FORCED LABOUR AROUND TAUNGOO TOWN

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Published date:
Sunday, July 28, 1996

 

The interviews in this report are with two Karen refugees who recently visited relatives in the plains just east of Taungoo town, in the far north of Karen State. Their accounts focus on the land destruction and forced labour of many villages east of Taungoo for the Pa Thee Chaung (Pa Thee River) hydroelectric dam project, as well as other kinds of forced labour such as standing guard along the roadsides. The Pa Thee dam project started about 2 years ago and is supposed to be completed this year. It has been done entirely with forced labour of villagers, and no compensation has been given to villages, in particular Ywa Gyi village, which have lost their homes and land to the project.

Other KHRG reports have described the current Four Cuts operation of destroying villages and food supplies which is happening in the Kler Lah (Bawgali) - Bu Sah Kee area of Taungoo District [see "Field Reports: Taungoo and Other Districts", KHRG #96-10, 29/2/96, and "Field Reports: Taungoo, Thaton and Pa’an Districts", KHRG #96-25, 18/7/96]. That campaign has not touched the area covered in this report, which is 20-30 km. to the northwest and much closer to Taungoo town. The names of those interviewed in this report have been changed and some details have been omitted in order to protect them.

 

Topic Summary

 

Forced labour on Pa Thee dam (Interviews #1,2), land confiscation/ destruction for the dam (#1,2), forced labour as sentries (#2), porters (#2), Army camp labour (#1), forced labour restoring Taungoo Palace (#1), forced labour at cheroot factory (#2), convict forced labour (#1), deaths during forced labour (#1), extortion (#1,2), general economic hardship (#2), persecution of Christians (#2), difficulty of travel (#1).

 

 

Interviews

 

INTERVIEW #1.

NAME: "Saw Klo Htoo"          SEX: M          AGE: 29
FAMILY: Single
ADDRESS: Refugee in Thailand          INTERVIEWED: 17/6/96
DISCRIPTION: Karen Christian teacher

During the summer vacation [March to start of June], I went back to my village to visit my family. [Some of the travel details must be omitted here.] There were a lot of checks [along the way on the roads], many checkpoints on the way. Before we left xxxx, all the vehicles and the cars were thoroughly checked by the SLORC. The battalion commander himself was there and checked around. I have no idea what he was after. On the way to xxxx, there were many checkpoints and soldiers guarding the road. The car drivers constantly have to get down and give money to the soldiers. All of them were SLORC soldiers, not DKBA [Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, a Karen group allied with SLORC]. In one place, not so far from Thaton, I saw criminals [prisoners] who were busy digging the ground. It was near Bilin.

I was in Taungoo quite often. Once a week I went to Taungoo. My village is xxxx, it is located xx miles east of Taungoo. It is in the plain area. It is a pretty big village with around 800 houses. The villagers are constantly asked by SLORC soldiers to help them in the dam construction. There is a village called Ngwe Taung Lay and the villagers there are also asked to help them, of course without any payment. They have to carry their own food ration. One person in each family has to go. If someone cannot go, he has to hire another person.

Q: How long do they have to work?

A: It depends. When I was there in the village, the people were ordered to go to a place called Say Bu Taung for one week, for the dam project. The villagers near that [dam] area were relocated. The people had to dig the ground and to make something like a wall. The work depends on the work site. Each family is ordered to finish one part. Unless the work is completed, they cannot go home. People have to go by rotation. For example, this village has to go and then next time they order another village to go. Then the first village has to go again, and so on until the work is finished. People told me that they have to go at least once every month. Not only the dam project but also for the military, they have to bring bamboo and things, to give money and go and work themselves at their camp. The soldiers are there for the security of the dam. I don’t know which Battalion.

Q: How big is the dam?

A: Quite big. I saw it, it is quite big. It is on the Pa Thee river, which is smaller than the Moei river. I assume that they are going to build a power plant or something like that, for electricity. But I don’t know electricity to where. [Note: there are reports that the Army plans to set up a large military training centre in this area.] They started building the dam two years ago and it is still going on now. It is supposed to be finished sometime in 1996. The river is blocked and there is a canal built below the dam. The area [above the dam] is now flooded and the village previously there was relocated. It was Ywa Gyi, a small Karen village. Now that place is full of water. The villagers lost their rice fields and some of them had rubber plantations. They couldn’t do anything about it. They had to move. They receive nothing [no compensation] and they were ordered to move to a place called Pya Sakan village. They went there and rebuilt their houses. The Goverment didn’t provide any land for them . They had to manage on their own. They were ordered to move last year, and even a village further away called Ta Thay Gone was also relocated. Two villages in that area. God knows how many villagers. Ta Thay Gone is very far from the dam site - the water will not even reach there. It is about 8 miles south of the dam and the village is far from the river. But I think that place has become a military area, so the village had to be relocated. It is related to the dam, for security purposes. They are sending reinforcements for security. Nearby, SLORC only has temporary camps but I heard rumours that they are going to build an army camp, like a military base there. But Ywa Gyi village was exactly where the dam is and now it is flooded.

People who can’t go work on the dam need 500 or 600 Kyats to hire a person. They hire someone directly themselves. 600 Kyats is for one week, 100 Kyats for one day. There are some people who go there to hire themselves out. Sometimes my relatives went and sometimes they hired another person. Officials come regularly to have a look at the dam. When they come, they ask the villagers to feed them, to serve them and they ask money from the villagers. That happens three or four times a month.

At the dam people are not beaten, but an assignment is given to each person. Unless the assignment is completed, he cannot go home. He has to complete it. No soldiers are guarding them but the village leaders have been given responsibility [the village elders and the village itself are punished if the work is not satisfactory]. Oh yes, I heard of one person who died as a result of snake bite. Nothing was done for him. Same as in the palace [see below]. It is quite a big area there, so people have to work in different places, and some parts are in the jungle.

The dam is 9 miles east of Taungoo. It is near my village, but some other worksites are quite far so the villagers have no time to come back at night. They aren’t building roads in that area, but people have to go for dam construction. And in Taungoo itself, the old historical palace is being repaired, so the villagers from around Taungoo have to go there to clean the area [of grass, scrub etc.]. When I was there I heard that two people died of snake bites while clearing the palace compound. The repair work is still going on. They say our village will also have to go there but not now, later. For now our villagers have other work to do constructing the dam. I didn’t go inside the palace but I had a look from outside. I didn’t see the villagers working because they are supposed to work inside. For that work they don’t use people who live in Taungoo, they only use people from the villages in Taungoo township. They order the villagers to go there. The people from the city don’t have to do forced labour.

I didn’t talk to people in the village so much because I was scared, you know. Mostly I stayed at home. I didn’t go out much. Maybe if they [SLORC] see a stranger in the village, they might ask questions around. I didn’t want to cause problems to my parents. So many people complain about the situation but they can’t do anything. Everybody talks about the dam project. They complain that they don’t want to go there to work. It is hard work.

They are going to widen the existing small road from Taungoo to the dam. After the dam construction is over, they will take the measurements and maybe some houses will be moved. We also have to pay porter fees but they don’t come and take people by force to carry loads for them. We have to pay 20, sometimes 40 Kyats per month for every family.

Q: Did you see many DKBA there?

A: Not in Taungoo. They are in Myawaddy, Pa’an, places like that [further south].

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INTERVIEW #2.

NAME: "Saw Tamla Htoo"          SEX: M          AGE: 44
FAMILY: Married, no children
ADDRESS: Refugee in Thailand          INTERVIEWED: 19/5/96
DISCRIPTION: Karen Christian pastor

I went to Taungoo on April 18th, for 10 days. I went to visit relatives there, in xxxx village. I stayed at my older brother’s house. I saw people digging a canal there, for an electric power dam on the Pa Thee river. It is 9 miles and 4 furlongs from Taungoo town. Much of the vegetation there has been destroyed - trees that people have had for 30 or 40 years have been destroyed. There is no hope for the villagers there. They have been relocated and they have to face many hardships. They have no way to work for their living anymore. They can just make charcoal and sell it. Now one big tin of rice costs 400 Kyats, in some places 500 Kyats. Poor people can only afford to buy 1 pyi [about 2 kg.] at a time, and they have to pay 70 Kyats for one pyi. Much of the available rice is rotten, it smells bad. It’s not good enough to eat, but people have to eat it. Prices of all commodities are getting higher and higher. Just one viss [1.6 kg.] of pork costs 200 Kyats. People are finding it very hard to survive.

