Human Rights in Karen Areas of Burma

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Human Rights in Karen Areas of Burma

Published date:
Monday, April 8, 1996

This commentary gives an overview of the human rights conditions in Taungoo, Nyaunglebin, Papun, Pa'an, Dooplaya districts and Tenasserim Division, as well as the Thailand-based refugee camps, in 1995. Right now the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) is trying to conduct ceasefire negotiations with the SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) military junta ruling Burma. Though the SLORC claims to be making every effort to bring peace to the country, they are still refusing to even discuss any political or human rights issues, and as a result the talks are making no progress. Many observers feel that the SLORC is not yet interested in a ceasefire, but wants to launch major attacks against the KNU first in order to weaken the KNU so it can be forced to accept what amount to surrender terms.

Briefing Notes by Kevin Heppner, Karen Human Rights Group
April 8, 1996

Abbreviations:  SLORC   State Law & Order Restoration Council, Burma’s military junta
                       KNU       Karen National Union, the main Karen opposition organization
                       KNLA     Karen National Liberation Army, armed wing of the KNU
                       DKBA     Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, Karen splinter group which
                                   formed in 1994 and allied itself to SLORC in 1995

Right now the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) is trying to conduct ceasefire negotiations with the SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) military junta ruling Burma. Though the SLORC claims to be making every effort to bring peace to the country, they are still refusing to even discuss any political or human rights issues, and as a result the talks are making no progress. Many observers feel that the SLORC is not yet interested in a ceasefire, but wants to launch major attacks against the KNU first in order to weaken the KNU so it can be forced to accept what amount to surrender terms.

Regardless of the negotiations, SLORC continues to worsen the human rights situation for villagers throughout Karen areas. In some areas, such as Taungoo and Nyaunglebin, systematic abuse of the civilian population is being used partly with the intention of driving the KNU towards a ceasefire deal on very bad terms. However, in most areas the abuses are increasing as a direct result of SLORC moving in and exerting stronger control in areas where KNU forces have been weakened or eliminated. Even in areas close to central Burma which SLORC has always strongly controlled, the human rights situation is worsening because more Army Battalions are being sent in to strengthen control over the civilian population, and because SLORC’s use of forced labour is increasing nationwide. The sections below give summaries of the human rights situation prevailing in some example Karen regions, starting from the northern tip of Karen State and moving southward several hundred kilometres to Tenasserim Division.

Taungoo District

In January 1995, SLORC began Operation "Aung Tha Pyay" in Taungoo District with the aim of consolidating SLORC control over the district by driving all villagers to military-controlled areas, killing all villagers who failed to obey, and cutting off all possibilities of support to opposition organizations. The operation is led by Southern Command, currently under Brigadier General Kyi Aung, and several Battalions have also been brought in from Western Command in Arakan State. The operation was severely intensified in October 1995, and by the end of October seventeen villages in Bawgali area had been partly or totally burned down making almost 3,000 people homeless (villages: Saw Wah Meh, Maw Thay Der, Law Bee Leh, Beh Lo, Gaw Tu Toh, May Daw Ko, Si Kheh Der, Plaw Mu Der, Tha Kwee Soe, Bu Sah Kee, Ta Aye Kee, Saw Mu Der, Pway Baw Kee, Say Daw Ko, Kaw Lu, Zaw Ta Der, and Say Ta Der [Wah Mi Ber Ko]). In the course of the operation, villages, fields and harvested crops are burned and livestock is shot in a deliberate attempt to wipe out food supplies. Paddy prices in the area have soared to 1,000 Kyat per basket, sometimes up to 1,500 Kyat (double to triple the already badly inflated prices in urban Burma). Hundreds of villagers are taken as porters and others are routinely shot on sight. Through 1995 over 40 villagers were shot dead on sight by SLORC soldiers in Bawgali Township alone, including 17 people shot dead just between 11 November and 2 December. After forcing villages to move, SLORC also lays landmines around the villages and along the paths, which have caused many civilian casualties.

The flow of goods and people from the towns to the hill villages has been blocked, separating families and leaving villagers with no access to medicines and other goods. Villagers throughout the area are now being used as unpaid forced labour to construct military access roads into the region, particularly from Bawgali to Bu Sah Kee.

Thousands of people in the region have fled into hiding in the forests, where they are now staying in makeshift shelters in groups of one or two families, surviving on whatever rice they could salvage combined with jungle roots and leaves. If SLORC troops find them in the forest, they will be accused of being rebels and taken as porters or executed.

Nyaunglebin District

SLORC has now begun to implement in Nyaunglebin District the same tactics it is using in Taungoo District. At least 9 villages have already been forced to move to military-controlled sites, village elders have been arrested and tortured and villages have been wholly or partly burned. More troops have just arrived in Kyauk Kyi Township to intensify the campaign.

