Karen Human Rights Group Commentary

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Karen Human Rights Group Commentary

Published date:
Sunday, May 26, 1996

Right now the 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.

"Kawkareik Township authorities arrived at our village and called one person from each family to attend a meeting. The authorities gave blank sheets of paper to each person and told them to sign it. After that, the Secretary of Kawkareik Township Law & Order Restoration Council said that the villagers' farms and ricefields were all being taken to build a new Battalion camp for LIB 547. More than half of the village itself and many acres of ricefields were taken. The next day, they set up red flags and warning sign boards reading 'Army Land, Do Not Enter'." - Muslim villager in Pa'an District describing SLORC land confiscation since July 1995

Right now the 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.

"On 18/10/95, IB 26 Column #1 led by Lt. Col. Myint Aung encountered Naw Mu Mu (female, age 35) and her 12-year-old daughter from Saw Wah Der village while they were working in their field. The mother and daughter tried to run from them, but the soldiers fired and hit them with an M79 grenade near the top of a hill. Naw Mu Mu was hit in the bladder by fragments. Her daughter tried to carry her to help but she died on the way." - incident report, 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 [see "Field Reports: Taungoo and Other Districts", KHRG #96-10, 29/2/96]. 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. 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.

Despite the ceasefire talks, the campaign is continuing. 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. All villages in the hills surrounding Bawgali (a.k.a. Kler Lah) have been ordered to move to military-controlled sites along motor roads where they are to be used as forced labour. Rather than go, most people are living in hiding in the forested hills on whatever rice they've been able to salvage from their burned villages and fields. They've had no chance to plant a crop this year, so soon they will starve. If SLORC troops find them in the forest, they will be accused of being rebels and taken as porters or executed.

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. Since February, more troops have been sent to Kyauk Kyi Township to intensify the campaign.

"They sent letters 3 times ordering us to move. They sent a letter along with a chillie and a bullet [a standard SLORC message meaning we will kill you and burn your village if you don't obey]. It ordered us to move to Par Haik, near their military camp. Some villages have to move to Papun and some to Kaw Boke, around their army camps, and after that they will burn and destroy all the villages. That letter came one month and 10 days ago. It said that within 10 days we had to arrive at Par Haik military camp, even that we should arrive tomorrow if possible." - Karen villager from Papun District telling how his village was ordered to move in January

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 [see "Forced Relocation in Papun District", KHRG #96-11, 4/3/96]. 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 Karen military supply lines and to block the flow of refugees to Thailand. The relocation sites at military camps are being used as forced labour camps. People in them are regularly used as porters, army camp labourers, and as military forced labour farming for profit. It appears that the main use of the detained population is 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 are required to smooth the road and break rocks and gravel.

"I've had to go since 5 years ago, when I was 12 years old. We had to go anytime they ordered, because if we didn't they would come and catch us. As I grew older they noticed, so they gave me heavier and heavier loads. I've carried weapons, bullets, 5 big shells... We had to walk just one day to get here. We went at night, or else SLORC soldiers would see us. They would arrest us and torture us, because they don't allow us to come to the refugee camps. Along the way I saw only deserted villages. All the other villages were ordered to move too - Saw Bweh Der, Dee Taw Kee, May Say Kee, Kyo Ko Der, Meh Wah Ler and Oo Thu Kloh villages. Now we can't go back, because they already said if they see us and arrest us they will kill us on the spot." - 17 year old Karen girl from Meh Thaw Kee, Papun Dist., describing portering and forced relocation

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". About a thousand arrived in Thailand before SLORC succeeded in blocking most escape routes. Most fled 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. All anyone sees on walking through the region is abandoned villages. SLORC patrols do not seem too eager to comb the hills for hidden villagers, but the entire area is now free-fire zone and the villagers have no choice but to live in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game. Most of them have not been able to plant any crop this year, or only a token crop in a jungle clearing, so they have no idea about their future. Most do not want to flee to Thailand for fear of the SLORC troops blocking the way, the DKBA attacks they've heard about in the refugee camps, and the looming threat of forced repatriation by Thai authorities.

