No improvement in Myanmar one year after sexual violence accord

11 July 2015
No improvement in Myanmar one year after sexual violence accord
Photo: EPA

In the year since Myanmar President Thein Sein signed up to the then British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s high profile Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) nothing seems to have changed in Myanmar.
Since Thein Sein signed the initiative there have been no changes in attitude towards sexual violence by the Myanmar Army, no concerted attempts at prosecuting offenders and no help offered to victims. It appears that Thein Sein, even as he signed the PSVI, knew he was not going to implement it.
As a recent Burma Campaign UK report on the matter said: “It can only be concluded that the use of rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army is condoned at the highest level of the government and the military.”
Recently the PSVI has been criticised as being underfunded and ineffective and it does seem that all William Hague was truly interested in was the publicity he received from collecting as many countries’ signatures as possible on the PSVI.
At the time, in a letter to Burma Campaign UK he said: “We continue to call for an end to the use of sexual violence in Burma. At a minimum there must be strengthened accountability and better access to justice for victims of sexual violence.”
Unfortunately he did not back up his rhetoric with action and the British government made no attempt to pressurise the Myanmar authorities to implement the PSVI.
Burma Campaign UK and Myanmar women’s groups called for coordinated international pressure on the Myanmar government if they failed to implement the PSVI within six months of signing, but the British government would not even consider withdrawing the free training they gave to the Myanmar Army in January 2015, which also apparently included human rights training.
With such weak enforcement it is unsurprising that there have been no reductions in crimes of sexual violence committed by the Myanmar Army in the past year. In April of this year The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said that in Myanmar there is still “a high level of impunity for conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by State actors.”
Since the PSVI was signed it is alleged there have been many cases of soldiers committing rape, yet no punishment. One of the most egregious and well publicised cases was the gang rape and murder of two young volunteer Kachin teachers at about 1am on 20 January 2015.
Maran Lu Ra (age 20) from Myikyina, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin (age 21) from Waingmaw were raped and killed at their house in the church compound of Kawng Kha Shabuk village, about 20 miles east of Muse Town, Northern Shan State.
Three days previously on 17 January about 30 soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 503 based themselves in four houses in the village and posted guards around the village. After the soldiers’ arrival the two teachers had stayed with villagers because they were worried about their safety. They were attacked on the first night they had dared return to their home.
The next day when they did not turn up at school the villagers went to look for the teachers and found their half naked bodies in their house. There were knife wounds to their bodies, they had been severely beaten around the head and there were marks from boots, similar to those worn by soldiers, in the dust around the house.
According to a report by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) at about 7am on the morning of 20 January, just before the teacher’s bodies were discovered, a truck full of soldiers was seen leaving the village. Though there was an investigation by the police and army no one was held accountable for the crimes.
Moon Nay Li the general Secretary of KWAT and a board member of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) said of the case: “They [the army] are not accountable anymore. The police were responsible and tried to take action but nothing happened.
“The current situation is that the village is under the control of the military. They are threatening villagers and no strangers from outside the village are allowed in. They have forced two villagers, who they have tortured and beaten, to take responsibility [for the crimes].”
The army claims to have investigated the case and said they have found no evidence of army involvement in the the two teachers deaths, though they have refused to reveal what investigations they carried out and what they found during their investigations. Charm Tong from the Shan Women’s Network (SWAN) said: “From what we see the perpetrators have not been held accountable. There has been no improvement, even in the investigation process of the two Kachin teachers.”
To make matters worse the army owned media outlet, Myawaddy, published a statement that said: “The Tatmadaw [Burma Army] will take action based on the rule of law against those who accuse [soldiers] and write about it after the official report is released by the investigation team.” 
Such threats will scare people off from investigating or complaining any further and ensure that the truth will probably never emerge.
Any soldiers committing crimes are tried in secret military courts and cannot be tried in civilian courts. The military courts are responsible to no one and do not release the verdicts or investigation details to the public. Very rarely the army may say that a soldier is guilty of a crime, but no one knows if they are then punished. As Moon Nay Li pointed out: “Sometimes they say that the soldiers have been punished, but how can we trust them.”
The army tactic of threatening to prosecute or actually prosecuting people who complain against them is also a common ploy, which has silenced many people and made them even more wary of complaining about soldiers’ behaviour.
Fourteen-year-old Kachin school girl Ja Seng Ing was shot dead in front of witnesses allegedly by Myanmar Army soldiers who were indiscriminately firing in Hpakant Township’s Sut Ngai Yang Village on 13 September 2012. The army claimed that Ja Seng Ing was killed by a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) landmine, but her father, Brang Shawn, was dissatisfied and demanded a proper investigation.
He wrote to President Thein Sein on 25 September 2012 and to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on 1 October 2012. According to Amnesty: “He did not receive a response to either letter. Instead, on 25 February 2013, he was charged under Article 211 of Myanmar’s Penal Code with making false allegations against the Myanmar Army in his letter to the MNHRC.”
After nearly a year of court hearings Brang Shawn was found guilty by a court in Hpakant Township, Kachin State on 13 February 2015 and sentenced to either six months in jail or a 50,000 kyats ($50 USD) fine.
It is clear that there will be no reduction in the incidents of sexual violence committed by Myanmar Army soldiers until they are held responsible for their actions in open civilian courts. But, for that to happen there will have to be big changes. At present, as Moon Nay Li explained, the army is so powerful that even many judges and lawyers would be too afraid of the army to prosecute soldiers in civilian courts.
She believes that even if Thein Sein wanted to reduce sexual violence he and the government are powerless to do anything without the army’s consent. As she pointed out: “When the president ordered them [the army] to stop fighting in Kachin State they did not listen to him.” 
As the army is clearly unwilling to stop its soldiers raping, torturing and killing civilians Moon Nay Li does not believe the situation will change until the constitution is changed and the army are properly bought under civilian control. 
She said: “The problem is in the 2008 constitution. The military is more powerful than the government and civilians so nobody, not the police or the courts can take action against the military.”
The government and military must also acknowledge the military’s past offences.
Charm Tong said: “To prove that the government is serious on this issue they have to acknowledge rape cases from the past, not deny them and not deny that violence is taking place.”
Past offences by the military also need to be properly and independently investigated to offer victims closure.
In their November 2014 report ‘If They had Hope They Would Speak’ the WLB said there should be: “the establishment of effective judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to investigate human rights abuses, particularly those relating to sexual violence.”
Survivors also need to be offered proper support to help them recover. In March Ban Ki-moon said: “I urge the Government, with the support of the United Nations and its partners, to work to develop a comprehensive protection and service response for survivors.”
Unfortunately Myanmar seems no closer to achieving these ideals than it was a year ago when it signed the PSVI. There are still frequent reports of soldiers raping civilians with impunity. For instance, just on 6 June this year, at Wa Nar Taung Village in the Murng Lang area of Hopong Township, Southern Shan State, Nang Kheik, a 28 year old Shan housewife, was beaten, robbed, raped and killed allegedly by three soldiers. 
As Moon Nay Li said: “There has been no change, the army is still committing sexual violence in conflict areas. We cannot find justice for the women who have been raped by the soldiers, the authorities have been taking no action.”
This Article first appeared in the July 9, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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