AFTER being gang-raped by soldiers, steely-eyed Thein Nu went up against Myanmar’s powerful military in a months-long fight for justice – a fight that paid off with a rare legal victory.
Her three rapists were jailed for 20 years with hard labour, a sentence she hopes will give other survivors the courage to speak up and challenge the military’s impunity.
Lodging a legal complaint pitted the 36-year-old mother of four against Myanmar’s most powerful institution, whose soldiers have long been accused by rights groups of using rape as a weapon of war in the country’s conflict zones.
The crime was committed in June in northern Rakhine state – the site of a nearly two-year battle between the military and the Arakan Army, which is fighting for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine population.
“Many women like me have already endured the same thing, ” Thein Nu – who has been given a pseudonym to protect her identity – said.
Her victory comes after an initial denial from the military, which said she made up the allegations, and she still faces the glare of widespread social stigma, including from her husband who refuses to speak to her.
“I am both happy and sad, ” she said, still in disbelief that the military tribunal ruled in her favour.
“I don’t entirely believe this verdict will stop rape and abuse against women in conflict areas because they (the military) are unreliable people with two faces.”
In a rare acknowledgement of wrongdoing, the military on Saturday announced the verdict and sentence against the three rapists, trumpeting its own “transparent” investigation of the case.
But observers warn it is too soon to judge whether Thein Nu’s victory will be a watershed moment for the armed forces.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said it was not yet clear whether the army was ready to tackle alleged atrocities committed by its rank and file.
In the past, its approach has been to deny rape claims outright, and in some cases soldiers file defamation suits against the victim, he said.
Nearly six months on, Thein Nu still remembers the night of her horrific ordeal clearly.
As dusk fell, gunfire erupted in her village, and she hid with her daughter and granddaughter in her mother-in-law’s house alongside other women and children.
Close to midnight four soldiers burst into the house and discovered their hiding spot after the baby started crying.
“I realised I had no way to escape from three men who are more powerful than me, ” she said.
After the attack, Thein Nu and her children fled the village and headed for Sittwe, where she made the agonising decision to pursue justice. — AFP