INTERVIEWS FROM THE IRRAWADDY DELTA

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INTERVIEWS FROM THE IRRAWADDY DELTA

Published date:
Friday, July 26, 1996

This report includes two interviews, one with a Karen student and a Karen farmer, and another with a Karen farmer. Issues and abuses include violent abuse by SLORC soldiers, villagers living in fear, and problems related to ineffective distribution of rice.

The following accounts were given in interviews with people from the Irrawaddy Delta region southwest of Rangoon. The area is fertile farmland with a population which is half Karen and half Burman. Out of sight of the rest of the world and with no easy escape for the people who live there, it has seen some of the SLORC’s worst human rights abuses, particularly after a failed attempt by the Karen National Union to start an armed Karen uprising there in 1991. The events of late 1991, now known in the area as the ‘Bogalay Crisis’, led to a retaliation by SLORC in which thousands of Karen villagers, elders and clerics were imprisoned, tried en masse and sentenced to several years in prison, disenfranchised or executed. SLORC declared the entire region a ‘black area’, meaning combat units and tactics and summary military executions, torture and detention are practiced there with complete impunity. (SLORC divides the map into ‘white’, meaning fully SLORC-controlled; ‘brown’, meaning resistance forces operate in the area; and ‘black’, meaning the area is viewed as being resistance-controlled). Even now, though there has been no armed resistance whatsoever since 1991, parts of the area are still treated as ‘black’. Now the region suffers from extensive forced labour on SLORC road-building projects and tourism-related projects such as Bassein Airport and the Nga Saw beach project, as well as draconian crop confiscation and land confiscation schemes. As one of the farmers in this report testifies, hundreds of farmers in Nyaung Done Township were arrested, detained, and lost their land in May 1996 simply because they couldn’t hand over a rice quota under a new SLORC dry-season paddy scheme.

The interviews in this report were conducted by the Hsaw Wah Deh independent human rights monitoring group in May and June 1996, and mainly concern quotas and punishments imposed on farmers, road construction, persecutions of Karen and Christians, and recruitment to the Army. The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect them. For accounts of the Nga Saw beach project, see "Forced Labour in the Irrawaddy Delta" (KHRG #96-18, 16/5/96). For further background, see "Conditions in the Irrawaddy Delta" (KHRG #95-29, 4/8/95), "SLORC Officers Talk About Forced Labour and Refugees" (KHRG 25/9/94), "Letters from the Irrawaddy Delta" (KHRG 6/12/93), and other related reports.

Topic Summary

Mass imprisonment of farmers (p.4-5), rice quotas (p.2-5), shrimp quota (p.2), dry season paddy (p.4-5), land confiscation (p.4,5), money/labour demands to build a school (p.2), forced labour preparing for a SLORC visit (p.2), road labour (p.3,5), Army camp labour (p.2), labour building a police station (p.2), extortion of money (p.2-5), extortion of food (p.2), Army recruitment and conscription (p.4,6), persecution of Christians (p.3), persecution of Karen (p.3), arrest of aged Karen veterans (p.3), USDA (p.2).

Interviews

INTERVIEW #1

1) NAME: "Saw Kaw Heh"          SEX: M          AGE: 19
    FAMILY: Single DISCRIPTION: Karen Christian student

2) NAME: "Saw Lah Ghay"          SEX: M          AGE: 22
    FAMILY: Single DISCRIPTION: Karen Christian farmer
ADDRESS: Hsar Chet village tract, Lat Putta Township   INTERVIEWED: 19/5/96

Our village population is about 80% Karen, 70% Christian and 30% Buddhist. Hsar Chet Village Tract has 13 small villages within it, totalling about 2,000 families [approximately 160 families/village] and every village has at least 10 SLORC soldiers stationed within it. After the Bogalay Crisis, our village tract was classified as a "black" area, and still is now [see notes at start of the report].

Villagers have to build fences, clear areas of land and make bamboo spikes protruding from the ground at fence perimeters, repair roads to the army posts and keep watch as sentries for the soldiers. There are no porter fees, but we have to pay "collection" and "management" fees to USDA [i.e. organising and administration fees], road construction volunteers’ fees, also school and police station construction fees, and lastly, army recruitment fees. Altogether these cost one family about 2,500 Kyats each month [more than the whole monthly salary of a day labourer]. Moreover, each village has to give the soldiers stationed in their village foodstuffs, chickens, pork, ducks, dried shrimp, totalling 5-7 viss [8-11.2 kg.] per week, and when shrimp fishermen come back from their day’s work, they must give one viss [1.6 kg.] of fresh shrimp and one tin of condensed milk.

