Myanmar’s Military Sentences Three Soldiers to 20 Years for Rape in Rakhine

Women’s groups demand that tribunal’s transparency apply to such crimes in other areas of the country.
2020-12-11
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Myanmar’s Military Sentences Three Soldiers to 20 Years for Rape in Rakhine
RFA/Rebel Pepper

A Myanmar military tribunal Friday sentenced three privates to 20 years for raping an ethnic Rakhine grandmother during army operations in her village in war-torn Rakhine state in June, the lawyer for the victim told RFA.

The two-year-long war between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), which is seeking greater autonomy in Rakhine, has killed more than 300 civilians and displaced about 226,000 others, many of whom are now living in temporary camps in the state.

After initially dismissing the sexual assault allegations after they were revealed in an RFA report in July, the military reversed course after the three soldiers confessed.  A military spokesperson at that time promised that the men would face military and civil charges.

“The military tribunal has sentenced the three privates today and the authorities said they will be transferred to civilian jail,” Mya Thuzar, the attorney for the plaintiff, told RFA’s Myanmar Service Friday after the proceedings in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe. They were charged with rape, abduction with the intent to rape, and abetting rape.

“Each private will serve a 20-year prison sentence for all three charges. During the trial on December 3, they confessed that they were guilty. So the court convicted them and sentenced them today,” the lawyer said, after what was the first court trial for any crime during two years of armed conflict in Rakhine.

The victim, a 36-year-old mother of four children, told RFA on July 2 that she had been sexually assaulted by three uniformed soldiers in rural Rathedaung township on June 30 when they found her and some relatives hiding in a bomb shelter in their home during an army sweep of U Gar village to clear the area of AA troops.

They also intended to rape the woman’s daughter, but her mother-in-law begged them not to because the younger woman had given birth days earlier.

Afterwards, the soldiers ordered the woman not to tell anyone about the assault and gave her 20,000 kyats (U.S. $14).

The woman, whose name RFA withheld to protect her safety and privacy, filed charges against the soldiers at a police station in Sittwe, where she and her relatives provided accounts of the assault.

RFA attempted to contact military spokesman Major Gen Zaw Min Tun for comment on Friday’s sentencing but were unsuccessful.

Supporters of a woman raped by three government soldiers enter a military compound in Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar for a tribunal, Dec. 11, 2020. RFA Photo

Concerns about amnesty

The Rakhine Women Network, a local victim’s assistance organization that is helping the plaintiff, told RFA that the trial was both independent and transparent.

“The plaintiff is satisfied with the sentences. We and all other parties who have helped to initiate the case are also happy with it,” said Nyo Aye, the network’s chairwoman.

“We would like to see the same level of transparency for all crimes in other ethnic areas of Myanmar. We would also like to appeal to the military to cooperate with us in bringing justice whenever similar crimes occur,” she said.

Rights groups have documented mass rapes in other conflicts across Myanmar, in particular Kachin and Shan States.

Nyo Aye raised the case of seven soldiers who were given amnesty less than a year into their 10-year sentences for killing 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in Rakhine in 2017.

“It is not acceptable to give them sentences and then grant amnesty almost immediately. Newton’s third law states that ‘every action has and equal and opposite reaction.’ So when they respond to us with actions like this, there will be reactions,” she said.

Kyaw Tint Swe, a spokesperson for the State Counselor’s Office, pledged at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 29 that amnesty would not be granted after future convictions.

The Rohingya killings took place during military-led “clearance operations” in Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine, during which thousands were killed and 740,000 others fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

The scorched-earth campaign led to genocide charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar. In December 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military’s actions against the Rohingya, saying they occurred during operations to sweep northern Rakhine of Muslim insurgents who had attacked police posts.

International reputation at stake

May Sabai Phyu, director of the Yangon-based Gender Equality Network, told RFA that the military took swift action on the U Gar rape case to preserve its image in the eyes of the international community.

“Committing violence against women is a heinous human rights violation. The military is trying to keep its dignity by giving the defendants appropriate sentences. So, there is no reason to expect that the defendants will be given amnesty,” she said.

“The same rules should apply to crimes in other regions. No matter where the crimes occur, regardless of the race and religion of the victim, I would like to appeal to the authorities to respond with the same measures to ensure justice is served.” 

The Rohingya rapes prompted the United Nations secretary-general for the first time to include Myanmar’s military on the annual list of parties that have committed sexual violence in armed conflict.

Human Rights Watch told a U.S. rights panel in 2018 investigating the previous year’s Rohingya expulsion that sexual violence by government soldiers “has been a hallmark of the culture of abuse and impunity in Burma’s decades-long civil wars with its ethnic groups.”

Interviews in Bangladesh in 2017 with 29 Rohingya rape victims showed that the perpetrators were all uniformed members of security forces.

“All but one of the rapes reported to Human Rights Watch were gang rapes, involving two or more perpetrators, but usually larger groups of soldiers,” HRW said in a statement to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at the House of Representatives. 

Reported by Aung Thane Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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