As the world marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November, Myanmar’s continuing failure to fulfil it’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, the lack of progress in passing a strong and comprehensive Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women Law, and ongoing violence against women in situations of armed conflict are deeply troublesome. This is compounded by its disregard for the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order to protect the Rohingya population, of whom women and children have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of the Myanmar military.
Violence against women is particularly pervasive in times of armed conflict, and the main perpetrator has been and continues to be the Myanmar military. This is a decades-long pattern of abuse where rape and sexual violence is instrumentalized as a weapon of war, particularly against ethnic and religious minorities. This has been well-documented by ethnic women’s and human rights organizations in all corners of the country over many years, demonstrating the institutionalization of this violence within the Myanmar military. As a statement by the Women’s Peace Network points out, “In all these cases, rape is used to degrade, subjugate and terrorize women and their ethnic communities.” These are not one-off instances and they are ongoing today. Furthermore the complete lack of justice and accountability for the victims of rape and sexual violence empowers the perpetrators institution – the Myanmar military – to continue its abhorent violence with impunity.
As well as various local and international human rights organizations, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar found the use of sexual and gender-based violence was “a hallmark of the Tatmadaw’s [Myanmar military’s] operations in northern Myanmar and in Rakhine.” This constitutes part of the charge of genocide that Myanmar is facing at the ICJ due to its genocidal campaign of violence against the Rohingya in 2017. After the preliminary hearing in December 2019, the ICJ ordered on 23 January, 2020, provisional measures that Myanmar must take to prevent acts of genocide against the Rohingya, to not destroy any evidence, and to report back to the court on the 23rd of May and every six months thereafter. Thus, on 23 November, Myanmar was supposed to report back to the ICJ on progress it has made in implementing these provisional measures.
However, as new documentation and analysis by the Burma Rohingya Organisation UK, has found, “Reports from the ground in the past two months clearly shows that the genocide against the Rohingya is ongoing, and that Myanmar has taken no concrete steps to follow the orders of the provisional measures.” Their report details various human rights violations inflicted upon Rohingyas such as arbitrary arrest, forced labor and using Rohingya as human shields during military operations against the Arakan Army. Furthermore, the institutional erasure of the Rohingya identity continues as the exclusionary 1982 Citizenship Law remains in place and the ongoing National Verification Process institutionalizes the notion of ‘Rohingya’ being foreign to Myanmar and not a recognized ethnic identity. That the Myanmar military continues to commit such violations, and that it has done nothing but deny culpability and evade accountability in the face of genocide charges, demonstrates how pursuing domestic justice for most victims of rape and sexual violence, among other violations, is a complete non-starter.
This is a clear non-compliance with the CEDAW, which Myanmar has signed, as well as UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and other related resolutions by the UN Security Council. In their report on Myanmar in 2019, CEDAW urged Myanmar “to promptly investigate and prosecute security personnel, including senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, with regard to the serious international crimes, crimes against humanity, war crimes and conflict-related sexual violence that have been perpetrated.” Yet nothing has been done to address this impunity as crimes committed by Myanmar military personnel come under the jurisdiction of the military courts in which inevitably, a slap on the wrist is the worst punishment.
Furthermore, the law on the Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women Law, fails to adhere to standards set out by CEDAW. A Global Justice Center analysis outlines problems of the draft including its use of archaic language and definitions of rape borrowed from the 19th century Penal Code, the lack of provisions for women’s participation in processes related to resolving domestic violence, lack of access to reproductive health services and military impunity for gender-based violence. Despite the regular urging of CEDAW to immediately pass a law, it has been in various draft forms for seven years.
It is clear that Myanmar has a long way to go to address sexual and gender-based violence. Most worrying is that the Myanmar military commits rape and sexual violence with total impunity that they enjoy as stipulated under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. Recent proposed amendments to the Defence Services Act do not address this core problem, and in fact could serve as cover for military impunity. As such, international accountability mechanisms such as the ICJ and the ongoing case at the International Criminal Court are imperative.
The most heinous of such crimes are committed by the Myanmar military, but as in many other countries throughout the world, gender-based violence is widespread throughout society. A culture of accountability and legal protection is needed to end such patterns of violence, gender inequality and impunity. Being party to CEDAW requires a positive obligation on the State to pursue all measures to protect women, without delay, yet after seven years since the initial drafting of the Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women Law, there is still no progress. Not only has there been a huge delay, but if the law passes in its current form, it will do little to provide adequate protection from gender-based violence. As a joint statement by the Karen Human Rights Group and the Karen Women’s Organization eloquently articulates, “We must eliminate sexual and gender-based violence in our lifetime. Let us leave a world for our daughters where they do not have to be afraid of violence defining their lives and their possibilities.”
 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.
By Access Now, Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Assistance Association For Political Prisoners, Athan -Freedom of Expression Activist Organization, Burma Human Rights Network, Civil Rights Defenders, Fortify Rights, FORUM-Asia and Human Rights Watch
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Fortify Rights
By Karen Human Rights Group and Karen Women’s Organisation
By Karen Women’s Organization
By Korean Civil Society in Solidarity with Rohingya, Korean Transnational Corporation Watch and Justice For Myanmar
By Progressive Voice
By Progressive Voice
By Women’s Peace Network
By ALTSEAN Burma
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
By Médecins Sans Frontières
By Progressive Voice
By Transnational Institute, Justice Society, Lahu Development Network, Metta Development Foundation, Mon Area Community Development Organization, Mon Region Land Policy Affair Committee, Mon Women Organization, Mon Youth Progressive Organization, Pa-O Youth Organization, Paung Ku, Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization, Tai Youth Network and RRUSHES-5 Research Project
By UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair
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.”