New Political Page, Same Story: Burmese Military Still Raping Ethnic Women

At the top of our wish list is that the military is placed under civilian control. That's because the military is still wreaking havoc on Burma's ethnic communities, particularly women.
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Women in Burma -- also known as Myanmar -- are using the modest sliver of new political space opened by the transition from a military government to a quasi-civilian government in 2010 to start a national conversation about the urgent need for changes to that country's constitution. At the top of our wish list is that the military is placed under civilian control.
That's because the military is still wreaking havoc on Burma's ethnic communities, particularly women.

While much of the world has bought the story that Burma has turned to a new political page, women in Burma -- especially from ethnic communities -- are living another reality. In Kachin, Karen, Shan and other ethnic areas in Burma, the Burmese military is still committing atrocious acts of violence against ethnic women.

On one evening in August of 2011, Burma Army soldiers gang-raped and then killed a 39-year-old woman and her 17-year-old daughter in Kachin state in northern Burma. The soldiers also tortured, and then shot, the girl's 44-year-old father.

These are not just the isolated acts of "rogue soldiers." The evidence being amassed by women's groups inside Burma and living along Burma's borders shows that rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as a tool by the Burmese military to demoralize and destroy ethnic communities.

The Women's League of Burma, a powerful coalition of 13 women's organizations, has documented 110 such cases of sexual violence committed by Burmese soldiers since 2010. And this is just the "tip of the iceberg." The data show a pattern of increasing rape and sexual violence by soldiers during military offenses in ethnic areas. This finding contradicts the official line in Burma -- a version of reality not often being challenged by international donors -- that there is a long-term trend toward a decrease in state-sponsored human rights violations.

Ethnic women's groups started collecting data about human rights violations well over a decade ago, enabling them to now make long-term assessments. We do this work at great risk and in difficult circumstances. Field workers face many security and logistical challenges to reach areas where there is active conflict, and of course, many victims and witnesses are reluctant to give their testimonies for fear of retribution, or because of the social stigma that prevents women from openly discussing sexual violence.

Yet, against all these odds, my colleagues inside Burma are doing the painstaking work to document atrocities. They name the perpetrators, their battalion and even their military ranking along with the details about the rape. In the absence of a legitimate judicial system, women activists are carrying out investigations and then putting the information out for the court of world opinion to weigh in.

The data tell stories that should be hard to ignore.

In May 2012, a patrol of Burmese troops from two battalions arrived to a small village near the Chinese border in a Kachin ethnic area. There they found a 48-year-old woman who had desperately sought refuge in a church as most of her community had already fled. Ten soldiers gang-raped her over the next three days. A man who was easily captured by the soldiers because he was caring for his paralyzed wife witnessed the violence and bravely told the story.

The soldiers were never brought to justice for their heinous acts. They rarely are held accountable for their acts. In one case -- involving the rape of a 10-year-old girl earlier this year by a soldier who had run away from his military camp -- the Women's League of Burma was able to support the community as it sought justice. The perpetrator is now behind bars. Sadly, though, the vast majority of cases remain unpunished.

The Women's League of Burma and other human rights organizations have asked repeatedly for the international community to pressure Burma to accept independent international investigations into crimes against civilians, in particular in cases of sexual violence. With the exception of a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma -- which acknowledges widespread human rights abuses including rape -- there has been no significant effort on the part of the international community to listen and respond to the women of Burma.

Quite to the contrary, the world seems all too willing to accept that the former "pariah state" is now on a new path to democracy.

We, too, yearn for democracy in Burma. But we want a democracy that brings an end to the senseless violence directed against ethnic women. It's time to support the women of Burma in their push to get the Burmese government to replace the Constitution with one that places the military under civilian control -- and, once and for all, prioritizes and protects the rights of women.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Nobel Women's Initiative, spotlighting women working globally for peace, justice and equality as part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence campaign. For more information about the Nobel Women's Initiative and 16 Days, click here.

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