and arresting thousands more.
In the face of international condemnation following the massacre of 8/8/88, the new military named itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), allowed political parties to be formed, and called for a multiparty election. In elections in May 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory, sweeping 392 of 485 (80 percent) of the parliamentary seats. The NLD was led by Daw Aung San Sui Kyi, who had been placed under house arrest prior to the election and disqualified as a candidate by the council. Despite the decisive victory, SLORC refused to transfer power to the NLD, claiming that transfer of power to a civilian government could not happen until peace prevailed in the country.
The “Saffron Revolution” in September 2007 again demonstrated the people’s unequivocal dissatisfaction with the ruling military regime (renamed the State Peace and Development Council, SPDC, in 1997), as the normally “neutral” Burmese monks staged peaceful marches. After an initial period of silence from the junta, the peaceful protests were harshly suppressed by the military, which carried out a brutal crackdown on the protestors. NGOs and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar estimated the casualty toll at around 30 deaths. Additionally, the military beat and arbitrarily detained thousands of protestors. Through violent crackdown measures, the regime finally suppressed the massive popular protests against its brutal mismanagement of the country.
In May 2008, the SPDC once again exerted its chokehold on power over the nation as it moved to redraft and ratify a new constitution. The ratification took place through a referendum held a week after Cyclone Nargis—which sources including Human Rights Watch say killed an estimated 140,000 while displacing almost a million more—despite the fact that people could not vote due to the devastation. As the AP reported at the time, the junta delayed voting in some heavily devastated areas but otherwise maintained the original referendum date despite harsh international criticism. A report by the Women’s League of Burma, a Burmese human rights group based in Thailand, cites the Burmese independent publication, The Irrawaddy, when it says that voters in most areas “were commanded to deposit pre-marked ballots approving the Constitution in ballot boxes or face repercussions. Not surprisingly,” the report states drily, “the vote passed with 93% in favor of the new Constitution.”
In addition to the illegitimacy of the ratification process, the constitution granted the junta immunity from any criminal prosecution. Chapter XIV, "Transitory Provisions," Article No. 445 states, “No legal action shall be taken against those who officially carried out their duties according to their responsibilities.” This amnesty provision never appeared in the draft or on items listed for discussion by the National Convention: The junta hastily inserted the provision at the last minute. The constitution also guarantees the military complete legal autonomy over all civilian and criminal military affairs, including impunity for any crimes committed by the military, such as rape.
In November 2010, the Burmese government held general elections for the first time in 20 years. With Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, the NLD boycotted the elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the military regime, won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. Analysts around the world questioned the legitimacy of the elections, with many calling the process a sham portrayal of transfer of power from the military to the civilian government. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released shortly after the elections, after nearly 15 years of house arrest.
In the 2012 by-elections, the NLD, under renewed leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, claimed 43 of the 46 available legislative seats. The NLD’s success has spurred attention from the international community. At the encouragement of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the EU and U.S. have eased sanctions and trade restrictions in order to stimulate economic development and sustain the path toward further political reform.
However, despite the shift toward democratic political ideals, the implementation of significant reforms has continued to be curtailed by the considerable power still wielded by the constitutionally insulated SPDC military regime. Although the United Nations Security Council has issued several resolutions urging for the protection of women and children during warfare and conflict, the international community has yet to intervene in Burma’s blatant violation of these legal obligations and enforce its pledge to take the “appropriate steps to address widespread or systematic sexualized violence in situations of armed conflict.” As Burma awaits the realization of these unfulfilled promises, degrading sexualized crimes remain a constant and pervasive reality for the women in its ethnic regions.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To instill fear: EarthRights has found that rape is used to spread political terror by the military and to create a pervasive atmosphere of fear that exists even when troops are not committing human rights abuse. This has also led to women fleeing their villages due to fear of being raped.
To humiliate: Targeted rapes of ethnic women are used by the SPDC to entrench powerlessness and subjugation within the community. Sexualized violence condoned by the military junta spreads fear and demoralizes the community’s efforts to organize and confront the regime. The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict cites systematic rape in Burma as a method to humiliate both women and their communities. For instance, the Women’s League of Burma reports a 2006 incident in a Paulang village in which eight troops from the SPDC Light Infantry Battalion 515 raped five women in front of their tied-up husbands—a method of humiliation used in other conflicts. Complaints of the rapes by the village headman made to the commander of LIB 292 based in the village were met with impunity and unwillingness to address the allegations.
