Karen Human Rights Group Commentary


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Karen Human Rights Group Commentary

Published date:
Monday, January 15, 1996

This commentary gives an overview of the human rights conditions in Karen/Kayin State as well as the human rights violations committed by the SLORC in Mon and Karenni/Kayah State, in 1995.


"They shoot at random, whatever they see. Of course, they’d like to shoot everyone, but the villagers run so they just shoot at anything running." - witness who was at the shelling of Wah Baw village on Karen New Year

"I had to dig the earth and build an embankment about 12 feet high. It was near Ye Pyu [about 120 km. south of his village]. It took me 4 or 5 days on foot to get there, taking along with me my food to eat at the camp and also food for the trip there and back home. We also had to take tools like baskets, hoes and spades. I always walked because I cannot afford the bus or boat fare. ... When we got there, there were about 2,000 or 3,000 people working at that place. Very old men, very old women, young women, and children about 13 or 14 years old were working there. Some people were beaten by the soldiers. Anyone who arrived at the work camp without tools or baskets was beaten. The soldiers beat them and asked, ‘Why did you forget your tools?’" - 28-year-old Mon villager talking about Ye-Tavoy railway construction

Two words which are getting more attention in Burma these days are "national reconciliation". These two words represent something which desperately needs to occur in Burma. They refer to a reconciliation of the different nationalities in the country - in other words, not only a ceasefire but a lasting political solution to the nationwide civil war, a durable political agreement between leaders of all the ethnic groups in Burma, including the Burmans. The issue was largely ignored internationally until Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released in July 1995 and called for two main things: talks between NLD and SLORC, and talks for national reconciliation - meaning political talks with non-Burman ethnic groups. As Dr. Sein Win, Prime Minister of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, stated in an address in September 1995, "Ultimately, without a tripartite dialogue amongst the Burmese military led by SLORC, the democracy movement led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Burma’s ethnic leaders, we will not be able to solve Burma’s problems." Unfortunately, few people are listening. It is extremely rare right now to see any foreign government or activist group call for tripartite talks - all they are calling for is talks between SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi. Worse yet, it is now common to hear "SLORC must talk to Aung San Suu Kyi for national reconciliation". SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi cannot hold talks about national reconciliation. Neither of them represents any non-Burman ethnic group. However, the international community is once again falling into the trap of focussing all its energy on one simple demand, and once again that demand is easy for SLORC to satisfy without having to reform in the slightest. SLORC can talk to Aung San Suu Kyi any day it likes - in fact, it can talk to her every day for a year, but this can never achieve national reconciliation in itself, nor will it achieve anything at all unless fundamental political and human rights issues are discussed. If the international community really wants to help Burma, keep calling for SLORC to talk with Aung San Suu Kyi, but more importantly, call for an end to all forced labour and forced relocation, an end to land confiscation and increasing rice quotas, an end to torture, rape, killings, and political detention of rural non-Burman farmers and urban Burman intellectuals alike; call for an unconditional cessation of all military attacks, a nationwide ceasefire and tripartite talks. None of these things can be done in a day by SLORC, or faked on 5 minutes of TV Myanmar footage. And that’s exactly why these are the things that need to be demanded.

"According to the ceasefire agreement [with the New Mon State Party], SLORC can’t take any porters or porter fees anymore in all of Mon State or Ye Pyu township in Tenasserim. But they still do. So the NMSP complained, and SLORC answered ‘The ceasefire is just between the Tatmadaw [Burmese Army] and MNLA [Mon National Liberation Army], military to military. The porters are not being taken by the Tatmadaw, they are being taken by the Ma Wa Ta [Township LORC], and Ma Wa Ta is not part of the ceasefire agreement.’ But the porters are still with the Tatmadaw soldiers. I have seen them. Since the ceasefire the SLORC still does all of these things and treats the people just like before." - Mon refugee who just returned from Ye Township

Right now there are few signs that SLORC has any intention of pursuing "national reconciliation". The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) decided in December to declare its ceasefire deal with SLORC null and void, because SLORC continuously and flagrantly kept violating all the terms by continuing military attacks, and conscripting porters and "porter fees" from Karenni villagers. The SLORC is also violating its ceasefire with the New Mon State Party (NMSP) by continuing to take Mon villagers as porters. When the NMSP objected, SLORC responded that the ceasefire terms only apply to the SLORC military, whereas the porters are being taken for the military by the Township LORCs, which are SLORC’s administrative wing. In late December, a Karen National Union (KNU) delegation returned from Moulmein and Rangoon after talking to SLORC representatives to try to arrange ceasefire negotiations - the talks failed, because SLORC was intransigent on several key points. When the KNU delegates asked that political issues be included on the negotiation agenda, SLORC said absolutely not - that politics can only be discussed at its National Convention, and that the KNU would have to surrender all its arms to attend that. SLORC also refused to send any top people to the talks, and flatly refused to allow the KNU delegates to meet either the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi.

