On 6 March 2003, 15-year-old Ma San San Aye signed a letter to senior Burmese government officials alleging that she and another young woman had been raped by U San Net Kyaw, the chairman of the Dedalu Village Tract governing council, in Pyapon Township, Irrawaddy Division. The letter explained that although the rape was reported to the police and other local authorities, due to U San Net Kyaws official position the case was subverted, and finally all charges dropped. It concludes angrily, Though the victims were able to report the offence with firm supporting evidence, the authorities are protecting the rapist Chairman of the Village Tract [Council], thereby insulting the national culture and illegally violating womens rights.
None of the government authorities are known to have replied to the letter. However, the matter did not end there. The police charged Ma San San Aye and the other victim with making false accusations against a government officer and, on October 20, the two were sentenced to four years hard labour. Their whereabouts are since unknown (for further details see AHRC UA-40-2004, 19 April 2004).
During the last week, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been considering the periodic report of Burma (Myanmar), under the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Burma joined in 1991. In a letter of 20 May 2004 sent to every member of the Committee, the Asian Legal Resource Centre outlined the details of the case, and pointed to the following reported irregularities as being of special concern:
- The police did not make an official record of the complaint against U San Net Kyaw in the first instance, as required by law.
- When a charge of rape was finally laid, the police did not arrest U San Net Kyaw, again as required by law.
- The case was dropped on the advice of law officers without any investigation, under dubious circumstances.
- The two victims were charged and convicted on spurious grounds.
- Ma San San Aye was charged and convicted in the same manner as an adult, in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and domestic legislation.
Over the last couple of years, a number of reports have documented detailed testimonies of systematic rape by members of the armed forces in Burma against women in the sparsely populated mountain regions that have for decades felt the adverse consequences of long-running civil conflict. Ma San San Ayes case speaks to the fact that even in the main lowland regions where some semblance of law is operative, a relatively low-ranked government official enjoys the freedom to commit whatever abuses he likes against his local population without fear of repercussions.
In Burma, any possibility of ordinary folk obtaining a modicum of justice in the face of official abuses is prohibited by a system in which government officials are beholden only to their superiors. As demonstrated by the case of Ma San San Aye and others like it, this condition is in no way restricted to ostensibly political cases, or those that in some way challenge state authority. Ma San San Aye is simply a girl who was raped. The police had the evidence they needed to arrest and charge the accused. However, rather than risk taking action against a government officer, they did what every official in Burma does under such circumstances: they referred the matter to more senior officials. Even after these decided that U San Net Kyaw should be charged, the police again referred the case outside. They seemed determined to get the perpetrator off the hook, and thereby relieve themselves of an unnecessary burden. The case was pushed from office to office before finally being dropped on orders from high up the ladder. Then, in an ironic twist, because Ma San San Aye had the audacity to speak out, she was the one to be punished.
Was the Committee on the Rights of the Child thinking about Ma San San Aye when one of its members remarked last week that the dialogue in Geneva with representatives from Burma had been fruitful and constructive and had provided the Committee with a better understanding of the status of children in the country? It seems unlikely. Rather than adhering to the niceties of protocol, the Committee ought to be raising serious detailed questions about how a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child could allow a child rapist to retain a government post while his victim is severely punished. And as Burma is a party to only two UN conventions, the Committee has a rare opportunity to push its government on many pressing questions about systemic impunity obstructing not only the rights of millions of children there, but indeed millions of citizens from all ages. It is hoped that its concluding observations will be more than business-as-usual remarks and recommendations, and will instead go to the real issues of the un-rule of law and total impunity enjoyed by government officers in Burma. Were she given a right to speak before the Committee, Ma San San Aye would demand at least this much.
– Asian Human Rights Commission