For too many people in Burma, the sound of gunfire and mortar bombs is a familiar one. For decades the Burmese army has relentlessly attacked civilians in Burma’s ethnic states. The United Nations has documented multiple possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese army, which has deliberately targeted civilians. Unknown millions have fled such attacks in the six decades since Burma gained independence.
I know very well the fear when, without warning, the Burmese army attacks a village. The sudden crackle of gunfire and the boom of mortar bombs as they shake the ground. Twice I fled such attacks when the Burmese army attacked my village. But as a woman I also know another fear. The fear of being caught by Burmese army soldiers: the fear of being raped.
As a young girl growing up in Karen State, we heard many stories of the horrific things done by the Burmese army. Torture, mutilations and executions of civilians were common. But so too was rape. The use of rape by Burmese army soldiers has been so widespread and systematic it is clearly military policy. Soldiers commit rape with impunity; it isn’t just that ordinary soldiers are out of control. The Shan Women’s Action Network documented numerous cases of more senior soldiers raping women in front of the soldiers they commanded.
One of the untold stories of Burma’s “reform” process of the past two years has been the increase in reports of rape by the Burmese army. Soon after the 2010 elections which ushered in the new military-backed government, the Burmese army broke long-standing ceasefires in Shan state and Kachin state, and my organisation, Burma Campaign UK, started receiving a big increase in reports of rape by Burmese army soldiers.
In one of the most shocking cases, on 1 May 2012, Burmese army soldiers found Ngwa Mi, a grandmother with 12 children, sheltering alone in a church in Kachin State. 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.
This increase in sexual violence in Burma has coincided with British Foreign Secretary William Hague launching a major new international initiative, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI). Yet despite the increase in reports of rape and Hague calling in the past for an end to impunity in Burma, when PSVI was launched, Burma was not included.
Last week, alongside Valerie Vaz MP, Burma Campaign UK delivered 2,000 letters and postcards to the Foreign Office, calling on them to fully include Burma in PSVI. “The use of rape and sexual violence against women in any circumstances is simply unacceptable,” says Valerie Vaz, who recently visited Burma. “The ongoing practice of sexual violence by the Burmese armed forces is alarming and should not be ignored by the British government. William Hague should ensure that Burma is fully included in the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.”
Facing increasing pressure to include Burma, the Foreign Office announced that a scoping mission would take place over the summer to review Burma’s possible inclusion, and President Thein Sein has been asked to cooperate. But no public announcement has been made as to whether Burma will be fully included in PSVI.
For the women of Burma, this is an urgent problem. Unconfirmed reports have emerged from Kachin State that in early September Burmese army soldiers abducted, sexually abused and gang-raped a group of young women. They were left naked in the jungle.
If Burma were fully included in the PSVI and President Thein Sein were forced to fully cooperate, then it might have been possible to take immediate action to help these women. Investigators could have been sent, and assistance provided to the women. But as things stand, and as far as is known, no action has been taken to investigate this case, and no expert assistance given to the women.
Williams Hague’s initiative on preventing sexual violence is ground-breaking and to be applauded. However if it is perceived to be selectively applied to countries depending on trade or other interests its credibility will be undermined. This must not be allowed to happen. For decades rape has been used by the Burmese army in conflict zones, and despite “reforms” it continues to this day. William Hague has said it is time to act, and that should include acting for the women of Burma as well.
Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published as ‘Undaunted’ in the USA, and ‘Little Daughter’ in the rest of the world.