For millions of Burma’s women, especially women of ethnic and religious minorities, life has become just that much more bizarre and dangerous in the past 18 months.
Those celebrating democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, her international travels, and over-hyped “reforms” by the Burmese regime, seem determined to ignore the sharp spike in the number of women subjected to violence and displacement.
Violence targeting the Muslim Rohingya community in Arakan (Rakhine) state broke out in May. Within days, entire villages were burnt to the ground and at least 100,000 people displaced. Waves of violence continue to wrack the state, with hate crimes and hate speech extending beyond the Rohingya, commonly considered one of the most persecuted peoples in the world, to the rest of Burma’s Muslims.
Meanwhile, human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence targeting rural and minority women, continue to be perpetrated despite much-touted “peace negotiations” between the regime and ethnic armed groups.
The problem is impunity.
As they queue up for a photo opportunity with “reformist” President Thein Sein and/or democracy hero Aung Suu Kyi, officials seem to have forgotten the urgent necessity of legislative, institutional and policy reforms to halt and prevent recurrence of impunity: The 2008 constitution grants the military immunity from prosecution, now and retroactively.
An array of repressive security laws have been retained, despite criticism. New laws have been branded with kinder and gentler descriptions, but are still utilised to suppress dissent and perpetuate a culture of impunity. Institutional reform appears only to have touched the Presidential publicity machine.
Women’s voices calling for accountability have been stifled by the reluctance of states and diplomats to rock the euphoria boat. Instead of supporting grassroots women’s decades-long initiatives to build peace and overcome the legacy of militarism in Burma, projects such as the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) have been weak in addressing the protection of women and have excluded women from the peace-building process despite their ostensible support of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325.
Women of ethnic and religious minorities are targeted with particular malice by the Tatmadaw as a way to undermine the social fabric of ethnic communities, assert control over areas rich in natural resources, and instill fear and insecurity among civilians. In Kachin State, the number of Tatmadaw battalions has increased threefold since the war broke out. In the first 12 months of the conflict, the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) has documented the rape or sexual assault of at least 61 women and girls in Kachin and Northern Shan States, half of whom were killed. With the perpetrators hailing from at least 10 different battalions, these incidents reflect a clear endorsement of the state.
Within an eight-day period in June 2011, amid dozens of brutalizing acts committed against women, soldiers in Je Sawn village killed a 7-year-old girl prior to gang-raping and killing her grandmother.
Over a period of three days in May 2012, 10 Burmese troops from LIB 347 and LIB 118 tortured and gang-raped a 48-year-old woman they found sheltering in a church in Chipwi Township.
There continues to be consistent and geographically widespread documentation of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by security forces, including the sexual harassment of local women at sites of major infrastructure projects.
Reform? Apparently, the judicial system didn’t get the memo. The Supreme Court recently dismissed a case and refused to hear witness testimonies concerning the enforced disappearance of a 28-year-old Kachin woman, Sumlut Roi Ja, who was arrested by government soldiers in plain sight of her husband and father-in-law while harvesting corn near her village. This top-down indifference to holding perpetrators accountable is essentially what maintains a culture where Tatmadaw soldiers can abduct, rape and kill ethnic women with virtual impunity.
The unchallenged lynching of 10 Muslim travellers in retaliation over the murder and rape of a Buddhist Rakhine woman five days after the perpetrators were arrested became the flashpoint for violence in Arakan state. Escalating violence has included further rapes, murder, arson, and torture of mainly Rohingya, including women and children.
The Burmese and Bangladeshi governments have perpetrated racism and brutality against Rohingya fleeing the violence through neglect and a refusal to protect, by blocking aid organizations and instituting a push-back policy. This has put Rohingya women and girls at the mercy of a whole host of new threats, as a result of mass displacement and a heavy military presence surrounding IDP camps and villages.
Last month, we were privileged to support the efforts of Kachin, Karen and Rohingya young women who travelled to New York City to push for a UN General Assembly resolution that is tough on impunity. We sincerely hope the UNGA has half the guts of these amazing women!
By Debbie Stothard and Nikki Aurore of Altsean-Burma, www.altsean.org
Nikki Aurore is a research intern with Altsean-Burma based in Bangkok, Thailand. Nikki completed an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex and wrote her thesis on human trafficking for sexual exploitation. She has previously worked on advocating women’s rights in Nepal and has researched trafficking of Roma children in the UK.
Debbie Stothard’s first encounter with WILPF in the 1980s coincided with her own conscious commitment to human rights and peace. She is the Coordinator of Altsean-Burma (www.altsean.org), a regional network working to support human rights and democracy in Burma. She started out as a crime reporter in 1981 and went on to work as a nanny, graphic artist, policy analyst, academic, community education consultant and government adviser. Debbie is currently Deputy-Secretary-General of FIDH, the International Federation for Human Rights (www.fidh.org).