Equal opportunity abuse in Myanmar
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - When independent researchers fanned out across military-ruled
Myanmar's mountainous Chin State to catalogue human-rights abuses, they
expected to hear the usual disturbing stories of ethnic minority women being
raped by government troops. But the research uncovered an unexpected new trend
of abuse: Chin men were also being sexually violated by male soldiers in the
country's remote northwestern corner.
"It was not something that we expected to find," said Vit Suwanvanichkij,
co-author of a new investigative report released
by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a US-based non-governmental rights lobby.
"This abuse - rape of males - has not been reported before and it shows what
life is like in militarized [Myanmar]."
The 63-page report, entitled "Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against
Humanity in Burma's Chin State", says that the male head of five different
households were among 17 people who claimed to have been raped by Myanmar
troops during a 12-month period spanning 2009 and 2010. Among them was a father
of five children who, according to the report, the "[Myanmar] military sexually
assaulted and threatened to kill him on July 20, 2009."
The rape of men, as well as women and children, are part of a numbing list of
human-rights violations committed by Myanmar troops in their quest to assert
control over the remote Chin region situated near the Indian and Bangladeshi
border, according to PHR's research. Male victims quoted in the report said
that they believed they were targeted by predominantly Buddhist Burman soldiers
because of their different religious and ethnic identity as Christian Chins.
Forced labor was documented in 92% of over 600 households surveyed in nine
different townships, with tasks ranging from building roads, to portering
military supplies, to sweeping for landmines. However, the prevalence of male
rape may have been underestimated in the report, due to difficulties in
gathering accurate information.
Parveen Parmar, another co-author of the report, says that sexual violations
rank among the most difficult rights abuses to chronicle, even when, as was the
case during the surveys conducted by PHR's 22-member research team, the
interviews were done in private and confidentiality was guaranteed.
Myanmar's abysmal rights record is extensively well documented. Forced
conscription, torture, arson and the confiscation of land and food stocks have
all been used by the Tatmadaw, as the over 400,000-strong Myanmar military is
known, to quash a myriad of ethnic rebel movements that have been active for
decades across the country.
The use of rape as a weapon of war was first exposed in "License to Rape", an
investigative report published by the Shan Women's Action Network in 2002. The
account documented 625 cases, including instances of gang rape, showing how
Myanmar's army systematically targeted women and girls from the ethnic Shan
However, there was no hint at that time that Shan males were also targeted,
according to SWAN researchers. "We documented what the community revealed
happened to them from 1996 till 2001," says Charm Tong, a member of SWAN's
advocacy team, during a telephone interview. "Rapes were widespread and
committed by high-ranking military offices and soldiers."
In 2005, Charm Tong, 29, had an audience in the White House with then US
president George W Bush, lending credibility to her advocacy group's findings.
SWAN's reporting on the junta's human-rights abuses helped to harden
Washington's position towards Myanmar, including an expansion of the US's
PHR's revelations come at an awkward moment for the European Union (EU), which
maintains its own sanctions against Myanmar for its poor human-rights record,
but is now under pressure from some member governments to reconsider this
position after last year's military-rigged general elections. The EU is
expected to review its "common position", as the regional groupings policy on
Myanmar is known, in April.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is under growing pressure to establish a
commission of inquiry into the junta's human-rights abuses - a move US
President Barack Obama has endorsed. Any such inquiry would now likely need to
include investigations into the systematic sexual abuse of men as well as
"Sexual violence cases have mainly focused on women. Even human-rights people
documenting this abuse have not paid attention that it could possibly happen to
men," says Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of
Burma, a non-governmental think-tank run from Thailand's northern city of
"It is a kind of intimidation for the victim and they often don't want to talk
about it because of the shame," he said. "But the recent revelations should
prompt human-rights researchers to investigate this ignored area of abuse.
There could be more cases."
Myanmar's military rulers have denied previous allegations of using rape as a
war weapon. They deflected SWAN's report as a "fabrication" and have denied the
findings of various human-rights groups who have chronicled the regime's
abuses. That remained the junta's line last week during the first-ever
universal periodic review of Myanmar's rights record, including in ethnic
areas, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Win Min, a Myanmar military expert based in Chiang Mai, claims that in
frontline areas of the conflict prisoners of war are seldom treated in
accordance with the Geneva Conventions and many have been summarily executed
because officers believe it is too complicated or costly to bring them to
justice through court proceedings. That culture of impunity, he suggests, has
fostered an environment conducive to sexual violence.
"I have never heard of serious action [taken] by the military following reports
of rape cases in ethnic areas," says Win Min. "There has been no mechanism to
file such cases in the military."
Marwaan Macan-Markar is a Sri Lankan journalist who covered the South
Asian nation's ethnic conflict before becoming a foreign correspondent for the
Inter Press Service news agency in 1999. He is based in Thailand where he
covers Southeast Asia.