Former human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi is leading the Myanmar government’s campaign to make sure that nothing is done to protect women from sexual assault by the military in Rakhine State.
Two of her cabinet portfolios – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Counsellor’s Office – have been more vocal than any other government offices in denying allegations of rape of Rohingya women at the hands of government security forces.
On Friday, the Myanmar State Counsellor’s Office publicly accused Rohingya women of fabricating stories of rape by government security forces, calling the phenomenon “fake rape”.
On Saturday, the Information Committee appointed by the State Counsellor’s Office once again denied rape allegations on the basis of villagers saying they had not heard of any rape incidents, even after two Rohingya women told reporters on December 21 that they had been raped by security forces.
Though numerous reports of rape perpetrated by Tatmadaw soldiers against Rohingya women since October 9 have been corroborated by interviews with victims and witnesses in Bangladesh and in Rakhine State, the military continues to block formal investigations, allowing government spokespeople to control the narrative.
Aye Aye Soe, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told IRIN: “Most of them are made-up stories, blown out of proportion. The things they are accusing us of didn’t happen at all.”
Beyond her own offices, the Ministry of Information, whose minister was hand-picked by Suu Kyi, published a piece of ‘analysis’ on November 3 claiming that “accusations of international media of violations of human rights of local residents during Maungtaw area clearance operations were intentionally fabricated in collusion with terrorist groups”.
All of this sends a message to Myanmar soldiers that there is no consequence for rape, and it is happening on Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch.
Before she started campaigning for votes in Myanmar’s 2015 general election, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed like an ideal champion for women’s rights. She already had a Nobel Peace Prize under her belt, and she was eager to criticize the forces in Myanmar society that bolstered patriarchy – including the military.
In 2011, she told Nobel Women’s Initiative: “Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights. Especially in the areas of ethnic nationalities, rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.”
But the person who said those words is gone. Or, just as likely, she never existed at all.
Suu Kyi’s opposition to rape softened almost as soon as she had something to lose. In December 2014, after she was elected to parliament and less than a year before the NLD would be swept into power, she was asked if she was concerned about the impunity the Myanmar military enjoys after using rape as a weapon of war, which had been documented in a report by the Women’s League of Burma a few weeks earlier.
Instead of reiterating the well-documented truths in her 2011 statement, she defended the Tatmadaw by saying the ethnic armed groups rape, too.
“This has to do with rule of law. And that has to do with politics, and the position of the army as it is in a particular political structure. I think you are well aware of the fact that military armed groups which are not official armies also engage in sexual violence in conditions of conflict,” she said at a press conference in Yangon.
By not calling for rape allegations to be investigated and refusing to condemn wartime rape, which once she said herself is “rife” in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi is making rape easier to commit and easier to get away with.
Some political calculus in Suu Kyi’s mind led her to denounce rape committed by the military in 2011, to distract us from it in 2014 and then to all but guarantee impunity for it in 2016. Her political pragmatism endangers the lives of women and their families and stunts development in Myanmar.
“Every case of rape divides our country between…the armed forces and ordinary citizens,” Suu Kyi told the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2011.
Today, we know what side of that divide Aung San Suu Kyi is on.