Myanmar’s legacy of rape as a terror tactic

The Daily Star  December 04, 2019

The Myanmar military has been using rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war to exterminate the Rohingya community—or at least a part of it. PHOTO: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION Tasneem Tayeb

While it is a well-docu-mented fact that more than 700,000 Rohingya had to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state since the latest onslaught of violence unleashed on them by the Myanmar military and nearly 9,000 Rohingya had been killed in Rakhine between August 25 and September 24 in 2017—as recorded by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—the number of women and girls who have suffered sexual violence at the hands of the military (also known as the Tatmadaw) remains unclear.    

Figures from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggest that after arriving in Bangladesh, around 13,500 Rohingya women sought medical assistance and support to address the sexual violence—including gang rapes—that they had to endure at the hands of the Tatmadaw. But the actual number of women and girls facing sexual violence is expected to be much higher, since shame and fear of social stigma deter a lot of women from acknowledging the sexual violence that they had been inflicted upon by the Myanmar military.

Between August 2017 and February 2018, MFS recorded 160 cases of pregnant rape victims. And there were hundreds and thousands of women who chose to deliver their baby in confinement to hide their pregnancy. Young, unmarried girls, who became victims of unwanted pregnancy due to rape, were especially encouraged by their families to give birth in seclusion so that their prospects of marriage would not be hampered. The result? Unwanted infants dumped in dustbins, left at the makeshift hospitals, given away to other families.

In worse cases, there have been botched abortions resulting in miscarriages and deaths of infants and mothers—mortality we do not even have a concrete count of.

Given the narratives of the Rohingya women and girls, it would not be incorrect to say that the Tatmadaw have adopted rape and sexual violence as a weapon of terrorism. Women narrate tales of being gang-raped by dozens of soldiers in their green and red outfits, often multiple times.

According to the Middle East Institute and a story published by The Guardian, there have been instances where women had been “tied by their hair and hands to trees and gang raped, for no other reason than being Rohingya Muslims.”

Razia Sultana, a prominent lawyer and activist, in an interview with Time recalls how she met a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by more than 30 soldiers. “The army is cutting women’s breasts off, gouging out their eyes. This is not just rape. This is a weapon to punish the community,” Sultana further added.

And indeed, the rape of Rohingya women and girls by the Tatmadaw and the sheer brutality of these incidents suggest that the Myanmar military has been using rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war to exterminate the Rohingya community—or at least a part of it. By sexually violating young girls and women, the Tatmadaw is sending a strong message to the Rohingya community: that there is no place for them in the Rakhine State, and that staying back will be at the cost of their lives and the honour of their women, which to a conservative society like that of the Rohingya is the ultimate humiliation. 

And these crimes leave us—the host country and the agencies that are trying to provide humanitarian support to the refugees—with many unanswered but critical questions: how many women living in the Rohingya camps have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STD), including HIV, as a result of the mass rape that they had to endure? How many need immediate medical support to battle these diseases? How many babies have been delivered in the camps—at the makeshift hospitals or in seclusion—with HIV? How many women know that they are carrying STDs? And how many others, including locals, are at the risk of getting infected by the disease (especially since we don’t know how many living in the Cox’s Bazar camps are carrying these diseases)?

MSF, the UN agencies and the Bangladesh government are working hard to screen, identify and provide medical care to these unfortunate women and children. According to official estimates, till March 2019, at least 319 Rohingya had been identified with HIV, along with many children. Of them, 19 have died.

And while it is reassuring to see the concerned agencies are working to provide medical support to the Rohingya who have been infected with STDs, it is important to note that a lot of the potential carriers of these diseases have not opened up due to fears of social stigma.

In the midst of all these, the Rohingya women and girls are being preyed upon by human traffickers and forced into sexual slavery, potentially increasing the risk of the spread of these diseases. And while it is easier for the men to open up about their problems and seek help, it is not so easy for the women and girls who live in fear of retribution.

But the Rohingya women and girls cannot be allowed to suffer in silence. The trafficking of vulnerable Rohingya women and girls should be stopped at all costs. The Bangladesh government and the humanitarian agencies should make sure that the women and girls who have been subjected to physical, psychological and emotional trauma and pain by the Tatmadaw are given necessary medical and emotional support.

With such a large population of the Rohingya—especially those infected with deadly diseases like HIV—crammed up in the makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar in not very healthy conditions, the host country and humanitarian agencies must do their best to address their health issues on an urgent basis. The repercussions of the spread of these diseases are going to be devastating.

All the while, we need to provide psychological and emotional counselling to these women and girls. It will not be possible to erase the memories of horror that they had to endure, the mental and physical scars, but with proper support, they may be able to carry on with their lives.

Human suffering has no nationality and knows no borders. It is important that we constantly remind ourselves of these self-evident facts.

Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem

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