KAREN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP COMMENTARY

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KAREN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP COMMENTARY

Published date:
Friday, August 4, 1995

SLORC continues to show no remorse whatsoever for its continually expanding program of civilian forced labour throughout Burma. Roads, railways, dams, army camps, tourist sites, an international airport, pagodas, schools - virtually everything which is built in rural Burma is now built and maintained with the forced labour of villagers, as well as their money and building materials. Forced labour as porters fuels the SLORC's military campaigns, while forced labour farming land confiscated by the military, digging fishponds, logging and sawing timber for local Battalions fills the pockets of SLORC military officers and SLORC money-laundering front companies such as Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Even farming one's own land is more and more becoming a form of forced labour, as SLORC continues to increase rice quotas which farmers must hand over for pitiful prices. Even after a year like 1994, when record floods destroyed crops in much of the country, the quotas must be paid - if not, the farmer is arrested and the Army takes his land, only to resell it or set up yet another forced labour farm. 1995 has seen very small harvests, increased confiscation and looting of rice and money from the farmers, 40 million people struggling to avoid starvation, and SLORC agreeing to sell a million tonnes of rice to Russia for profit - rice which it has confiscated from village farmers for 50 Kyat a basket, or for nothing.

"[Maj. Gen. Ket Sein] added that labour contribution camps were all equipped with medical and welfare facilities and amenities like TV shows and video shows. Work that was to be completed in a month's time was therefore completed in reality in a fortnight. Those who had contributed labour were reluctant to go home even after completion of the work." - article on the Ye

Tavoy railway, SLORC's "New Light of Myanmar" newspaper, 15/9/94

"There is full security and we cannot escape. We have been beaten many times. There are so many sick people. Help us out of this trouble."

Letter from a political prisoner working on the Ye-Tavoy railway, February 1995

"Yes, we collected workers for the Ye-Tavoy railway. If we didn't bring enough workers, our officers beat us. They kicked us and ordered us to collect not only one person in each family, and not only men but also women, the youngsters and the elderly for the railway. ... Very often, I beat and punched people if they didn't want to go. Sometimes I kicked them with my boots, sometimes I punched."

20-year-old SLORC soldier from LIB #409 who deserted in late 1994

SLORC continues to show no remorse whatsoever for its continually expanding program of civilian forced labour throughout Burma. Roads, railways, dams, army camps, tourist sites, an international airport, pagodas, schools - virtually everything which is built in rural Burma is now built and maintained with the forced labour of villagers, as well as their money and building materials. Forced labour as porters fuels the SLORC's military campaigns, while forced labour farming land confiscated by the military, digging fishponds, logging and sawing timber for local Battalions fills the pockets of SLORC military officers and SLORC money-laundering front companies such as Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Even farming one's own land is more and more becoming a form of forced labour, as SLORC continues to increase rice quotas which farmers must hand over for pitiful prices. Even after a year like 1994, when record floods destroyed crops in much of the country, the quotas must be paid - if not, the farmer is arrested and the Army takes his land, only to resell it or set up yet another forced labour farm. 1995 has seen very small harvests, increased confiscation and looting of rice and money from the farmers, 40 million people struggling to avoid starvation, and SLORC agreeing to sell a million tonnes of rice to Russia for profit - rice which it has confiscated from village farmers for 50 Kyat a basket, or for nothing.

"If I have many normal problems I will face them, even if I have to die. But I couldn't pay and I couldn't run from the soldiers, so I couldn't stay in my village."

Tavoyan villager from Ye Pyu Township

The Ye-Tavoy railway project is continuing in all its brutality (see "Ye-Tavoy Railway Area: An Update", KHRG #95-26, 31/7/95). Villagers in the area report that SLORC may have decided to shift about 50 miles of its 110-mile route, from Ye Pyu north to Yah Pu, from the east side of the Tavoy River to the west side. Miles of confiscated and destroyed land where thousands of people suffered or died to clear and prepare a route for the railway last year is now being left to be overgrown by jungle, while it seems SLORC prepares to start the process all over again on the other side of the river. At the same time oil companies Unocal and TOTAL, who are working on a gas pipeline which crosses the railway, have vowed not to use it because it is such a horrendous crime against human rights. Because of these two factors, fewer people have been called to work on the northern sections of the railway this year. SLORC troops in the area have used this as an excuse to replace the labour itself with increased fees to "avoid" the labour in towns and villages alike. Villagers who cannot pay are taken as porters, and many cannot pay so they are fleeing their villages.

