SLORC has been initiating more and more projects nationwide to build hundreds of roads with forced labour, primarily with the idea that more roads mean better military access to the countryside, which in turn means more effective military control over the population. Though in some cases they receive foreign money to build these roads, they prefer to keep the money and order out thousands of villagers to do forced labour for nothing. The same villagers are also forced to pay "fees" for the road construction as though it is for their benefit. Heavy machinery is very rarely used; SLORC prefers to use the manual labour of thousands of villagers.
Right now dozens of new roads are being built under these conditions in Karen State, while existing roads are being upgraded to all-season roads wide enough to transport heavy military equipment into border areas. In the north, the 100-km. Papun-Bilin car road is reportedly being gravelled and tarred by villagers who have been driven into labour camps, and similar work is occurring on the 100-km. road from Thanbyuzayat to Three Pagodas Pass in the south. In Pa’an District of central Karen State, new networks of roads "wide enough for two military trucks side by side" are being built with forced labour to give the military better access to areas near Kawmoora where Karen forces still operate. Work started in December 1995 to build a paved road from Pa’an eastward to Pain Kyone, then southward to Bee T’Ka, most likely intended to continue southeastward to Nabu and Kawkareik and/or southward to Kyone Doh, for a total length of 60-100 km. Since January, another paved road is being built southward from Pa’an about 50 km. to Shwe Taw, possibly intended to continue to Moulmein or Mudon. Villagers have heard that SLORC may be receiving foreign money for this road (most likely from the Japanese government).
The accounts below give information gathered from villagers in the area regarding construction of the Pa’an - Shwe Taw and Pa’an - Bee T’Ka roads. The name of the villager interviewed has been changed, and some other details have been omitted to protect the villagers concerned.
NAME: "Saw Tamla Htoo" SEX: M AGE: 63
ADDRESS: xxxx village, Pa’an Township INTERVIEWED: Feb/96
DISCRIPTION: Karen Buddhist farmer
The Pa’an to Shwe Taw road construction started in January 1996. It is about 35 miles long, a two hour trip by car. Maybe this road is going to go to Moulmein. For construction they are only using the villagers who live around the area. The Ma Wa Ta [Township LORC] and Ya Wa Ta [Village LORC] arrange the villagers. On the road they have policemen as guards, not soldiers. The policemen do not beat us.
The embankment is 4 ½ feet high and the width has to be wide enough for 4 cars side by side [i.e. wide enough for 2-lane traffic of heavy military equipment]. The villagers have to dig the ground and carry it to make the embankment. Each family in the whole area has to send one person for construction labour. The authorities do not set the working hours, they just assign the amount of embankment that must be done each day; for each day it is 10 feet by 10 feet by 4 ½ feet high. I left on February 20th, but I think this road construction will take months. They said the road will be tarred, and that the villagers will have to pay money for crushing and laying gravel.
Thousands of villagers have to work there - old people as old as me, and women and children, because each family must send one person, no matter who, to the work site. People from some villages which are far from the construction have to carry their food and supplies and sleep along the road. There are no holidays. Villagers who cannot go for the work have to hire another person to go by paying them 100 Kyats per day, or they must give 100 Kyats per day to the operators of the backhoes from the construction department. There are 3 backhoes along the road.
The road goes along plains and valleys, not in the hills, so some villagers have lost their fields, gardens, houses and rice paddies for the road. The villages which have suffered the most are Kaw Palaung, Mu Ka Wah, Taw Gyi, Wah Su and K’Taw Meh. I heard that this road is connected to the Asia Highway, and that 4 countries are supporting the project. [This is unconfirmed; however, much of the aid money recently awarded to SLORC by the Japanese government was identified as being for "development" projects in Karen State, which certainly includes forced-labour road projects for expanded SLORC military access to the region.]
#2 - Report.
[The following report was written by an independent human rights monitor after interviewing villagers who had fled other road construction in the area, with some clarifications added by KHRG.]
