KAREN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP COMMENTARY

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KAREN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP COMMENTARY

Published date:
Saturday, July 22, 1995

Everyone in the world who is interested in Burma, and even many people who aren't, are now talking about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. But for most of the 40 million rural villagers in Burma, that is all very far away and there are more immediate and important issues to think about - like survival until next week. In Burman areas villagers are starving under the weight of SLORC demands for extortion money. Shan villagers are under increasingly heavy attack by a huge SLORC military force which is burning their villages and taking them as porters (with the tacit consent of the international community, which seems to consider all men, women and children in Shan State villages to be heroin-trafficking fiends). SLORC has broken its ceasefire with the Karenni National Progressive Party by taking thousands of villagers as porters and sending several Battalions to invade areas ceded to the Karenni in the ceasefire deal just 2 months ago. Several battalions of SLORC troops have resumed their attacks on Karen areas in Mergui-Tavoy District's Kaser Doh Township, forcing entire villages to flee. Further north in Papun District, SLORC troops have been marauding villages together with DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) units, looting, burning, and terrorizing villagers into relocation camps. Refugees spill across the border into Thailand, several thousand from Karenni, several thousand more try from Shan State but are blocked by Thai weaponry, and close to a thousand from Papun District, saying that there are a few thousand more trying to come, hiding and starving in the jungle, blockaded by walls of SLORC troops. In Rangoon, one woman walks out of her house into the street. Which is the true reality of Burma?

"If you don't come, when the Column arrives in your village we will crush your village into many many pieces. But I'm not telling you to come. That is all."

SLORC written order to a village elder near Thanbyuzayat

"In the afternoon we set out for Bee T'Ka. We had to carry the soldiers' rucksacks but we hadn't eaten any food, so we were very tired because they were very heavy. All the way from this place near Naw Bo the soldiers ordered us to run, always run, not walk, until we reached Bee T'Ka, and running it took about 2 hours. I saw one woman who had a mouth ulcer, and after we started our journey it broke and fluid was running out of her mouth and she was crying. They called to us and we had to hurry as much as possible, even if there were many bushes and obstacles, even if we didn't have slippers on our feet. Really, this wasn't a pleasant scene for us, because all we could see was people getting beaten, and we felt terrible inside. The headwoman [who had been badly tortured] couldn't walk, and two people at a time took turns carrying her. We'd had no food, and we'd all been beaten." - Karen woman from Kawkareik area describing part of SLORC's retaliation because 2 of their soldiers had deserted; the villagers had already been interrogated under torture and were also fined 140,000 Kyat later

Everyone in the world who is interested in Burma, and even many people who aren't, are now talking about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. But for most of the 40 million rural villagers in Burma, that is all very far away and there are more immediate and important issues to think about - like survival until next week. In Burman areas villagers are starving under the weight of SLORC demands for extortion money. Shan villagers are under increasingly heavy attack by a huge SLORC military force which is burning their villages and taking them as porters (with the tacit consent of the international community, which seems to consider all men, women and children in Shan State villages to be heroin-trafficking fiends). SLORC has broken its ceasefire with the Karenni National Progressive Party by taking thousands of villagers as porters and sending several Battalions to invade areas ceded to the Karenni in the ceasefire deal just 2 months ago. Several battalions of SLORC troops have resumed their attacks on Karen areas in Mergui-Tavoy District's Kaser Doh Township, forcing entire villages to flee. Further north in Papun District, SLORC troops have been marauding villages together with DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) units, looting, burning, and terrorizing villagers into relocation camps. Refugees spill across the border into Thailand, several thousand from Karenni, several thousand more try from Shan State but are blocked by Thai weaponry, and close to a thousand from Papun District, saying that there are a few thousand more trying to come, hiding and starving in the jungle, blockaded by walls of SLORC troops. In Rangoon, one woman walks out of her house into the street. Which is the true reality of Burma?

"If anything happens, they summon the elders and abuse and curse them. Depending on their mood, they sometimes immerse the elders in water ... Every day they ask if we have any news to report. If we say there is no news but they say there is, then if they happen to be drunk they beat us and punish us."

