Asia

'Justice for Victoria': 'Nursery rape' of toddler leaves Myanmar reeling

Protesters walk to the Central Investigation Department (CID) during the demonstration demanding justice for a two-year-old who was raped and given the pseudonym "Victoria" in Yangon on July 6, 2019. Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Rallies have been held around the country calling for justice

We don't see her photo on our social media. We don't read her real name in the papers. But the whole country is talking about her and the sickening crime she's said to have suffered.

The case of "Victoria" has stopped Myanmar in its tracks.

On the morning of 16 May, a two-year-old girl went to her private nursery in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. At some point before she returned home that evening, according to her family and the local police, she was raped.

By law, her identity can't be revealed. But campaigners have given her the name "Victoria".

Now three, she will have no idea that her ordeal has raised profound and disturbing questions about child welfare and sexual assault in the country in which she will grow up.

'Ko Ko did it at school'

The only suspect charged in the case is back in court on Wednesday, when Victoria's family are expected to address the judge. But from the start this case has been thin on evidence and clouded by contradiction.

Police say a medical examination carried out after Victoria's mother had noticed her injuries and taken her to hospital showed the girl had been sexually assaulted.

Victoria's father told BBC News Burmese that when he showed her CCTV footage from outside the nursery, she pointed out the man who assaulted her, unprompted. "Ko Ko did it at school," her father claims she said, using the common Burmese term for a young man.

Image copyright Supplied
Image caption CCTV footage obtained by BBC Burmese shows the suspect outside the nursery

Officers say they were initially unable to talk to Victoria, because of the medication she had been given, although her dad says she was interviewed later on.

And the police quickly got their man. Or so they told us.

On 30 May a 29-year-old school driver called Aung Kyaw Myo, or Aung Gyi as he's more commonly known, was arrested. But he was released because of a lack of evidence.

When some Facebook users found out about the alleged rape, they demanded justice. The case picked up attention.

Two weeks later, a senior official at the Ministry of Health and Sports, Win Ko Ko Thein, set up a "Justice for Victoria" campaign and outlined the perceived inconsistencies in the case.

He was arrested and is facing defamation charges, but nonetheless, his words resonated. Celebrities backed the movement. Thousands of Facebook users changed their profile to the emblem of the campaign. Stickers of support appeared on car windows.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption The case has galvanised the country into demanding action

On 30 June the spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's government revealed it had been inundated with public messages and that the police had now been instructed to "investigate the case until the truth comes out".

Justice or a scapegoat?

But in a country where corruption and incompetence are the public's chief expectations of their law enforcers, anger grew.

Theories circulated online. New figures were implicated. But when Aung Gyi, the original suspect, was re-arrested on 3 July public anger reached a new level.

Many believed he'd been made a scapegoat so that the authorities could claim they'd done their job.

That weekend, an estimated 6,000 people, dressed in white and carrying banners saying "We Want Justice", marched to the Yangon headquarters of the Central Investigation Department (CID) who had, by now, taken over the case.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption People are demanding police look into an alarming rise in reported child rape cases

Smaller demonstrations took place in other parts of the country. The protesters were not just calling for justice for Victoria, they were calling for wider action to arrest an alarming rise in reported sexual assault, particularly towards children.

Government figures were unearthed suggesting the number of all reported rapes in Myanmar had increased by 50% in the past two years. In 2018, there were said to be 1,528 attacks. Shockingly, in nearly two-thirds of the cases the victim was a child.

Some charities questioned whether an increased confidence to speak out was behind the rise, but many campaigners felt Victoria's story had exposed a deeply worrying trend in a country where domestic violence is still seen as a private matter. The shame heaped upon survivors of sexual abuse means many remain silent. Some victims are bribed, others intimidated so they take back their allegations.

A new child law is set to be introduced in Myanmar which would allow police to open investigations even if nobody presses charges, but there are serious doubts about the skills and suitability of the officers who will be doing such sensitive work.

In some communities in Myanmar - still a predominantly rural country - village elders oversee complaints and the alleged victim can even be encouraged to marry her attacker. As for male rape, that is not even a recognised crime.

Image caption Hnin Nu and other teachers at the nursery don't believe it happened there

Despite the suspect in Victoria's case now being charged with child rape, many believe he's been framed.

They point to CCTV footage obtained by my colleagues at BBC News Burmese which shows him going into the nursery on the day of the alleged attack and apparently waiting in the reception area. It's claimed the video shows he had insufficient time to go and find Victoria and then attack her.

A teacher, Hnin Nu, told the BBC she'd been questioned by detectives nine times and was adamant Aung Gyi could not have committed the crime. She said: "It is impossible that he did it. We, all the teachers, were with the students all the time. It is impossible."

Another teacher, Nilar Aye, said Victoria had never left her sight that day. The administrator of the nursery also denied to the BBC that any sexual assault took place on the premises.

'I want to see the truth'

In the days after the alleged rape, Victoria's nursery was closed and six other private kindergartens in Nay Pyi Taw shut temporarily. Victoria's father says no offer of counselling or apology has been forthcoming from the management.

As for the police investigation, Victoria's father is anxious not to directly criticise the police, but told the BBC that other CCTV footage had been lost and that the inquiry was "not working". He said the past two months had been a nightmare for his family - a nightmare they just wish would end.

"I want to see the truth," he said. "I will never give up no matter how long it takes. This is a crime against a young, innocent child.

"I'm not hopeful that this case will be solved with accurate evidence and the facts. So far, what I see and hear are not right."

In a sign of how prominent this case has become, a well-known lawyer who doesn't normally take on rape cases is now defending Aung Gyi. Khin Maung Zaw represented the two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar last year in a trial which drew fierce international condemnation.

Aung Gyi will also stand trial in a legal system that has been widely rejected as flawed.

International observers believe it remains corrupt with judges still taking bribes and instructions from senior police and army officials - a hangover from five decades of military dictatorship in which the weight of rank and money crushed the scales of justice.

Now, once again the creaking, rusted wheels of Burmese justice are turning. A protracted court case seems inevitable. Much less inevitable is whether there will ever be justice for Victoria.

More on this story