Myanmar Must Act to Prevent Violence Against Women in Conflict and Provide Justice for Victims

On 27 October, 2017, the annual UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security focused the attention of the UN system on the successes and gaps in implementing UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325. The debate covered a number of conflict-affected countries, including Myanmar[1]. The representative of Bangladesh noted that “rape and sexual abuse of Rohingya women was being used as a tactic of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar,” and called on the UN to take stronger action. In her most recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, also called for accountability for sexual violence and other crimes committed in conflict areas.

In late October 2017, women around the world posted on social media about their experiences with sexual harassment and violence using the hashtag #metoo. While public testimonies such as these are important, many more victims of sexual violence face serious obstacles to speaking out, particularly in the context of armed conflict. In Myanmar, public accusations of Myanmar Army abuses have commonly led to different forms of reprisals by the Army including criminal charges of defamation against the victims. The cost of speaking out is not counter-balanced by an opportunity for justice or redress for most women. Most cases of sexual violence in Myanmar, especially committed by state forces in conflict areas, go unpunished and resources for victims are almost non-existent.

“[t]he accounts of sexual violence that I heard from victims are some of the most horrendous I have heard in my long experience in dealing with this issue in many crisis situations.”

In the past weeks, human rights organizations have documented rape and other forms of sexual violence committed systematically against Rohingya women and children during ‘clearance operations’ by the Myanmar Army. Médecins Sans Frontières has reported treating dozens of victims of sexual violence in the refugee camps, including many girls under 10 years of age. After the first visit of the UN Fact-Finding Mission to Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, an expert on children and armed conflict commented that “[t]he accounts of sexual violence that I heard from victims are some of the most horrendous I have heard in my long experience in dealing with this issue in many crisis situations.”

Use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in Rakhine State follows a well-documented pattern from other conflict areas in Myanmar. These cases have rarely been prosecuted. Cases that do go to trial are, for the most part, conducted behind closed doors by a military tribunal and in many cases the accused are charged with less serious offenses and the sentences imposed are light. While most documented cases of sexual violence in conflict areas were allegedly committed by Myanmar Army troops, in late October 2017, the Myanmar Army accused two soldiers of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) of raping the headmistress of a school in Kyaukme township in Shan State. The spokesperson of the TNLA confirmed that the TNLA had arrested the two suspects and would try them in a TNLA military court.

In 2014, Myanmar signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, a non-binding commitment to take a number of steps toward prevention and redress of sexual violence in conflict. However, Myanmar has still not taken the steps enumerated in the Declaration of Commitment, nor has it drafted a National Action Plan as called for by UNSC Resolution 1325, in order to implement its commitments to prevent and redress sexual violence in conflict. While a new Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women (PoVAW) Act is on the agenda of the current session of Parliament, it does not sufficiently address sexual violence in conflict.

The world must not forget that campaigns such as #metoo – to recognize the everyday violence committed against women – remain far from the reach of women in conflict.

The world must not forget that campaigns such as #metoo – to recognize the everyday violence committed against women – remain far from the reach of women in conflict. Without the necessary steps toward prevention and accountability, sexual violence remains common in conflict areas in Myanmar. In order to fulfill its commitments and prevent sexual violence, the Myanmar government should draft a National Action Plan on the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, incorporating women’s voices from conflict-affected communities and rights-based civil society. The National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Law should include provisions that address accountability for sexual violence and reparation for victims. Meanwhile, the military should stop committing such crimes and make a practice of transferring cases of sexual violence to civilian courts, as is already permitted by law. The civilian government should prioritize constitutional reform in order for the military to be under civilian control, and to end military impunity. Also crucial to prevention and protection is an improved system of protection for victims when they file complaints and speak out against the military, and reform of the defamation laws that can currently be used to file criminal charges against victims of serious human rights violations including sexual violence.

Sexual violence as a weapon of war perpetuates conflict and leaves a legacy of pain and suffering. Until the cycle of impunity is broken by holding perpetrators accountable and ensuring reparation for victims, these crimes will continue and true peace and reconciliation will be unattainable.

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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

New report: Moratorium on Natural Resource Projects in Ethnic States will Help End Ethnic Conflict
By Burma Environmental Working Group

Burma Kachin Christians Jailed after Exposing Church Destruction
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Myanmar: Drop Case Against Kachin Religious Leaders
By Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch

Myanmar: End Judicial Harassment of Swe Win, Drop Charges
By Fortify Rights

Experts of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar conclude visit to Bangladesh
Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar established by HRC resolution 34/22

Stakeholders Press Energy Companies Doing Business with Myanmar to Address Rohingya Crisis
By International Campaign for the Rohingya

Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State, Burma
By US Department of State

Myanmar: UN Security Council Must Act on Rohingya Crisis – UN Expert
By UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee

Cardin Labels Burmese Rohingya Crisis ‘Genocide’, Presses Administration for Answers
By U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate

reports

Reports

Resource Federalism: Roadmap for Decentralised Governance of Burma’s Natural Heritage
By Burma Environmental Working Group

Remarks: Violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar
By Fortify Rights

Item 72: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
By UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.

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