“More Than Opportunistic”: Rape as a Tool of War in Burma

Posted on 2 February 2012


February 01, 2012 | Kristen Cordell

News reports coming out of Burma and the border areas of Thailand detail increases in the number and severity of sexual assaults. We were in the country in late November, and the report we issued called attention to ongoing sexual and gender-based violence – and the complete lack of meaningful action by the Burmese government on this issue. Despite growing international awareness of this problem, Burma entirely lacks the resources or institutions to respond.

In his report on conflict-related sexual violence, released last week, the UN Secretary General highlighted the situation in Burma, particularly the militarized use of rape in the ethnic states. As in so many conflicts, sexual violence is being used to separate, intimidate, and control ethnic minorities. The report also stated that the “occurrence of rape is more than opportunistic but condoned by military commanders.”

The UN report specifically referenced the Burmese armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) and their- longstanding use of rape as a weapon of war. Just as fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Organization continues, so too does the use of sexual violence within the conflict zone. And as my colleague Lynn Yoshikawa pointed out last month, this suggests that the Burmese military remains unwilling to submit to civilian authority.

Women represent the majority of the 60,000 displaced people in Burma’s Kachin State, and their isolation from families and social support makes them especially vulnerable to abuse. We met many such women during our trip, and while some showed profound individual resilience, it was clear that they are not receiving the assistance they need.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Burmese military’s use of sexual violence is the complete impunity for tperpetrators. In addition to the absence of rule of law, there are hardly any referral programs for survivors, and many vulnerable groups are so isolated that effective prevention is out of the question. The country’s diverse and relatively robust civil society has made a valiant push for women’s rights recently, but little will change until the government and military can be held accountable.

To move Burma in the right direction on this issue, the U.S. and other international actors must continue to raise the issue of military rape directly with the commander-in-chief of the army, and they must insist on greater accountability for the military. As the country’s transition progresses, it will also be crucial that strong policies on gender-based violence, rape, and women’s health issues are adopted, and that health systems are given enough resources to serve these long-suffering populations.