The British army provided training to Burmese armed forces personnel this month despite the Southeast Asian nation’s refusal to sign the UN Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) and fresh reports of rape of ethnic women by Burmese soldiers.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the PSVI initiative at the UN General Assembly on September 24. At the end of the conference Mr Hague proudly announced that that 115 countries had signed up to the PSVI. (As of October 2013, 134 countries had signed up.) Signatories included countries with appalling records of sexual violence, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. Burma, however, refused to sign up.
When President Thein Sein visited Britain last July the British Government offered to pay for the British Army to train 30 senior Burmese army officers, a deal that was also endorsed by Burmese opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
The deal was as good as unconditional; the only condition the British made for the training was that the Burmese military sever all ties with the North Korean Army.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said that Britain was the biggest provider of bilateral aid to Burma but that none of that aid, including the military training, would be conditional on the Burma signing the PSVI.
In a letter to Burma Campaign UK Mr Hague said: “The president [Thein Sein] welcomed my initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.
“We continue to call for an end to the use of sexual violence in Burma. At a minimum there must be strengthened accountability and better access to justice for victims of sexual violence.”
Clearly, Thein Sein completely ignored Mr Hague.
At the end of December, just before the British military trainers arrived in Burma reports emerged of the Burmese Army forcing Rohingya women to become sex slaves and prostitutes on army bases.
As the two week course was running in Naypyidaw this month more reports were emerging of horrific rapes being committed by the Burmese Army.
The day after the training started the Irrawaddy reported that the Burmese army was launching an investigation into the rape of a 13-year-old girl by a soldier in Kawzar sub-township, Mon State.
The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) also reported that a group of military and police forces entered a house in Kiladuang Village, Arakan State and demanded gold and jewellery from a Rohingya woman who lived there. When she refused they raped and killed her. They then opened fire on villagers. Three Rohingya women, three children and one man were killed, while four people were wounded, according to the report.
As the military training continued the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) held an international launch of their report ‘Same Impunity, Same Patterns’. It highlights the use of rape as a weapon against ethnic people. It contains many examples of systematic and authorized raping and gang raping by Burmese soldiers, including high-ranking officers.
At the launch of the report in Chiang Mai Naw K’nyaw Paw, the General Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), was asked what she thought about the British government offering to train the Burmese army.
She said: “We think it is still too soon. They are giving the training without questioning or addressing anything.
“We wrote a letter and asked that they don’t give training directly to the army because they continue to commit crimes with impunity. They should hold their soldiers accountable before they give training.”
She believes that the association with the British army will wrongly give the Burmese Army an air of legitimacy.
Dr Laura Cleary of Cranfield College, the military course coordinator, said that the course would involve no offensive military training.
She said: “The purpose of this engagement is to encourage the Burmese military to normalize their role within society, to improve the respect for human rights and enhance the governance of those security force.”
Unfortunately it will be impossible to find out if this happens because as British Defence Minister Mark François admitted: “Active post-course monitoring of participants is not practicable.”
Watch report from BBC’s Jonah Fisher here: