Coup brings uptick in old scourge: sexual violence by Myanmar troops
Chin women describe how soldiers repeatedly raped them as allegations of sexual violence increase.
Editor’s note: This report contains graphic and disturbing accounts of sexual violence.
A Myanmar soldier pointed a dagger at her throat and demanded she hand over her earrings and mobile phone. Then the woman said her nightmare truly began.
A second soldier who had entered the home during a raid in the village of Aklui in Chin state on Nov. 11 tried to pull down her pants, threatening to kill her when she resisted. He then forced the woman, who was seven months pregnant at the time, into a bathroom and raped her.
“The first one told my husband to lie down on the floor and kicked his head,” said the woman. “When the first man finished with me, the other soldier came in to rape me.”
Before the soldiers from Myanmar’s 22nd Light Infantry Division left, they kicked the husband’s head again with their heavy boots, bloodying his nose and mouth.
“Then they said, ‘Are you satisfied? Happy?’ I was so terrified and just said yes. Finally, they went away.”
Women and girls, particularly from ethnic minority regions, are increasingly victims of sexual assault by soldiers, as the Myanmar military and police continue to terrorize civilians 10 months after seizing power in a coup.
Soldiers are responsible for at least nine reported rapes and one sexual assault in Sagaing and Yangon regions and in Kachin, Chin, and Shan states since the Feb. 1 power grab, according to the Women’s League of Burma (WLB).
The community-based organization that advocates for the rights of women has 13 branches across the country that collect information on sexual violence and rape committed by the military.
“After the coup, there has been a significant increase in the number of such cases,” said a WLB . “They were committing such abuses not only in remote villages but also in urban areas, and even in broad daylight.”
“In the past, we would hear these crimes happening mostly in ethnic areas where there was fighting, such as in the eastern parts where fighting was taking place with Palaung [Ta’ang] or Shan forces, but recently we are hearing about more rape cases by soldiers,” she said, requesting anonymity for safety reasons.
The pregnant woman said that while the soldiers did go away that night, at around 3 a.m., they returned. They pushed the husband into a room and raped the woman again.
“One of them bit my vagina,” she told RFA. “He put toothpaste and saliva there, and it was torture. And then they left.”
Hallmark of army operations
The woman said she trembled as if she “was having malaria” as the couple prayed together for the dawn to come quickly.
The couple crossed the border and went into India for medical treatment. A health care worker who examined the woman said her baby was uninjured, though the woman’s vagina was swollen and she had difficulty urinating.
The couple told RFA that they plan to remain in India.
“As long as the military is there [in Myanmar], and the situation is not good, I will not return. I dare not return,” she said.
Brutality toward civilians and rape are seen by the United Nations and human rights groups as hallmarks of Myanmar military operations in decades-long civil conflicts in restive areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. In western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, mass rape was used to drive the Muslim minority Rohingya out of the country in 2017.
"Rape and sexual violence have been a particularly egregious and recurrent feature of the targeting of the civilian population in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States since 2011," said a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
"Rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mutilation and sexual assault are frequently followed by the killing of victims," said the 2018 report, issued by a group launched in response the mass expulsion of Rohingya.
“The scale, brutality and systematic nature of these violations indicate that rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorize or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war,” the fact-finding mission said.
The Tatmadaw, as the military is known inside the country it has ruled for five of the country's seven decades since independence from Britain, has largely shielded its troops from prosecution for crimes, including sexual assaults, committed during military operations.
Cases of rape reported by the women’s group since the Feb. 1 coup include the sexual assault of an activist by military and police at a Yangon interrogation center; the rape and murder of a woman in Momauk, Kachin state; two rape cases in Kutkai, Shan state; four rape cases in Sagaing region; and two rape cases in Chin state, one of which involved the pregnant Chin woman in Aklui village.
Their ages range between 14 and 62.
RFA has independently confirmed four allegations of sexual assaults by the military.
The WLB said it is difficult to identify rape cases due to security breaches in townships where the junta troops are conducting operations and internet service is blocked.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the rape allegations would be investigated, but did elaborate which cases.
Village men slain
In one of the cases, a 17-year-old girl who was arrested in connection with an April bombing in Yankin township in Yangon was allegedly sexually assaulted by a police officer at a police station.
A Sagaing resident, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said she has assisted the victims.
“People were fleeing from the villages during the fighting. Some of the women couldn’t flee in time and were raped. Some were raped and later killed,” she said, adding that doctors and nurses confirmed the attacks.
Soldiers killed most of the men in the villages they caught, she added.
A woman from Nwe Lan village in Momauk township in Kachin state was stabbed to death after being raped, locals said. The military has apologized for the killing of the 55-year-old and said it was conducting an investigation, according to a family member who spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.
“They had contacted the victim’s family and apologized. They said they were sorry and that an investigation has been going on,” the relative said.
Three soldiers also raped a 27-year-old woman who has a newborn in Chin state’s Aklui village on the same night that the pregnant woman was sexually assaulted.
When they came to her home around 11:30 p.m., the troops took the couple’s two mobile phones. They asked for money and demanded the husband explain his connections to the local People’s Defense Force (PDF), a pro-democracy civilian militia. But the man said he did not know what the PDF was and that he was a farmer.
‘I am terrified of seeing soldiers’
The soldiers forced him to lay on the floor with his face down and turned off the light. They threatened to kill the women as she held her infant daughter if she didn’t give them money. Then they raped her.
“I was taken into the room and asked to put the child down. Then one guy raped me while the baby was crying by the side, and he told me to be quiet. He put the gun beside my child and when I said I would scream, he said he would kill me if I did so.”
The soldiers left and then returned at around 4 a.m. They demanded that the husband take them to a liquor store on his motorbike and told him to wake up the owner.
In the morning, the woman told her uncle and a military captain staying with him what the soldiers had done. She returned home to pick mustard leaves in her garden, and later reported the assault to the PDF.
Two days after the attack, the woman’s uncle said the army captain had gotten back the items stolen from her home and arrested the three soldiers.
“I saw one of the soldiers tied up in front of my uncle’s house,” said the woman, who is now in India receiving medical treatment. “One came to me and apologized. I am terrified of seeing soldiers, and I won’t be able to go back home until the situation improves. I will not go back home as long as the soldiers are there.
In another case in which a 62-year-old woman was raped by soldier on Nov. 7 in Pachit village in northern Shan state, the military apologized for the assault and started an investigation, said aid workers.
“At the age of 62, she was violated like this,” said Roi Saing, vice chairwoman of the Kachin Literature and Culture Group in Shan state. “These soldiers have no God, no religion. That’s why we want effective action taken and justice to be done. If these crimes are not taken seriously, there cannot be any safety for any woman regardless of her age.”
The military will punish the perpetrators of the assaults under both military and civilian law, said junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun.
“We are a Buddhist country. According to our culture and customs, such cases are unacceptable,” he said. “We will carry out investigations and let you know the results.”
(c) 2021, Radio Free Asia