The Burma Army and Sexual Violence in Ethnic Areas

The November 2014 report of the Women’s League of Burma subtitled: The ongoing use of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma’s ethnic communities, highlights “widespread and systematic” sexual crimes against women by government troops in conflict areas. The report goes on to say that these abuses “may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law.”

Since the renewed war in June 2011, increased offensives in the Kachin area have led to widespread human rights abuses by government troops. The June 2012 Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) report states “There is strong evidence that Burmese troops have used rape systematically as a weapon of war.”

Women’s rights groups have documented more than 70 cases of sexual crimes, with at least 20 resulting in death, committed by the Burma Army in the Kachin area since June 2011. It is important to note that the reported number is but a fraction of actual cases.

Even with such a horrendous historical backdrop, the rape, torture and murder of 2 young Kachin teachers at a mission school in Kawng Hka village, on the night of January 19, 2015, was so horrific that it has sparked outrage not just among the Kachin but other ethnic groups as well. It has prompted Burma Campaign UK to come out with a statement pointing the finger at Burma Army soldiers as the perpetrators of the crime.

The 2 young women, Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, barely out of their teens, were part of the Kachin Baptist Convention’s (KBC) mission program to provide education opportunities to children in places where there are no government schools. This program, in existence since 1995, could only afford to pay a paltry sum as honorarium to the dedicated and much loved teachers.

The KBC has taken on the task of bringing back the 2 teachers’ bodies to be buried with honor at Jaw Bum or Centenary Hill, the Kachin equivalent of Arlington, near Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, on January 23. Thousands lined the route or paid respects at vigils in churches as the funeral cortege made its way through major towns in northern Shan to Myitkyina.

There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that the perpetrators are soldiers from the Burma Army’s 503 Light Infantry Regiment commanded by Maj. Aung Soe Myint, stationed at the village since Jan 17, 2015. Their outpost is only about a 100 yards from the church compound which housed the 2 teachers. There are no other armed groups in the area, and locals say no civilian would dare go past the army outpost, especially during the night. That any villager would commit this kind of brutal sex crime against the beloved teachers of their children, and most of all in a church compound, is totally unthinkable.

According to local sources army boot prints were found at the crime scene. There were also reports that the “503” soldiers were spirited out of the village in 2 army trucks the very next day.

Despite official assurances of an on-going probe, the Kachin public is skeptical that it will be thorough or just and that the culprits will ever be brought to justice. Precedence has shown that government soldiers can commit sex crimes with complete impunity. Take for instance the case of Sumlut Roi Ja, a young Kachin mother, abducted over 3 years ago by soldiers of Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 321, not seen since and presumed dead. When the husband tried to press charges, the Naypyidaw Supreme Court dismissed the case without even hearing his evidence.

More likely there will be intimidation and harassment of villagers to prevent the true facts of the case coming to light. Even now, there are reports of threats to burn down the village should anybody dare to testify against the 503 LIR soldiers.

It is ironic that it was only last year that Burma, with much fanfare, joined the first global summit to end sexual violence in London. So much for US and UK hopes of shaping the Burma Army to improve its human rights record through military engagement. It also brings to mind the hypocrisy of Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin when he declared at the UN General Assembly in September 2014 that “all major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar”.

The U.S. Human Rights delegation led by none other than Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski, was recently in Myitkyina, purportedly to “meet with a broad cross-section of voices to understand the situation on the ground and inform their interaction with the government.” Hopefully this latest atrocity will open the eyes of the US and the world body to the sham reforms of the Burmese government and the true nature of the Burma Army.

Even though it is unlikely that the murderers/rapists of the 2 young teachers will ever be brought to justice under the Thein Sein administration, the Kachins would like to put them and others like them on notice, that their crimes constitute as war crimes and that they are liable to be prosecuted under international criminal law.