"There are quite a lot of Muslims, but now some ran away and some moved because LIB 547 took exactly half of the village. The only Indian [Muslim] part remaining is right around the mosque. The road cut the village down the middle, and one side became the LIB 547 compound. Many good houses were demolished. The Army also took the ricefields for their own bean plantations, 'bocate' and 'mart' beans. Nabu village has about 700 families, and about 300 families lost their land. The Nabu villagers lost their homes, farms, even their ricefields, so now they do not want to see the soldiers anymore." - SLORC deserter, Pa'an District

In Pa'an District SLORC began a major campaign of forced labour road-building at the beginning of 1996 [see "Road Construction in Pa'an District", KHRG #96-12, 16/3/96, "The Situation in Pa'an District", KHRG #96-17, 15/5/96, and "Abuses in Tee Sah Ra Area", KHRG #96-15, 1/4/96]. At least a dozen new roads (total length at least 150 km.) are now under construction, forming a complex network which will greatly strengthen military access and control in the region. All of the roads are being built to a specification of "wide enough for two military trucks to pass". Many villages in the Nabu (a.k.a. T'Nay Cha) area are being called out to work on two or three roads at once. Some of the roads are supposed to be 'all-season', but villagers report that none of the drainage is being done properly so they are sure the roads will all collapse in rainy season - then they will be called out next year, and every year, to rebuild them. Along with this, DKBA forces in the area who receive less and less support from SLORC are increasingly turning to looting and extortion, and some of the SLORC Battalions in the area have been confiscating farmland and using farmers as forced labour to grow crops for military profit. There are signs that there may be a specific campaign of harassment and land confiscation against Muslim communities in areas like Nabu. All of these factors are causing hundreds of people every month to flee to other areas or refugee camps in Thailand, despite their fear of being arrested on the way and their knowledge that the refugee camps are no longer safe against attack.

"We [soldiers] also had to volunteer to work on the road, but just for show, just for a very short time, together with policewomen and other soldiers. That day the TV reporters recorded it. They wanted to show that the Army served and worked for the people, but actually the people did the whole thing." - SLORC deserter, Pa'an District

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 two Dutch doctors who were out for a bicycle ride, robbing them and raping the female doctor before returning to their camp with all the couple's belongings and money.

"Our leaders had to do everything that SLORC orders. Whenever we arrived in villages, SLORC ordered us to get animals for them, like chickens and pigs. Sometimes they would say to our leader, "My friend, I love this villager woman", and the leader had to get her for them. But sometimes the SLORC soldiers didn't even ask us, they just went to any Karen woman they liked and raped her. Then when the villagers complained, the SLORC soldiers said "It wasn't our soldiers, it was the DKBA soldiers who did that". Sometimes when they went to rape women they put on the uniform of DKBA. Whenever villagers complained about things, SLORC always blamed it on DKBA." - former DKBA soldier

On the Burma side of the border DKBA almost never operates on its own anymore, usually only as small groups attached to SLORC columns [see "Inside the DKBA", KHRG #96-14, 31/3/96, and "Forced Relocation in Papun District", KHRG #96-11, 4/3/96]. 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 sometimes tell of increasing frustration with their situation and their leadership; some have even criticised DKBA's founding monk U Thuzana, an act which was unheard of last year. 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. Though we hope to obtain full details for a future report, initial reports are that SLORC is cutting off many of the DKBA's food supplies (the DKBA is entirely armed and supplied by SLORC), and that the health situation in Myaing Gyi Ngu is deteriorating because the water supply, sanitation and available medicine are hopelessly inadequate for the several thousand families living there. If Myaing Gyi Ngu is beginning to crumble, this is a very serious blow to DKBA because they have little civilian support anywhere else. 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 and 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.

