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Trivia and Discussion: Sexual Violence in Burma

Like in Darfur and the Congo, sexual violence is used as a weapon of war in Burma.  Soldiers systematically rape ethnic women with the sanction of their superiors and with impunity.  Outside of the context of conflict, we see rape as a crime against one person, but when used in conflict, rape is a systematic tactic that affects not only the people who have been raped but also their entire society.     

Trivia: How many cases of rape have been punished by Burmese military tribunals? 

Discussion: What is the impact of rape as a weapon of war on ethnic conflict in Burma?  How do we address it in relation to the conflict as a whole? 

How widespread is rape as a weapon of war?
  • A report from Refugees International documented 43 cases of rape or attempted rape against women from the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Tavoyan, and Shan ethnic groups.
  • The report states that “The specific rapes documented in this report are but a fraction of those perpetrated by Burma’s army.  Every one of the 45 ethnic women who participated in the RI focus groups said she had heard about rapes occurring in her area of origin, and a vast majority said they knew someone who had been raped.”
  • A report from the Shan Women’s Action Network documented 173 incidents of rape and sexual violence against Shan women, but emphasized that women have little incentive to report rape so their figures are lower than reality.
Why does the Burmese military use rape as a weapon of war?
  • The Burmese military targets civilian populations because it sees them as support bases for ethnic minority armies.  It aims to destroy any aspect of civilian society that could be a resource for these armies.
  • In the context of conflict, rape is part of a strategy to demoralize and weaken ethnic minority populations
  • In some cases, soldiers use rape to coerce women into marriage and impregnate them as part of an attempt to “Burmanize” ethnic minorities.
  • A recent report by the Karen Women Organization has found that because the Burmese army has been executing Karen village heads, who are traditionally male, Karen women have been increasingly appointed as village head.  This has led to abuses against these women including crucifixion, torture, beheadings, and rape.


How is rape perpetuated as a weapon of war?
  • Even though rape is officially a crime according to Burmese military law, no cases of rape have been punished through military tribunals.
  • The military promotes an atmosphere where rape is permissible and encouraged: according to the Shan Women’s Action Network, 83% of cases of documented rape against Shan women were committed by officers in front of their troops.
  • Because of this culture of impunity, victims of rape and their families are unlikely to seek justice out of fear.  In many cases they live side-by-side with the Burmese military and fear retaliation.
  • A cultural stigma exists against victims of rape which discourages them from reporting it.


How do we address the issue?
  • What implications do the army’s motives for using rape suggest about its place in larger ethnic conflict?
  • Macro level: Who has the power to alter the use of rape as a weapon of war?  What incentives could be provided to create change?
  • Micro level: What effects does systematic rape have on ethnic communities?  Who is best equipped to aid women and their communities, and what can they do? 


No Safe Place: Burma’s Army and the Rape of Ethnic Women, Refugees International, 2003
Walking Amongst Sharp Knives: The unsung courage of Karen women village chiefs in conflict areas of Eastern Burma, Karen Women Organization, 2010 
License to Rape, The Shan Women’s Action Network, 2002
-Morgan McDaniel, National Burma Education Coordinator
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