Come for the Golden Pagodas, Stay for the War Crimes

Myanmar is being billed as the world's hottest new vacation spot -- but this "destination of the year" has a horrible dark side that tourists shouldn't ignore.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Lush fans of palm frame the scene on the cover of this month’s Travel + Leisure magazine. A white-jacketed waiter sets a table for four on a peaceful patio overlooking a river, shaded by a rose-pink umbrella.

Where, you wonder longingly, is this chic, secluded slice of paradise? Myanmar, the magazine’s “Destination of the Year.” Inside is a story that cautions the reader, “You might want to wait until the country, formerly Burma, becomes a full-fledged democracy.” That said, “You might, however, be well advised to go right now. Go before the place internationalizes.”

The magazine touts the country’s “mystical Buddhist purity” as a wonder to experience “before the place gets wealthy and ugly.” In addition to unpleasantly appealing to orientalist fascination, this depiction glosses over what many Burmese pro-democracy activists say is a still deeply troubled human rights environment. Despite a series of reforms implemented since President Thein Sein took office in 2011, after nearly 50 years of harsh military rule, the iron-fisted tactics used to control the country have hardly receded.

The reforms, which included the release of thousands of prisoners (although too few political prisoners, according to activists) and the allowance of privately owned newspapers, have led to rounds of applause from the U.S. government — which has “employed a calibrated engagement strategy to recognize the positive steps undertaken to date and to incentivize further reform,” according to the State Department. Labor unions have been legalized, a national conciliation process formalized, and the Asian Development Bank has begun allowing loans to Myanmar after a 30-year freeze in order to encourage economic development. For years, however, activists and journalists have been saying that much of what has been promised hasn’t come through, pointing out that what was once seen as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s major achievement in foreign policy is turning out to be anything but.

What’s more, just as Travel + Leisure is hitting newsstands, a new report highlights an underreported story of sexualized violence that continues in the country — violence intrinsically protected by an amnesty provision in Myanmar’s constitution that prevents the military from being prosecuted for crimes. The report, along with existing accounts of countless other human rights abuses in the country, might — and should — make potential tourists think twice about where they want to spend their money.

The military has perpetrated rape and terror against women and girls in order to subjugate opposition communities of various ethnicities across the country, according to the Women’s League of Burma, an umbrella organization in exile that is pushing for the advancement of women’s rights and which published the report. The group isn’t talking about a few cases here and there: Its report specifies that there has been “systematic and widespread use of sexual violence by the Burma Army.” These acts potentially amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, the league says.

More than 100 cases of sexualized violence, mainly linked to military offenses, were documented by the league between elections in 2010 and January 2014 — and they say that is only a fraction of the atrocities they believe are being perpetrated against women. They link the majority of these cases to military offenses, calling it “a structural pattern” and “a counterinsurgency strategy.”

As in much of the world where rape is used as a weapon of war, the military in Myanmar appears to be using sexualized violence to assert control over resource-rich areas and to crush its opponents. Among other manipulations, rape is used as a means to punish, gain information, humiliate, instill fear, and even to ethnically cleanse minority populations in the country, according to a December 2012 report by my own organization, Women Under Siege at the Women’s Media Center. There has also been evidence mounting for years that soldiers have used rape “to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization,’” writes the Washington-based nonprofit Refugees International.

“Violence, rape, torture, extortion and forced eviction are their [women’s] reality — not the ‘transition’ which we hear so much about,” said Women’s League of Burma General Secretary Tin Tin Nyo through a spokesman.* “The need to portray Burma as a foreign policy success has driven a completely unrealistic narrative” about reform by the U.S. government, she added.

The violence, troubling enough on its own merits, is part of a much larger problem. Implemented in 2011 — but written in 2008 by the previous military government — Myanmar’s constitution all but guarantees the military absolution for all crimes, including genocide, according to the Global Justice Center. It “places the military outside the purview of the civilian courts and includes an amnesty provision which precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes, including sexualized violence,” write the center’s Phyu Phyu Sann and Akila Radhakrishnan.