While railway labour has decreased in some areas, it has intensified between Tavoy and Ye Pyu. Many more convicts were brought in from all over the country to work in chains, while villages have faced increased demands to send people to the labour camps. SLORC was intent to finish the southernmost section of the railway, 12 miles from Tavoy to Ye Pyu. Villagers were told the reason is to impress the tourists in "Visit Myanmar Year 1996" - or, more accurately, to fool the tourists into believing that SLORC has built a nationwide rail network. An opening ceremony was held on May 30th. Signs at the Tavoy end of the rail line claim that it continues to Ye and onward to Rangoon. To date, tourists are not even allowed to go to Tavoy - but if they are in "Visit Myanmar Year", they will certainly not be allowed to go overland more than 12 miles to the north.

"I don't think this railway is good. I don't agree with it. By the time it's finished, the soldiers will have taken everything from the villagers for themselves. I don't agree at all."

43-year-old Mon villager who was forced to work on the railway, then taken from the worksite as a porter, then ordered back to the railway again

One reason tourists are not welcome in these rural areas of southern Burma is the natural gas pipeline which is to be constructed from offshore rigs in the Gulf of Martaban overland through Tenasserim Division and onward to power plants in energy-hungry Thailand (see "Conditions in the Gas Pipeline Area", KHRG #95-27, 1/8/95). The pipeline is to pass through Mon and Karen territory including virgin rainforest. It is not wanted, neither by the local people nor by the armed Karen and Mon armies which operate there and have vowed to stop it. As a result, SLORC has brought in over 10 Battalions of troops to "secure" the area for the foreign oil companies and to protect their employees. Even though the pipeline itself is still in the final route surveying stages, people in the area are already suffering because of it. Farmers have lost land, confiscated for army bases. Villages face constant demands for money, materials and forced labour to build army camps and support all the new troops. Constant army patrols loot their villages of money, food, livestock, even clothing and cookpots. Any village seen as a potential threat to the pipeline has been relocated at gunpoint to sites where they are under Army control and regularly used for forced labour. As early as 1991/92 this list included 11 villages; now it also includes villages dozens of kilometres from the pipeline route. Any village which could possibly give support to opposition troops in the region, meaning any village in a remote or forested area with no SLORC garrison, is now seen as a potential threat to the pipeline area and is subject to forced relocation. The reason given to the villagers when they are relocated by the troops is that they are "suspected of contact with insurgents."

The situation has intensified in 1995. In January, Unocal president John Imle stated that "for every threat to the pipeline there will be a reaction". This became clear in March, when Karen forces attacked a SLORC armed column which was moving together with some pipeline survey workers and at least 5 people were killed. Afterwards, a column of SLORC troops from Light Infantry Battalion 408 went to more than 6 villages and demanded 100,000 Kyat compensation from each for the attack. The villages were threatened that they would be forcibly relocated if they failed to pay. Since early 1995, SLORC has also been mounting an intensive military offensive near Nat Ein Taung to secure the eastern segment of the pipeline route. In the process, over a thousand porters have been taken from villages up and down the Tenasserim Division coastline. Many have died. The offensive goes on. Now there are also several SLORC Battalions mounting a rainy season offensive against the Karen National Union's 4th Brigade headquarters area, about 80 km. southeast of Nat Ein Taung. Villagers are already fleeing the area, and could flood into Thailand if the offensive progresses.

French company TOTAL now has engineers on site near Kanbauk, in a camp surrounded by wire and several hundred SLORC troops. To continue the survey work on the western half of the pipeline route, in February they brought in about 1,000 paid labourers from Rangoon but only hired 200 people from the local area. To get the job, locals had to buy an application form and face a selection committee of Township-level SLORC officials, not TOTAL people. A bribe of 1,000 Kyat was required to pass the medical exam, and a larger bribe to pass the Township SLORC selection committee. Most of those selected had connections in the SLORC administration. While these people were paid 200 Kyat per day to do work at the TOTAL camp, on the roads and some clearing for survey work, villagers from Kanbauk say that unpaid forced porters were used to do the heavy tree-clearing work for the surveyors. SLORC troops may have done this without TOTAL even knowing it. Other villagers are also suffering directly because of the pipeline. Not only are all the added troops in the area stripping them bare, but they are now even demanding "gas pipeline fees" of up to 1,000 Kyat per month from families in the area, in addition to the existing "porter fees", "sentry fees", "railway fees", "development fees", etc. One woman from Kanbauk who had a job with the Mines Department said she had to quit her job and flee the village because she couldn't pay the new "gas pipeline fees". Those who can't pay are threatened with one month's hard labour as a porter. All the other fees have also increased since TOTAL and the troops arrived - families which had to pay 100 Kyat per month last year say they now have to pay 400 or 500 per month. The increased number of troops has also brought on inflation even higher than Burma's already staggering inflation rate.

