LIFE AS A VILLAGE HEAD

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LIFE AS A VILLAGE HEAD

Published date:
Saturday, July 1, 1995

The following information on life as a village head was given by a woman who used to be a village head woman in Kawkareik Township, central Karen State, and is now a refugee in Thailand. We have published it in this form because it is very consistent with information given by village heads throughout the country, from many different regions and from areas where fighting is going on and those where it is not. Note that almost none of what she says has any direct relationship to fighting going on between SLORC and opposition forces.

The following information on life as a village head was given by a woman who used to be a village headwoman in Kawkareik Township, central Karen State, and is now a refugee in Thailand. We have published it in this form because it is very consistent with information given by village heads throughout the country, from many different regions and from areas where fighting is going on and those where it is not. Note that almost none of what she says has any direct relationship to fighting going on between SLORC and opposition forces.

Villages can have several types of "village heads". First there are village elders, who become elders according to traditional practices and are recognized and respected by all the villagers; one of them is generally chosen as the village head. Then there is the "SLORC village head", sometimes called the "Village LORC [Ya Wa Ta] chairman". This person is appointed by SLORC, often against his or her will, to chair the Village LORC committee, whose members are also appointed by SLORC frequently against their will. The Village LORC committee is responsible for all village liaison with SLORC, organizing and sending people for forced labour, extortion money, food, etc., and constantly going to the local Army camps to give intelligence reports and receive orders. Village LORC members are tortured or killed whenever an order is not obeyed or whenever the village is suspected of aiding resistance forces, which explains why most people do not want this job. In this woman's village, it appears that the villagers choose the SLORC village head by rotation rather than having the SLORC choose. Then in Karen areas there is usually a KNU village head, who handles liaison with Karen soldiers and organizing the food, porters, recruits etc. which they demand. SLORC is constantly trying to find out who is the KNU village head so that they can execute him - often KNU village heads have to flee the village, and if his family is left behind then SLORC will generally arrest and torture them instead.

This woman's name and personal details have been omitted in order to protect her.

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The following testimony was given by a woman who used to be a village headwoman in Kawkareik Township, and is now a refugee in Thailand:

Village heads are not directly appointed by SLORC but rather are elected by the villagers themselves. They are usually women, because men cannot survive the repeated beatings and punishments by the soldiers [whereas women are beaten and tortured somewhat less often]. Therefore, nobody wants to be a village head throughout the whole region. Some villages operate a rotation system for the position, and change the village head as often as every two weeks or every month. As a result, even 17 or 18 year old girls sometimes act as village heads, but they can control the villagers and will be obeyed because everyone knows that they are being instructed and guided by the village elders, usually monastic leaders, and so they never misuse their powers.

The main duty of village heads to SLORC is to give them information on the situation in the village, especially the security situation [meaning intelligence on KNLA movements], at a specified SLORC post in the area before 7 a.m. every morning. Usually these bases are on hilltops overlooking the villages. Attendance is compulsory when called for and all orders from them must be followed, especially when they order "community service" by the villagers, or money. The level of soldier dealing with the village head is usually a captain, who is also usually the battalion intelligence officer. Typically he will call the village headwoman "Mother" and himself "Son", even if he is older than her. If he doesn't like the village head he will treat her badly, but if he likes her he will speak politely and be pleasant - "No need, one action; need, another action" [this means that how he treats her depends on what he wants, and how harsh he feels he has to be to get it].

Punishments of village heads vary. Beatings are usually inflicted with 1½" diameter bamboo sticks, especially on the waist, hips and legs, for a minimum of 5 strokes. If a village head gives "false" information she will be locked in the stocks [crude mediaeval-style leg stocks of wood or bamboo]. In one specific situation the soldiers of Battalion #230 dug a hole in the graveyard of a village, about the size of a child's body and 7 feet deep, and they placed a set of stocks at the bottom. The Captain in charge then warned the village head that if exact information on KNLA activities was not given, she would then spend a minimum of 3 days at the bottom of the hole, with no protection from sun or rain. He said that on the first day she would receive only water, on the second day a little rice and water, and on the third day, nothing. He said the more serious the digression, the longer the time in the hole, up to 6 months. I'm not sure whether or not anybody had actually been forced to suffer this. A more common threatened punishment is to force the village head to lie face up in the midday sun for 1-2 hours. I know of at least one case where this was done. In that case, a regular officer came and let the woman go, then the intelligence officer came back and argued with him for doing so.

As a result of such treatment, if there is a landmine blast, battle or gunshot in the vicinity of the village the village head is usually too afraid to report it for fear of the consequences. If the SLORC units find out about such an occurrence, they usually send an order demanding that the village head come to their camp immediately. When she gets there, their usual procedure is 1) beat, then 2) abuse and ask questions, then 3) demand money. Scolding and abuse is usually something like, "You are all Karens, therefore you must know about these things but you are liars". There was one amusing case of an elderly village head who, after SLORC demanded information from him, went directly to the KNLA officer in the area, Lt. Col. Johnny, and asked "Hey, what numbers of men and weapons do you have and what are you up to, because the Burmese are asking me so I need to know." And Johnny gave him enough information to keep them happy!

Porter fees demanded are like this: for "rich" class, such as people who own a television, 300 Kyat per house per month; for "middle" class, such as people who own paddy fields or cattle, 150 Kyat per house per month; and for "poor" class, people who are living day to day, 80 Kyat per house per month [she is from a fairly well-off village in the plains; in hill villages, no one would count as "rich" or "middle" class]. Villages must also provide "rice for porters". Owners of televisions must also pay an extra tax of about 200 Kyat per year to the SLORC office in Kawkareik, plus the local soldiers also demand 150 Kyat per month per television, even if it is the oldest, smallest, battery-operated black-and-white kind.

Another duty required of the village head is to arrange for villagers to go make and repair roads, fences, man-traps and barracks for the battalions. Previously, Kawkareik Township was run by Battalion #230 plus one other battalion, and Myawaddy Township by Battalion #97 plus one other battalion, but this is now being changed to accommodate the DKBA. The SLORC soldiers now are worse than the ones who were under the Ma Sa La [Burma Socialist Programme Party, Ne Win's pre-1988 dictatorship]. If an officer is angry his letter will be typed or written in red ink, and it may have a bullet or charcoal enclosed [a bullet enclosed with an order means the village head and others will be shot for failure to obey; a piece of charcoal means the village will be burned]. If a village head fails to obey after an order like this then her village may be shelled. Five years ago this happened at Ta K'Rah village, but nobody was hurt.