Commentary: The Fall of Manerplaw - KHRG #95-C1


You are here

Commentary: The Fall of Manerplaw - KHRG #95-C1

Published date:
Sunday, February 5, 1995

This report describes the incident when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the monk U Thuzana and the "Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization" (DKBO) attacked against the Karen National Union (KNU) in Manerplaw area and Manerplaw has fallen, February 4th 1995. The report also includes testimonies of SLORC's use of forced labour porters, child soldiers, continued attacks on refugees across the Thai border and monitoring the building of the Thai-Myanmar friendship bridge in Myawaddy.

"When I saw his face, I started to cry and I had to look away. Lt. Aung Toe Lay said, ‘Mother, you look at your son and feel bad?’ I said, Son, how could a mother feel good about this?’" - Mother whose son had been tortured, Nyaunglebin District

Manerplaw has fallen. The world was caught napping, mainly because it happened faster than anyone could imagine. The main factors were the monk U Thuzana and the ‘Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization’ (DKBO). Apparently the SLORC had been supplying U Thuzana with money and food for some time to set up ‘refuges’ where Buddhist villagers could flee from SLORC abuses, and SLORC suddenly wouldn’t bother them anymore. As a result, the villagers decided U Thuzana had magical powers. Then he began ordering them, other monks and Karen soldiers to rise up against the Karen National Union (KNU). Hundreds of Karen soldiers went to his cause, disgruntled with years of sitting on hilltops to defend Manerplaw with pitifully inadequate supplies by order of KNU leaders who seemed not to care about their needs. They walked away from key positions, and SLORC walked right in. Min Yaw Kee ridge, so desperately defended in 1992, was given to SLORC without a shot being fired. The Thuzana faction set themselves up at the Moei / Salween river junction, where they negotiated a deal with the KNU, then tore it up, then were attacked and driven out by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). At the same time U Thuzana and others formed the DKBO near Ka Ma Maung, to the west. SLORC Southeastern Commander Maj.-Gen. Maung Hla met with them, promised them control of Karen State if they could capture Manerplaw and arms and supplies for 4,000 men. He left behind the first instalment of the 4,000 men: SLORC soldiers in DKBO uniform. SLORC then began its offensive on Manerplaw from the north and south, with DKBO soldiers assigned to SLORC units as guides. The rest is history. Knowing all the KNLA positions and pathways intimately, the DKBO made the SLORC unstoppable. The KNLA fortunately decided not to make a stand in Manerplaw, only to fight delaying actions, torch the place and then withdraw. Final KNLA casualties were about 10 dead and 50 wounded.

The KNU has many flaws, and for years its leadership has been frustratingly out of touch with the needs of villagers and frontline soldiers, so it is not hard to understand how this DKBO revolt was possible. SLORC simply took advantage of visible weak points of the KNU. On the surface it may appear to have been based on religion, but in reality it was much more based on general suffering and frustration with no end in sight. Many Christians are also disgruntled, while the majority of Buddhists did not support the revolt. It is not hard to understand why people might flock to a new organization and clutch at the straw of peace with SLORC - but what is difficult to understand is why they would work together with SLORC units in an offensive against other Karen. After all, many DKBO soldiers have had their parents murdered, their sisters raped, their brothers tortured or their homes burned by SLORC troops. However, the lack of education and naivete of destitute Karen villagers can at times be appalling. As our interviews often show us so it may be that their desperation and naivete have driven some of them to believe some of SLORC’s promises. Those promises are already beginning to be broke: the SLORC rules in Manerplaw, not the DKBO. Meanwhile, several thousand refugees have fled the Manerplaw region and some of the refugee camps close to Manerplaw. Many of them have hauled whatever they have left up the dusty road to Meh Taw La, several kilometres inside Thailand, where it appears that some kind of refugee camp is to be set up (although the Thais have been slow to confirm this). To the Thai Army’s credit, its soldiers under the local regional command have not seriously harassed the refugees nor tried to force any of them back as yet. Thai troops were also flown in to man the border at the Moei River against SLORC intrusions (though the Karen believes they would run rather than fight if the SLORC came across). However, the Thai Government is now becoming involved, and Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai is on his way to visit Meh Taw La, so things may be about to get worse.

Not only was Manerplaw headquarters to the KNU, KNLA, NDF, DAB, and many Burmese pro-democracy groups, but it was Karen Human Rights Group headquarters as well. We apologize for the disruption in our reports caused by both the current situation and other factors, but our work will hopefully continue as before. For the time being, our mail/fax address remains the same. We have always been based in Burma (not Thailand), and we hope and plan to continue being based in Burma. Manerplaw is but one place; there are many others which the SLORC still does not control.

"…We run for our lives whenever we see them. All the women have to sleep in one house together for safety on those terrible nights." - Woman who fled her village, Nyaunglebin District.

