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Rights advocates dismayed by govt’s mixed messages on rape

Muslim women in Maungdaw township, northern Arakan State, carry their belongings on 3 June 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Rights advocates have criticised the State Counsellor’s Office after it put out a press release and Facebook post last week that appeared aimed at discrediting the accounts of two women in northern Arakan State who alleged that they had been raped while also affirming any woman’s right to report rape to police.

The statement was made on 23 December in response to mounting reports of rape allegedly committed by security forces in Arakan State. The Information Committee of the State Counsellor’s Office has refuted those reports, calling them “rumours.” The rape allegations have emerged during Burmese security forces’ ongoing clearance operations in Maungdaw township, where a counter-insurgency campaign is being waged in pursuit of the perpetrators of a coordinated 9 October assault on border guard posts.

According to the press release, “terrorists fabricated stories with the use of social media and the internet while foreign new agencies spread bad news that was contrary to the ethics of the media by publishing one-sided accusations.”

At the same time, the statement acknowledged that “any resident of Maungdaw has the right to report to the police in accordance with the law and action will be taken against perpetrators if the report is correct and victims will be given effective protection.”

But further muddling the message, a graphic proclaiming “FAKE RAPE Fake Rape” was posted to the Facebook account of the State Counsellor’s Office just hours earlier that was accompanied by photos of a woman in a pink headscarf. A video accompanying the subsequent State Counsellor’s Office statement included footage of the same woman, who in separate interviews first denies being a victim of sexual violence and in the second video describes how she was raped by a soldier.

Taken together, the 23 December Facebook posts make clear that levelling rape allegations, rather than prompting “effective protection,” could lead to a public shaming and “fake rape” counter-accusations..

International and local human rights defenders have slammed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s office for the statement’s handling of the issue.

“It is very sad to see things like this coming out from the State Counsellor’s Office without proper investigation,” said Wai Wai Nu, director of the Women’s Peace Network Arakan. “I believe all women in conflict areas should have protection of their safety and security.”

The Rakhine State Investigation Commission, led by Vice President U Myint Swe and charged with probing growing claims of human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority, conducted a field visit to Maungdaw from 11 to 13 December. In a press release following the trip, the commission said that one woman was interviewed on the first day of their trip at Pyaungpaik village and she reported no instances of rape.

But when a guided media contingent then visited Arakan State from 19 to 22 December, two women — including the one who had earlier denied being a victim of sexual violence — told reporters that they had been raped by security forces. Authorities then called on the two women to meet with them, but the village administrator said the women had since “escaped,” according to state media.

Wai Wai Nu suggested that the commission should allow for a more extensive — and sensitive — investigation and called into question the impartiality of the commission, which is headed by a former military general.

“It is not just a woman or two women who they interviewed. It has to be investigated by an independent investigation commission,” she told DVB.

Human Rights Watch’s South Asia representative, Meenakshi Ganguly, told DVB in an email that growing evidence to the contrary called into question the Rakhine State Investigation Commission’s initial conclusion regarding rape allegations.

“We have interviewed refugees in Bangladesh who testify to rape. We have interviewed women who said they were gang raped by soldiers and others who said they had witnessed rapes,” she said.

Earlier this month, the UN high commissioner for human rights expressed disappointment at continued restrictions on access to northern Arakan State, where his office was receiving “daily” reports of rape, killings and other human rights abuses.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein also warned that “the repeated dismissal of the claims of serious human rights violations as fabrications, coupled with the failure to allow our independent monitors access to the worst-affected areas in northern Rakhine [Arakan], is highly insulting to the victims.”

Ganguly agrees: “These outright denials by the government is just shocking considering there has been no credible investigation into the allegations of serious human rights abuses.”

She renewed calls for the NLD government to order an independent inquiry that can also meet with affected communities from Arakan State and ensure witness protection.

“People came out in droves to vote, let democracy win,” Ganguly said. “A key test for this government is to show that it will not bend to a military that has long undermined and disrespected human rights laws.”

A question of ethics

The video that accompanied the State Counsellor’s Office Facebook post featured two on-camera interviews with a woman about rape, the first apparently conducted in front of investigation commission members, local authorities and a male interpreter, and the second.with journalists. The woman — presumably the one from Pyaungpaik village referred to as changing her story in the State Counsellor’s Office statement — said she was not raped in the first interview, but said she was raped in the second.

“This commission employed a male interpreter who asked her at point blank in full public view whether she had been raped or not. And this interpreter also put undue pressure on this woman, not to tell about other raped women,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project.

Wai Wai Nu echoed concerns about the way in which the questioning was carried out and how the subsequent footage was uploaded to a semi-official platform like the Facebook account of the State Counsellor’s Office, saying interviews with women under such circumstances require sensitivity.

“I think releasing [a] video of rape victims like this is very unethical,” she said. “Whether in government delegation or media delegation, the way they interviewed people was humiliating, without consideration of their physical and mental safety, security and dignity. In ethical interviews at least interviewers should be female, and trained in ethics and safety as well as question strategy.”