To degrade religion: The SPDC junta also engages in indiscriminate religious attacks through sexualized violence. In 2008, the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO), a community-based organization operating in Thailand assisting refugees and those internally displaced in the Karenni state, reported that women and girls were held captive in a local church and selectively raped by SPDC soldiers in front of others. Similarly, the Women’s League of Burma reports that in Karen state in 2004, SPDC troops camping in a Buddhist village monastery sexually harassed six nuns ages 11-14 and attempted to rape others as well. The tactic is used to spread omnipresent fear throughout the community and to reiterate that there is no sanctuary for these victims even in the most sacred of places: houses of worship. On May 1, a patrol of Burmese troops from two battalions (Light Infantry Battalion 347 and Infantry Battalion 118) arrived at Luk Pi village, Chipwi township, northwest of Pang Wa, and found Ngwa Mi (not her real name), 48, living alone in a church after most of the other villagers had fled. About 10 troops beat her with rifle butts, stabbed her with knives, stripped her naked, and gang-raped her over a period of three days in the church, according to the Kachin Women Association–Thailand.
To gain information: The SPDC also uses rape as a mechanism of torture to gather information about possible rebel movements. In a 2004 report, the Women’s League of Burma describes the plight of a 13-year-old girl from Shan state who was captured along with others based on accusations that she was cooperating with rebels. She was raped repeatedly for 10 days and eventually died of her wounds. Women have often been accused of being a supporter of an ethnic army or the wife of a rebel or affiliated with them, the league told WMC’s Women Under Siege. Women have been forced to disclose where their husband or relative was—even though they have no affiliation with the armed groups, the league said. No answer reportedly results in torture.
To punish: The UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment stated in a 2006 report that “[w]omen and girls are subjected to violence by soldiers, especially sexual violence, as punishment for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups.” EarthRights reports that rape is used as revenge against ethnic insurgent fighters and to “communicate with enemy men, passing messages to them over the bodies of ethnic men. And what they are saying is, we will hurt you [the enemy soldier] in any way we can; if we can’t get to you, we will hurt your women.”
For ethnic cleansing: Refugees International reported in 2003 that some evidence indicates that “soldiers use rape to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization.’” EarthRights has reported that there is evidence of rape being used to “change the ethnic balance in Burma,” and that “by forcibly impregnating ethnic minority women, Burmese soldiers can increase the majority population though more Burman births.” In an interview, a female villager stated: “The Burmese soldiers think Burman blood is the best. People talk about the rape a lot. People say that the Burmese soldiers want to make more Burman babies. I once had a letter in my papers that said Burmese soldiers would get certain rewards if they would marry certain kinds of ethnic women. They wrote in the letter that it is not limited to soldiers who are unmarried. The letter said, 'Your blood must be left in the village.'”
The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
Patterns of Violence
- A CEDAW shadow report issued by the Women’s League of Burma in 2008 states, “While rape may have initially been utilized and condoned by the regime as a strategy of war, the resulting climate of impunity has now caused sexual violence to become a systematic problem in Burma.” The continuation of violent sexual crimes is further exacerbated by the blanket denial of the SPDC of such crimes occurring or having occurred, as well as by the constitutionally insulated amnesty for all military-related operations. Of the 625 rapes reported prior to 2002, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School reports, only one resulted in the punishment of the perpetrator by the commanding officer. Victims brave enough to report these crimes suffer not only from impunity but also the fear of reprisals and revenge rapes, which commonly occur.
- The Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network, in their seminal report “License to Rape,” found that rape is being used as a weapon of war in Shan state and there was “a concerted strategy by the Burmese army troops to rape Shan women as a part of their anti-insurgency activities.” The report also found that the “incidents detailed were committed by soldiers from 52 different battalions. Eighty-three percent of the rapes were committed by officers, usually in front of their own troops. … Out of the total 173 documented incidents, in only one case was a perpetrator punished by his commanding officer.”
- A report conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based organization specializing in post-conflict and transitional justice movements, indicates that systematic rapes are closely related to armed conflict and location of military camps within the region. The incidents reported also show a prevalence of gang rape, targeting of young girls, and severe mutilation or murder post-rape. High-ranking military officers committed more than half of the reported rapes in the Chin, Mon, and Karen states and as many as 83 percent of rapes in Shan state, the report states.
- The Karen Human Rights Group reports that the “likelihood of rape increases where women are isolated from their village in situations of forced labor at military bases and camps, other forced labor sites, or even while working in their fields, and especially so where soldiers have been drinking.”
