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A young woman claims she was beaten, drugged and sexually assaulted by two men wearing army fatigues while working in her vegetable garden in Karen state close to the Thai border this week, according to the Karen Women Organization (KWO).
The 22-year-old mother of two told the group that she only managed to escape when a spurt of gunfire near to Thay Baw Bo village opposite Thailand’s Phop Phra district scared off her assailants. She could not confirm whether they were Burmese military or not, but said they were carrying guns.
“We are outraged and deeply saddened to hear about this attempted rape and brutal attack,” said Dah Eh Kler, secretary of KWO, said in a statement on the group’s website. “We hope for peace every day, but this despicable attack reminds us how far we have to go to have the rights, peace and safety our community deserves.”
This is the first reported case of sexual violence since an initial ceasefire agreement was negotiated between Karen rebels and the Burmese government in January. As the young woman was unable to identify her attackers, it is unlikely that they will be brought to justice.
The incident follows other reports of human rights abuses in Karen state, including attacks on displacement camps, forced labour and looting of supplies by the Burmese army. As part of the ceasefire agreement, the Karen National Union (KNU) agreed to let Burmese soldiers restock their supplies inside rebel territory, which they are alleged to have exploited by sending more troops to the area.
“This most recent egregious case is only one example of human rights abuses which continue every day including forced labour and other acts of violence against women,” the group says.
Campaigners warn that sexual violence will continue to happen unless perpetrators are held to account by the Burmese army and demilitarisation is made a priority. KWO has called for the Burmese regime to be held accountable for its actions “with real monitoring and accountability”.
The group is concerned that women’s voices are being ignored in the ceasefire process, despite being specifically affected by the conflict. Last month it created a women’s peace committee, in accordance with UN Security Council recommendations, but they have not been formally invited to join the ceasefire negotiations.
“We heard that the KNU also has a [gender] policy and they would like women to be involved in discussions, but we did not receive an official invitation,” executive member of the KWO Board, Naw K’nyaw Paw, told DVB.
Zipporah Sein, General Secretary of the KNU and former head of the KWO, has previously called for more women to be integrated into KNU leadership and for women’s rights to be made a priority in Burma.
Ethnic minority women, including the Karen, have faced systematic abuse at the hands of the Burmese army for decades. Accurate data is difficult to obtain because of the taboo surrounding sexual violence. Rape survivors are often blamed and ostracised by their communities in a vicious cycle of re-victimisation.
The KWO is determined to gather more international support for a fact-finding mission, such as a UN commission of inquiry, to document incidents of violence against women.
“What they have done is a war crime, but in order to prosecute the Burmese military we need more evidence,” said Naw K’nyaw Paw.
Last month, the head of Burma’s human rights commission ruled out the possibility of a probe into abuses against ethnic minorities. The international community has also backed away from earlier pressure, ostensibly with a view to encouraging further democratic reforms in Burma.
“Maybe this is not the time [to pursue prosecution] but this type of information needs to be collected and once there is a negotiation or a transitional government, the issue can be brought up again,” said Naw K’nyaw Paw.