LONDON — Gender-based sexual violence obstructs peace and development, particularly when it is a weapon used by military dictatorships against their own peoples. Myanmar is now permeated by such state-sponsored violence. Systematic sexual violence became visible in Myanmar when the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) published “License to Rape,” which documents 625 cases of rape committed by the military in eastern Myanmar between 1996 and 2001. The report noted that nobody had been prosecuted.
Myanmar is suffering the impact of decades of civil war. Civilians have become the main victims of a strategy aimed at undermining the guerrillas, which has resulted in forced labor, the use of human minesweepers and massive relocations of entire villages. There are now an estimated 600,000 to 1 million internal refugees.
SWAN and SHRF argue that rape is used as a weapon in the Myanmar military’s war against ethnic minorities. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable — owing to gender as well as ethnicity — to a horrific practice whose aim is to demonstrate the army’s power and punish those who confront it. When the army enters a village, chaos erupts. Villagers are killed or ordered to pack their belongings and leave. Several of the reported rapes took place under such conditions, or when women are taken for forced labor.
Many victims have fled Myanmar. SWAN and SHRF learned of many cases from women who arrived in Thailand. In February 2006, we visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border and learned first hand of war and abuse.
“License to Rape” has attracted wide attention in Southeast Asia. Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Thai Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and vice chairman of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, called for an investigation by the United Nations. So did the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Rape brings stigma, shame and reluctance on the part of victims to speak out about what happened to them. But an increasing number of women and girls from Myanmar have begun to tell of their experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the country’s war-torn areas. Army deserters confirm that rapes have occurred. And the U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women has published material that corroborates information in “License to Rape” and adds numerous new cases from Myanmar.
Nevertheless, four years on, a U.N. investigation has yet to take place, because the military junta refuses to grant the U.N. access to the country. Reports of rape continue, and the Myanmar military surely must know what is happening. But the junta engages in Orwellian doublethink. It has rejected the reports, instead launching its own investigations whose conduct and staffing leave no room for confidence in their credibility.
National governments and the international community have an obligation to protect women and children against abuse. In 2000, the U.N. Security Council recognized that gender-based violence thwarts security and adopted Resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to respect the rights of women and children, and particularly to prevent gender-based violence.
In 2004, governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations vowed to end the impunity states like Myanmar have enjoyed and signed the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region.
Myanmar is failing miserably to live up to the standards of decency that the Southeast Asian region is setting for itself. It has ratified the U.N. Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, a national committee exists for the advancement of women. But such measures are of no use when the military remains firmly in control, the rule of law is absent and the government refuses to admit to the systematic sexual violence committed by its soldiers as they terrorize the population.
ASEAN cannot afford to stand by idly. Neither can the international community. Such abuse of power is inadmissible, and we expect ASEAN to address the military’s use of rape in the conflict in Myanmar. We urge the U.N. Security Council to raise the issue. All of Myanmar’s people deserve security, and refugee women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence need the world’s solidarity and support.
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