Myanmar soldiers sentenced to 20 years over rape in Rakhine: A push towards accountability?

Photo: PxHere

The case represents a civilian win against the military but likely doesn’t signal a shift as far as accountability for the military’s human rights abuses, including its record of genocidal acts against the Rohingya.

By Umair Jamal

A military court in Myanmar has sentenced three soldiers to 20 years in prison for rape of an ethnic Rakhine women during army operations in war-affected Rakhine state in June.

The verdict is a rare case of soldiers being held accountable by the country’s military for crimes or abuse. In many similar cases, Myanmar military soldiers have committed human rights abuses with impunity and at times with support from superiors.

While the Myanmar military may be untouchable domestically due to its deep political ties and commercial influence, the growing international scrutiny of the institution will have implications for the country.    

Myanmar military marked by poor human rights record

The military initially dismissed the sexual assault allegations involving the three soldiers after they were revealed in July. It was only after the involved soldiers confessed that the military reversed its position on the incident.

The case is only the tip of the iceberg for the military’s long-reported human rights violations, including against the country’s minority Muslim community.

In 2017, a ruthless crackdown lead by the military is thought to have killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and forced around 750,000 of them to flee the country. Around 600,000 Rohingya still live in Myanmar but have long been deprived of stripped of citizenship and voting rights.

According to some reports, Myanmar continues to commit acts that amount to genocide against Rohingya Muslims despite pressure from international human rights groups. “The genocide is still ongoing,” Tun Khin, President of Burma Rohingya Organization said in a statement.

“The Myanmar government and military are calculating that they can safely ignore the provisional measures and not face any consequences,” he said.

Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to undertake provisional measures to prevent continuation of genocidal acts and to prevent any attempts to damage evidence of crimes against the Rohingya. However, there is little evidence to show that Myanmar’s military is complying with the directions of ICJ.

In 2019, the International criminal court (ICC) also ordered a full-scale investigation into allegations of mass persecution against the country’s Rohingya’s community.

Photo: juls78 / CC BY-SA

Will anything come from continued international scrutiny of Myanmar’s military?

The ongoing Rohingya crisis has left Myanmar’s international reputation in tatters. Earlier this month, UK MPs called on their government to put its weight behind the ongoing genocide case at the ICJ, filed by the Gambia.

“The UK is responsible for overseeing Myanmar’s affairs in the UN Security Council and if it does not join the case, it will inadvertently send a wrong message to the Myanmar military,” stated UK MPs Rushnara Ali and Jeremy Hunt in a letter to Foreign Minister Dominic Raab on December 17.

Earlier this month, the United Nations general assembly voted for a draft resolution stating “grave concern” over grave rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

In another development, a court in Argentina has also decided to accept a case against Myanmar’s military over the genocide and persecution against Rohingya community. “The court has now requested more information from the International Criminal Court (ICC), to ensure that the case in Argentina would not duplicate other efforts of justice,” said a statement from the court in Buenos Aires.

In a separate case highlighting growing economic pressure on the military, human rights groups are demanding that two of the UK biggest banks explain why they have loaned tens of millions of pounds to a technology company with ties to the Myanmar military. Reportedly, over the last four years, HSBC and Standard Chartered loaned over £44.5 million to Vietnamese telecom giant Viettel, which is in a partnership with the Myanmar military. Viettel and a subsidiary of the military-operated Myanmar Economic Corporation own the majority of Myanmar mobile network Mytel, launched in 2018.

It is unlikely that the recent victory of the plaintiff in the rape case will signal a change in the military’s criminal conduct in any way. The military, which ruled Myanmar until 2011, still holds sway over many aspects of life in the country. In particular, it runs a massive business empire that brings in resources which enable its continued criminal conduct. Recently, Justice For Myanmar, a group of activists working for accountability in Myanmar, published Ministry of Defense documents detailing the military’s systemic corruption and business networks.

The documents reportedly detail large-scale spending by the military without parliamentary oversight as well as the military’s domestic and international business ventures that indirectly assist war crimes and crimes against humanity. The country’s civilian leadership remains relatively weak as far as checking the power of the military and depends on military’s political influence to sustain its rule and stay in power.

With ample financial resources and deep political influence at its disposal, the military is unlikely to change course in its operations, even when they amount to war crimes.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15