Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Asean must take action on the rape of freedom in Burma

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Eva K Sundari and Teresa Kok Suh Sim have written the following guest column for The Nation.

When will rape and pillage taking place in Burma be finally confronted by the international community and the perpetrators brought to justice? It does not seem possible that justice could ever occur for those who have suffered so miserably at the hands of the military and seemingly with the blessing of the military officers and the country's leadership.

It does have a feel of a deliberate plan to demoralise and tear apart the minority groups who have as much legitimate right to live in the country as these brutes do.

Asean must take action on the rape of freedom in Burma (The Nation)
Gender-based sexual violence obstructs peace and development, particularly when it is a weapon used by military dictatorships against their own peoples. Burma is now permeated by such state-sponsored violence.

Systematic sexual violence became visible in Burma when the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) published "Licence to Rape", which documents 625 cases of rape committed by the military in eastern Burma between 1996 and 2001. The report noted that nobody had been prosecuted.

Burma is suffering the impact of decades of civil war. Civilians have become the main victims of a strategy aimed at undermining the guerrillas, which has resulted in forced labour, the use of human minesweepers, and massive relocations of entire villages. There are now an estimated 600,000 to one million internal refugees.

SWAN and SHRF argue that rape is used as a weapon in the Burmese military's war against ethnic minorities.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable - owing to gender as well as ethnicity - to a horrific practice whose aim is to demonstrate the army's power and punish those who confront it. When the army enters a village, chaos erupts. Villagers are killed or ordered to pack their belongings and leave. Several of the reported rapes took place under such conditions, or when women are taken for forced labour.

Many victims have fled Burma. SWAN and SHRF learned of many cases from women who arrived in Thailand. In February 2006, we visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border and learned first hand of war and abuse.

"Licence to Rape" has attracted wide attention in Southeast Asia. Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Thai Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and vice chairperson of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Burma Caucus, called for an investigation by the United Nations. So did the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Commission.

Rape brings stigma, shame, and reluctance on the part of victims to speak out about what happened to them. But an increasing number of women and girls from Burma have begun to tell of their experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the country's war-torn areas.

Army deserters confirm that rapes have occurred. And the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has published material that corroborates information in Licence to Rape and adds numerous new cases from Burma.

Nevertheless, four years on, a UN investigation has yet to take place, because the military junta refuses to grant the UN access to the country. Incidents of rape continue to be reported, and the Burmese military surely must know what is happening. But the junta engages in Orwellian doublethink. It has rejected the reports, instead launching its own investigations whose conduct and staffing leave no room for confidence in their credibility.

National governments and the international community have an obligation to protect women and children against abuse. In 2000, the UN Security Council recognised that gender-based violence thwarts security and adopted Resolution 1325, which calls on parties in conflict to respect the rights of women and children, and particularly to prevent gender-based violence.

In 2004, the governments of Asean vowed to end the impunity states like Burma have enjoyed and signed the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women in the Asean Region.

Burma is failing miserably to live up to the standards of decency that the Southeast Asian region is setting for itself. It has ratified the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, a national committee exists for the advancement of women.

But such measures are of no use when the military remains firmly in control, the rule of law is absent, and the government refuses to admit to the systematic sexual violence committed by its soldiers as they terrorise the population.

Asean cannot afford to stand by idly. Neither can the international community. Such abuse of power is inadmissible, and we expect Asean to address the military's use of rape in the conflict in Burma. We urge the UN Security Council to raise the issue. All of Burma's people deserve security, and refugee women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence need the world's solidarity and support.

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Eva K Sundari are MPs in Indonesia. Teresa Kok Suh Sim is an MP in Malaysia.

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