Raped by soldiers in a country where the army is all powerful, Thein Nu has just won a rare victory at the end of a legal battle lasting several months by having her attackers heavily condemned by a military court.
Her three rapists were sentenced to 20 years of forced labor, a verdict that she hopes will lead other victims to speak out and dare to challenge the military’s impunity.
The crime dates back to June 2020 in northern Rakhine state – the scene of a nearly two-year battle between the Burmese military and the Arakan army, which claims more autonomy for the Rakhine ethnic group.
“A lot of women like me have been through the same thing before,” said Thein Nu, a pseudonym in order to protect her identity.
“If I hadn’t revealed this, there could be even more violence in Rakhine.”
36-year-old mother of 4 children, she dared to file a complaint against the army, one of Burma’s most powerful institutions, whose soldiers have long been accused by human rights NGOs of using the rape as a weapon of war.
The military initially accused Thein Nu of making up the facts, and her victory now tastes bitter as she is sidelined in her community, including by her husband who works in Thailand, and who has stopped sending money to his family.
“As I silently suffer from the pain, I can only hope that he will gradually understand me,” she told AFP.
“I am both happy and sad,” she adds, still incredulous that the military court has ruled in her favor.
“I don’t quite believe this verdict will end rape and abuse against women in conflict zones because (the military) are unreliable people, with two faces.”
Does his affair mark the end of the omerta within the army? Observers doubt it.
“It will take more than a single case to convince us that some kind of shift has been reached,” said Phil Robertson, of the NGO Human Rights Watch, adding that the military tribunal was held behind closed doors.
In the past, the military’s approach has been to categorically deny rape allegations, and in some cases soldiers have taken libel lawsuits against the victim, he said.
It is therefore not yet clear that the military, which ruled the country until 2011 and still has the upper hand over many of the country’s institutions, is ready to tackle the alleged atrocities committed by its base.
Almost six months later, Thein Nu still clearly remembers the night of his horrific ordeal.
As night fell, gunshots broke out in his village. She took refuge with her daughter and baby in her stepmother’s house alongside other women and children.
At around midnight, four soldiers broke in and found their hiding place after the baby started to cry.
“I realized I had no way of getting away from three men stronger than me,” she recalls.
Since the sentences were handed down, more and more rape victims have come forward to seek legal aid, according to Nyo Aye, president of the Arakan Women’s Network, which provided legal aid, advice and shelter to Thein. Naked and his family.
“Currently, we remain hopeful (…) for similar cases that have occurred in other regions of the country,” explains Nyo Aye.
And Thein Nu proceedings continue, in order to achieve the conviction of a fourth soldier, an officer present on the scene and who did not intervene.
“I would like to urge all the girls in Rakhine who suffered from it to speak the truth instead of being ashamed and hiding it,” she concludes.
“Do like me – have courage.”