The villagers are forced to work as labourers and sometimes as Army porters. The government set up a cheroot-making industry. They said they would do it on their own, but actually they make the villagers work there as ‘volunteers’. On the dam project, for every 10 barrels of diesel fuel they receive for canal construction, they only use 4 or 5 barrels and sell the rest for 5,000 Kyats each. Then they use the villagers to do the work instead of the machines. The villagers have to work for them all the time. This is Tah Lu Ner Mu, Ngwe Taung Lay, Kyauk Htaing and Pa Hee Lu villages, which are between Taungoo and Leik Tho, along the short-cut road from Taungoo to Loikaw. Pa Thee river is only small, but the reservoir of that dam is over 60 feet wide and quite long. The construction is not yet complete, they are still working on it. The water from the stream goes into the reservoir, then they take the water out through an outlet. I don’t know how they operate these things. Below the dam, they have built a canal only about two armspans [10 to 12 feet] across. I don’t know how far it goes. I’m not sure if the dam will be completely finished by now, but the irrigation department officials have already handed it over to Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt [Secretary-1 of SLORC and head of Military Intelligence - presumably he attended an opening ceremony for the dam]. I left on May 5th, and the people were still working there. The villagers have to take turns working there. Everyone has to go. There is no pay. At first people who couldn’t go for their turn had to pay 1,600 Kyats, but later they decreased it to 800 Kyats. At the dam, the villagers have to dig the earth - they are making the dam out of earth. The work shifts last for one or two weeks. People have to dig eight pits, and they can go when that assignment is finished. I saw 300 or 400 people working there. There are about 10 villages, and each group has about 50 people. Some have to work very hard, hewing the rock and carrying it from a long distance away to pile it at the foot of the dam. The villages I know of who are doing it are Toh Wah Chaung, Kyun Bo Gyi, Ma Lya Gone, Moh Gone, Tah Lu Ner Mu, Ngwe Taung Lay, Kyauk Htaing, Kyun Gone, Padauk Gone and Ywa Gyi villages [note: Ywa Gyi village was also forced to move without compensation and flooded by the reservoir]. Everyone has to bring along their own food supplies, axes, machetes, etc. I saw both men and women workers. Some women were widows, and some had to go in place of their husbands. The youngest people there are 12 or 13 years old, and the oldest about 60. I saw some soldiers there guarding the canal. I think they were afraid the rebels would attack it, though the Karen soldiers rarely reach that area. Also, they guard because there are many among the villagers who hate this project. The villagers lost much of their land. Some are fruit growers, dogfruit and bananas. Their plantations were all destroyed so they hate the soldiers. They lost all their land. I think 200 or 300 acres of land have been lost, mostly fruit orchards. Even the grave of my grandmother is included in the confiscated area. The villagers are very unhappy. They lost everything, with no compensation. Now they have to cut firewood and make charcoal to earn their living. There must be at least 200 or 300 adults out of work because of this. I don’t know where the electricity is to go. [Note: there are reports that the Army plans to set up a large military training centre in this area.]

The villagers also have to guard along the roads at night. All of the villages have to do this. Some have to keep guard over the bridges. I saw some in sentry posts along the road, and some at the bridges. I’m not sure how many have to go, I think it is about 5 from each village every night. The soldiers order them to report if they see anything unusual. If you don’t, you will be caned and imprisoned. I heard that one villager there fell asleep on guard duty, and he was hit hard by a soldier and nearly killed. If, say, a hand grenade exploded in the area, the village would have to answer for that. The village would be relocated. Also, if any fighting happens, the villages will be relocated.

If they need Army porters the villagers are called in and press-ganged. There is work every day for which they use the villagers. People from Taungoo town have to do the same as well or else pay money instead. They have to pay porter fees. And I heard that the villages in the hills all have to move down to Kler Lah [see note at the start of this report regarding the 4 Cuts operation].

Around Taungoo the SLORC don’t molest [harass] people for being Christian, but they make restrictions [against building churches, etc.] according to their suppressive rules and measures. If they find you carrying Bibles to give to people they take them away. They say the Bible belongs to foreigners. They say the Bibles are not printed in Burma so they are not legal. But I carry Bibles anyway. I am not going against them, I am just following the word of God.