Karen villager in Nyaunglebin District

Any villager knows that SLORC has not improved in the least, and they have been telling us just that. Our most recent reports focus mainly on northern and central Karen areas, where SLORC has been working together with the DKBA. In Kawkareik Township of central Karen State (see "SLORC/ DKBA Activities in Kawkareik Township", #95-23, 10/7/95), SLORC has even been handing over some degree of local village administration to the DKBA. However, this seems to be designed more for appearances than a reflection of any change in SLORC, whose troops remain in full force very close to all such villages. For the villagers, it has only meant more suffering, forced to bow to two masters instead of one. SLORC demands money, DKBA demands money; SLORC loots, DKBA loots; SLORC threatens, DKBA threatens; SLORC tortures, DKBA tortures; SLORC kills. DKBA officers bring monks to the village to convince the villagers to join - the monks are armed. Some of them don't even speak Karen, and the villagers believe they are Burmese officers in disguise. Now Christian families in the area, especially if they are close or distant relatives of KNLA soldiers (as many are) are being systematically robbed and terrorized by the DKBA troops. At least SLORC always had their camp away from the village, so you could pray for them to leave. DKBA never leaves. In some villages, DKBA collects money or livestock for SLORC, or helps arrange forced porters. In some villages, SLORC does the killing for DKBA.

"Pa Nwee spoke at a public meeting. He said that everything about Ko Per Baw is good and nothing is bad, therefore we should join or else they would burn down our houses, our school and our church!"

Karen Christian woman who fled DKBA occupation in Kawkareik area

"The abbot said 'I will give it [petrol] to you, and you can burn the church down, and then you can also burn my monastery down. Because we [Buddhists and Christians] in this village have lived together since long ago and we live together peacefully, understand each other and drink the same water from the river. To burn down the church and not the monastery would be unfair.' But the Ko Per Baw still wanted to do it, so the abbot said 'If you do that, then I will leave here and go to the town to tell everyone about everything you did in our village."

Villager from Kawkareik area on how the Buddhist abbot saved the village church from the DKBA

Further north in Papun District, the SLORC and DKBA have a different approach (see "SLORC/ DKBA Activities: Northern Karen Districts", #95-24, 18/7/95). They are ordering dozens of villages to move, some immediately, some at the end of rainy season. DKBA is ordering them to move to its headquarters at Khaw Taw Pu (in Burmese, Myaing Gyi Ngu) so that it can enlarge its civilian support base. SLORC is ordering them to move to relocation camps outside its Army bases surrounding Papun, or to larger villages under SLORC control. In some cases, the villagers are told they will then be moved to Khaw Taw Pu. SLORC's goal appears to be clearing out the civilian population between Papun and the Thai border, as part of its Four Cuts program to cut links between civilians and Karen resistance forces and also to create a 40-km. wide military-only free-fire "killing zone" which would block the embarrassing flow of refugees escaping the country.

For these hill villagers, going to Khaw Taw Pu would mean moving several days' walk southward out of the hills, onto the plains where there is no available land. They know that in Khaw Taw Pu their sons would be conscripted into the DKBA and they would most likely be forced to do porter duty for SLORC. On the other hand, going to a SLORC relocation camp would only mean perpetual forced labour and probably eventual starvation. So the villagers are refusing to go. The penalty, from either SLORC or DKBA, is a burned village, and possible torture or death. Some villages have already been burned, so now villagers everywhere have been fleeing into hiding in the forest, even in mid-rainy season. Some 700 or more have made it to the Thai border to become refugees. Thousands more want to get there, but are blocked by SLORC troops or are waiting for the end of rainy season.

"The situation of the villagers in my interviewing area is very critical and serious. Most of them are without rice and they don't have adequate shelter. Children are malnourished and have no medical care."

Karen human rights monitor in Papun District

"For now we will share what we have. We have very little but we can share what we have between us. If we are rich, we will be rich together. While we are poor, we will be poor together."

