Notwithstanding recent censure from the United Nations and parts of the international community, Myanmar’s democratisation has been the toast of governments and businesses for the last four years. However, the narrative surrounding the country’s transition has obscured the lived reality of the most marginalised groups in the country.
For women in Myanmar’s ethnic communities, President Thein Sein’s “reformist” administration has been marked by human rights violations: state-sponsored sexual violence. Tuesday marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and an opportunity to recognise that rape at the hands of the military continues to decimate the lives of women across Myanmar.
When people talk about Myanmar’s transition, they are not referring to the country’s ethnic communities. In these areas, enjoyment of fundamental human rights and justice for crimes is as remote as ever. Internationally commended development projects – for example, those in Karen State and across southeastern Myanmar – are bringing increased numbers of Myanmar army personnel to secure investments, and burgeoning human rights abuses as a result. The perpetrators of these crimes enjoy de facto impunity from prosecution, while survivors are left to rebuild their lives without any assistance from the government, fearful of the consequences of speaking out about their experience.
Nothing has changed
For more than 15 years, the Women’s League of Burma has been working with women from ethnic communities to document these crimes. Since 2010, we documented 118 separate incidents of sexual violence and attempted sexual assault, as discussed in our latest report, “If they had hope, they would speak.”
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This number – while demonstrative of the scale of the issue – represents a fraction of the total abuses taking place. Survivors who dare to speak out face harrassment and intimidation, as do the human rights defenders working with them to seek justice. This is the lived reality for women under Thein Sein’s “reformist” government. Four years into Myanmar’s transition, many things look different, but nothing has changed. There are some very clear reasons for this.
It has been well established that Myanmar’s Constitution is notable for all the wrong reasons – it grants military personnel de facto impunity from prosecution, a veto over any parliamentary legislation, and allows the arbitrary imprisonment of human rights defenders and activists. It is less widely known that Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution and legal framework formally guarantees gender inequality. The UN has noted that Myanmar is unique in this regard. The consequences of this gender inequality are all too real for women across Myanmar: state-sponsored gang-rape and rape, systematic denial of justice, and marginalisation in political and public life.
While the de facto impunity afforded to the military remains the largest obstacle to obtaining justice, it is underpinned by the complicity of state authorities – the judiciary, police, and political representatives – at the most local level. Because crimes involving the military are referred to the court-martial system – and are exempt from civilian oversight – there is no pressure on the military to make proceedings public.
Survivors and local-level authorities know that when a case is brought against a member of the military, the chances of obtaining justice are very slim. For women seeking justice through channels available at the local level, the intransigence of state authorities often dissuades them from attempting to hold perpetrators accountable.
This is the other side of Myanmar’s growth story, which sacrifices the human rights of ethnic communities at the feet of GDP growth.
The absence of transparency and accountability has created a culture of fear for both survivors of state-sponsored sexual violence, and the human rights defenders who work with them for justice. In our new report, we detail how the military practises harassment and intimidation to keep the truth from surfacing.
In environments where survivors and human rights defenders are aware of the risks to their personal security and of the small chance of obtaining justice, many keep silent rather than endangering their own lives further. The military and government have done nothing to shatter this culture of silence in these recent years of reform.
Alongside this, the international community must recognise that human rights abuses in Myanmar’s ethnic communities are closely linked to development projects. Many of these projects are taking place in resource-rich areas where conflict between Ethnic Armed Organisations and the military is either ongoing, or resting on often-violated ceasefire agreements. A dramatic increase in the presence of military personnel has contributed to human rights abuses in Shan State, Karen State and Kachin State among others.
This is the other side of Myanmar’s growth story, which sacrifices the human rights of ethnic communities at the feet of GDP growth. It is also the context in which the government has announced plans such as the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW), and signed the UK government-led Declaration of the Committee to End Sexual Violence in Conflict earlier this year. The aims of these documents are laudable – targeting the root causes of sexual violence in conflict, ending all forms of discrimination against women, and ensuring that women play a key role in shaping the future of Myanmar’s public and political life. But, as with much else in Myanmar’s transition, promises of substantive change have had very little impact on the ground.
None of the Women’s League of Burma’s member organisations have seen any action from the government to make good on their promises, and the means though many women work to affect positive change, local civil society remains fraught with security risks. Whatever change might be taking place at the central level, it is not altering decades-long patterns of human rights abuses and denial of justice for women in Myanmar’s ethnic communities. Today we must demand substantive change for the women of Myanmar, whose suffering at the hands of state-sponsored sexual violence has been ignored for too long.
Tin Tin Nyo is General Secretary of the Women’s League of Burma.