A special guest blog post by Victoria Fleming, STAND Canada’s Chapters Co-Director
What does it mean to live in a culture of impunity for sexual violence? Perhaps it’s a country where victim blaming is deeply engrained in a society’s understanding of gender-based crimes. Many might argue that it’s simply a product of living in a war torn country run by unruly militia or corrupt politicians. Others may even deny there is such a thing as a culture of impunity. In Myanmar, women are prisoners to a culture that condones sexual violence.
Culture of impunity means there is institutional support for unlawful practices. Institutional support means assailants go unpunished, legal and judicial systems act in favor of perpetrators (in Myanmar’s case, military personnel), attacks aren’t reported in fear of personal and family safety, and finally, when international organizations speak on behalf of the survivors or victims because their government remains silent.
For the past forty years, under the command of the military, rape was used as a strategy and act of warfare, employed by soldiers to achieve economic and political successes in Myanmar. Civilian areas during counterinsurgency were deemed threatening to those in power. In order to marginalize the potential threat, the military used sexual violence as a way to de-humanize and de-moralize ethnic communities.
Today, however, in a post-transition period, Burmese States with ongoing conflict remain subject to brutal beatings and rapes committed by the military. According to the Women’s League of Burma’s (WLB) 2014 report, exposing the systemic sexual violence crisis in Myanmar, “over 100 cases have been documented since 2010, including 47 gang-rapes—perpetrated by the Burmese military.” Most reports are linked to Kachin and Northern Shan States. As a result of restrictions on human rights documentation and victims living in a state of fear, the number of reports documented remains low.
It’s clear that the military goes unpunished for their heinous crimes but how does WLB’s report prove an institutionalized system of impunity for military personnel? Let’s take a closer look at the types of reports documented.
First, over 38 battalions in a variety of geographical locations are implicated in the few reports available. It’s difficult to argue that a crime that assiduously occurs across vast territory is an isolated event. Second, many cases involve high ranking military officials, including Captains, Commanders, and Majors. If you believe in the platitude, “lead by example,” then officials in powerful positions are teaching their troops that sexual violence is acceptable. Meaning, top-down impunity exists. Third, there’s an overwhelming amount of gang rapes occurring in conflict-ridden areas, which shows the collective nature of these attacks. Military officials feel emboldened enough to engage in allegedly criminal activity in large numbers. This conveys the entitlement men feel towards a female’s body—an entitlement evidently left unchecked. Finally, almost all of the perpetrators have gone unpunished. Both the Burmese Constitution and judicial system protect men in the military from conviction.
The fundamental problems of impunity lie with the 2008 Constitution. According to Amnesty International, “state officials, including members of the security forces, remain protected from prosecution for past human rights violations by immunity provisions in the 2008 constitution.” For example, Article 445 of the constitution “guarantees the military impunity from prosecution by providing regime officials blanket amnesty for all crimes committed as a result of their official duty.” In addition, any charges against military personnel are adjudicated through special courts. Who has the authority over the court-martial system? None other than the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services.
So how does a victim of sexual assault seek justice when their country’s legislation and judiciary intend to protect her attacker(s)? They don’t. The risk of speaking out is too high for most women, especially considering the low likelihood of the man being charged, or even going to court. In order to eradicate the culture of impunity that exists in Myanmar, several provisions within the Constitution need to be deleted. In addition, a legal and judicial system filled with checks-and-balances intended to democratize the country are absolutely necessary. Until then, women will remain silent targets.
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