Myanmar: UN fact-finding mission calls for justice for victims of sexual, gender-based violence

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Rohingya flee from Myanmar - File photograph

An independent international UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar said the country’s military must stop using sexual and gender-based violence to terrorise and punish ethnic minorities.

The mission said the brutal tactic was still being employed in Kachin and Shan states, and was so severe in Rakhine state, during the “clearance operations” of 2017, that it was a factor indicating the Myanmar military’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya population.

The mission made its conclusions in a new report, released on 22 August in New York, that soldiers routinely and systematically employed rape, gang rape and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people in blatant violation of international human rights law.

“Extreme physical violence, the openness in which it is conducted … reflects a widespread culture of tolerance towards humiliation and the deliberate infliction of severe physical and mental pain or suffering on civilians,” the report said.

Marzuki Darusman, chair of the fact-finding mission, said, “The international community must hold the Myanmar military to account for the tremendous pain and suffering it has inflicted on persons of all genders across the country.”

The mission conducted interviews with hundreds of survivors and witnesses of sexual violence in Kachin and Shan states in the north and in Rakhine state in the west, where the military’s “clearance operations” that began on 25 August 2017 led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

On the second anniversary of the beginning of the operations, this report is an important reminder of the continuing need for accountability.

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Mission expert Radhika Coomaraswamy said the findings also “address a gap that usually surrounds sexual and gender-based reports – cases of sexual violence against men and boys and transgender people.”

“The silence must be broken,” she said.

The mission said only one conclusion could be drawn from the accounts it had obtained: sexual violence perpetrated by the military was “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise and punish a civilian population”.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, demonstrated its genocidal intent against the Rohingya population “through the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh, and so severely injuring victims that they may be unable to have sexual intercourse with their husbands or to conceive and leaving them concerned that they would no longer be able to have children,” the report said.

The majority of assaults reported were directed at women and girls who were beaten, burned with cigarettes, slashed with knives, raped and held as sexual slaves on military bases. The report also documents cases of rape, forced nudity and the sexual torture of men and boys.

“For the first time in such a UN report, we are clearly highlighting violence against transgender people,” said mission expert Christopher Sidoti. “We spoke to transgender Rohingya women, and found they are victimised twice, because they are Rohingya and because they are transgender.”

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The report also documents rape, gang rape and other sexual violence, sometimes deadly, against boys and men. In one incident in Kachin state’s Myitkyina township, Myanmar Intelligence Office agents forced two male detainees to undress and rape each other. The agents reportedly laughed as they watched, asking “Are you enjoying yourselves?”

The report also examined how gender inequality within Myanmar and within ethnic communities enables sexual and gender-based violence.

The mission said it felt compelled to update the findings it made in an earlier 2018 report to the Human Rights Council to underscore the importance of accountability for perpetrators.

Many of these acts amount to crimes under international law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Yet, the Myanmar government has failed to cease, prevent and take action against sexual and gender-based violence in the country or hold those responsible to account.

With hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees still trapped in Bangladesh, too fearful to return home, the report should serve as an important reminder of the need for accountability of perpetrators and justice for victims.

It makes a call to action to the government of Myanmar, the Security Council and the international community to make accountability for these grave crimes an urgent priority.

The fact-finding mission will present its final report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2019.

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