Papun District

In Papun District SLORC is working together with small numbers of DKBA (Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, a Karen splinter group which joined with SLORC in 1995) soldiers, whom it uses as guides, intelligence gatherers, and to help loot the villages. SLORC has seriously stepped up its campaign to clear the entire rural population out of Papun District and make the entire area a free-fire zone. Since December 1995, orders have been issued to every rural village under SLORC control from Kyauk Nyat in the north to Ka Dtaing Dtee in the south, from the Salween River (the Thai border) in the east to at least 10 km. west of Papun - an area 50-60 km. north to south and 30 km. east to west. This area is rugged hills dotted with small villages, averaging 10-50 households (population 50-300) per village. Estimates are that 100 or more villages are affected. Every village has been ordered to move either to SLORC Army camps surrounding Papun, such as Papun, Kaw Boke, or Par Haik, or to DKBA headquarters far to the south at Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) in Pa’an District. The orders have all been issued by SLORC.

The majority of the villagers are being ordered to move to Papun area, where SLORC has allocated sites beside military camps for them. They have been ordered to take all their food with them because SLORC says no food will be provided. Villagers have been told that they will still be allowed to farm their home fields, but they do not believe it and they are probably right, because SLORC is trying to make this whole region into a free-fire zone in order to cut KNLA supply lines and to block the flow of refugees to Thailand. The relocation sites at military camps will almost certainly be used as forced labour camps. People in them will regularly be used as porters, army camp labourers, and probably for military forced labour farming for profit. It appears that the main use of the detained population will be as forced labour to work on the Papun - Par Haik - Kyauk Nyat car road to give the military access to the border area, and to make the 100-km. Papun-Bilin car road into an all-season road. Until now, the Papun-Bilin road has been washed out every monsoon season and the villagers are forced to rebuild it every year. Making it an all-season road will give the military rainy-season offensive capability in the region. To do this, thousands of men, women, and children will be required to smooth the road and break rocks and gravel.

Thousands of villagers have fled their villages to avoid moving as ordered, because SLORC told them that if they failed to move serious action would be taken, such as burning of villages and shooting villagers as "rebels". Five hundred to a thousand arrived in Thailand, and said that all villagers are trying to flee rather than obey the orders. Some are fleeing to Thailand, others into the hills, and a few are still trying to hide in their villages but run and hide in the forest whenever SLORC is nearby. Those who fled to Thailand say that the way is increasingly difficult, that they can only travel at night and sometimes crossing the Papun - Par Haik car road is impossible due to SLORC presence. Along the way, all they saw were completely abandoned villages. They believe that anyone found hiding in the forest or en route to Thailand will be executed or arrested as porters.

Pa’an District

In many parts of Pa’an District, SLORC has cut off the flow of goods from towns to villages, then sent DKBA soldiers in to loot food supplies and basic household items, just to make it impossible to live. The idea is to make villagers so destitute that they cannot support any opposition group, and to create a human disaster which will weaken the position of the KNU in negotiations. The result is that villagers in northern Pa’an District are in hiding in the forests, trying to survive on whatever rice they could salvage from their harvest. Escape to refugee camps in Thailand is increasingly difficult because SLORC and DKBA are actively blocking the way.

Through the more strongly SLORC-controlled parts of Pa’an District, SLORC is using DKBA to point out villagers who have any contacts or relatives in the KNU, torturing them and executing many of them. There are also many forced-labour projects beginning in the area, forcing villagers to break rocks and build roads for all-season military truck access.

Dooplaya District

In western Dooplaya District, which is strongly SLORC-controlled, there is increasing forced labour building roads. The current KNU headquarters is in eastern Dooplaya District, and many villagers are fleeing this area to refugee camps in Thailand because they fear an imminent SLORC offensive against KNU headquarters. If this offensive occurs, thousands of villagers will probably be taken as military porters and all villages along the SLORC’s path through KNU territory will be destroyed.

Tenasserim Division

There is currently little fighting in Tenasserim Division, but as many as several hundred people per day are arriving at the Thai border fleeing forced labour. Most of this is occurring on the 110-km. Ye-Tavoy railway line, where several hundred thousand people have been used as forced labour since 1993. All families in the region have to send one or more people for a 2-week shift every month, completely unpaid and taking their own food and tools. The work involves clearing trees, breaking rocks, digging and carrying dirt to build an embankment. As is usual on SLORC ‘development’ projects, children as young as 8 or 10 have to go, along with the elderly up to age 70, pregnant women, and whoever is required to fill the quota of people. People are beaten with rifle butts or whipped with canes for resting during work hours, and many die of beatings, accidents, or disease. No compensation is paid. After years of labour, the SLORC has suddenly decided to change the route, abandoning up to 50 km. of completed embankment and forcing the villagers to start again several kilometres to the west. At the same time, villagers are now being forced to work on the Ye-Tavoy car road which runs parallel to the railway.