It was widely reported that Aung San Suu Kyi and some of her colleagues were stopped, detained and questioned by the military when they tried to attend a Karen New Year celebration in Insein on 21 December. But the full story is that the KNU delegation was also to attend that ceremony. They were held back and only allowed to go in the afternoon, after the ceremonies were long over. The apparent reason that both groups were stopped is that SLORC suspected that the KNU representatives were planning a meeting with Suu Kyi. Several days later, 4 Karen members of the committee that organized the celebration were arrested and interrogated - probably under suspicion of trying to arrange a KNU - NLD meeting. No such meeting had been planned by either group, but the incident shows SLORC’s paranoia of the ethnic and pro-democracy groups having a chance to share their views.

At the same time that this was happening in Rangoon, over 200 SLORC troops were shelling a Karen New Year celebration in Wah Baw village, near Hla Mine in Mon State. [See "The Shelling of Wah Baw Village", KHRG #96-04, 12/1/96.] Seeing the celebration as an opportunity, they waited for it to get fully underway, with over 1,000 villagers from the region attending, then began shelling the celebration field while another column of troops shot up and looted the village. One man was killed, others were wounded, over 100,000 Kyat worth of belongings were lost, but worst of all (and this was perhaps the main intention) the villagers were reminded once again that under SLORC, you cannot even have one day a year without having to live in terror.

"We had to take our own food and received no salary. If one of us has to go but is unable, such as if we are sick, wives or children must go. If there are no young people in the house, the elderly, even with white hair, broken teeth and stooped over, must go and cook rice for the SLORC soldiers. There were also some ten-year-old children, who carried the earth in trays." - Karen villager describing forced labour on the Kru Tu - Noh Pyu - T’Nay Hsah road, Pa’an Township

Just after the failure of the KNU / SLORC talks, SLORC troops began stepping up their operations in possible preparation to attack in the northern Karen region of Taungoo District. For months now, SLORC troops in the rugged and steep hills of this region have been systematically driving villagers into destitution, burning their villages, crops and food supplies, and ordering them to move into military labour camps in order to complete their control of the region, where there is still a small amount of KNU resistance. Then on 27 December, seven more villages in the Kler Lah area were ordered to relocate by 30 December or be shot on sight. Over 500 porters were demanded from villages in the area, and all private vehicles were ordered back from Taungoo to be available to be commandeered by SLORC. On 1 January, three hundred villagers from the area were demanded to stand sentry duty for SLORC along the military roads, and all village leaders were notified that if any gunshot or explosion is heard in the area, SLORC will cut off all food and other supplies entering the area from the towns. Life in the hills of this area is difficult at the best of times, but now the villagers are in utter desperation. Escape to Thailand is virtually impossible - all routes are blocked by SLORC.

Further south in Papun District, SLORC and DKBA (Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, now working together with SLORC) continue to loot and occasionally shell villages, while regularly increasing demands for forced labour. One order sent on 3 January from SLORC’s Par Haik camp to a village in the area reads in part "Your village has to give 6 porters at all times. Now we get only 2 porters. Are you testing us?" In Pa’an District near the Thai border, the situation is rapidly heading towards a human disaster [see "SLORC / DKBA Activities: Pa’an District", KHRG #96-05, 14/1/96]. Here the SLORC has already implemented the threat it has made in Taungoo District: it has cut off all food and goods from inside Burma getting to the villages, and has cut off all access to Pa’an and other towns to the villagers. In at least one case, two villagers were executed simply for being caught trying to carry salt back to their village. While SLORC cuts off any outside supply, DKBA units are making rounds of the villages every week to systematically steal all supplies of rice and other foods, valuables, and cooking pots - in other words, the basic necessities of survival. The DKBA units tell the villagers that the only escape is to move to the DKBA’s headquarters at Myaing Gyi Ngu, far to the north. However, by now all the villagers, who are mainly Buddhist, are fed up with the DKBA and refuse to go. Instead, they are scattering into the jungle, living in groups of 2 or 3 families and running to a new place every time DKBA comes near. Now is harvest time, and they are subsisting on the rice they can pull out of their fields from day to day together with jungle leaves. Short of salt and without any medicines whatsoever, they are suffering iodine deficiencies and dying of malaria. They hide their rice in the caves, but they admit that they don’t have enough to survive the season because the DKBA already took too much. When it runs out, they have no idea what they’ll do.

