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Rape and Human Trafficking -- Is This Burmese Democracy?

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The world may be weary of stories of atrocities with constant accounts of man's inhumanity to man in the media. But recent events in Burma demand the attention and definitive action from the international community. A Thailand-based women's group has recently produced a report that documents more than 100 cases of rape being used as a weapon of war, mainly in the northeast of the country against ethnic and religious minorities.

Burma was renamed Myanmar as part of its makeover as a new democracy, ostensibly reducing the power of the military and restoring political freedom to its people. However, the transition has yet to take place for Burma's persecuted religious minorities and the government seems to be deliberately ignoring the atrocities taking place against Kachin, Shan and Rohingya people.

Muslims in a nation that is 90 percent Buddhist, the Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted populations. Driven from their villages to squalid refugee camps, they are defenseless against the Myanmar military and police.

The Kachin Women's Association of Thailand has documented 59 cases of sexual violence by Myanmar government soldiers and the Shan Women's Action Network has reported cases involving 35 women and girls. These are merely "the tip of the iceberg" according to the report as so many cases go unreported.

"The use of sexual violence in conflict is a strategy and an act of warfare that has political and economic dimensions that go beyond individual cases", the report states. "Sexual violence is being used as a tool by the Burmese military to demoralize and destroy ethnic communities."

These crimes against humanity are being carried out in a context of the United States strengthening military ties with Myanmar, making the U.S. complicit in human rights abuses on the level of crimes against humanity. Prominent U.S. Senators Menendez, Rubio, Cardin and Corker introduced a bipartisan bill in December last year that "would prohibit U.S. military aid to Burma, except in cases of basic training on human rights and civilian control of the military. The bill offers no waivers and would lift the prohibition only if Burma takes concrete actions to measurably improve human rights conditions, including: establishing civilian oversight of the armed forces, addressing human rights violations by their military and terminating military relations with North Korea. The amendment would also request an annual report on the Administration's strategy to engage the Burmese military."

However, legislation in the U.S. is painfully slow and according to the gov.track website the bill has an 83 percent chance of getting past committee and only a 23 percent chance of being enacted. The United States inexplicably stands by its contention that Burma is improving its human rights situation, being justification for the lifting of economic sanctions on the nation which allows U.S. oil companies to take part in oil exploration.

The lack of urgency being shown by the Western world is despite desperate efforts by human rights organizations and United Nations to stir the collective humanitarian conscience. Human Rights Watch has documented killings, rape and mass arrests by the Burmese security forces against Rohingya Muslims. Amnesty International also reports that as many as 104,000 people are in dire need of food, shelter and medical care, yet the Burmese government has no official relief policies in place and recently President Thein Sein blandly stated that the Rohingya should leave Burma. Their options are few as they are stateless and unwelcome in neighboring countries. Even in refugee camps they are unsafe as Reuters recently reported that Thai immigration officials are delivering Rohingya refugees into human trafficking rings.

The United Nations and the Unites States have issued calls to the Thai government to "conduct a serious and transparent investigation into the matter," but again, while human rights abuses and genocide are being deplored, there is little that can be done when the Burmese military dominated government is determined to eradicate its minorities and realizes it can act with impunity.

The rape of women and even young children will continue, the selling of refugees to human traffickers will continue and the desperate misery of countless thousands of minorities in Burma will continue just as long as the international community accepts this behavior. We should expect more from the United Nations and we should demand more from the U.S. State Department. The government of Myanmar's current actions are completely morally unacceptable and diplomatic negotiations must be initiated based upon the human rights of the Rohingya people.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a Lecturer at the University of Chicago.