According to the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, Burmese authorities often resort to the disappearing of reporting victims and even the destruction of entire villages and communities in order to thwart external UN supervised investigations. Many acts of sexualized violence occur in conjunction with other human rights abuses such as forced relocation, forced labor, slavery, torture, and false imprisonment. The Network for Human Rights Documentation, Burma, reports:
"Victims have reported being beaten, suffocated, slashed, scalded with hot water, and otherwise physically mutilated. Many incidents involve gang-rape situations, where a victim is raped consecutively by several different perpetrators. Other victims have reported being forcibly conscripted by the military into situations of sexual slavery where they are repeatedly molested over an extended period of time. Violations are also perpetrated in the presence of the victim’s family, who are forced to witness the abuse. Many victims of sexual violence are killed or are left to suffer serious medical and psychological problems. Some are forced to seek out illegal and medically unsound abortions or bear the children of their assailants."
- The SPDC commonly imposes monetary punishment on survivors and other members of the community who make rape allegations against military members. When village headmen, who function as community leaders, report rapes to military commanders, the commander may line up his troops in order for the victim to identify her attacker. The attacker is notably absent from these lineups, leaving the survivor unable to identify anyone. As a consequence of such “false accusations” of rape against the military soldiers, two advocacy groups based in Thailand report, the survivor, her family, and any villagers who accompanied her may incur staggering fines or physical punishment.
One woman they describe in their report, “License to Rape,” was made to pay 30,000 Kyat (US$45) and her father 15,000 Kyat (US$23) after she claimed she could not identify her assailant because he was absent from the lineup. Failure to pay these fines would result in a 10-year imprisonment. Similarly, another woman, her parents, husband, and the village headman were made to pay a total of 39,000 Kyat (US$46), but only after pleading for forgiveness not to be imprisoned by the commander for failing to identify the perpetrator. (According to the CIA World Factbook, the estimated GDP per capita (PPP) for Burma in 2011 was only US$1,300. The exchange rates indicated above are converted historically, as they would have applied in 2000 when the abovementioned incidents occurred.) In small and impoverished communities, these fines are especially debilitating.
- The women targeted in systematic rape attacks are often unable to confront perpetrators and the military due to language barriers. Many women in the non-Burmese ethnic states do not speak Burmese proficiently and are thus unable to communicate with their assailants and fear reporting sexualized violence to authorities. A woman from Shan state, as the “License to Rape” report describes, “wanted to complain about her husband’s death, and to punish the soldiers who raped her, but she couldn’t. She spoke no Burmese, and did not know how to approach the authorities. Not being sure of the troop number of the soldiers, she was hesitant to report the rape or her husband’s murder.”
Although sexualized violence targeting ethnic women has been occurring for more than 50 years, a definitive number of victims remains extremely hard to quantify. Vigilant efforts by human rights organizations around the world and in Burma have “documented 399 cases of rape in the country, some involving gang-rape, with a total of 875 girls and women becoming victims of rape across Burma between 1988-2006.” It is important to note that the history of the rape of ethnic women by the Burmese military extends back significantly further than its documentation by domestic and international human rights groups.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of rapes and sexual attacks go unreported due to fear of reprisals, subversive efforts by the Burmese military government, victim trauma, and social stigmatization. These estimates, although not indicative of the hyper-pervasive nature of some conflict areas (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo presently or during the Rwandan genocide in 1994), are also severely understated. As the Harvard Human Right Clinic report makes clear,
UN reports have described the trend of sexual violence as “particularly alarming” because the figures provided to the [UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 2006] were “far lower than the reality.” He observed that many women do not report incidents of sexual violence because of the trauma attached to it, and some reports may have not reached him as he was dependent for information on human rights abuses in the ethnic nationality areas on that collected from refugees when they arrived at the Thai-Burmese border.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
Traditional cultural norms in Burma have tended to regard women as less capable than men, and have created barriers against women in the public sphere. As noted in the "School for Rape" report, “Sexual violence against the women of Burma must be examined within the larger context of a nation in which women are subordinate to men. For rape to be committed again and again with impunity, the society in which it occurs must give permission, either overt or tacit, to the perpetrators. This is particularly true in a society as tightly controlled as Burma, where this permission for soldiers to rape arises out of the general attitude toward women embedded in contemporary society.”
