UK Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Baroness Anelay stressed her government’s commitment to helping victims of sexual violence in conflict on her recent visit to Myanmar.
In an exclusive interview with Mizzima’s Hong Sar, Baroness Anelay spoke about the challenge of preventing sexual violence in conflict and the programmes the UK government is running on coordination with the Myanmar government and civil society organizations.
What are you hoping to achieve on your visit to Myanmar?
I wanted to be able to speak to government ministers, representatives of civil society, and also people who carry out programmes for us here about the progress that Myanmar has made over the last year since the November elections, and also to talk to them about the challenges that lie ahead, to talk about practical work that we can do as a friend in the UK, not to interfere but to be a practical friend.
When it comes to preventing sexual violence in conflict or PSVI, what are your main concerns here in Myanmar?
In Myanmar, we have been holding a workshop today to ask people who are in society, faith leaders, people in civil society, to ask them about their evidence of the effect of sexual violence in conflict in people in Myanmar and then how we can find solutions for the future, because for all of us the important thing is not to dwell on the negative but work out what we can do. I can say that in Myanmar I am so impressed with the dignity of people for being able to survive in some very difficult circumstances in the past, and their willingness to give the government time to put things right. And that is an important thing. This government has only been in office for seven months, it has already made huge changes. I really admire the way Aung San Suu Kyi has made those changes, with the assistance of her government ministers. Freedom of expression, for example, bringing forward a law to prevent violence against women, all of these issues are important. They take time and people have to have patience but we do need to show we are making progress.
Myanmar has a more democratic government in power under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Don't you think the situation concerning PSVI should have improved under these circumstances?
I think that the issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict is such a sensitive one that everyone needs to think through really carefully the way in which they are talking to survivors before they jump into action because it is so easy, even with the best of intentions, to make a survivor feel they are living through that experience again and again. Every time they tell their story to a friend, a relative, to a police officer, to a court they need to be treated with such sensitivity so I am pleased with the progress we are making here with the government with PSVI and I know that there is a lot more to do but we have already made sure we have funded projects for example in Shan State to help people to document the violence that has been committed against them. So I think that this government has shown a willingness to work with us that I find really encouraging.
What would be your advice for the Myanmar government regarding tackling this problem?
My advice would be to work with the people who are experts in providing social help and socio-psycho support to survivors, and in particular I would say the important thing is to ensure that the armed groups and the military don’t continue to commit these offenses. Now I realise one of the great successes this year has been the signing of the National Ceasefire Agreement, and that contained within it a promise that people would not continue to commit sexual violence. I am realistic, I know that not every armed group has signed it, but I think it is a really good step forward, and I think that the government must really work to ensure that that promise is put into effect, and therefore, for example, I would expect the law that is going to prevent violence against women should meet international standards, and that is what I have been saying to government ministers over these two days that it is absolutely vital that people who commit offenses, whether they are armed groups, or civilians, or they are in the military, should be held to account if they commit violence in conflict, indeed if they commit rape in any circumstance.
Did you have the chance to meet with any representatives of the Myanmar military on your visit?
I am very grateful to the government for the opportunity they gave me to be able to meet some of the ministers, one of whom indeed was the defence minister, and it was a privilege to meet him and to discuss with him all the issues surrounding the National Ceasefire Agreement and the implications of that and also to discuss with him the work I do as the Prime Minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict. I was able to stress the importance of the military having a very constructive attitude towards ensuring that people don’t suffer sexual violence in conflict. But in particular, I explained to him the work being carried out in our own armed forces to prevent any kind of sexual violence occurring in conflict, and I referred to the work of general messenger who is our champion on PSVI, and he has recently been promoted to be second in command of our armed forces. And he has led way and shown how important it is that the military should lead by example with their behavior.
We have heard media reports alleging the military have been raping Rohingya women during their recent military operations in Rakhine State. Is this issue on your agenda in your talks with the Myanmar government?
In talking to the Myanmar government, I have stressed that I deplore violence against women or men in conflict. I deplore sexual violence, whoever commits it, and therefore it is important that the military and the armed groups, none of them commit sexual violence in conflict. I do appreciate, I do understand, that the statistics are very difficult to collect. But there are projects being carried out now to try to find out just who has been committing the offenses, how many, when, and also collecting evidence on these matters. And what I have been saying over the last two days is the UK government is very ready to be able to help in the collection of that information. But at the root of this is the case that we all need to prevent sexual violence in conflict. It is not just for the government. It is for the local communities as well to be sure that if somebody does get assaulted, get sexual violence against them in conflict, that they are not seen in any way as guilty, they are the ones who are innocent, and they, the victims, the survivors, they should be received back into the community and treated with respect. And one of the problems we have seen is so often the victims of sexual violence, I’m afraid, have been treated with stigma and not treated with respect by their community, and that for me is something we all need to work to change.
It is not just the Myanmar military that has been accused of rape and violence against women over the years. Some of the ethnic armed group fighters are reported to have used violence against women. From your knowledge, does this still pose a problem?
I have heard reports of that, though I don’t have the evidence, really credible people are collecting that evidence and I know that it is important that we do hear where the assaults have taken place and by who, because if we don’t do that, if we don’t address the problem of stigma, one thing I am sure is it is more difficult to achieve reconciliation. So whether the violence is by the armed groups or by the military, sexual violence in conflict, if it is not treated in the end in a way that enables the victim to survive and to survive within their community, received back into their community with respect, then any peace agreement is far more difficult to achieve because there will always be people who continue to suffer and there will always be the worry that there will be intercommunity conflict. So it is vital to attack the whole issue of stigma to make sure community reconciliation has a greater chance of success whoever has committed the assaults in the first place.
What can the UK government do in terms of helping with this problem?
The UK government is very ready to continue some of the work we have been doing certainly with the agreement assistance of the government, civil society organizations and international organizations. We, through our department of international development, we have been funding projects that provide health services, education services, and also what we are doing is make sure we provide services for survivors and I met some very brave ladies this afternoon, who are Karen, and listened to their stories. These are brave dignified ladies now bringing up children who were born as a result of sexual violence committed upon them. And as I leave this country, I shall remember them and I shall be encouraging my government to continue the support we give in Myanmar because it has made wonderful advances in just this one year. If so much can be achieved in one year, just think what the future can hold.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think that I would like to add that the people of Myanmar have a friend in the United Kingdom. We have a long history together and we will remain firm friends a long way into the future.