The chief of the United Nations has officially called on the Burmese government to conduct full investigations into allegations of rape and sexual assault made against its soldiers, according to a document made public this week.
A report to the UN Security Council from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon titled “Conflict-related Sexual Violence,” addressed the issue of sexual violence in 20 countries around the world, including Burma.
“I call on the Government of Myanmar to fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence,” Ban Ki-moon said in the report, which is dated March 13 but has only just been made public.
He urged the government “to work to develop a comprehensive protection and service response for survivors” of sexual violence, with the UN’s support.
Burmese women’s organizations and campaigners, who have long called for allegations of sexual violence by the military to be independently investigated, welcomed the secretary-general’s intervention.
The Thailand-based Women’s League of Burma (WLB) in January said in a report it had documented more than 100 cases of soldiers raping women and girls—the majority in war-torn Kachin and Shan states—since 2010. In a statement Thursday, the group said that it “welcomes this clear recognition of State failure to deal with past and present military sexual violence in Burma.”
WLB pointed out, however, that “previous government-led investigations into military rape have not only failed to deliver justice, but have led to further humiliation and intimidation of rape survivors and their communities.”
“We are still concerned about how the government would conduct [investigations] if they agreed to implement the UN secretary-general’s recommendation,” said Tin Tin Nyo, secretary of WLB, an umbrella organization representing 13 different ethnic women groups.
Ban Ki-moon’s report will be discussed at a Security Council debate on Friday on sexual violence. The United Kingdom-based Burma Campaign group issued a statement urging the British government to take a strong stance on the issue.
“Burma Campaign UK welcomes the fact that the UN Secretary General is focusing more on sexual violence in Burma, and has called for investigations,” said Zoya Phan, the group’s campaigns manager.
“However, the United Nations has made dozens of calls on the Burmese government to hold credible investigations into human rights violations, and all have been ignored. It is time the United Nations established its own investigation.”
Campaigners say the secretary general’s comments follow years of documenting the abuses of Burma Army soldiers, and the impunity that usually follows allegations. Soldiers accused of rape are regularly punished internally by the military rather than in the civilian courts, if they are held to account at all.
WLB’s report in January noted of rape allegations against the military that, “Their widespread and systematic nature indicates a structural pattern: rape is still used as an instrument of war and oppression.” It said allegations of rape by soldiers, which may constitute war crimes, should be independently investigated.
Shortly after their report in January, presidential spokesman Ye Htut in an interview with Reuters denied the group’s allegation that the military uses rape as a weapon, and asked for the group to share more detailed information about the allegations.
Jessica Nhkum, the joint-secretary of the Kachin Women Association Thailand, who documents rape cases by the Burma Army, told The Irrawaddy that the problem was not going away. In the first quarter of 2014, new allegations have continued to emerge, she said.
“Although we could not reach all areas in our war-torn Kachin State, even in the reachable areas—such as near Myitkyina, Laiza, Mai Ja Yang and in northern Shan State—we have documented several cases of rape by Burmese soldiers in 2014,” she said.
And with renewed fighting in Kachin State and northern Shan State breaking out during Burmese New Year last week, activists stressed that more rape cases may soon be reported.
Soldiers have been accused of raping girls as young as 7 in Kachin State, as in one case from November 2013. And a 13-year-old girl in Mon State was allegedly raped by a soldier in January 2014, just as the WLB’s report documenting rape allegations was published.
The government in the past has repeatedly denied claims of rape by its troops.
In 2002, the Shan Women Action Network, a member of WLB, published a report including such allegations, titled “License to Rape.” Following publication, women were allegedly forced to sign denials refuting the facts in the report, according to WLB’s Tin Tin Nyo.
“We don’t want the kind of reaction this time as we have examples of before,” said Tin Tin Nyo.
“As for the president’s spokesperson’s suggestion to release information to them for further investigation, it is impossible. We have to consider the safety of those women, who are already being victimized.”