Right now SLORC is mounting its heaviest ever offensive against Kaw Moo Rah, the Karen stronghold north of Myawaddy which they have been trying to take for years. They appear to be trying to take advantage of current confusion about the KNU to grab all the military gains they can before rainy season in June, after which they may once again pretend to extend the offer of ‘peace talks’ to the KNU. Note that the KNU has given in to all the SLORC’s conditions for talks - it is the SLORC which is avoiding talks right now. Part of the reason for the Kaw Moo Rah offensive may also be the "Thai-Myanmar Friendship Brigade" currently being built between Mae Sot and Myawaddy just to the south, a joint venture between SLORC and the Thai Government. The Myawaddy-Kawkareik road, though not much more than a dirt track in many places, is a key SLORC transport route between Moulmein and the Thai border. The new cross- border bridge is to be part of the "Asia Highway". On the Thai side of the border, it has already caused the destruction of a market (with little or no compensation) and threats to forcibly move Huay Kaloke Karen refugee camp, home to over 5,000 refugees. On the Burma side of the border, the bridge seems to be an underlying cause of a SLORC clampdown in the area, including forced relocation, torture and increased harassment of villagers, due to SLORC’s paranoia that the bridge will be sabotaged [see "Myawaddy-Kawkareik Area Reports", # 95-03]. The bridge is also being used as an excuse for SLORC troops to extort several hundred thousand Kyat out of every village in the area, supposedly for bridge construction - despite the fact that the Thai Government has already agreed to pay the entire cost of the bridge itself, an estimated US$3.2 million.

"Around 16, mostly, but even 14-year-olds. 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." - Escaped Porter, Kaw Moo Rah battle

Is SLORC forcing porters to carry Pepsi to the frontline? A recently escaped porter from SLORC’s offensive against Kaw Moo Rah says he and others were forced to carry "Sprite in green bottles and other soft drinks" to SLORC soldiers in frontline bunkers [see "Escaped Porters: Kaw Moo Rah Battle", #95-06]. This is not as surprising as it sounds, given that porters all over the country are constantly forced to haul luxuries such as tinned milk and tinned beef to frontline SLORC soldiers while receiving only a handful of rice a day themselves. We have not yet been able to confirm with the interviewer whether the man really said it was Sprite, which is only available as an import in Burma, or just a soft drink in a green bottle - such as 7up, a Pepsi product which is bottled in Burma. PepsiCo has a joint venture with SLORC worth several million dollars a year to the junta, and is the target of an international boycott as a result. Regardless of whether or not the man mentioned 7up, it now appears that Pepsi’s Burma-bottled products may well be among soft drinks being forced onto the backs of conscripted civilian porters. The same man describes how they were forced right into shelling areas with their loads, and how he and others were beaten and one man died for being too slow or weak to carry any further. When PepsiCo went into Burma it talked about "building international bridges" - but few would have imagined they meant the Mae Sot-Myawaddy bridge south of Kaw Moo Rah. While the "New Generation" - after all, more and more SLORC soldiers are only 14 years old - may be getting their Pepsi to refresh them while they shell the hell out of the Karen people, there are many people who will never be refreshed - the civilians who are broken in two being forced to haul the stuff over the mountains.

"When the soldiers asked the officer how they should kill me, he said ‘Don’t waste your bullets. Just beat him to death and cut his throat with a knife." - Villager arrested in Thaton District.

This and other abuses by SLORC continue as usual, as our January 1995 reports show. Not only is SLORC still terrorizing Karen villagers, but there has been an alarming increase in SLORC shootings, arrests, killing and torture of Karen refugees who sometimes cross the border by day to grow some food for their families because they are not allowed to in Thailand [see "SLORC Shootings and Arrests of Refugees", #95-02]. Despite this, Thai authorities and The UN High Commissioner for Refugees still seem keen to begin repatriation of Karen refugees soon. UNHCR has given no indication that it will do anything to protect Karen refugees in the event of a forced repatriation (refoulement). Instead, UNHCR Bangkok chief Ruprecht von Arnim recently commended the Thai authorities for their "changing attitude" towards refugees from Burma, while a UNHCR press release volunteered to "assist in any voluntary repatriation operation". Von Arnim held up the UNHCR-assisted repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Bangladesh as an example - however, reports by Medecins Sans Frontieres (22/9/94), Refugees International (6/6/94) and others have stated that most of the Rohingyas are being forced back against their will, that many of those who tell UNHCR they don’t want to go have subsequently been deprived of food, beaten by camp officials, and summarily sent back, that many returnees are being taken for slave labour by SLORC and their land is not being given back to them, and that UNHCR is seldom to be seen in the camps in Bangladesh or in Burma, where they reportedly stay exclusively in the towns and only travel escorted by SLORC Military Intelligence. Is this the UNHCR’s idea of a "model" repatriation?

The Thai authorities and UNHCR seem to feel that Karen refugees are only in Thailand because of battles between SLORC and Karen forces, when in fact it is Burma Army repression in their villages which drove most of these people to Thailand. This repression, including slave labour, looting, extortion, destruction of homes and crops, torture, rape, and killings, is only getting worse. In the presence of all the current political upheavals, this is something, which must not be forgotten, and it will continue to be our focus.

"Only one caretaker can stay at each farm. If more than one is found, they will be regarded as insurgents and action will be taken." - SLORC written order, Ye area, Mon State.