Village elder from Papun District, after SLORC troops burned down his village in late May 1995

At the same time, however, there are ever-increasing signs of problems between SLORC and the DKBA. In Papun District the two groups are often issuing contradictory orders to villages, and in many cases SLORC has directly and deliberately countermanded DKBA orders. The villagers are caught in the middle and have to flee, fearing retaliation from one side if they do and the other side if they don't. To the west in Thaton District, SLORC commanders have reportedly issued orders to their units not to operate or camp together with DKBA forces other than taking a few DKBA soldiers as guides and intelligence operatives. Instead, SLORC Battalions are sending out several patrols to "shadow" every DKBA patrol which moves. The reasoning given is that DKBA is proving too difficult to control, and, ironically, that as long as SLORC troops move together with DKBA the villagers will blame everything the DKBA does on the SLORC. KNLA officers in the area believe that the SLORC is pushing the DKBA to issue orders which SLORC later countermands, all in order to turn the civilians against the DKBA. In Khaw Taw Pu, SLORC has cut the rations provided to families to 4 pyi of rice per person per month, less than half what is needed to survive. DKBA soldiers' salaries have been slashed, and SLORC no longer provides rations to the DKBA in Khaw Taw Pu - instead it confiscates these rations from villages in the area, and makes sure they know where their rice is going. Conditions at Khaw Taw Pu are worsening - bamboo is scarce and people cannot build houses; medicine is nonexistent, and children are dying. Many families are trying to leave.

In Khaw Taw Pu, DKBA chairman monk U Thuzana has reportedly been having doubts about the way things have gone and has told his troops that SLORC is still their enemy, to look on their presence among SLORC as an "opportunity" and to keep the "fishing-hook" (the bitter memories) inside them. It is unlikely that the SLORC would commence open warfare against the DKBA, unless the DKBA starts it. More likely possibilities are that the SLORC either want the DKBA to die out into a token, powerless force now that it has served its main purpose, or that they want to maintain DKBA as a force but only if they can have virtually full control over it. This would require a very serious purge of the DKBA's "less cooperative" members, in other words those who have political ideas about Karen autonomy, those who are interested in more than just getting rich from looting. There are signs that this purge may already be happening. There are many reports claiming that the DKBA monkhood, especially in Khaw Taw Pu, is heavily infiltrated with SLORC officers dressed as monks. There are already many disappearances of DKBA personnel in Khaw Taw Pu, as well as shootouts between DKBA members and SLORC which on the surface appear to be personal quarrels. In Kawkareik area, there have been several killings of DKBA by SLORC recently, and in each case the SLORC troops cover them with a weak excuse such as "We mistook him for a KNLA soldier". Pa Nwee, one of the main DKBA leaders in Kawkareik Township who was viewed as a moderate by the villagers, was called to a meeting at a nearby SLORC base in mid-June and never came back, although other DKBA members went to search for him. Meanwhile one of his subordinates, Pa Tha Da, who only appeared to be interested in looting and abusing villagers, was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain by SLORC, given a Burmese name, and transferred.

"In my opinion, SLORC is trying to destroy the DKBA. ... Now they can survive because SLORC can use them. If SLORC cannot use them anymore, they'll be finished."

KNLA officer commenting on current SLORC / DKBA relations

"U Thuzana told his armed force, 'Enemies are enemies. SLORC are not your people. You have been fighting them but now you are staying among them. It is a good opportunity for you - keep the fishing-hook inside you'."

Information from a resident of Khaw Taw Pu, where the DKBA has its headquarters; U Thuzana is chairman of DKBO/DKBA

The villagers are caught in the middle of all of this, and not only are they suffering horribly under the looting, extortion, torture, killings, and forced labour, but they are increasingly confused by the situation and feel psychologically and spiritually broken. Many are still trying to escape to Thailand, but SLORC and DKBA are actively trying to block people from reaching the border. Even those who finally make it face a new surprise: the Thai National Security Council and the Thai Army, having declared that the situation has "returned to normal" in the areas the refugees have fled, have now said that they are preparing to commence forced repatriation of all Karen refugees in January 1996, pending agreement of the SLORC. They have made clear that no cross-border aid to the refugees will be allowed from Thailand once they have been pushed across the border, and that any agency wishing to help them should go through Rangoon. They are also cutting off cross-border aid to the Mon refugees whom they forcibly repatriated to Halockhani in September 1994 - aid which they promised as a condition of the repatriation. Agencies wishing to help the Mon are also being told to go through Rangoon. At the same time, SLORC has clamped down against independent aid agencies trying to operate in Rangoon. The International Committee of the Red Cross is withdrawing from Burma, citing SLORC's refusal to keep its promise to allow ICRC access to prisons. Foreign Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) which had agreements with SLORC to commence programs in Karenni, Shan and other areas have now found those agreements cancelled, or put into limbo while they wait month after month for SLORC to sign the promised Memorandum of Understanding. Even agencies which do not insist on strict monitoring conditions are now being blackballed by SLORC. If the Thais forcibly repatriate the Karen, no aid will be allowed to reach them from either side. Instead, they will most likely be sent directly to SLORC labour camps. This must be stopped at all costs.

However, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bangkok recently stated that the UNHCR will most likely cooperate with any Thai forced repatriation. The UNHCR's logic is that this act of refoulement is inevitable anyway, so they might as well cooperate to see if they can make "a bad situation a little better, like in Bangladesh". In Bangladesh, according to reports by independent NGOs, the UNHCR's role has been to lecture and coerce the refugees into returning, block information from reaching them, ignore all their appeals, and report to the rest of the world that the situation is good. The UNHCR's final decision on what to do in the event of forced repatriation of Karen refugees must come from their headquarters in Geneva. They should be made aware that the Karen refugees are more aware of their rights than the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and that should they try to force them to Burma they may well have a fight on their hands.

"Dare we go back? If the SLORC and DKBA over there don't disappear, can we dare go back?"

Karen woman who recently fled Papun District and became a refugee in Thailand after DKBA and SLORC burned her village, when asked her opinion about Thai plans to repatriate refugees

As the situation continues to worsen throughout the country, the hijackers who run Burma have released one of their 45 million hostages from her house, if not from their control. Usually once hijackers release their hostages they are simply carted off to prison, but instead SLORC is actually being commended and rewarded from some quarters. It is true that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release is a positive step, but a miniscule one at best. As she herself said, "I have been released. Nothing else has changed." However, some things are likely to change - for the worse. SLORC's silence since her release has been frightening and ominous, and is reminiscent of the period from August to September 1988 - when Burmese troops suddenly disappeared from city streets and the regime went quiet, only to wait for opposition leaders to come out into the open so they could be picked off and mowed down when the Army suddenly hit the streets again with redoubled fury in September. This time, SLORC will probably wait for the international media to get bored and go home first, for economic sanctions bills to die and for aid money to begin flowing in. Then they can arrest or kill anyone they like, so long as they don't touch Suu Kyi herself, and it will probably never be reported. But beyond that, it must be remembered that whenever SLORC makes the tiniest concession it feels entitled to worsen all of its other forms of repression. The day after Suu Kyi was released, SLORC began new and fiercer attacks against the Karenni and the Karen. As aid and trade pick up, so will SLORC's "development projects" - meaning more land confiscation, forced labour, beatings, starvation and death for rural villagers. Though Aung San Suu Kyi may be "free", she is not free to do anything about that, and under the international veil of her "freedom" SLORC is almost certain to get away with it. The SLORC may have released Aung San Suu Kyi, but how many people will it enslave, torture and murder as its price for her release?

"The people there are too tired to run away any more, so they made agreements with the SLORC that if they no longer run away and they give the SLORC everything they want and nothing to the KNLA, then the SLORC soldiers will no longer shoot them ..."

Teacher from Nyaunglebin District on how some villages have made their own 'peace' with SLORC

