ESCAPED PORTERS: KAW MOO RAH BATTLE

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ESCAPED PORTERS: KAW MOO RAH BATTLE

Published date:
Saturday, February 4, 1995

 

This report details the heavy offensive against the Karen border stronghold of Kaw Moo Rah by SLORC troops in December 1994. This offensive has involved the use of civilian porters (forced labour), beating and killings, child soldiers, theft and looting, extortion, and caused people to flee over the border into Thailand.  The following testimonies were gathered in interviews between 14 and 17 January 1995 by two independent human rights reporters.

In December 1994, SLORC troops resumed their heavy offensive on the Karen border stronghold of Kaw Moo Rah, sometimes known as Wan Kha, just north of Myawaddy and the Thai town of Mae Sot. SLORC has held Kaw Moo Rah under siege, with regular offensives and heavy shelling, for years now. The SLORC Army regularly uses human waves of teenage conscripts, often drugged and sometimes armed only with hand grenades, to try to take Kaw Moo Rah. As a result, SLORC casualty figures have been massive, but Kaw Moo Rah still holds. However, the current offensive is the heaviest ever, and after taking Manerplaw in late January the SLORC seems desperate to get Kaw Moo Rah this season. Part of the reason might be that Kaw Moo Rah poses an embarrassment and a security threat to the Thai-SLORC "Friendship Brigade" now under construction between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. Of course, in the process SLORC troops have been taking thousands of civilian porters, primarily in the Myawaddy area. Some of them are escaping into Thailand. The following testimonies were gathered in interviews between 14 and 17 January 1995 by two independent human rights reporters, who have kindly forwarded them to KHRG.

The porters refer to SLORC’s propaganda broadcasts through loudspeakers to Karen troops: most of these have focussed on the recent problems between Karen Christians and Buddhists, making it clear that SLORC hopes a religious schism will help them capture Kaw Moo Rah as was the case in Manerplaw. The porter’s names have been changed and some other details omitted in order to protect them. Please feel free to use this report in any way which may help the suffering people of Burma.

TOPIC SUMMARY

Transport of porters (Stories #1,3), Food and living conditions (#1,3), Beatings (#1,3), Killings (#1,3), Porters in fighting zone (#1,2,3), Making bunkers (#1,2,3), Porters carrying soft drinks (#1), Boy soldiers (#3), Treatment of escaped porters (#1,3), Psychological warfare (#2,3), Extortion and other abuses (#3), Soldier suicide (# 3).

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#1

NAME: "Than Myint"                 SEX: M            AGE: 21         Burman Buddhist construction worker.
ADDRESS: Thaton District

I was arrested in Thaton town at about 11 p.m. [Thaton is a long 150 km. Northeast of Kaw Moo Rah]. It was more than a month ago. I was walking on the road, coming back from the cinema. I went to see Rambo, the first one. The police arrested me, and they detained me for 2 days. During that time they asked me no questions. Then they just handed me over to the soldiers, #118 Battalion [part of #44 Light Infantry Division]. From Thaton we were taken to Pa’an, and we spent one night at Pa’an. They kept us in a monastery called Ye Tha. The monks didn’t say anything. Then to Thingan Nyi Naung and directly on to the army positions in front of Kaw Moo Rah. From Thaton to Thingan Nyi Naung we were tied together in groups of five. We were put on the trucks like that.

First I had to carry ammunition. It was really big [his gesture indicated probably more than a 100 mm. large-calibre shell, possibly the 106 mm. recoilless gun shells being used against Kaw Moo Rah]. We had to carry one per person from Hill 1450 to Ga Lu, in front of Kaw Moo Rah. Each day we had to make 3 round trips. We started at 6 a.m. and finished after dark, about 7 p.m. Other porters cooked for us and gave us our food wrapped up to carry along the way - 1 cup of cooked rice, beans and boiled papaya trunk. Every time it was the same. The beans were good to receive, but they were in very watery soup. Sometimes we also got leaves from the jungle, but I don’t know what they were. We had to build a bamboo fence and sleep inside it, and it was guarded. If we tried to go out, we were beaten. We had to sleep on the ground with no blankets. They gave us nothing. We had to sleep tied together in groups of five. When we went to the toilet, 5 of us had to go together.

Being a porter was harder than my construction work. There were more than 50 porters in my group maybe 55. Most of them were rural villagers from around Myawaddy. We were carrying ammunition, sometimes including 60 mm. [mortar] shells, and food, soldiers’ packs, as well as Sprite in green bottles and other soft drinks. [Note: Sprite (a Coca-Cola product) is not made in Burma, though it may have been brought in from Mae Sot or through Coca-Cola importers in Rangoon, PepsiCo has a joint venture with SLORC and bottles 7up in Burma in green bottles. Sprite may be a slip in translation (because Sprite is more common in Thailand than 7up) or it may be correct. Regardless, some of the ‘other soft drinks’ being carried by the porters are probably products of the PepsiCo/SLORC joint venture.] I saw beatings, and I was also beaten when I couldn’t carry my load. The soldiers always pointed their guns and threatened us. Along the way a man died because he was too tired. It was near Hill 1450. I saw him myself. He had been beaten just before we arrived, and was on the side of the path. There was a wound on his head, and there were wounds on his shoulders. He was over 30, maybe 40 years old.

