Sexual violence is junta’s ‘modus operandi’, Myanmar activist tells UN

11 months ago 72

The crisis in Myanmar should be referred to the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread sexual violence, an open session at the UN security council will be told.

Naw Hser Hser, the first Myanmar human rights defender to brief council members in an open session since the 2021 coup, will also call for greater action to cut crucial supplies of arms and finances to the military junta.

Before the briefing on Friday, she said: “Right now the military just has three things to sustain itself – money, arms and international legitimacy. These things all come from international support.”

Naw Hser Hser, a member of the advisory board for the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), will speak as part of the council’s annual open debate on conflict-related sexual violence on Friday.

During the briefing, she will say that using sexual violence to attack civilian populations is the military’s “modus operandi”, citing the widespread use of rape and sexual violence by military personnel against Rohingya. UN investigators later found there was widespread sexual violence by the military against Rohingya – something it has denied.

Since the coup, WLB has documented more than 100 cases of conflict-related sexual violence and gender-based violence, though this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, Naw Hser Hser said. Among the cases documented are incidents where women have been gang-raped by soldiers, and raped at checkpoints because they are unable to pay bribes.

Fear of further harassment deterred many people from reporting sexual violence, she said, while the networks of activists trying to document such cases, which included many women, faced immense difficulties in gathering evidence.

“Women risk their lives collecting information [and to provide] other essential services,” said Naw Hser Hser, who fled her home after the coup and spent five days in the jungle with her two-year-daughter, carrying little more than milk powder with her.

Many activists have had to work outside the country because of the risk of military violence and imprisonment. The military has issued arrest warrants for most of WLB’s member organisations’ staff.

Those who remain in Myanmar are living in hiding, frequently changing their location, and are often unable to access the internet to communicate securely.

They faced constant risks – from informants reporting them to the military, to their phones being searched at checkpoints, she said.

Myanmar was plunged into chaos after the 2021 coup, which has led to an escalating conflict between groups that oppose the military and the junta. The military is accused of routinely torching villages, and of carrying out airstrikes in civilian areas to suppress opposition to its rule.

The military has denied atrocities since the coup and has said it is fighting terrorists that are trying to destabilise the country.

A third of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, and there are reports of women and girls being forced into sex work as they have no alternative income, according to Naw Hser Hser. She also cited concern about the trafficking of women.

The security council’s ability to take a strong stance on Myanmar has been hampered by Russia and China, which supply arms to the military and have used their veto powers to shield it from pressure. Nevertheless, activists point to the international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine as proof that it is possible to find ways to take action.

The security council adopted a resolution in December that called for an end to violence – the first since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. Yet even this had failed to lead to concrete measures. “It’s only on the paper, no action,” said Naw Hser Hser. “Without meaningful action the crisis could now escalate even further.”

An estimated 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, while 75,000 people have reportedly fled to neighbouring countries. More than 23,000 civilians have been arrested by the junta.

On Friday, Naw Hser Hser will say that for the first time the people of Myanmar are united across ethnic, religious, and gender lines to end the military dictatorship but that international support is needed.

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