01/15/2014, 00.00
MYANMAR
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Catholic activist speaks of unspeakable violations as military continues to use rape as a "weapon of war"

by Francis Khoo Thwe
A report released by the Women's League of Burma mentions at least a hundred cases between 2010 and 2013. For its authors, they are but "the tip of the iceberg." Most cases of sexual violence, which also involves girls as young as eight years old, are concentrated in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. Kachin leaders tells AsiaNews that abuses are an indication of "serious deficiencies in security."

Yangon (AsiaNews) - The Burmese military is still using rape and sexual abuse of civilians as a "weapon of war". Between 2010 to the present, documented reports indicate that soldiers raped at least a hundred women and girls, especially in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, this according to a report recently released by the Women's League of Burma.

The NGO's survey shows that 47 of the cases documented were gang rapes and that 28 of the women were either killed or died of their injuries. In many of these cases, soldiers did not hesitate from raping girls as young as eight years old. For activists, this makes constitutional reform that more urgent in order to ensure civilian control of the military.

The Burmese government was quick to reject the charges. "It's not the policy of our Tatmadaw (military) to use rapes as weapons," noted Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein (a former general and prime minister under the military regime, now president of a semi-civilian government).

"If there are rape cases committed by individual members, we try to expose them and take effective action against the offenders. It would be very helpful in taking action against the offenders if those who prepared that report could send us the details of the cases," Htut said.

After decades of military rule, the former Burma celebrated its first (partially free) election in 2011, followed by a series of by-elections in 2012 that allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected to parliament. She had spent 15 of the previous 22 years under house arrest.

However, with one quarter of all seats in parliament made up of military appointees, the military can control the legislature and the government under the current constitution. Any change to the latter, such as allowing the Nobel Peace Prize winner to run for president in 2015, would require a two-third majority.

Titled Same Impunity, Same Patterns: Sexual abuses by the Burma army will not stop until there is a genuine civilian government, the report calls for an end to impunity that allows perpetrators to avoid prosecution and boosts a culture of continued and escalating violence.

In the past three years, Myanmar's military has in fact carried out operations in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, sowing death, destruction and abuse.

A few days ago, soldiers from the 298th Light Infantry Battalion reportedly gang-raped a Kachin woman who was travelling from Myitkyina on a bus. The victim, Roi Roi, was detained along with two companions. Whilst the latter managed to escape, she was brutally gang raped.

The Women's League of Burma cited reports indicating that sexual violence is largely linked to the military offensives in Kachin State (59 cases) and Shan (30 cases involving 35 women ).

What is more, abuses are widespread and systematic, not isolated incidents, evidence of how rape is still used as a "weapon of war" and a tool of oppression. Documented incidents are but "the tip of the iceberg."

The tragic reality has been exacerbated by the lack of interest of the central government and the international community, which often turn a blind eye, as Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out.

Only an amendment to the Constitution, which currently provides protection and impunity to the military, could bring about radical change.

Interviewed by AsiaNews, Catholic activist Khon Ja Labang, a former member of the Kachin Peace Network who is involved in peace building in areas affected by ethnic conflict, confirmed reports about violence against women in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities.

Rape "is a weapon used by the military to seize Kachin territory. No one can return to their villages of origin as long as the military is around," she explained.

"There may be signs of reforms in business and the economy," the activist added. But "in other fields, there are no noteworthy changes" and abuses are an indication of "serious deficiencies in security."

Soldiers continues to commit "unspeakable" violations, which humanitarian groups and associations, including the Kachin Lawyers Group, try to alleviate "by providing legal aid to victims."

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