"They don’t stay in big groups - just 2 or 3 families, sometimes just 1 family, beside a stream in the jungle. They harvest their paddy from the field, and then they hide it in many places in the jungle. They divide it and hide it in many places, they usually hide it in caves in the mountains. Usually the people wouldn’t go in those caves because they are very dangerous, with snakes and other animals. The DKBA knows some of the places where the people keep the rice, so they took it. The people eat some vegetables from the jungle, they boil them and eat them together with the water they were cooked in. When we arrived in villages, people came out of the jungle into their village, and afterwards they went back. ... I don’t think the people can go on like this until next rainy season. Maybe the villagers will die. Many people there are suffering from severe malaria, and there is a lot of malnutrition. There is no medicine, and when they have a big problem they have no idea where to go for medical care. I asked the villagers, ‘When you have someone seriously ill, where do you send them?’, and they said ‘We have no medicine, and we cannot send them anywhere. All we can do is pray before they die. So we pray.’" - medic who just visited part of Pa’an Township

The villagers hiding in the jungle in Pa’an district know about the refugee camps not so far away, but they are afraid to go there they say "At least in the jungle we can run". They know that the DKBA is once again stepping up its attacks into Thailand against the refugee camps. This year, while the DKBA continues to murder former KNU members in the camps and threaten to burn the camps if the refugees don’t return, there has also been a great increase in the number of attacks focussed on looting. Many of the targets have been Thai or Thai Karen merchants, and there have even been reports that the DKBA wants to kidnap a foreigner so they can demand a large cash ransom. This may well be connected to the fact that while the SLORC continues to provide the DKBA with logistical and military support, it seems to have cut off most or all of the DKBA’s financial and material support. Whether SLORC’s intent is to weaken the DKBA or simply to drive them into looting Karen people is difficult to say - most likely, the intent is both of these. There has just been a report, as yet unconfirmed, that a sudden cholera epidemic has hit the DKBA headquarters at Myaing Gyi Ngu, killing many people because they were not properly supplied with medicines. Some KNU officers in the area believe the epidemic may even have been deliberately introduced by SLORC. Right now the future of the DKBA is difficult to predict. Many villagers feel it cannot last much longer as it is, but even then people are afraid of what it might become.

"They are to finish the whole 18 miles in 15 days. It was done before, but the rainy season floods destroyed it all this year so they have to do it again. ... SLORC doesn’t worry that the floods will destroy the embankment again, because each time the floods wash it away a bit is still left, so it gets bigger and more solid year by year, this year and again next year, and so on until it’s finished." - Mon man describing Dec/95 labour making railway embankment from Ye to the Tenasserim border.

The number of forced labour projects throughout the country continues to increase. In the Ye-Tavoy area since the end of rainy season in October, demands for forced labour building the Ye-Tavoy railway have increased dramatically. [See "Ye-Tavoy Area Update", KHRG #96-01, 5/1/96.] Villages which have never had to go before have to go now, and villages which had to send one person per family last year now have to send 2 or 3 people per family, usually for 15 days of every month. The reason is that SLORC is now setting deadlines, assigning entire segments of the railway embankment to be completed within weeks. For example, up to 30,000 villagers were called out between December 1 and 15 and told they had to complete the entire 18-mile section from Ye south to the Tenasserim border in 2 weeks. They had already completed it last year, but the rains washed it away - so now SLORC is ordering them to do it again. As always, they have to take all their own food and tools, and they are not paid unless they have been hired by another villager to go as a substitute. Any money which may have been allocated to pay them is simply handed over from the Railway Ministry to the Army in return for "providing security". "Security" means beating anyone who shows up without the required tools, doesn’t work hard enough, tries to take a rest during working hours, or "fakes it" by claiming to be sick.

"This time, people who have money will hire substitutes and then they can reap their paddy. Those who have no money, their rice will be left in the field. That is why the monks asked the Army to let the people finish the harvest. But the Army said to the monks, ‘We won’t stop it because this is a Government project and it is by order.’ ... We cannot disobey. Everything is by force. If I have no money, I cannot stay in that area anymore." - 28-year old Mon villager from north of Ye, on how SLORC is increasing demands for railway labour right at harvest time

But the railway is not the only thing villagers in the Ye-Tavoy area have to worry about. The gas pipeline project being run by foreign oil companies Total and Unocal in partnership with SLORC is becoming increasingly well known. Now when you ask villagers from as far as 20 miles away from the proposed pipeline route whether they’ve heard of the pipeline, they usually answer, "Yes, I’ve heard of the pipeline project. Our village has to pay for that." Villages where many people have never even been to the pipeline area are now being forced to pay "gas pipeline fees" to the SLORC Battalions posted in the area to secure the pipeline route. The price is 150 Kyat per family per month. The standard threat is that if you don’t pay, you have to go and do "volunteer labour" on the pipeline survey for 3 days and nights under military guard. So far, most villagers have managed to pay, even if they have to sell some belongings to do so. After all, they’d rather work on their farms than on a pipeline. However, months ago villagers from Kanbauk were already reporting that SLORC troops were bringing in forced labour to cut down trees for the pipeline survey work. [See "Conditions in the Gas Pipeline Area", KHRG #95-27, 1/8/95; "Ye-Tavoy Area Update", KHRG #96-01, 5/1/96.]

