Licence to rape

As woman after woman, young and old, narrate their stories of shame– of how they were raped, not once or twice but repeatedly by the Myanmar military – to the American news agency AP, the case becomes even more convincing for UN special representative of the Secretary General Pramila Patten to put the soldiers on dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, as she promised here in Dhaka during her visit last month.

Only one problem, and not a small one at that, may throw the spanner in the wheel – that Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court. The ICC can only go after those rogue states which have signed this treaty and yet have committed such crimes and are unwilling to address them.

Should the ICC now go after Myanmar, it has to get the approval of the UN Security Council, a prospect that was and is very bleak because of the continued backing of Myanmar by China and Russia.

Nevertheless, the testimonies getting wide international coverage will help embolden the international effort to get recourse at the ICC. And it will add further ammo to the efforts of the lawmakers in Washington to impose economic and travel sanctions targeting the military and its business interests.

In an article in the Guardian on November 13, Republican representative Steve Chabot and Democratic representative Joseph Cowley said it was time to expeditiously impose sanctions.

The "time" they talked about was actually long overdue.

Back in 2014, the report of the Secretary General to the Security Council had reported "incidents of sexual violence including rape" in Myanmar during 2013. 

In 2002, the Shan Women's Action Network and the Shan Human Rights Foundation based in Thailand jointly released a report "Licence to Rape". It detailed 173 incidents of rape involving 625 girls and women by the Myanmar army, 83% of these committed by officers, in most cases in front of their troops. The report drew significant international attention.

And what was Myanmar's response?

Despite Myanmar's continuing to be the kind of rogue country against whom ICC should move for the Security Council's approval for action, it had denied the allegations all along of rape as an official instrument of strategy against the Rohingyas.

Myanmar conducted an investigation in August 2002 into the "Licence to Rape" report. People of the Central and Southern Shan State were forced to sign documents testifying that no incidents of sexual violence had been committed by the army. Fake demonstrations were staged in support of their "testimony".

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar reported in September 2013 that, "with respect to abuses perpetrated in Rakhine State, including rape and other forms of sexual violence", Myanmar did not meet its obligation to investigate and hold perpetrators to account.

And this time around, Myanmar again denied rape of the Rohingyas by its troops. In a tell-tale demonstration of its denial and falsehood, Myanmar this time said its military's internal probe interviewed 2,817 people from 54 Rohingya villages and "found" that its army did not rape or commit sexual violence against women.

The facts speak otherwise –for the Myanmar army, rape is a conventional weapon of war. It is not a by-product of conflict but a well-thought-out military strategy as had been in cases of Bosnia or in Bangladesh in 1971 or in the occupied Nanking of China in 1937 by the Japanese army.

And Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become amnesic now of what she had said in May 2011 at the Nobel Women's Initiative Conference: "Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights, especially in the areas of the ethnic nationalities. Rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by the armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities to divide our country".