SEATTLE, Washington — Myanmar has long struggled as a multicultural society governed primarily through the ethnic Burmese-led military known as the Tatmadaw. The conflict exists since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1948 and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control large swaths of the country. This affects all citizens, but women are particularly vulnerable and are the most neglected during times of conflict.
The Tatmadaw, over the years, has committed gender-based violence atrocities on a large and systematic scale, the most gruesome recent example being toward the ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017. During large “clearance” operations, Rohingya women reported being gang-raped in public spaces by the Tatmadaw. The military beat and murdered women while burning down entire villages and caused over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. While these horrific reports represent the most notorious instances of the Tatmadaw’s brutality, the military has deployed similar tactics in other ethnic minority regions of the country for decades. Women in Kachin, Shan, Chin and other states have also reported rape as a common tactic by the Tatmadaw throughout Myanmar.
The Chinese have also contributed to gender-based violence in the border regions of Myanmar. Decades of conflict in Kachin State have caused some women to seek livelihood opportunities in nearby China. The true number of human trafficking victims is unknown. Still, hundreds of Kachin women have reported being kept against their will, being beaten, raped and sold to multiple Chinese men before being able to return to Myanmar. The desire in China for foreign brides and children mainly stems from the massive gender disparities caused by its one-child policy.
The Impacts of the Recent Coup in Myanmar
The Tatmadaw’s 2021 military coup, which overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, puts women throughout the country at tremendous risk and may dismantle much of the progress made in addressing gender-based violence in recent years without additional support. Women represent 60% of the frontline protesters and face the Tatmadaw’s brutal attacks against non-violent protests throughout the country.
The military has already been deliberately targeting female protestors of all ages. Recently, the Tatmadaw killed a seven-year-old girl as she was running away from the gunfire. Many other women have been shot at point-blank range in the head while fleeing the gunfire. Alarmingly, many of the soldiers firing on unarmed protestors are the same men that participated in the recent brutality against the Rohingya in 2017.
Solutions to Address Gender-Based Violence
Although the recent military coup in February 2021 will likely increase gender-based violence in Myanmar, large and small-scale approaches are useful in addressing the issue. One innovative approach by Johns Hopkins University is the Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA). CETA utilizes talk therapy as a way to approach the multifaceted traumas experienced by victims of gender-based violence and long-term mental health implications, including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Local community members are provided CETA training while being overseen by mental health professionals to assist vulnerable populations such as women and children.
CETA has achieved some success due to the low-cost nature of training local community members and can easily be scaled up over time. Besides valuable talk therapy to victims of gender-based violence, the program provides women in ethnic minority communities with livelihood opportunities and valuable training. In many ethnic minority areas of Myanmar, international aid organizations have limited or no access, making community-based approaches crucial as long-term solutions to gender-based violence.
To lessen the risk of women needing to travel through conflict areas to receive medical attention, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has been operating mobile clinics to reach women in rural areas and refugee camps. These mobile clinics offer medical assistance and provide information about gender-based violence and conduct capacity-building workshops for community members in sexual and reproductive rights. The UNFPA also assisted Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports launch the country’s first set of gender-based violence guidelines for health care providers throughout the country.
Hope for Women in Myanmar
In a rare instance of justice being served against the Tatmadaw, a woman raped in Rakhine State was able to win a court case in 2020 and put three soldiers in prison for 20 years. Even with this triumph, the husband abandoned the victim and left her raising their four children alone. This highlights the stigma that survivors of gender-based violence face in coming forward. Despite these tragic circumstances, this case is also a hopeful sign that Burmese courts will take gender-based violence more seriously and victims won’t feel hopeless in pursuing justice against their attackers.
Increased international condemnation of the Tatmadaw’s widespread war crimes and gender-based violence will be crucial in ensuring that the military can no longer act with impunity toward women in Myanmar. Empowering and treating victims of gender-based violence has been a crucial early step in addressing gender inequality, but achieving justice for perpetrators will be difficult without sufficient support as conflict rages on. Women in Myanmar have been steadfast in striving for gender equality, particularly through groups operating in ethnic minority regions. This progress is under threat due to the Tatmadaw’s actions, but protesters’ bravery showcases a nearly universal desire for a more inclusive society for women in Myanmar.
– Matthew Brown