SLORC is working with foreign oil companies TOTAL (France), Unocal (USA) and PTT (Thailand) to build a gas pipeline to sell natural gas from the Gulf of Martaban to Thailand. The pipeline is to go overland from Hpaungdaw at the seacoast to Nat Ein Taung at the Thai border. At least 12 villages have been forcibly relocated without compensation to clear the way. SLORC has sent in about 15 Army battalions to secure the route and the foreign TOTAL engineers. These battalions are now forcing villagers all along the route to build and maintain their army camps to protect the pipeline. These troops are also extorting so much money from villagers in the area (formerly the total was 2-300 Kyat per family per month, now it is over 2,000) that many have to flee. Every family within 20 km. of the pipeline route has to pay 150 Kyat per month ‘pipeline fees’ to the soldiers. There are 8 Battalions posted just around Kanbauk (near the TOTAL base camp), and women in Kanbauk no longer dare leave their homes in the evening for fear of rape.

The foreign oil companies continue to insist that no forced labour is being used on the pipeline project itself, but the latest refugees from the area say otherwise. SLORC troops are rounding up villagers in Kywe Thone Nyi Ma and other villages to do shifts of forced labour on the "pipeline road" from Hpaungdaw to Kanbauk (the pipeline is to be laid alongside this service road) and from Ka Daik to Hpaungdaw (a supply road; at Ka Daik SLORC built jetty facilities last year under heavy guard, and these are to be used to bring in pipeline supplies by sea). TOTAL reportedly asks SLORC to hire people for this work, but SLORC is having it all done as forced labour and no one is paid. The foreign engineers have witnessed this forced labour. Villagers are also now being forced to build a road from Mi Kyaun Laun to Ain Daya Say, just north of the pipeline route, probably for supply. People from Maya Chaung and other villages, mainly women, are being forced to do 4 day shifts of labour to burn the bush, pull up stumps, clear and level the ground to extend helipad facilities (possibly a runway) for the pipeline near Mi Kyaun Laun. Foreigners fly in by military helicopter 4 times per day, at which times the SLORC troops make the labourers hide in the bush or at the military checkpoint until the foreigners are gone.

In early February there was a Karen rocket attack against the pipeline near the TOTAL headquarters. As retaliation, SLORC has executed 2 village elders from Nat Kyin Pyan village, as many as 7 villagers from other villages, arrested and tortured several more, and declared martial law in the entire region. Some of the killings were carried out by Major Zaw Htun, TOTAL’s main liaison with SLORC in the region.

Refugee Camps in Thailand

The situation in refugee camps in Thailand continues to be extremely tense, as DKBA (Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, a Karen splinter group allied with SLORC) and SLORC troops continue to cross the border with impunity. DKBA continues to threaten to destroy the camps with SLORC support, and regular cross-border incursions and armed attacks including robbery and killings continue. On 7 April, a group of armed SLORC soldiers crossed the Moei River from the SLORC Army camp at Ye Bu, several kilometres north of Myawaddy, and attacked a Dutch doctor and nurse who were out for a bicycle ride, robbing them and raping the nurse before returning to their camp with all the couple’s belongings and money.

On the Burma side of the border, DKBA almost never operates on its own anymore, usually only as small groups attached to SLORC columns. SLORC takes them along as guides, to steal livestock for them from the villages, and to point out villagers who have had past contact with the Karen National Union so they can be arrested and tortured or executed by SLORC. DKBA members who are interested in a political future for the Karen, rather than just looting, are increasingly disgruntled with their situation and their leadership. In the last week of March, 600 villagers fled the DKBA’s headquarters at Myaing Gyi Ngu in Pa’an District and arrived in Papun District. Details are not yet available, but this could mean that the SLORC is cutting off many of the DKBA’s food supplies (the DKBA is entirely armed and supplied by SLORC). If Myaing Gyi Ngu is beginning to crumble, this is a very serious blow to DKBA. Furthermore, the refugees from Myaing Gyi Ngu cannot cross into Thailand, because existing refugee camps are afraid to accept them from fear they may be DKBA agitators, but Thai authorities will allow no new camps to be created at this stage. Therefore these refugees are stranded in Papun District, which SLORC has already declared a free-fire zone where civilians will be shot on sight, and they have no aid. This situation may become more common in the future as the situation in Karen areas continues to deteriorate.