The Blog

Platitudes Won't Stop Rape in Burma

When Thein Sein met Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, he would have found them a lot more enthusiastic about the reform process in Burma than most people who actually live there.

Burma's President Thein Sein has now left the UK after making a two-day visit which cost the British taxpayer £30,000 pounds. While Thein Sein certainly enjoyed being given red-carpet treatment in Downing Street, there is nothing to show for the visit in terms of concrete pledges to improve human rights. The most we got is a repeat of a promise to release all political prisoners by the end of the year. There was no explanation of why he has to wait till the end of the year, and given Thein Sein's track record of lying, very few people in Burma believe he'll keep this promise.

When Thein Sein met Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, he would have found them a lot more enthusiastic about the reform process in Burma than most people who actually live there.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, torture continues, as do attacks against ethnic minorities, and repressive laws, almost all of which are still in place, were used to charge more than 70 activists last month alone. Many have been jailed even before their trial. Reforms have increased political space in Burma, but so far all we have is a bigger cage, not real freedom.

Yet human rights were not top of the agenda for Thein Sein's visit. Instead economic issues and trade dominated. The British government has performed a dramatic U-turn in policy, talking up positives, playing down negatives, and trying to be Thein Sein's new best friend. If meaningless platitudes could bring down dictatorships, Burma would be the free-est country in the world by now.

What is more shocking is that this change of policy has happened at a time when reports of rape by the Burmese Army and security forces are increasing, not decreasing, and this has also coincided with the Foreign Secretary launching a global initiative to end impunity for rape and sexual violence.

Under President Thein Sein's government, women in Burma, especially in ethnic areas, continue to be subjected to rape and sexual abuses, including gang rape committed by the Burmese Army. Recent cases of women and girls being raped by soldiers from the government's forces include the rape of a 12 year old girl in front of her mother, and of a disabled woman. Many of the victims were gang-raped, and many killed afterwards. Sumlut Roi Ja, a 28 year-old Kachin woman, was arrested by the Burmese Army and has disappeared since then. Yet, it is feared she was raped and killed by the Burmese Army. Her mother, now living in a squalid refugee camp which she fled to, told Burma Campaign UK; "Even though she is too big to carry any more, I want to carry her home."

Incidents of sexual violence against women of all ages continue across the country, whether in Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine or other States. In May 2013, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana urged Thein Sein's government to address the culture of impunity that has allowed incidents of human rights abuses to continue unabated. However, ending impunity of rape and sexual violence is clearly not something Thein Sein is interested in. He continues to deny human rights abuses are happening in Burma.

The culture of impunity and Thein Sein's failure to take action against this sexual violence results in more widespread and systematic abuses against women. For Thein Sein, turning a blind eye to his soldiers raping ethnic women is nothing new. Dozens of women were raped by his soldiers when he was a commander in Shan State in the 1990s.

Speaking at the G8 conference this year, British Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), with a commitment to 'eradicate safe havens for those responsible for warzone rape', recognising that sexual violence 'inflicts unimaginable suffering, destroys families and communities, and fuels conflict'. He was unequivocal about terming such incidents 'war crimes', in 'grave breach of the Geneva Convention'. He continues to say "Shattering the culture of impunity for those who use rape as a weapon of war is the next great global challenge of our generation." Despite this, William Hague inexplicably left Burma out of the PSVI.

Despite many challenges, there are now more women who are involved in the struggle for their rights and freedom. They are not just victims anymore. The Women's League of Burma is a good example of how women from across the country are struggling for peace and the inclusion of women in political decision making. But they also need support. The voice of women in Burma has long been neglected. Disappointingly, when it comes to Burma, ending impunity is not a priority for the British government. As a result, the prevalence of sexual violence by soldiers and security forces has taken second place to trying to win lucrative contracts from the Burmese government.

As a starting point for combating the widespread use of sexual violence in Burma, the British Government should not just be trying to get Thein Sein's signature on agreements on the economy and trade, but also to co-operate fully with the implementation of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in Burma.

Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography, Little Daughter, is published by Simon and Schuster.

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