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Oil and gas firms profit from rape in Burma

Burma_gasForeign investment and income from oil and gas companies have enabled the military dictatorship in Burma to greatly expand the country’s armed forces who use rape as a weapon against ethnic women and girls, writes Zetty Brake.

Burmese soldiers entered Naw Shee Shee Paw’s village looking for a Karen girl. When told she wasn’t there, they demanded another girl, threatening to kill the village leader if he didn’t find one. 

Naw Shee Shee Paw’s aunt agreed to leave the village with the soldiers taking her 25-year-old niece with her.

After a short time the soldiers ordered the aunt to turn back.  Naw Shee Shee Paw said “I didn’t want to stay alone (with the soldiers) because I was afraid of them”. 

“After about 15 minutes walk two of them pulled me into the bushes and raped me. The other one stood guard.  I tried to shout but they closed my mouth. They raped me one by one on the ground in the bushes. I was alone and afraid of them. While one of them closed my mouth, one raped me.  I pushed them and tried to protect myself but they were too strong and there were two of them and so I could not defend myself”, Naw Shee Shee Paw said.

Naw Shee Shee Paw’s story is tragic and all too common for women and girls in Burma.  Rape is used by the Burmese military as a weapon against ethnic women and girls. Rape and sexual violence is an abuse that women and girls face, in addition to the human rights violations that male members of their community suffer.

Groups run by women from Burma have been extensively documenting evidence over many years of the systematic rape of ethnic women by state actors.  One report, License to Rape by the Shan Women’s Action Network, documented 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence in Shan State, north-eastern Burma. 

It found that 61% were gang rapes; 25% of rapes resulted in death and 83% of rapes were committed by officers, usually in front of their troops.  Only one case out of the 173 documented was the perpetrator punished.

Since 2002 the bodies of the UN and international community have consistently condemned Burma’s military regime for using sexual violence against women, particularly women belonging to ethnic nationalities.   

The UN special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak’s 2006 report noted “Women and girls are subjected to violence by soldiers, especially sexual violence, as “punishment” for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups. The authorities sanction violence against women and girls committed by military officers”.

Burma has been ruled by a number of military dictatorships since 1962.  The latest dictatorship, the State Peace and Development Council, has denied claims of rape by Burmese soldiers. 

“The allegations regarding sexual violence against ethnic women and children are baseless and aimed at discrediting the Government of Myanmar [Burma] and Myanmar [Burmese] Military,” said U Wunna Maung Lwin the SPDC’s permanent representative, during the 7th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2008.

No one believes them. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar/Burma Professor Paulo Sergio Pinherio report in 2006 said “the failure to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for rape and sexual violence has contributed to an environment conducive to the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in Myanmar”. 

This system of impunity among soldiers that currently exists will be further entrenched under the 2008 military-drafted constitution.  The constitution offers impunity to all members of the armed forces for actions they may have taken whilst performing their duties. 

This blanket amnesty for members of the armed forces in Burma who have violated human rights is just the last step in a long line of actions taken by the military regime to cover their crimes against women.  Victims who make complaints against perpetrators are often harassed further by Burmese soldiers and have been detained, fined, tortured and even killed.  

The role of oil and gas companies in human rights violations

When she was raped Naw Shee Shee Paw lived in a village close to a gas pipeline that built by Total and Chevron, in partnership with a state-owned company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. 

Large infrastructure projects like gas pipelines have meant higher militarisation in surrounding areas, placing civilian populations at increased risk of human rights violations.

Australia’s Twinza Oil is currently doing exploration for oil and gas in Burma.  Should Twinza Oil’s project move forward, it is extremely likely a pipeline will be built which will cause more Burmese soldiers to be deployed along the pipeline, resulting increased human rights violations against villagers.

Like Chevron and Total, Twinza Oil would go into partnership with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. It is estimate that the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise’ stake in the project will earn the military regime US$2.5 billion.

At present there is nothing to stop Australian companies like Twinza Oil investing in Burma, despite the negative impacts and direct links to human rights violations these projects have.  However, targeted sanctions could stop companies like Twinza Oil, profiting from the oppression of others.

Foreign investment and income from projects like Twinza Oil’s have enabled the military dictatorship to greatly expand the country’s armed forces, while neglecting basic public services like health and education. 

The dictatorship spends between 40 and 60 per cent of the country’s budget on the military, the 12th largest in the world.  In comparison less than US$1 per person per year is spent on health care.  As a result of this economic mismanagement, Burma is facing a significant, continuing humanitarian crisis. 

This crisis is particularly severe in Burma’s border areas, where the Burmese army is carrying out military offensives targeting innocent civilians.  These populations are extremely vulnerable and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In eastern Burma one in five children dies before their fifth birthday, one in 12 women die during childbirth or from pregnancy and 12 per cent of the population is infected with malaria at anytime.    

Income from Burma’s extensive natural resources and foreign reserves, estimated to be at US$5 billion by economists from Macquarie University Australia, could be used to help address the humanitarian crisis.  However the regime lacks the political to do so. 

Moreover, the military regime actively prevents aid workers inside the country from reaching vulnerable populations, like those in eastern Burma, in turn exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

Grassroots activism

However members of these communities, who have lived through this crisis, are doing something about it. 

Travelling by foot, refugees from Burma in neighbouring countries are becoming aid workers; crossing back into Burma to provide urgently needed assistance, like health care and food.  These cross-border aid workers help thousands, including survivors of rape and sexual violence. Their efforts save hundreds, if not thousands of lives each year. 

Sadly, Australia’s aid program does not support these activities. Cross border aid organisations struggle to secure funding for their work, and when there is a budget shortfall desperately needed services are cut. For already vulnerable people this can be a question of life and death.

Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked, “Please use your liberty to promote ours”. 

Successive Australian Governments have lacked the political will to take strategic, practical actions that will help the people of Burma. It’s up to us to answer Aung San Suu Kyi’s call and become a part of this movement to change through grassroots activism and supporting the Burma Campaign Australia.

Zetty Brake is the campaign co-ordinator for Burma Campaign Australia.


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