This is only the beginning. Since May the survey work has let up for the rainy season, but the 1995/96 dry season starting in October is likely to see the start of physical work to lay the pipes. Villagers near the central part of the pipeline route say they have already been told that in the coming year SLORC is going to build a new "railway" to Nat Ein Taung, where the pipeline is to cross the border into Thailand, and that they will be called to do forced labour on this "railway". TOTAL and Unocal say not to worry, that the 10 or 15 people they have based in Kanbauk will stop the 5,000-7,000 SLORC troops throughout the pipeline area from committing any human rights abuses. Unocal president John Imle has explained to activists that his people who are "trained in such matters" have already verified that there are no human rights abuses in the pipeline area - by flying over it in helicopters.

"Now things in my village are getting worse. It started getting worse about 2 years ago. The villagers are forced to work but they don't receive even 5 pyas [0.05 Kyat]. We heard that foreigners give money, but the SLORC gives no money to the villagers. This government is like a giant beast that tortures human beings."

56-year-old Tavoyan villager after fleeing his village in Ye Pyu Township

It appears we made a mistake in the previous Commentary, #95-C3 (22/7/95). We said that SLORC was robbing rural villages to finance the urban areas on the order of "well into the millions of Kyat every month". However, after looking more closely at some figures from Tenasserim Division (see "Field Reports: Mergui-Tavoy District", 29/7/95, KHRG #95-25) it looks like we were wrong - we should have written "well into the hundreds of millions of Kyat every month". The 28 typical villages we looked at in Tenasserim Division are being forced to pay 1,987,000 Kyat per month to SLORC in "porter fees" and "development fees" alone. This does not count fees to avoid forced labour duty (the same villages are also being ordered to provide a total of 1,178 forced labourers at all times on a rotating basis), other fees, or cash and other belongings looted by patrolling SLORC troops, all of which would certainly amount to hundreds of thousands more per month. And this is from only 28 villages ranging in size from 30 to a few hundred households each. In all of Burma there are probably at least 20,000 such villages, putting the amount of money extorted from rural villagers nationwide into the billions of Kyat every month. Just where all this money is ending up is an issue which needs to be studied, but there is one thing the villagers know for sure: none of it is being put back into the villages where it comes from.

Final Notes: In "SLORC/DKBA Activities in Kawkareik Township", KHRG #95-23, 10/7/95, and in Commentary #95-C3, we discussed the case of Pa Nwee, a DKBA leader in Kawkareik Township who disappeared after going to a meeting with SLORC in mid-June. Many people believed he had been executed, including some of his DKBA comrades who went to look for him. There are now reports that Pa Nwee has been sighted at the SLORC base of Meh Tha Waw, about 130 km. to the north. He is reportedly alive and still a DKBA officer. He may have been transferred by SLORC to Meh Tha Waw so they can keep him under close control, or so that he will not be in his home area where he may have sympathies for the local villagers. (SLORC officers are often transferred for similar reasons.)

In Commentary #95-C3, we raised the question of how many people would have to suffer as the price for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nation newspaper (Bangkok) of 27/7/95 reported the Secretary-General of the Thai National Security Council, Gen. Charan Kulavanijaya, as admitting that tens of thousands of new Karen refugees have fled to Thailand this year, but saying that they should all start going home now because the situation is "likely to improve" now that Aung San Suu Kyi has been released. The National Security Council previously made clear that it hopes to begin mass forced repatriation of Karen refugees in January 1996.

"I didn't like the behaviour of the Army with the villagers. When old people were treated badly, I felt like it was my father or my mother. What would they feel? If the soldiers treat people like that in other areas of Burma, maybe my relatives are suffering the same."

23-year-old SLORC soldier from IB #104 who deserted in May 1995