Tin Tin Nyo, General Secretary of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s League of Burma at Karenni refugee camp on Thai-Burmese border.
Around 9 a.m. on the morning of October 30, 2013, 15-year-old Sumlut was gang-raped by three soldiers including a Captain in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State, the northernmost state in Burma.
Sumlut’s story is all too familiar. For over half a century, the story has been the same in Burma. Systematic sexual violence and horrible human rights abuses continue to be waged in ethnic conflict areas despite Burma’s transition to a civilian government, including adoption of a new Constitution in 2008 and elections in 2010.
“The formal war has stopped, but fighting still continues,” says Tin Tin Nyo, who has served as General Secretary of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s League of Burma (WLB) since 2011. “Burma may be open, but the scars still remain.”
Recognized as the world’s longest-running civil war, the conflict in Burma between the military regime and various ethnic groups, which began in 1948 just after the country’s independence, has been widely misunderstood and ignored by the international community. The horrific stories of sexual violence and rape used by the military as a weapon of war have been documented by Women's League of Burma, an umbrella organization comprising 13 women’s organizations of different ethnic backgrounds. For over a decade, despite significant security concerns and access limitations, it has published multiple reports shedding light on the Burmese military’s crimes against humanity including rape and torture.
In its latest report, Women’s League of Burma documents multiple instances of sexual violence involving over 100 women, including 47 gang rapes with victims as young as 8 years old, since the democratic transition just four years ago. The organization believes these documented cases represent only a fraction of the abuses taking place.
Most women do not speak up due to fear of threats, intimidation, and punishment. Women are commonly threatened with repercussions if they talk to outsiders, including representatives of the United Nations. A villager from the Palaung area expressed these fears in WLB’s 2014 report, stating: “It is very difficult for the victims to speak out about rape. They were threatened by the soldiers not to tell anyone, so the rest of the community is scared.”
Many of the victims do not survive to share their story. 28 of the 100 women in cases documented in WLB’s most recent report were either killed or died of their injuries. In a 2004 report, WLB describes a 13-year-old girl from Shan state who was captured and raped repeatedly for 10 days based on accusations that she was cooperating with rebels; she eventually died from her wounds.
“Women and girls, especially those from ethnic groups, have been abducted, enslaved, and subjected to sexual violence with many killed subsequently,” explains Tin Tin Nyo.
Women and children in Burma have carried the most extensive impact of the conflict – as is too often the case in conflicts worldwide. In November 2012, WLB reports a 26-year old woman was gang-raped by seven soldiers who then threatened to kill her husband if he reported the incident, saying: “Even if you tell other people, there is no one who will take action. We have the authority to rape women.” After reporting the incident anyway to the head of their village, no action was taken.
Over the years, the climate of impunity for military rape has escalated in Burma. Evidence suggests that authority figures routinely commit violent acts because they know they will not be punished. Systematic, brutal rape and sexual violence against women and girls has been used by the military to impose the government’s power, demoralize ethnic minorities, humiliate women and their communities, and create a sustained culture of fear and impunity.
“Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights,” stated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011.
Refugees International reported in 2003 that some evidence indicates “soldiers use rape to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization’.” Burmese law criminalizes abortion in all instances except when the mother’s life is endangered and strictly forbids abortion in cases of rape.
In 2004, WLB concluded: “These stories bear witness to the fact that, despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, nothing has changed in Burma.” A decade later, painfully, these same words can be echoed: “nothing has changed in Burma.”
Despite mounting obstacles and government inaction against the cycle of violence, Women’s League of Burma remains committed to empowering women by expanding political participation and securing inclusion in peace and security processes, and advancing the status of women from all ethnic groups through capacity building, advocacy, research, and documentation.
“We are working very hard for women to be included at all levels,” explained Tin Tin Nyo. “If women are excluded from the process, the post-conflict plan might not include consideration for women… They might overlook [violence against women], and might not reform gender-relevant laws.”
2015 will bring renewed work for WLB with Burma’s next parliamentary and Presidential elections.
“It’s our job as women’s human rights defenders not to be silent,” says Tin Tin Nyo. “With our own hands, we will build sustainable peace so that our next generation will not have to go through [a] miserable life as we have been through.”