"We have to pay money for that pipeline, 150 Kyat per month [per family]. The SLORC soldiers make us pay. They come to our village once a month to collect the money. ... They say that this money is for ‘pipeline volunteer workers’. They said if we don’t pay we have to go and work for 3 days at the Hpaungdaw worksite." - Mon villager from Taung Kon, 15 km. north of the Total/Unocal gas pipeline route, describing how soldiers from LIB 404 are forcing all villages in the area to pay ‘pipeline fees’.

This season SLORC has increased the quotas of rice confiscated from farmers, leaving many without enough rice to support their families. In some areas the quota has gone from 2 tins of paddy per acre to 10 tins. This 500% increase in quotas is not only being used to feed the expanding Army, it is also happening in the same year that SLORC has announced a 500% increase in rice exports, from 265,000 tonnes to 1.2 million tonnes. SLORC proudly claims the increase in exports stems from "double- and triple-cropping programmes and a bountiful harvest". Anyone who believes that should do some arithmetic: even if triple-cropping produces a threefold increase (which it doesn’t) in production, each of the three "bountiful harvests" would have to be double last year’s entire crop. Furthermore, the double-cropping programmes only exist on a few "model" farms set up by SLORC (on confiscated land) throughout Burma. The export increase is for cash profit and to impress the outside world, and it is being done entirely by increasing rice confiscation from farmers. The result is a severe rice shortage nationwide, rice prices which have doubled since last year, and a population which is increasingly facing malnutrition and starvation.

It is largely foreign companies which are driving SLORC to increase agricultural exports - because they can’t export their profits in Kyat, so they want to use their Kyat to buy agricultural produce from SLORC and export it. This is called "countertrade". As more companies want to do this, SLORC needs more rice and cash crops to sell to them. This may be partly why more and more Army Battalions are confiscating farmland and forcing villagers to grow cash crops on what used to be their land, which the Army then carts off to town without paying the villagers anything. In the Hla Mine area of Mon State, villagers have heard through SLORC officers that SLORC now has contracts with a Singaporean company and Daewoo of Korea to produce palm oil. The villagers have heard thousands of acres of land will be needed - their land. And, they fear, their labour too.

"They have a contract with Singapore, and also Daewoo Company, a Korean company. They have a contract with that company to grow oil palm. They will make a plantation. People think that they will be used as forced labour for that as well, that they will have to grow it without any wages. Thirty thousand acres. They don’t care whose land it is, on the mountain and around the villages, they will do it. They will take land that belongs to people. These people have been living there since a long, long time ago. They have had to cut out their own fields, and they own them. So SLORC will not cut new fields, they will take the ones that belong to people. And they will use the local villagers as labour." - Karen civilian who just visited Hla Mine area, Mon State

When Professor Yozo Yokota, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, recently visited Rangoon, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt told him that SLORC had issued a "secret directive" to all its people in the field to immediately stop all use of forced labour. Of course, why such a directive would have to be "secret" is a mystery, unless the Lt. Gen. needed an excuse not to have to show it to Professor Yokota. In his report to the UN General Assembly, the Rapporteur expressed his hope that this directive will be "rigorously enforced". One has to respect the objectivity of the Rapporteur. However, the "directive" simply does not exist. Nor does any sign of the SLORC softening its repression. It is about time the world lost its patience.

"I saw that many fields were not being worked, and also that many people were ill but had no medicine to cure themselves. People said that since the beginning of 1995 it has been very difficult to stay and grow food, but also that the way to Thailand has more and more problems [SLORC and DKBA are systematically blocking escape routes for refugees]. Village leaders said to me, "It is getting more and more difficult, when will things be better?" I could see that. My people. The parents hope for better times, but if the youth cannot keep their determination to help their families work their fields then all happiness is lost. When I saw babies my heart felt great pity for them, as they are growing up in the midst of sicknesses pressing down upon them, and with no opportunities to learn. I saw this and was angered but could do nothing. ... People’s lives in this place are as water on a ‘ku’ leaf." - human rights monitor who visited the area north of Myawaddy in December 1995

On a ‘ku’ leaf, as on a lily, water gathers into beads. Touch the leaf and all the beads shake; nudge it, and the shaking beads zigzag and scatter in all directions; bump against it, and they begin to fall off the edge.