Usually after dark, the soldiers ordered us to take the ammunition right to the hilltop. I saw [Karen] shells fall on the hill, and one bunker was smashed by a direct hit. Sometimes they also made us cut down trees and take the logs there to make new defences.

The soldiers told us not to run away, but the work was so severe, the food was so bad, and we got no shelter, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to escape. I ran with 3 others on the morning of January 16th, at 6 a.m. The soldiers ordered us to go and cut wood and sent a guard with us, but we got some distance from him and we all started to run. He shot at us so we all separated, and I don’t know what happened to the others. One of them was in his 30’s, one in his 20’s and the other was old, his hair was Grey - maybe more than 50 years old. He was from Kyaik Done. I think they probably didn’t get away. [No sign his been seen of the others, so they were probably recaptured. The usual penalty for attempted escape is beating, torture, and sometimes death.]

Now I have an itchy skin disease [some kind of fungus], but nothing serious. I have no money to go home, but I will try to go.

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#2

1) NAME: "Nyi Nyi"                     SEX: M            AGE: 26 Burman Buddhist
ADDRESS: Thaton District.

2) NAME: "Khine Soe"                 SEX: M            AGE: 27 Arakanese Buddhist
ADDRESS: Thaton District

Nyi Nyi: We came to Myawaddy District to work harvesting paddy, but we hadn’t been there long before we were arrested. The two of us came together and we were staying with friends. We were all arrested, 5 of us altogether. Our 3 friends are still with #118 Battalion. It was about one month ago, around midday because the two of us were walking home for our lunch when we were arrested. I don’t know what Army unit it was. They went around and arrested many people. Then they gave us to #118 Battalion. Sometimes they made us carry logs to the frontline, and sometimes we had to dig holes [bunkers or foxholes]. There were about 8 big guns positioned near us, and I saw more than 200 soldiers around. Last night the [Karen] shells fell quite close to us. We ran away early this morning [on Jan. 17], crossed the river and met Thai soldiers.

Khine Soe: We were there about 25 days. We had to carry logs, and then ordered us to bury one of the dead soldiers. The dead soldiers were young, maybe about 18. One soldiers from 118 Battalion died from the shelling on the 16th[January] and one on the 15th[that he saw]. The soldiers called out things [propaganda broadcasts over loudspeakers toward the Karen troops] like, "We are all like brothers-in-law". Then they shoot. Then they speak again. Then they shoot again. Like that. Then the Karen soldiers shot back, and they went silent. Two or three shells fell on the #118 Battalion positions, and they all laid down and were quiet. [Note: In Burmese, "We are like brothers-in-law" can have a double meaning: the friendly "we are like relatives" or the insulting "I’ve had your sister".]

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#3

1) NAME: "U Myat Soe" SEX: M AGE: 35 Burman Buddhist
ADDRESS: Rangoon

2) NAME: "Maung Htun" SEX: M AGE: 23 Burman Buddhist.
ADDRESS: Kawkareik

U Myat Soe: I was living in Myawaddy. Around December 15th, at night, I was arrested because I had no permit to stay in Myawaddy. We were in the first group arrested in Myawaddy. I was arrested by the police, but they gave me to #118 Battalion at Thingan Nyi Naung and they took me to the place opposite Kaw Moo Rah. Along the way we were tied together in groups of five.

Maung Htun: I was arrested in Myawaddy. I had been working at a river jetty. Because I am from Kawkareik, I needed a permit from the section leader to stay in Myawaddy, and I didn’t have one. I was arrested by soldiers on the road at 7 p.m., as I was walking home. We were both arrested on the same day. We slept at the Battalion base for one night, in the barracks. There were more than 100 people [all porters] there. Then we were sent out from there.

U Myat Soe: We travelled by truck. There were about 40 people in my truck. After the truck stopped, we walked with soldiers until night, travelling in 2 groups of about 20 people each. At night we arrived at Meh Pa Leh and slept there. As porters we had to carry ammunition and rice. They had 10 donkeys there for the first few days, then they were gone. Each person had to carry I very big shell [probably 106mm. Recoilless Gun shell], or two 120 mm. [mortar] shells, or rice, 2 people to carry one sack. It was very tiring. One porter died. He died along the path, maybe the 16th or 17th of December. I didn’t see how he died. When I saw him he was still alive and groaning, then other porters who came along later told me he was dead.

The biggest shells we carried were about 4 feet long, with writing in English on them. We usually had to carry ammunition to a hill in front of Kaw Moo Rah, and we sometimes had to cut trees to make bunkers. We had to make two trips per day. We started at 7 a.m. and returned from the first trip at about midday. Then we got no food. We rested a short while and did the trip again, then had a meal in the evening. We couldn’t even get enough rice. In the morning the soldiers had tea to drink, and they had [meat] curry and money to buy things, but if we even asked for more salt, they beat us. We couldn’t even take a cup of water without asking permission for it. The Sergeant in charge of us was Win Tin. We were with #118 Battalion, and sometimes we saw soldiers from #1 Battalion [also in #44 Division]. We had to carry the shells to the top of the hill. From there we could see the river [the Moei River, the Thai border just beyond Kaw Moo Rah]. Just before the very top of the hill, the soldiers took the shells from us. We saw big flashes [explosions] on the hilltop, and to the side of us, and sometimes even behind us.

