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Human rights groups have condemned Burma for refusing to sign a new international declaration condemning sexual violence in conflict, which they say highlights its indifference to abuses perpetrated by the military.
Burma’s army has been accused of using rape as a systematic weapon of war targeting ethnic minority groups – for which nobody has been held to account.
“For many ethnic women, rape by Burmese army soldiers is a daily fear, and justice seems to be just a distant dream,” said Zoya Phan, campaign manager at Burma Campaign UK (BCUK).
The declaration, which was initiated by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, was endorsed by 113 countries at the General Assembly of the UN in New York on Tuesday. Burma was among 80 nations that did not sign.
The new declaration prohibits amnesties for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and allows them to be captured anywhere in the world. Hague reportedly described it as “a milestone towards shattering impunity for those who commit horrific crimes during times of war.”
It also includes a pledge to sign a new international protocol aimed at ensuring that evidence of sexual violence stands up in court.
Burma’s refusal to sign has raised concerns about the quasi-civilian regime’s commitment to tackling gender-based violence in a country marred by decades of civil conflict and allegations of rape.
“Since Thein Sein became President, there has been renewed conflict in Kachin state and Shan state, and Burma Campaign UK has received an increased number of reports of rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army, BCUK said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Thein Sein and his government do not even acknowledge that such abuses take place.”
Journalist Thin Lei Win from the Thomson Reuters Foundation took to Twitter to express her frustration. “As a woman and a Burmese I find that extremely disappointing,” she tweeted, adding that backing the declaration would have showed an “intent and understanding” that such violence won’t be condoned.
Although Thein Sein has been credited for signing peace deals with 10 out of 11 major armed ethnic groups since taking office, allegations of serious abuses including rape continue to emerge. In May 2012, a 59-year-old Kachin grandmother was allegedly gang-raped and stabbed by Burmese soldiers when found hiding in a local church. The case has never been investigated by authorities.
In 2002, the Shan Women’s Action Network published a controversial report accusing the Burmese army of using rape as a weapon of war against ethnic minority women. Despite detailed case studies documenting 173 cases of rape or sexual violence between 1996 and 2001, the report provoked a furious backlash from the military junta who dismissed it as “fabricated”.
As recently as last year, President’s Office Minister Aung Min told RFA that the report was written “after hearing things with one ear”. Women’s rights activists say the government simply does not want to face up to the crimes committed by the military regime.
Burma’s 2008 constitution protects the army from prosecution for crimes committed during previous conflicts, and the government has yet to signal any interest in mechanisms for transitional justice.
In a recent op-ed for DVB, Zoya Phan praised Hague’s initiative but warned that it should not be selectively applied to countries depending on trade or commercial interests.
“For decades rape has been used by the Burmese army in conflict zones, and despite ‘reforms’ it continues to this day,” she wrote. “William Hague has said it is time to act, and that should include acting for the women of Burma as well.”