Human rights activists are reporting an increased incidence of rape against Kachin women in areas of recent military attacks by government forces in northern Myanmar.
In Kachin State alone, at least 18 cases of rape – sometimes aggravated with murder – were documented over an eight-day period in June by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), following renewed fighting between government and Kachin forces.
In September to date, the number of reported rapes has risen to 37 in areas where government troops are active.
The attacks reportedly came within days of the government breaking the 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) by attacking ethnic forces in central Kachin State on 9 June.
The rape survivors included two 15-year-old girls and a 50-year-old woman – who was murdered after her granddaughter was killed, according to the report.
“For many years, the civilian population has been oppressed. If they [Myanmar’s military] suspect that the people are giving information to the KIO, well, sometimes they disappear. Everyone is very afraid to speak out,” KWAT spokesperson Ah Noh said.
David Scott Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, added: “The use of sexual violence is one of the most serious within a whole litany of abuses that include forced labour, torture and ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution.”
More than 25,000 people are now believed displaced by fighting in Kachin alone.
Burmese generals insist they are attempting to bring security to the country by demanding that all Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups come under a single Border Guard Force (BGF), controlled by the military.
But many analysts believe the real reason is to access and control areas containing multiple energy resources such as hydropower dam sites, set to be built to supply neighbouring China with electricity.
The past year has seen an escalation in fighting as the military has pushed further into Shan, Karen and Kachin areas, bordering China, Laos and Thailand.
Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawicki says the KWAT report is consistent with previous internal conflicts.
“During retaliatory strikes, they are often targeting civilians,” explained the Thailand-based spokesman. “This was the nature of our report in 2008, Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar.”
“For us as a women’s organization we also want to focus on violence against women, particularly state violence like rape as a weapon of war…,” said Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) spokesperson Jam Thong.
She contributed to the 2004 report License to Rape, detailing incidents of sexual violence involving 625 girls and women.
“It was committed with impunity by the military regime until today and it continues.”
“We document what is happening in Shan state and our sister organization in Karen State. Even in the ceasefire areas of Mon and Chin State and now Kachin State,” she said.
At least 12 rape cases have been documented during the Burmese army’s offensive in northern Shan State since March, including a 12-year-old girl who was reportedly raped in front of her mother in July, according to the SWAN report.
Veteran Kachin general Je Naw La Zing, who maintains the “War Room” in the KIO capital of Laiza, is not surprised that the attacks have occurred.
“The Burmese soldiers rape the women and kill the villagers and all of this happens but they never report this to their commanders…. They never report to their own base because they think it’s not important to let the commander know. They want to wipe out our ethnic group and force us to become Buddhists like them, speak like them and become one of them,” he claimed.
While there is little evidence of any state-sponsored policy to support such an assertion, activists have little doubt such attacks are occurring. Moreover, few have been charged or convicted of such crimes by the government.
“Sexual assault is probably the most repulsive tactic that they use. It’s the most serious,” explains HRW’s Mathieson. “These reports have been very well documented over a period of years in lots of areas by very credible groups. To dismiss the allegations would be criminal.” nal.”