Maung Htun: At 8 or 9 p.m. the soldiers made their broadcasts [propaganda over loudspeakers to the Karen troops]. Before speaking, the soldiers ordered us to be silent, not to talk, not even to cough.

U Myat Soe: Sometimes they played songs on cassettes in Karen language. Maybe it was Christian music. They made speeches in Burmese, sometimes about Jesus Christ. They said, "Come to God’s side, come to the Lord’s side and stay in peace". They said they were praying for good health and prosperity for Karen people. Sometimes they said, "You are on the wrong side. Come to the Lord Buddha’s peaceful shelter." It usually lasted at least 30 minutes.

We didn’t see any soldiers killed in battle [Battalions #1 and #2 have mounted the full scale assaults, not yet #118 Battalion]. One soldier died from malaria, and there was also one suicide because that soldier just couldn’t take it any more. We heard the other soldiers talking about him. He was 15 years old.

It was cold at night [it is cold season, and nightly temperatures in the hill often drop below 10° C], and we only had our longyis [sarongs]. We had to ask for permission to go to the toilet, and the soldiers will call for a medic. If it’s not so serious you must keep working. [U Myat Soe then poked his leg with his finger, and the flesh bounced back very slowly] See? I am suffering jaundice. But I got no medicine. It is very difficult to get a medic. If the soldier you ask is in a good mood, you can get one, but if he’s in a bad mood and you ask then you’ll be beaten. Once I told Sergeant Win Tin about my jaundice, and he just said "I’m not a doctor, don’t talk to me about it". Some porters got malaria and were given medicine if the fever was bad, but usually not. Our mains were problem constipation, piles and jaundice.

Maung Htun: When we got sick it was very difficult to get treated. Many people had bad constipation, and maybe piles. Blood came out in our faces. Out of about 200 porters we were around, maybe 50 were suffering of this. If it wasn’t serious, the soldiers did nothing. Some were very serious and they bled while they were working, so then they were allowed to rest. Most of us tore our longyis so we could use them as a blanket, and that’s all we had at night. They wouldn’t let us make a fire, because they said the Karen soldiers would see the light by night or the smoke in the morning.

U Myat Soe: They beat us like dogs and cows. To escape from them is all that matters. Trying to escape is very difficult. One man tried before us, and he was caught and beaten very badly. He was bleeding from his nose and shoulders, but after only a few minutes they made him work again.

Maung Htun: I hurt my leg when I dropped a bomb I was carrying. I saw a lot of beatings. They beat people regularly, and they demanded that we be quick when carrying our loads. If we were too slow they beat us. They beat us with whatever weapon they saw, whatever was available. They scolded us using the foulest dirty language, but they are very young, younger than my youngest brother. Around 16, mostly, but even 14-year-olds. The one who committed suicide was around 15 years old. I’m telling the truth. They were scolding us, their elders, and some had voices that hadn’t even broken yet. Little boy soldiers, swearing at us. In the morning they would call us "Mother fucker". We had done nothing, we were still just sitting in our fence, but they swore at us like this.

U Myat Soe: We didn’t know when we would be released, but the soldiers said it would be after they capture Kaw Moo Rah. I ran away because they treated us like cattle, so we didn’t want to do the work anymore. At 2 a.m. I crossed the fence and ran. I didn’t know where to go. I could see by the moon that I was crossing old ricefields.

I was taken as a porter once before, to Wah Lay, and in town I also had to clean roads and repair them when it was my section’s turn. In previous years, the permit to stay in Myawaddy cost 5 Kyat per day, but now it costs 45 Kyat for one day. That’s why we didn’t have permits when we were arrested. Since the SLORC came in, inflation has been very high, and this has made living very difficult. Also, we always have to be afraid of the soldiers.

Maung Htun: Yes, we are afraid of their guns because they usually say "We are the Army and we can do anything", but they only do things for themselves. If there’s ever a dispute between a civilian and a soldier the soldier will always win, even if the civilian is in the right, and that civilian will be sure to spend at least 3 days in detention. The SLORC say many good things about themselves, but they do only bad things. Between Myawaddy and Kawkareik they stop vehicles and demand money, 300 Kyat for each truck and 150 Kyat for a pickup truck. They threaten to shoot if they don’t get the money. It’s true! Last year they shot at one pickup because it didn’t stop when they ordered, and a bullet hit a woman in the leg. If soldiers beat travellers along the route and the travellers go tell their commander, he’ll only say "Yes, they beat you because you did something wrong, so go away".

U Myat Soe: I don’t want to say anything more. We want to go back and I don’t want trouble with the soldiers, because my parents are old and I have 6 brothers and sisters, some of whom are young. It’s very difficult for my family now and I only want to find a way to get some money. I must support my younger brothers and sisters who are still students.