In 2008, a CEDAW committee addressing sexualized violence in Burma remarked:
[T]he Committee is concerned about the persistence of adverse cultural norms, practices and traditions as well as patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles, responsibilities and identities of women and men in all spheres of life, especially within some ethnic groups. The Committee is concerned that such customs and practices perpetuate discrimination against women and girls, and that they are reflected in their disadvantageous and unequal status in many areas, including in public life and decision-making and in marriage and family relations, and the persistence of violence against women and that, thus far, the State party has not taken sustained and systematic action to modify or eliminate stereotypes and negative cultural values and practices.
These norms, in turn, exacerbate the consequences of sexualized violence and contribute to the retraumatization of female survivors who feel rejected by their communities, and often, even family members. Additionally, ethnic victims, such as the Rohingya women, the Irish Centre for Human Rights reports, are “especially vulnerable due to severe discrimination based on their low status in society, and even more so because they belong to an ethnic group that suffers from racism and persecution as well as being de facto stateless.”
Despite steps toward reform in Burma in 2012, the Burmese army continues to employ rape as a tactic of war in the ethnic states. According to a June 2012 report by the Kachin Women’s Association, “Ongoing Impunity,” a male porter witnessed the repeated gang-rape of two young women who were also conscripted to be porters:
On the third night, the senior officers started to rape the two girls. They were raped for the whole night and were passed on from place to place among them. I saw they could hardly walk the next morning: one girl cried and came out from the army barracks and another girl looked very weak and leaned over the tree.
We had to stay together with the soldiers, not very close to where the officers were staying, but I could see everything clearly.
On the next morning, the captain took one of the girls and forced her to take bath with him. I know he was from a Meiktila-based battalion because of his insignia. All the porters were asked to collect water for his shower. He bathed naked, and forced the girl to clean his whole body. She also had to rub him with a towel. After this, he forced the girl to take a shower naked, threatening that he would kill her if she didn’t. She had to bathe in the open space where everyone could see.
On another morning I saw the other girl rush out from an army officer’s hut. While she was crying and saying her prayers on her knees, she was slapped on the head and told "Don’t pray! It won’t help you. Where is your God? You think he can do anything. So where is he now?" Then he slapped her on her face again and I saw she had lost one of her teeth and her face was swollen.
During lunchtime, when we (porters) could have time together, the girls told us that the officers took methamphetamines and raped them like animals.
In “School for Rape,” a Karen woman describes her rape by a government soldier:
One night last November … more than 60 government soldiers from 99 Division came through our village. I heard many soldiers pass my house … then one soldier came straight into my house, and he put out the light right away so I couldn't see his face. … He said, "Lay down, mother." I refused, so he pushed me and I fell on my children. They started crying, and the soldier jumped on me and started to wrestle with me. Then he put his rifle barrel against my face; it felt so cold and made me so afraid I can't tell you. He put the barrel against my chest and pushed me down again. He grabbed my throat and said "If you scream, I'll choke you!" and tried to slap me but I turned my face away. So he took his gun and held it against one side of my face and pulled out his knife and held it against the other side, and said, "If you fight or cry or shout, I'll kill you!" My sarong had already come apart while we were fighting. He raped me and I couldn’t even scream.
Also in “School for Rape,” a Karen woman recalls being gang raped while being kept as a porter:
I was kept as a porter in October. They said it would only be for four days, but they kept me for one month and four days. … At night I couldn't sleep because I often saw guards come and take the youngest girls away. … Two times I had to carry separately from the rest of the group, and ended up alone in the forest with the soldiers at night. Both times the soldiers came to me and beat me, showed me their guns to keep me quiet, and then raped me. The first time I was raped by six soldiers, and the second night this happened I was raped by four soldiers.
In “License to Rape,” a Shan woman describes harsh treatment by her family following a rape:
I lived in a small hut in the jungle with my husband and two children. There, we looked after our buffaloes and cows. One day, my husband took our two children into the jungle to hunt birds and left me alone in the hut. An SPDC soldier from LIB 333 base in Murng Sart came into our yard to steal our bananas. Although I can’t speak Burmese that well, I tried to talk to him and to take our bananas back. I called out to my husband, but he was so far away at that time, he didn’t hear me. The soldier grabbed me and kicked my legs until I fell to the ground. Then he grabbed my legs. I tried to escape, but he was stronger than I am. He raped me for an hour and a half.
