MYANMAR :: Recent research on human rights abuses facing the Chin people reveals that sexual violence against both men and women is widely used by the Myanmar military as a weapon of war.
When independent researchers fanned out across military-ruled Myanmar's mountainous Chin State to catalogue human-rights abuses, they expected to hear the usual disturbing stories of ethnic minority women being raped by government troops. But the research uncovered an unexpected new trend of abuse: Chin men were also being sexually violated by male soldiers in the country's remote northwestern corner.
"It was not something that we expected to find," said Vit Suwanvanichkij, co-author of a new investigative report released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a US-based non-governmental rights lobby. "This abuse - rape of males - has not been reported before and it shows what life is like in militarized [Myanmar]."
The 63-page report, entitled "Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma's Chin State", says that the male head of five different households were among 17 people who claimed to have been raped by Myanmar troops during a 12-month period spanning 2009 and 2010. Among them was a father of five children who, according to the report, the "[Myanmar] military sexually assaulted and threatened to kill him on July 20, 2009."
The rape of men, as well as women and children, are part of a numbing list of human-rights violations committed by Myanmar troops in their quest to assert control over the remote Chin region situated near the Indian and Bangladeshi border, according to PHR's research. Male victims quoted in the report said that they believed they were targeted by predominantly Buddhist Burman soldiers because of their different religious and ethnic identity as Christian Chins.
Forced labor was documented in 92% of over 600 households surveyed in nine different townships, with tasks ranging from building roads, to portering military supplies, to sweeping for landmines. However, the prevalence of male rape may have been underestimated in the report, due to difficulties in gathering accurate information.
Parveen Parmar, another co-author of the report, says that sexual violations rank among the most difficult rights abuses to chronicle, even when, as was the case during the surveys conducted by PHR's 22-member research team, the interviews were done in private and confidentiality was guaranteed.
Myanmar's abysmal rights record is extensively well documented. Forced conscription, torture, arson and the confiscation of land and food stocks have all been used by the Tatmadaw, as the over 400,000-strong Myanmar military is known, to quash a myriad of ethnic rebel movements that have been active for decades across the country.
The use of rape as a weapon of war was first exposed in "License to Rape", an investigative report published by the Shan Women's Action Network in 2002. The account documented 625 cases, including instances of gang rape, showing how Myanmar's army systematically targeted women and girls from the ethnic Shan minority.
However, there was no hint at that time that Shan males were also targeted, according to SWAN researchers. "We documented what the community revealed happened to them from 1996 till 2001," says Charm Tong, a member of SWAN's advocacy team, during a telephone interview. "Rapes were widespread and committed by high-ranking military offices and soldiers."
In 2005, Charm Tong, 29, had an audience in the White House with then US president George W Bush, lending credibility to her advocacy group's findings. SWAN's reporting on the junta's human-rights abuses helped to harden Washington's position towards Myanmar, including an expansion of the US's sanctions regime.
PHR's revelations come at an awkward moment for the European Union (EU), which maintains its own sanctions against Myanmar for its poor human-rights record, but is now under pressure from some member governments to reconsider this position after last year's military-rigged general elections. The EU is expected to review its "common position", as the regional groupings policy on Myanmar is known, in April.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is under growing pressure to establish a commission of inquiry into the junta's human-rights abuses - a move US President Barack Obama has endorsed. Any such inquiry would now likely need to include investigations into the systematic sexual abuse of men as well as women.
"Sexual violence cases have mainly focused on women. Even human-rights people documenting this abuse have not paid attention that it could possibly happen to men," says Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, a non-governmental think-tank run from Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai.
"It is a kind of intimidation for the victim and they often don't want to talk about it because of the shame," he said. "But the recent revelations should prompt human-rights researchers to investigate this ignored area of abuse. There could be more cases."
Myanmar's military rulers have denied previous allegations of using rape as a war weapon. They deflected SWAN's report as a "fabrication" and have denied the findings of various human-rights groups who have chronicled the regime's abuses. That remained the junta's line last week during the first-ever universal periodic review of Myanmar's rights record, including in ethnic areas, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Win Min, a Myanmar military expert based in Chiang Mai, claims that in frontline areas of the conflict prisoners of war are seldom treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and many have been summarily executed because officers believe it is too complicated or costly to bring them to justice through court proceedings. That culture of impunity, he suggests, has fostered an environment conducive to sexual violence.
"I have never heard of serious action [taken] by the military following reports of rape cases in ethnic areas," says Win Min. "There has been no mechanism to file such cases in the military." Source: UNPO