Any reform of the constitution is near impossible, says Phyu Phyu Sann. Amendments require more than a 75 percent majority in parliament, but 25 percent of seats are held by members of the military, as specified by, yes, the constitution. In essence, the military controls the supposedly civilian government through a guaranteed veto power on proposed changes to the highest law in the land.


Emblematic of the catch-22 of military violence in Myanmar is the case of “Ma Bauk,” a 17-year-old girl (with a pseudonym) raped by soldiers on April 10 in Kachin state, in the country’s north. Her account has been documented by the Asian Human Right Commission.

It was afternoon. Ma Bauk and her mother had lost track of two of their cattle and set out on a motorcycle to find them. When evening fell, Ma Bauk headed home while her mother stayed out to continue looking. Halfway back, two soldiers forced Ma Bauk off the road at knifepoint and later held a grenade to her belly, making her drive to an abandoned house, where she says they raped her repeatedly. After escaping the following morning, Ma Bauk made her way home, finally, and told her family what had happened. They went to the police, filed a complaint, and went for a medical examination.

Six weeks after that, no legal case had been opened, according to the league, which also issued a report based on the Asian Human Rights Commission’s findings. The army reportedly refused to cooperate with police, and though one of the soldiers had been identified, he had gone missing without leave, the Women’s League says.

Ma Bauk’s rape “is a vivid illustration of the type of cases we routinely receive,” Tin Tin Nyo explained. “A young girl raped by more than one Burma Army soldier; complicity in covering for the perpetrators by the military; lack of cooperation by state authorities at every level in the subsequent actions her family tried to take; the continued lack of redress despite the publicity garnered for the case.”

And, she adds, Ma Bauk and her family are now under “constant surveillance” by state authorities.

Overall, it is hard to get these stories out to the media and thus the world for many reasons, including the fear of military repercussions and stigma of sexual assault that keeps many survivors silent, said Tin Tin Nyo. “This is the choice for survivors of sexual violence in Burma today: Speak out and live with fear every day, or keep silent.”

But there’s still more to the story. Ongoing armed conflict, says the Global Justice Center’s Phyu Phyu Sann, “happens in the very remote areas, so even Burmese people who live in cities have no idea how intense the war is.” There are also a number of “forbidden” areas in the country, she says, that require special government permission to visit. “But they won’t grant it,” she says. Activists often rely on the stories of refugees who manage to cross into Thailand.

In other words, one of the things that keeps Myanmar pristine in the way Travel + Leisure praises — that is, a lack of genuinely independent media, which helps create a walled-off feeling from the outside world and even from problems occurring within the country’s borders — helps allow state-perpetrated violence to continue unchecked. “Journalists are free to report on limited political affairs, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities, but risk imprisonment if they report on issues considered sensitive to the military,” says Shawn W. Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative. He says the committee is concerned that after a “brief opening,” Myanmar’s press freedom situation “is fast reverting to the harassment and intimidation witnessed under the previous military junta.” Crispin calls the decline “exhibit A” of Myanmar’s backtracking on earlier democratic reform promises.


Amid glittering golden pagodas, dishes of fermented tea leaves, and the sight of fishermen paddling with their legs in a “serpentine full-body undulation” of “astonishing grace,” as Travel + Leisure breathily reports, the people of Myanmar face immeasurable risks every day — from sexualized violence to a host of repressive government measures. “Military intelligence is everywhere,” says Phyu Phyu Sann. “Many things are not safe. You cannot talk or discuss issues, especially over the telephone.”

A citizen can be arrested for having U.S. currency — as little as $3 — in a pocket, she says. The charge is “importing currency” and can carry 10 years in jail. And forget talking openly or criticizing elections: People are too scared. Despite what has been “a good show for the West,” Phyu Phyu Sann explains, “there’s so much oppression.”

Tin Tin Nyo, like many other activists, emphasizes the divide between what people in the West see and what the Burmese people experience. “There might be more BMW showrooms and five-star hotels in Yangon,” she says, “but for the people who have been suffering at the hands of the government and military for decades, nothing has changed.”

*Correction (Dec. 11, 2014): In an earlier version of this article, Women’s League of Burma General-Secretary Tin Tin Nyo’s comments were mistakenly attributed to a spokesman for the organization. (Return to reading.)

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321