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Burma Issues
April 1998

In July 1997, Burma signed and ratified the 1979 international Convention to
Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Under CEDAW,
state parties are obligated to protect women against violence. Within a year
of signing, state parties must submit a report to the U.N. Secretary General
on the measures adopted-- legislative, judicial, administrative or other -
to protect women against discrimination, and on the country's progress
toward the goals outlined in the convention. Compliance with the convention
necessarily means that governments take responsibility for the practices of
their armed forces, punishing perpetrators of rape to illustrate that it is
not acceptable behavior. Burma's report to the CEDAW committee is due later
this year.

EarthRights International's (ERI) latest report entitled, School of Rape:
The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence, (1) analyzes the connection
between perpetrators and acts of rape in Burma. Rape by the Burmese
military, particularly against ethnic minority women, is endemic throughout
areas of conflict in Burma. The report argues that the Burmese government is
not providing the ethnic women of Burma adequate protection against violence
by the armed forces; that in fact, the military system itself fosters
extreme abuses.

Rape is not an easy topic for discussion, much less investigation, as most
rape victims understandably will not discuss their experience directly. Yet
the systematic raping of women seems an integral part of war, specifically
as a weapon in psychological warfare. Knowledge that the armed forces will
use rape as a weapon spreads terror. Rape also serves as a means of revenge
against ethnic insurgent fighters. It is a direct way of waging war on women
as it deprives women of their dignity, and it often results in lasting
trauma. In a culture which places a high value on virginity, the social
stigma may burden the victim long after the worst of the trauma is past. The
stigma is even greater for a woman who becomes pregnant through rape and
Carries the baby through to full term. In this way rape can be perceived as
part of an ethnic cleansing strategy, as well as a psychological weapon of
war. The forcible impregnation of ethnic minority women decreases the number
of ethnic minorities by creating more "Burman births," and more deaths
resulting from sexually transmitted diseases, botched abortions, suicides,
and actual injuries or deaths resulting from rape. (2)

Rape is an act of violence which cannot be viewed out of the context in
which it is perpetrated. It is an integral component of the civil war in
Burma. Its prevalence in Burma is enabled by a number of larger cultural
factors, which ERI has summarized as follows:

* The exalted status of the military in Burma, which enables soldiers to
commit criminal acts with impunity;

* The militarization of Burmese society, in which notions of masculinity and
femininity are played out on the battlefields and in the villages, with
soldiers ' bodies as weapons and women's bodies as targets; and

* The subordinate status of women in Burma.

The report in seeking to analyze the underlying causes of rape by Burmese
soldiers, examines characteristics of the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] that are
problematic and give rise to rape. In particular, it concludes that the
following aspects of the Burma Army make miliary rape predictable:

* The age of Tatmadaw soldiers. Many soldiers are under 17 years old. They
lack the maturity, the moral development, or the emotional strength to
resist indoctrination of the Tatmadaw. Their youth makes them particularly
susceptible to a military ideology in which masculinity is defined by the
ability to dominate and commit brutality against the "enemy."

* The soldiers ' education level.   Most soldiers lack even basic education,
and many are illiterate. They are without skills or grounding in the rules
of war.  Many have no alternative employment opportunities. This creates a
corps of armed men and boys ruled by ignorance.

* The recruitment methods. Many soldiers are kidnapped or otherwise forcibly
conscripted.  In addition, other soldiers join the Tatmadaw to escape arrest
for crimes, sometimes violent, that they commit.   Indiscriminate
recruitment means inappropriate candidates are inducted.

* The training methods. The training focuses on building fear rather than
skills. Soldiers are instructed, through example and practice, in cruelty.
By the end of their training, they have become both pupils and teachers in
the art of violent degradation.

* Disciplinary techniques. Punishment is inconsistent, inappropriate,
unpredictable, and generally brutal. In addition, soldiers are called upon
to punish their peers. This creates a culture of perpetual fear and
victimhood where it is expected that force will be used to punish misbehavior

* Daily treatment Soldiers are virtually starved, given inadequate clothing
and equipment, and forced to act as slaves for their officers. Their
valuelessness is confirmed by the withholding of salaries and medical
attention. A rigid hierarchy is created in which rank-and-file ("ordinary")
soldiers have very low morale, and officers commit atrocious acts unpunished.

* Isolation from support networks. Soldiers generally are prohibited from
visiting their families and, in many cases, from sending  and receiving
mail. To the extent they develop camaraderie with one another, it is based
on harmful rituals of brutality they are forced to execute. In addition,
they are discouraged from developing trust within their units through
self-punishment practices and enmity between officers and soldiers.
Isolation and loneliness induce extreme behavior.
*  Excessive use of alcohol and, in some cases, drugs. Many soldiers are
frequently drunk, sometimes on the front lines. In addition, some reports
indicate that soldiers use drugs including marijuana and heroin.
Drunkenness is accepted without question and drug abuse is often overlooked
if not actually encouraged.  Substance abuse and uncontrolled aggression are
invariably linked.

* Bigotry and sexism in the Tatmadaw Soldiers are often indoctrinated to
view ethnic minority groups in Burma as inferior to ethnic Burmans. In
addition, an attitude of strong disrespect for women, especially toward
minority women, is reinforced through behavior by officers.

The Tatmadaw, like all militaries, is a hierarchical institution. Ordinary
soldiers are at the bottom of the pyramid and suffer the most, because as
the least powerful members, they are subject to more potential abusers.
However, because there is a pecking order of brutality in the Tatmadaw, even
officers are subject to abuse by their superiors. Through its hierarchical
structure, policies, and practices, the Tatmadaw transmits an ethos of
violent masculinity to everyone who serves.  Soldiers are taught that
victory over the enemy depends on their masculinity, that, in turn gets
defined as their ability to fight, to dominate, to commit violence.

At the same time, the Tatmadaw  creates a paradoxical situation in which all
but the highest officers are situated as both vulnerable victims of abuse
and masculine warriors. Such a paradox breeds confusion, which is often
resolved through violence. When Tatmadaw soldiers and officers -- anyone
subject to this paradox -- have the opportunity to demonstrate their
masculinity, they take it. This means they seek to dominate and violate
those in more vulnerable circumstance:  women. Brutality breeds brutality,
and the prevalence of rape by brutalized Tatmadaw soldiers and officers is
the predictable result of the cycle of violence played out between the
military and the ethnic insurgents. (3)

Ultimately, it is the state which must take responsibility for the actions
of its armed forces. As ERI points out, the ethos within Burma's Tatmadaw
has direct bearing in turn on their treatment of civilians. The ethnic
minority women of Burma are extremely vulnerable in this civil war. As a
state party to the CEDAW, the Burmese government has an obligation to ensure
that the discriminatory actions of the armed forces against ethnic minority
women, rape being one manifestation, are not sanctioned. The international
community must be aware of the reality the ethnic women of Burma face under
the Burmese government's tacit knowledge and acceptance, and voice its
disapproval when the government's report comes under scrutiny.
-- V. Coakley

Endnotes, 'School of Rape'
1 Betsy Apple, School of Rape: The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence,
EarthRights International, 1998, pp. 41-45 and 91-94. The report can be
ordered from ERI: PO Box 12, Lard Phrao Bangkok 10901, Thailand; Tel/ Fax:
66 2 512 2051; e-mail earth@xxxxxxxxxxx

2 B. Apple, 1998, ibid., p. 41-45. 
3 B. Apple, 1998, ibid., p. 13-16.