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The Rape of Freedom in Burma

Kok Suh Sim, Katjasungkana, SundariTeresa Kok Suh Sim is an MP in Malaysia. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana is an MP in Indonesia. Eva K. Sundari is an MP in Indonesia.

by Teresa Kok Suh Sim, Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Eva K. Sundari

Gender-based sexual violence obstructs peace and development, particularly when it is a weapon used by military dictatorships against their own peoples. Burma is now permeated by such state-sponsored violence. Systematic sexual violence became visible in Burma when the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) published Licence to Rape, which documents 625 cases of rape committed by the military in eastern Burma between 1996 and 2001. The report noted that nobody had been prosecuted.

Burma is suffering the impact of decades of civil war. Civilians have become the main victims of a strategy aimed at undermining the guerrillas, which has resulted in forced labor, the use of human minesweepers, and massive relocations of entire villages. There are now an estimated 600,000 to one million internal refugees.

SWAN and SHRF argue that rape is used as a weapon in the Burmese military’s war against ethnic minorities. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable ¬– owing to gender as well as ethnicity – to a horrific practice whose aim is to demonstrate the army’s power and punish those who confront it. When the army enters a village, chaos erupts. Villagers are killed or ordered to pack their belongings and leave. Several of the reported rapes took place under such conditions, or when women are taken for forced labor.

Many victims have fled Burma. SWAN and SHRF learned of many cases from women who arrived in Thailand. In February 2006, we visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border and learned first hand of war and abuse.

Licence to Rape has attracted wide attention in Southeast Asia. Kraisak Choonhavan, Chairman of the Thai Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and Vice Chairperson of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), called for an investigation by the United Nations. So did the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Commission.

Rape brings stigma, shame, and reluctance on the part of victims to speak out about what happened to them. But an increasing number of women and girls from Burma have begun to tell of their experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the country’s war-torn areas. Army deserters confirm that rapes have occurred. And the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has published material that corroborates information Licence to Rape and adds numerous new cases from Burma.

Nevertheless, four years on, a UN investigation has yet to take place, because the military junta refuses to grant the UN access to the country. Incidents of rape continue to be reported, and the Burmese military surely must know what is happening. But the junta engages in Orwellian doublethink. It has rejected the reports, instead launching its own investigations whose conduct and staffing leave no room for confidence in their credibility.

National governments and the international community have an obligation to protect women and children against abuse. In 2000, the UN Security Council recognized that gender-based violence thwarts security and adopted Resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to respect the rights of women and children, and particularly to prevent gender-based violence. In 2004, the governments of ASEAN vowed to end the impunity states like Burma have enjoyed and signed the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region.

Burma is failing miserably to live up to the standards of decency that the Southeast Asian region is setting for itself. It has ratified the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, a national committee exists for the advancement of women. But such measures are of no use when the military remains firmly in control, the rule of law is absent, and the government refuses to admit to the systematic sexual violence committed by its soldiers as they terrorize the population.

ASEAN cannot afford to stand by idly. Neither can the international community. Such abuse of power is inadmissible, and we expect ASEAN to address the military’s use of rape in the conflict in Burma. We urge the UN Security Council to raise the issue. All of Burma’s people deserve security, and refugee women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence need the world’s solidarity and support.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.


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Jews involved?

Is Israel behind this too? If not, nobody here will care. Certainly not the self-styled "pacifists."

Forty years on

Mike: Yes little is said here about the awful plight of the minorities in Burma. I was in Burma in the late sixties, and the stranglehold the Generals had over every day life was palpable. One was barred from even travelling in the countryside. Even diplomats had to get permission if they wanted to leave the capital, so much of the suffering goes on well away from the view of the world. Rangoon back then gave me the impression that economically Burma was a basket case. And here we are nearly forty years on and nothing has changed. Whether ASEAN will have any clout with the Generals remains to be seen, but I seriously doubt it.   

But injustices against women are as we know not confined to Burna. Tonight I watched Four Corners. If ever there was an indictment of Sharia Law, it is the hanging of that 16 year old girl, for crimes against chastity. She had been raped by a man 3 times her age, but of course all he got was some lashes, while she was hung. So it is not just women in ethnic communities in Burma that are suffering. But in Iran, it is legal that they are treated the way they are. That is what makes it so appalling. When Shirin Ebadi came out and said that the proper punishment under the law for the girl was 80 lashes, rather than the death penalty, I just felt sick.

I don't see much hope for the Shan and Karen women under the current regime in Burma, and I see even less hope for the women of Iran under those so called clerics. It is enough to turn even me off religion for good. 

Yes Jenny I did see that show.

It made me feel outraged and angry. What a horrific, disgusting, psychopathic society Iran has become. A place where young girls are kidnapped and raped by the "moral police" with impunity, and where underaged rape victims are stoned to death or hung from cranes, as are gays. Utterly abominable.

I was recently in Greece and in the Archaeological Museum at the ancient religious site of Olympia (where the original Olympics were held for 1500 years) there is a fascinating marble sculpture commemorating the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. The sculpture depicts, with an incredible level of artistry, a mythological scene where the centaurs are attempting to kidnap and rape the women of the Lapiths, while the Lapith men try to fight them off. In the center stands the calm, resolute figure of Apollo, god of light and civilization, extending his arm with palm raised in a gesture that says "stop all this." The message is as clear now as it was way back then: civilization must prevail over barbarism.

Yes indeed Mike

Mike: Yes, indeed. Barbarity prevails in so many places in the world one wonders whether society has made any moral progress at all in the last 2000 years. I was in Iran in 2003 and one sensed the lack of hope in the largely young population, and the fear of being pulled over by the thought police. Drug use is a growing problem and no doubt is a sign of a need by users to escape the harsh reality of life in Iran. When a student in Pakistan in the late 60s I had several Iranian friends, young girls who were very westernised, and their hopes and dreams were just the same as mine. Since the Ayatollahs took charge I have not been able to find them. I have been able to follow my dreams, while they may not even now be alive. I get depressed just thinking what their fate might have been. Our birth places are so different. Mine so free, theirs so troubled.

I see from the news last night also that things have not changed in Burma at all. A failed economy, its people ever fearful and their one hope locked away for years. I just cannot get with the mindset of those whose lives are spent supressing the hopes and aspirations of a whole nation.

Not a very happy world. No wonder Roger Fedyk is depressed by it all. Cheers Mike.

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