Most of the statements in the wake of Suu Kyi's release have fortunately made it clear that this is not an end by any means, but only a beginning. Governments, activists and Suu Kyi herself have reminded the world that human rights abuses continue, and that these include the continued detention of many of Suu Kyi's colleagues, and ... ? The problem is, that in almost all of the statements there is no "and ..." Whatever happened to the rural villagers who make up at least 90% of Burma's population? The villagers, both Burman and non-Burman, who continue to suffer far worse abuses then their urban counterparts? The villagers who often speak nostalgically of the "good old days" before the mid-1970's, when if they spoke out against the regime they only had to go to prison? But a prison term is too much to hope for in the minds of Burma's rural villagers these days. If they speak out against the regime, they know full well that there is one penalty awaiting them - death. The only question is whether it will be a slit throat, a plastic bag over the head, being beaten to death with rifle butts, burned over a slow fire, or thrown in the river with your hands tied. A simple bullet is usually out of the question, and the word "trial" is something most people have never heard of. KHRG is only one of several groups which have been trying to help wake up the people of the world to the plight of Burma's rural villagers, and to arm overseas activists with evidence that there is more to human rights issues in Burma than #56 University Avenue and Insein Prison. The statements in the wake of Suu Kyi's release make us wonder if our message is getting through. For example, several times this year our reports have mentioned Maung Kyaw Pu and Saw Tah Kee, two Karen villagers who were arrested for no reason and were being held, almost certainly under torture, at a camp of SLORC's #9 Light Infantry Battalion. Maung Kyaw Pu is 55 and has gastritis, and Saw Tah Kee, 30, is physically handicapped. They are refugees and have never done anything political. They are Prisoners of Conscience, but it is unlikely that they will ever get international attention. If they had been Burmese students arrested for unfurling a banner in Rangoon, international activists and human rights groups would immediately jump on their case, but they are not. Amnesty International reasoned that they would be safer if their case remained unpublicized. If there is a difference between these two refugees and the students in Rangoon, it is that these two have never even done anything against SLORC - yet while the students face prison terms, these two men face summary execution. In fact, their families now believe they have been executed. SLORC will probably never have to answer for it because it will never be reported in the media and they will never be confronted with it. So now it remains our duty to explain to a wife and a mother who told us their stories why we simply didn't do enough to save a husband and a son.

"In Kawkareik, when they need porters the militia surrounds the slum area. Then they arrest the poor. They never arrest the rich. The authorities just go to the rich and demand money, about 2,000 Kyat. The rich man will never be a porter. But the poor and the jobless like us are always afraid of them."

Escaped porter, a Muslim day labourer from Kawkareik

SLORC benefits from the international focus on the urban human rights situation alone. They have the cities under virtually complete control, so it is easy for them to take measures like lifting curfews, pulling some soldiers off the streets, or paying labourers. None of these things happen in rural areas, but nobody goes there to check. These days the SLORC takes far fewer porters from urban areas - instead they take more from rural areas. Even the increased economic prosperity of certain classes of people in the cities and the urban beautification and "development" projects are largely being financed with money extorted every week from rural villages nationwide, then sent in by soldiers to their families in the cities or to the SLORC's holding corporations by military officers. The amount of money stolen from the villages and sent to the cities can only be guessed at, but it is certainly well into the millions of Kyat every month. Of course, for the urban majority most conditions continue to worsen. But it is important for people to start realizing that not only is the rural situation worsening much faster than the urban situation, but that even the SLORC's small "concessions" to people in the urban areas are being carried out at the expense, both financial and in terms of repression, of the rural people. And as long as the world continues to cling to her every word, the one person who most urgently needs to be aware of this is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Come in person and pay month 7/94 for July. Mr. xxxx, come and pay month 8/94 for August. You need to pay month 9/94 for September. The Army Column is now demanding month 10/94 for October. You are one month overdue. Come quickly and pay. Quickly prepare yourself and come."

Typical SLORC written order demanding extortion money, Thanbyuzayat area, southern Karen State

"Now the people who gather food from the hills are forbidden to go there by the SLORC soldiers, so they can't get enough to live. Also this year there was a flood and all the paddy was killed. So it is not easy to survive. Moreover, every week 6 villagers have to go to do sentry duty. If they can't go they have to go and pay 300 Kyats to Major Kyaw Kyaw at LIB #351. Now they are also taking porters by force. If you can't go you have to pay them 2,000 Kyats. If you can't pay, you have to go as a porter, and when you return 3 to 5 months later you suffer from diseases. Among those who return to the village some are crippled. Some die from exhaustion, and some have lost their legs. Two people from the village lost their legs this way, and the rest who come back are too feeble to live normal lives anymore."

Karen villager describing rural life in Nyaunglebin District

"If only we can be free of this bad regime. In the future we want to live like our ancestors, our families together with our whole village - we want to be able to work our fields, free in our hearts and in our bodies. This is my longing and my hope."

Karen villager, Nyaunglebin District