Rohingya refugees walk across a bamboo bridge in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, February 11, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The United Nations secretary-general for the first time has included Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, in his annual list of parties that have committed sexual violence in armed conflict. Presented today to the UN Security Council, the report details conflict-related sexual violence carried out in 2017 by national armed forces and non-state armed groups in 19 countries, spotlighting its use as a weapon of war and persecution.

The report finds that the Myanmar armed forces’ “widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorizing and collectively punishing the Rohingya community.” Rohingya women and girls – “seen as custodians and propagators of ethnic identity” – were targeted for both their ethnicity and their gender. Human Rights Watch similarly found that the military engaged in widespread sexual violence against women among the crimes against humanity committed during “clearance operations” starting in October 2016 and August 2017. Security forces used rape to humiliate and brutalize, not only driving victims from their homes but also instilling a deep fear of ever returning.

The Rohingya women and girls who fled to neighboring Bangladesh – 60 percent of more than 680,000 Rohingya refugees since August – face severe challenges, including inadequate access to sexual and reproductive health care, long-term psychological trauma, and the risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Myanmar’s military has long been implicated in the country’s ongoing ethnic armed conflicts, and the secretary-general’s report notes that security force abuses against women and girls have also taken place in recent fighting in Kachin and Shan States.

The military denies such abuses and has taken no apparent action to end them. A Rakhine State minister responded to reports last year saying: “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”

Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, met Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military officials in December to secure commitments to address conflict-related sexual violence. But the government has repeatedly refused to engage. 

The Security Council also heard today from Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer and advocate who appealed to the council to refer the full range of atrocities in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. It’s now up to the council to take action on the military’s egregious crimes and heed her call.

Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State.