When my husband came home (after the rape), I told him what had happened. He was furious at me and beat me. The relationship between me and my husband suffered tremendously as a result of the rape. Every day, my husband and children would say, "Prostitute! If you want to sell sex, we will build you a small hut in the jungle. You can sell sex there." I felt very hurt by these words, until finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I divorced my husband. When I went to see my children, they said: "Whore, you are not our mother, don’t come see us any more," and drove me away. My husband said: "You didn’t control yourself. You had sex with another man. You are no longer my wife. Leave our house right now." Eventually I decided to come to Thailand.
Human Rights Advisor to the Delegation of the European Commission to India, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, Parul Sharma, documents a Chin woman’s experience with military authorities:
The army soldiers used to come and stay at our house and behave as they liked us. Sometimes, the Chin National Army soldiers also came to our village. On 5th January 2003, the CAN soldiers came to our village and the Burmese army heard about this so they entered our village on 9th January 2003. The Burmese soldiers came to our house and accused us of supporting and helping the CAN. They came and said, "Why do you support CAN and why did you cook for the CAN people?" They beat me and my husband. They took my husband to Falam town and put him in prison. He never returned. They told me that they wanted to take me to prison too but my child was only six months old. They told me to sign a piece of paper which said "I do not support the CAN people." I had to agree to whatever they said. I went to Falam town to sign on 30th January 2003. I left my baby with my mother at a village. When I got to the military camp, two officers asked me to go inside the room. There was one officer inside the room. As soon as I got there, he threatened me because he knew that I could not speak Burmese very well. I fought back but he pointed a pistol at my forehead. He tore my top and all my underwear. He hit my thighs hard so that my legs could not move anymore. Then, he brutally raped me. He told me that if I told anyone he would kill me. There were guards outside the room but they did not bother to help me.
Again at the end of February, I had to go to the army camp at Falam town. I was so afraid that I took one girl along with me hoping this would protect me. But they did not let her go inside the house with me. The same army officer was in the room. As soon as I got inside the room, he raped me again. I decided to flee because I knew that I would have to go again and again and get raped. I fled to India on 15th March 2003. ... Here, I live in Delhi and have got status from UNHCR. In order to eat, we need to collect curry which the local people threw away at the market. This is how we live.
A 26-year-old Rohingha woman seeking refuge in Bangladesh described her rape:
A man from NaSaKa [Burma’s border security force] came to my house. He kicked the door and told me I had to go and work as a sentry instead of my husband. I had to go immediately with my young child and without food. Later in the evening while I was at my post someone else from NaSaKa came. He told me "your husband is not there, I will stay with you; I want to live with you." That night the man raped me in the shed in front of my boy.
We [women] feel at peace in Bangladesh. There is no food and some problems, but there is no rape, we have peace.
Displacement has become one of the primary consequences of the violence permeating Burma’s ethnic regions. The Women’s League of Burma indicates that, as of 2008, there are more than 450,000 Burmese refugees, both male and female, in neighboring states, including Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. Recognized refugee camps in Thailand house approximately 140,000 individuals. Additionally, there are more than 600,000 internally displaced persons in Burma proper. Not only does this displacement perpetuate the political instability within Burma but it also destabilizes the region as a whole, putting pressure on the surrounding states to accommodate such a large influx of refugees. The external effects of the Burmese brutality toward its civilians pose a constant threat to international peace and security, furthermore urging the UN and the international community to address the human rights catastrophes in Burma.
Having been compounded by decades of impunity, fear of social stigmatization prevents many rape victims from coming forward and reporting their assaults to the authorities. The Karen Human Rights Groups reports:
Traditional notions of propriety lead many rape victims to remain silent about the abuse. Families are also reluctant to make the incident known to the wider community. Stigmatization by the community is the likely outcome should the rape become public knowledge. Furthermore, no action is generally taken when women report being raped to local SPDC commanding officers. They are commonly told to stop spreading rumors and may even be punished. Such attitudes promote a sense of shame in the victim. This self-perception compounds the already traumatic nature of the incident. Single women may thereafter be shunned and find it more difficult to get married. This is especially the case where the rape leads to pregnancy. In some cases women have been ostracized from their community, or even by their husbands.
Most victims of rape and sexualized violence suffer from either physical or psychological trauma in the aftermath of attacks, or both. Women encounter a plethora of physical health problems including exposure to HIV/AIDS and injury to reproductive organs. The trauma of the sexualized violence results in mental health problems as well, with many of the victims suffering from the debilitating effects of depression, shame, anger, insomnia, and, in some cases, drug addiction.