"Last year I worked on the railway near Yah Pu. But we never finished that part because we worked on different sections which were not linked together. Now they've stopped that. First SLORC chose the route Pya Thon Zu to Mintha Sakan, etc. and people cleared that way. Then they changed their plans and started clearing the route from Yah Pu towards Baw Law Gone. Now they've changed the route back again according to the original plan. They started again this year. Now we all have to go to Kyaun Sone area [for labour]. They didn't say when that will be finished." - Mon farmer describing incompetent SLORC planning on the Ye-Tavoy railway

"Whenever they come they ask for things like chickens, pigs, meat. If the people don't give or if anyone says something, they are beaten up. They come all the time. When a group arrives, they stay for three days. When one group leaves, another one arrives." - Mon villager describing life in the gas pipeline area

In southern Burma's Tenasserim Division there has been little fighting recently, particularly due to the June 1995 ceasefire between SLORC and the New Mon State Party (NMSP). All the Mon refugee camps have now been forcibly repatriated by Thai authorities, and the refugees are trying to set up homes and fields just across the border in Burma. Most of them do not dare go further inside or to their home villages for fear of being called for forced labour by SLORC. Even the areas where they are trying to settle are mostly declared as 'temporary' under the ceasefire terms, meaning all Mon troops soon have to leave. SLORC has promised its troops will not move in, but no one believes that. As a result, the refugees feel very unsafe and live wondering when they will have to run next. Already, SLORC troops rotating between Ye and Three Pagodas Pass are making a habit of camping at Plat Hon Pai refugee repatriation site, where they loot crops and sometimes look for porters [see "Forced Labour in Mon Areas", KHRG #96-20, 22/5/96].

"Car road, then railway. Then after I finished that, I was a porter. Then "voluntary labour" again. All I had left was 5 or 6 days in one month. That is why I left my village." - Mon farmer who fled his village south of Ye

The refugees don't dare go home because people from their home areas continue to flee to the border at the rate of several hundred per week. Some of these people join the refugees, but most disappear into Thailand, where they will end up on construction sites, in factory sweatshops, brothels, and Immigration prisons. They consistently say that the human rights situation has become worse since the Mon ceasefire. Despite its ceasefire promises, SLORC troops continue to take porters and extortion throughout the area as much as ever. Forced labour on the Ye-Tavoy railway continues to take one family member for two weeks every month, and has now been augmented by forced labour crushing stone, widening the Ye-Tavoy car road and building several other roads. On the railway, after using thousands of people for 2 years as labour to build the embankment from Yah Pu to Kalein Aung, SLORC has decided that this route has too many streams, scrapped the work and told the villagers they will have to start again on a route several kilometres to the west. Most of the labour is now being focussed on the Kalein Aung-Kyaun Sone segment just south of the gas pipeline route; this may be to ensure that forced labour on the segment of railway which crosses the pipeline is done before the oil companies start work there. People from as far as Ye, 80 km. to the north, are being forced to find their own way to Kyaun Sone to do forced labour. Forced labour on the gas pipeline infrastructure being built by SLORC, French company TOTAL, and U.S. company Unocal is now confirmed by villagers who have done it themselves [see "Effects of the Gas Pipeline Project", KHRG #96-21, 23/5/96]. Though the oil companies continue to hire paid labour, SLORC authorities and forces in the area continue to bring forced labour from villages to the worksites whenever possible with or without the knowledge of the oil companies, who simply have too few people on the ground to see or control what SLORC does. Villagers from north of the pipeline route are now testifying that they have been doing forced labour clearing the "pipeline road" - the service road which the pipe will be laid alongside - from Hpaungdaw to Kanbauk and from Ain Da Ya Za area to Mi Kyaun Laun. Villagers have also been forced to do rotating shifts of 2 to 4 days' forced labour building and extending helicopter pad facilities at Ka Daik, '52-mile' near Mi Kyaun Laun, and west of On Bin Kwin, and to build a supply road and bridge connecting Ka Daik, where oil company TOTAL will bring in supplies by sea, to the pipeline route at On Bin Kwin, where TOTAL's base camp is located. Along the "pipeline road" the foreigners have seen and even photographed the villagers doing forced labour, but probably believe the workers are hired. All oil company foreigners travel with at least 2 armed trucks in front and one behind carrying at least 30-50 SLORC troops, so the villagers don't dare approach them. At Ka Daik and Mi Kyaun Laun, soldiers hurry the villagers away from the worksite every time foreigners fly in by helicopter. Some villagers have been told they'll be paid 200 Kyat/day for the forced labour, but they don't receive it - they even have to take their own food.