The SLORC is currently ordering people to construct roads which are intended to connect Pa’an to Bee T’Ka via Pain Kyone (Karen name Dta Greh), Kyeh Toe Ray, and Ye Bu. The ultimate aim is apparently to continue the road to Kawkareik to the southeast and Kyone Doh to the south. Roads are also being constructed linking local villages to these roads.
Since December 1995 SLORC has been demanding one person per household in the area to do road construction labour continuously, regardless of the number of people in the household. People also continue to be taken as military porters, on average 5 to 10 people per village at all times (on a rotating basis). The roads are all being built to a specification that they must accomodate "two Army trucks side by side". Earth embankments must be built and compacted for these roads. On hillsides or ridges the embankment is to be only one foot high, but across fields and plains it is being built up to 7 feet high, and wide drainage channels must also be dug along both sides in order to minimize the impact of monsoon flooding. These drainage channels must be waist deep in many places. In particular, between Pa’an and Pain Kyone a great deal of work is required to protect the road from flooding. In some areas where the embankment has already been finished, villagers have been ordered to go to dry riverbeds to dig out rock and gravel, load it onto oxcarts and take it to lay the road surface. The villagers feel that SLORC will push the labour very hard in order to surface as much of the road as possible with gravel before rainy season.
According to a village source, the Battalions active around Pain Kyone are Light Infantry Battalions 338 and 339 and Infantry Battalion 28. Villagers are demanded from villages close to the road routes as well as villages further away. Usually, the military columns send the demands as written orders to village elders, who must then send the specified number of villagers or face possible arrest and torture. Work assignments are given to villages requiring 50 feet of embankment to be completed every 3 days. If the work is not finished on time, the village is fined 3,000 Kyat for each 50 feet of embankment not done. Generally every household has to send one person, and if no one from a family can go then they must give enough money to the village elders so that someone else can be hired to go in their place. A villager from near Pain Kyone who had gone for one 3-day shift said that as the end of the third day approached his village had not yet finished their assigned length of embankment, so they had to continue working well after nightfall because they were afraid that if the work were inspected the next day they would have to pay a heavy penalty.
Villagers are also forced to go to road construction sites far from their villages, closer to Pa’an or Bee T’Ka, up to a day’s walk from their homes. No transport is ever arranged for them, and in these cases people must take all their food and utensils for a standard 10-day work period (the 10 days does not include travel time to and from the site). One person per household is called for this work, and those who cannot go must pay 150 Kyat for each day missed, either to the military or to the village elders supervising at the worksite. One villager said that as his village has 300 houses, they generally have to send about 300 people and they are sometimes joined at the worksite by one or two hundred others from other villages. A village elder must lead the group to a designated gathering point or military officer, as specified in the written order. On the southern parts of the road most of the work is being supervised by village heads under order of the military, but further north (closer to Pa’an), not only is the work much harder because of high embankments and drainage ditches, but all work is conducted under close watch by armed soldiers. Because of this people prefer to pay money rather than go to this part of the road if possible. Many people in the villages are not able to speak Burmese very well and are afraid they will be abused by the soldiers if they cannot understand or obey orders quickly and efficiently [throughout Karen areas many villagers are beaten and even killed because of this].
Villagers in the area have no idea of the schedule for overall completion of this work. Between Pain Kyone and Bee T’Ka, most of the route has been cleared but much of the hard labour building the embankment and digging drainage ditches remains to be done. All of this is done by the manual labour of villagers, not by machines. The military has stated very clearly that if there are any problems with the road when it is inspected or used, the villagers will be called out to rebuild it; the villagers interviewed were unaware whether the Army also threatened to punish the elders in this case. [When other forced labour projects collapse after completion, villages are often punished with heavy fines, torture of elders, and being forced to redo the work under more brutal conditions than previously; SLORC constantly has problems with its roads and railway lines collapsing in the first rains, due to incompetent engineering and the use of unwilling forced labour.] Some villagers are now fleeing the area and trying to reach the refugee camps in Thailand because of the forced labour and the difficulty it is causing in trying to support their families in the area.