Hundreds of villages burned. Mass rapes and large-scale massacres. 700,000 Rohingyas forced into exile.Filmed in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, this film investigates the premeditated nature of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority.

[NOTE: Due to copyrights, the full film has been removed on March 1.]

Rape as a Weapon in Myanmar

By Hajira Maryam, TRT World Research Center


Over a million Rohingya have been displaced since the early 1990s. In the present context according to UNHCR, the violence, which broke out last year in Rakhine state, has driven 723,000 refugees to Bangladesh (UNHCR 2018). According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “Burmese [Myanmar’s] security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s [Myanmar’s] Rakhine State” (Human Rights Watch, 2017, p. 1). Although various other elements related to Gender Based Violence (GBV) relate to the issue, rape as weapon of war against the Rohingya will be highlighted in greater detail.

The usage of rape represents the instrumentalisation of the act in order to inflict long-term harm on the Rohingya community. In a study conducted by Jonathan Matusitz, war rape is “systematically” used in conflict situations “as part of a large scale campaign to wipe out ethnic groups” (Matusitz, 2017, p. 830). Matusitz further claims that war rape is a form of terrorism, which holds a symbolic representative of ten themes. Following his study, the first theme of “ethnic cleansing” is more reflective of the Rohingya experience. However, the merging of all themes, according to Matusitz, has a common purpose which is the “elimination of the enemy” (Matusitz, 2017, p. 830), thus reflective of the state’s neglect of the issue as mentioned earlier.

According to a TRT World journalist who was interviewed for this research, sexual violence against Rohingya women has been conducted by the hands of the military, sometimes in front of their families. A key point that was highlighted is the act of violence being conducted “inside their homes” (Chouwdhury 2018).

The effect of the deployment of rape as a weapon has meant a potential disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, possibly for generations to come. As a result of particular societal norms, a stigma is attached to the victims of rape. Abandonment from family members in case of pregnancy compounded with ongoing trauma need to be mentioned. According to Chouwdhury, desperate measures are also taken by using unprofessional techniques for abortion.

To highlight the above, Matusitz states that:

In many societies, because virginity and chastity prior to marriage are cherished, rape transforms the victim into a woman inept for marriage or motherhood. Such stigmatization has caused many victims (and babies born out of rape) to be ostracized by their own families. (Matusitz, 2017, p. 838).

Another impact after settlement in camps relates to economic hardship and desperation, which leads refugee families to take actions that produce adverse conditions for women and girls within the refugee settlements. Under-age marriages is one way for families to escape severe financial constraints, and also to hide shame from unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, as reported by the UN Migration agency, young Rohingya girls in camps in Bangladesh are “sold into forced labor accounting for the largest group trafficking of victims” (UN News 2018). Sexual trafficking by criminal gangs at Cox’s Bazaar has formed part of the sex trade of Rohingya refugees, which functions as far as trading the kidnapped women beyond the shores of Bangladesh to India and Nepal (Amnesty International 2018).

Furthermore, scholarly literature also suggests that power structure and patriarchy remain an integral part of the refugee camps. The post conflict situation in the Rohingya community brings loss in economic potential and mobility among men, who in many communities in the developing world remain sole breadwinners. Therefore, as these men end up with no economic prospects, the women take up an economic role. This fosters a space where gendered norms seem contested. Sometimes these traditional gendered norms frustrate the men, which are projected onto women in the form of domestic violence (Solaiman and Krisna 2018).

Jacques P Leider gives an interesting insight into the persecution of the Rohingya. His argument stands against the ‘victimization narrative’, which has characterized most of the coverage regarding the crisis. He says:

Self-identification as victims harms the long-term interest of victimized individuals and groups to be perceived as actors in their own way. Secondly, it seemingly deprives outside actors and observers alike the chance to step back and look at competing interpretations and understandings of history as part of a diverse reality and an inevitably frictional process to search for truth and safeguard an open space for political dialogue (Leider, 2018, p. 117).

This can also be elaborated within the context of violence against Rohingya women. Breaking the issue down only to evoke a sense of victimhood may further deprive agency for these women to act and stand on their own behalf.

See full paper here: