Burma's Soldiers: Equal Opportunity Rapists

During the month of September 2002, the WRP/ERI, in collaboration with Refugees International, conducted a month-long investigation into rape in Burma perpetrated by the military. This project was motivated by a report issued by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) in June 2002 entitled License to Rape, documenting the rapes of at least 625 Shan women by Burma’s soldiers over a period over five years, from 1996 to 2001.

In the Burmese language, Burma’s military is named the Pyithu Tatmadaw, or the People’s Army. The Tatmadaw, according to Burma’s ruling military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), “safeguards national solidarity and peace.” According to women from Burma’s ethnic nationalities (ethnic minority groups), particularly those living in the ethnic States along Burma’s borders, the Tatmadaw does the opposite. Rather than look to the Tatmadaw for protection, women from the ethnic nationalities flee in fear at the sight of a soldier. A recent investigation by the Women’s Rights Project and Refugees International documents the widespread use of rape by Burma’s soldiers to brutalize women from five different ethnic nationalities.

During the month of September 2002, the WRP/ERI, in collaboration with Refugees International, conducted a month-long investigation into rape in Burma perpetrated by the military. This project was motivated by a report issued by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) in June 2002 entitled License to Rape, documenting the rapes of at least 625 Shan women by Burma’s soldiers over a period over five years, from 1996 to 2001. Despite the fact that rape by soldiers in Burma has been a well-known, well-documented phenomenon for at least a decade, the License to Rape report inspired a level of interest and outrage on the part of the international community not previously directed against the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma’s ruling military regime. SWAN and SHRF are to be commended for their excellent work documenting these brutal abuses. ERI supports their efforts and is gratified to see that the problem of rape in Burma is getting the attention it deserves.

We were outraged by the report as well, but, unfortunately, not surprised. In 1998, after an intensive investigation into gender-based abuses committed by the Burmese army (the Tatmadaw in the Burmese language), we issued a report entitled School for Rape: The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence. This report examined some of the structures, policies, and practices of the Tatmadaw, and concluded that many of these contributed to both the likelihood and the prevalence of rape by soldiers against women from Burma’s ethnic nationalities, in particular. Based on our previous research for that and other reports issued over the intervening four years, as well as the regular contact we have with refugee women from Burma, we knew that the rape of Shan women is an enormous tragedy. We also knew that it is just a part of the problem. We wanted to make sure that the international community understood the full extent to which the army of Burma abuses the human rights of that country’s women. We wanted to not only confirm that Shan women face sexual violence on a regular basis, but also to expand the scope of the investigation to confirm that the military abuses women from other ethnic minority groups in Burma as well.

Over the course of a month, we conducted interviews with individuals, focus groups, indigenous NGOs, and local leaders. We talked to more than 150 people about sexual violence against women perpetrated by Burma’s armed forces—people living in refugee camps, outside of camps in villages, and people still living in Burma. We spoke with women and men, former and current soldiers, recent arrivals and long-time refugees. In particular, we conducted 26 individual interviews with women from 5 different ethnic groups, 1 interview with a Burmese army defector, and 2 focus groups comprised of a total of 45 women. In the individual interviews, we learned of 41 cases of rape, and were able to confirm 24 of those cases through testimony from victims or eyewitnesses. In 7 cases, the perpetrator raped the woman or women on military property, and in 8 cases, the perpetrator was an officer in Burma’s army. Members of the Burmese army proved to be equal opportunity rapists, raping women from the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, and Tavoyan nationalities.

The State Peace and Development Council has denounced the reports about Shan rape, and has conducted their own “investigation” in Shan State (with the active participation of SPDC general Khin Nyunt’s wife) to determine that such reports were fabricated. Our research tells a different story, and leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Burmese military uses rape on a widespread basis against women from many of Burma’s ethnic nationalities. These rapes are not an aberration, committed by renegade soldiers; they are part of a pattern of brutal abuse designed to control, terrorize, and harm ethnic nationality populations through their women.

In contradiction to the SPDC’s claims that “hands joined, the Tatmadaw and the people stand steadfastly together,” we also conclude that:

  • Rape is not confined to Shan State. It is widespread throughout the ethnic eastern States.
  • Rape by Burmese army members may be systematic. The Tatmadaw’s routine discrimination against both ethnic nationalities and women may constitute the kind of preconceived plan or policy necessary to characterize the rape as systematic.
  • Rape and increased militarization go hand-in-hand. When more soldiers are deployed, typically more rape occurs.
  • Rape sometimes occurs on military property (i.e. in military bases, in military barracks, and in military jails). In those cases where the officer wasn’t actually committing the offense on military property, he knew or should have known about these offenses.
  • Rape often occurs in conjunction with other human rights abuses, such as forced labor, forced relocation, forced portering, torture, and extrajudicial executions.
  • There is a direct connection between rape and migration. Many women flee Burma either because they have been raped, or because they fear being raped. In addition, rape sometimes occurs while women are in flight.
  • Widespread rape is committed with impunity, both by officers and lower ranking soldiers. Officers committed the majority of rapes documented in our interviews in which the rank of the perpetrator was known. The culture of impunity contributes to the military atmosphere in which rape is permissible. It also leads to the conclusion that the system for protecting civilians is faulty, which may serve as proof that the rape is systematic.
  • Due to the well-known impunity for rape, survivors and families are extremely reluctant to complain about rape. In the rare cases where victims do complain, the military often responds with violence.

On Tuesday, November 19, 2002, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution on the human rights situation in Burma, “express[ing] grave concern at… rapes and other forms of sexual violence carried out by members of the armed forces” and the “disproportionate suffering of members of ethnic minorities, women and children from such violations.” It is clear these abuses are directly linked to the internal war the SPDC is waging upon its own citizens. Until the violence ceases, and until the SPDC enforces its own laws prohibiting rape and ends the culture of impunity for these heinous crimes, the violations will continue.