"At first, when the Germans called people for work, they wanted to pay money. But SLORC said no. The Germans started the road construction, but at that time SLORC took over for security reasons. The Germans brought their own trucks and bulldozers. I think the Germans gave money for that but SLORC took it. SLORC doesn't want to pay. The SLORC said it is voluntary work." - Mon villager talking about forced labour on the Hpaungdaw-Mi Kyaun Ain-Ain Da Ya Za gas pipeline road (he refers to TOTAL as "the Germans")

"The army officers ordered us to do 'voluntary labour' on the pipeline project in On Bin Kwin. All the villagers in my village have been there. I had to send two people for one week, or sometimes 7 people. We had to clear the bushes between On Bin Kwin and Mi Kyaun Ain. When the work is completed, the villagers can go home. They have to stay one week or more on the pipeline road. There is no pay. SLORC only gave money to some people, those who are permanent workers. We saw some foreigners. They were just walking around that place, and they took pictures in order to get the news. When we were working, they took pictures of us. They always came with guards." - Mon village elder from Kywe Gone village talking about forced labour on the gas pipeline

Villagers also continue to be used as forced labour to build military security posts all along the pipeline route, to build army camps and serve the soldiers at those camps. Kywe Thone Nyi Ma and other villages north of the route still have to pay 150 Kyat per family per month 'pipeline fees' to #404 Battalion in Kanbauk. There are at least 8 SLORC Battalions right around Kanbauk now, and many young women do not even dare go outside their homes at night. At the nearby Ye-Tavoy railway worksites near Kalein Aung, rape is frequent and brutal. A woman from Kywe Thone Nyi Ma says that when she was there in February, see saw a 15-year-old girl who had been gang-raped by SLORC troops until unconscious. A car with "French people" inside came along and tried to rescue the young girl and get her to hospital. She died on the way. On February 2nd, Karen attackers fired four 107 mm. rockets near the TOTAL base camp in On Bin Kwin. Only one exploded and no one was wounded. SLORC retaliated by executing 7 innocent Karen villagers in Ain Da Ya Za and Shwe Plah villages, detaining and torturing several more, and threatening to do it again if TOTAL found out about it. A key figure in ordering the executions was Major Zaw Htun - TOTAL's main liaison with the SLORC military in the region. As Unocal president John Imle said in January 1995, "For every threat to the pipeline there will be a reaction". He seems confident that his SLORC partners can control the villagers. What he does not realise is that neither Unocal nor TOTAL can control SLORC.

Q: Did you torture villagers or suspects yourself?

A: ... Yes ...

Q: Did you ever kill anyone?

A: I never killed anyone ... but I killed only two people. Because one of the officers ordered me to kill. I had to obey his order. They seemed to be rebels. They had some weapons. So I killed them. One man was killed at the battalion headquarters. The woman, she was from KNU in Kyaun Pyaw forest. She was a very beautiful woman with a pistol. We couldn't ask her any questions. That is why the commander ordered me to kill her. [She probably couldn't speak Burmese.] I ordered her to dig her own grave but she refused. Then I shot her. They were both Karens. - SLORC Corporal who deserted in Tenasserim Division admitting to executing villagers

"It also says that the students must not do or talk about politics. Teachers and parents have to sign this paper. If the students do anything serious politically against SLORC, then as they say, "if the children are bad, it betrays the parents' name", so the police will come to the parents and they could be arrested and sent to prison. ... Still, we talk about politics. Some of our friends are the children of soldiers or officers, and we make them angry by saying bad things about their fathers. We are not angry, only joking, but sometimes we get into fistfights about it." - high school student from Thaton

"Before Ye was a happy place. Many people were walking around the streets. In the night, we had movies and a lot of businesses were going on. But now, Ye is so quiet. Now we have a very big cinema hall but we don't have enough electrical power. This oil lamp here gives more light than the lamps in the cinema. And after 8 p.m., there is no more power supply at all. This means no more movies. At night time, nobody walks in the streets. It is quiet and the business is not so good. Ye now is not so happy." - Mon trader from Ye town