Burmese Penal Code Section 312 criminalizes abortion in all instances except when the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. Notably, this strict law does not allow exceptions for abortion in cases of rape of women and young girls, further traumatizing victims of sexualized violence and forcing women to explore life-threatening routes to terminate their pregnancies. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that, overall, “one in three pregnancies in Burma ends in abortion, with approximately 750,000 abortions being carried out each year, or about 2,000 abortions per day. It is estimated that the consequences of unsafe abortion account for around 50 percent of maternal deaths. This number is likely to be much higher in ethnic and rural areas where women rely solely on traditional medicines and traditional doctors.”
Impunity continues to be the norm in Burma with regard to sexualized violence. To date, no legal proceedings, international or domestic, have held the military accountable in its campaign of sexualized violence against the ethnic women of Burma. These human rights violations have been ignored for decades, causing victims’ hope of seeing the perpetrators of these crimes held responsible to steadily wane, despite explicit recognition by the UN. The UN secretary-general, in his 2009 report on Security Council Resolution 1820, stated that “ In Myanmar, recent concern has been expressed at … the high prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated against rural women from the Shan, Mon, Karen, Palaung and Chin ethnic groups by members of the armed forces and at the apparent impunity of the perpetrators.”
The blanket amnesty granted to the military regime for any of its activities is the steepest barrier to domestic justice for victims of any human rights abuses in Burma, especially sexualized violence. As Phyu Phyu Sann of the Global Justice Center notes, “This is an aggressive and deliberate act by the military regime of Burma to enshrine impunity as a ‘right.’” She adds: “The military is flourishing under constitutional protections and guarantees of impunity for past and future crimes. Armed conflicts will continue between the military and ethnic groups, [as will] military attacks on civilians, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.” Therefore, domestic justice remains highly unattainable since fundamental domestic reform and restructuring would be necessary before any action could be taken.
Burma’s constitutional immunity clause also conflicts with its international legal obligations to protect its citizens. As early as 1992, the UN General Assembly called for Burma to comply with its common Article 3 obligations under the Geneva Conventions. In 1994, the UN Commission on Human Rights (now referred to as the UN Human Rights Council) adopted resolution 1994/58, titled “Situation of human rights in Myanmar,” in which it “expressed its grave concern at the violations of human rights which remained extremely serious, including, in particular, the practice of torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, including forced portering, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, and the imposition of oppressive measures directed at minority groups; and expressed its concern about the continuous problems created in neighboring countries by the exodus of refugees from Myanmar.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating Burma’s violations of international treaties and customary international law within the past 20 years, no action has been taken publically to halt the ongoing human rights abuses. It should be noted that the military at times has claimed that it has taken action against perpetrators of sexualized violence. However, research indicates that such action may only be superficial—no details have been provided by the SPDC and it cannot be confirmed whether or not the perpetrators have actually been punished. Additionally, it is impossible to confirm, because military courts do not allow access to the public or media.
Human rights organizations across the globe have urged the UN to intervene and cease the long tradition of impunity by referring the Burma situation to the International Criminal Court under Article 13 of the Rome Statute. Burma is unwilling to account for these crimes internally—demonstrated by decades of turning a blind eye, outright denial of human rights violations, as well as engraining an immunity clause in its practically unamendable constitution—and is outside of the reach of ICC jurisdiction, having not signed or ratified the Rome Statute. By establishing jurisdiction over the Burmese situation through the UN Security Council referral power, the ICC would have the ability to try SPDC perpetrators for war crimes or crimes against humanity for their part in committing and promoting rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy.
Furthermore, the international community could get involved apart from consolidated UN action by implementing the principle of universal jurisdiction. As the International Center for Transitional Justice explains:
[U]niversal jurisdiction is based on the theory that certain crimes may be tried by any country’s court, regardless of where the crimes occurred or the nationalities of the victims or perpetrators, because the crime is considered to have affected the international community as a whole. …Continued advocacy toward initiating a criminal investigation against Burmese leaders in any country claiming universal jurisdiction, especially a country with a connection to any potential perpetrators or victims, could help challenge Burma’s culture of impunity.
On March 2, 2010, the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma sponsored the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma, an academic mock trial allowing survivors of Burmese atrocities to testify before a panel of judges and make their horrors known and undeniable. After hearing the testimony of 12 women and evidence presented by various human rights organizations, “the judges concluded that war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations have been and continue to be committed by the Burmese military regime.” The judges, among them Nobel Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams, said they hope that their judgment constitutes “a blueprint for action on Burma.”