At the end of 1995 in Pyi Sa Lu village a new police station was constructed, for which every family in the village tract was required to give 500 Kyats, and had to assist in the construction. Likewise, at the beginning of 1996, a new high school building was constructed at Theik Pan Gaun Kyi village, for Standards 9 and 10, and for the construction of this building people who are day labourers had to give 500 Kyats each, and the farmers 1,500 Kyats each. That building was finished in March, made of brick and galvanised metal sheets, and the Commander of the Southwest Command, Brigadier General Nyunt Tin, opened the building himself. So the villagers had to work at cleaning the compound starting 10 days prior to the arrival of the Commander.

Actually, that school was previously a complete high school, prior to 1991 and the Bogalay Crisis. Subsequent to those events, Lat Putta Township was punished, and the school lowered to a middle school standard. Many government servants [including teachers] were forced to resign or were transferred for failing to report KNU movements. All government servants who were Karen were forced to resign without any questions asked, and because of that the headmistress and the Karen teachers were all sacked.

Even though now there is a high school again, most of the children cannot attend because after completion of 3rd and 4th grades [primary school] the parents withdraw them in order to help their families.

Rice price is currently 65-70 Kyats per pyi [8 condensed milk tins, about 2 kg.] and even the farmers themselves are concerned about the rice price because they themselves are suffering rice shortages due to the many kinds of quotas imposed upon the rice they produce. The average production per acre is about 50 baskets of unhusked paddy rice. SLORC imposes a quota of 12 baskets of unhusked rice per acre, which they purchase at 70 Kyats per basket, while the prevailing market price is about 450 Kyats per basket. There are other quotas: "Tatmadaw" [SLORC Army] rice at 1 basket per acre, which they sometimes pay for at 50 Kyats per basket, and sometimes pay nothing; "Saytanar" rice [in Pali, meaning ‘goodwill’] at 1 basket per acre, for which nothing is paid, and we do not know to whom or where it goes; and "Ma Wa Ta" [Township LORC] rice, also 1 basket per acre without recompense.

There are many kinds of funds collected by Ya Wa Ta [Village LORC], and if you fail to pay you are required to sign some kind of documents. Although people do not know what will happen if you sign, everybody is too afraid of this so they always pay. Nowadays, if a family has 5 members they all have to work at rice cultivation or fishing to survive, and also at road construction and other such loke-ar-pay[’volunteer’, actually forced] work.

This year our villagers have to work on the Pantanaw-Rangoon road construction, about 14-15 days per time, or alternately pay 1,500 Kyats to Ya Wa Ta. The road is to accommodate two cars side by side, is about 10 feet high, and there are thousands of people on the construction. Each village is allocated a specific portion of the road for completion. The work requires digging of the ground and piling it for the road. There is no clinic or medical services, no wages are received, and we must take all of our own supplies and stay alongside the road in miserable conditions. Some people are injured while working, but we don’t know exactly about that.

After the Bogalay Crisis, many old former Karen revolutionaries were arrested, including Pu Thar Mya, who was about 70 years old, and U Tun Shei, who was partly paralyzed. They were arrested and taken away on stretchers, and they both died in prison. Also, U Chit San Aung’s brother, U Tun Nay Thar, who never joined the Karen revolution, was jailed for 3 years. During the Bogalay Crisis, villagers were forced to walk ahead of the [SLORC] soldiers, shouting "Do not shoot!" while the SLORC soldiers fired at KNLA.

In our village, there are no problems between Karen and Burmese [civilians]. All are afraid of the SLORC. The Burmese villagers who also gave meals to the Karen soldiers during the Bogalay Crisis were punished too. But the SLORC is trying to divide Karen and Burmese, Christian and Buddhist. On road construction works, the Karen villages are required to work at more distant sites than the Burmese. The Burmese villagers said, "You Karen always go to work at places further away. That’s strange." A SLORC Major went to every village [in the area] and ordered the villagers to donate money to build a pagoda in each village, and he said "Christians must disappear". Also, there is a village called Padauk Gone which is completely Christian, and there a pagoda was built just in front of the church, only about 10 yards from the church building. At the ceremony to mount the pagoda with the hti [ceremonial golden umbrella-shaped ornament which crowns each pagoda], the Christians had to dance doan [a popular Karen traditional dance]. There is not a single Buddhist in that village. If a Christian church seeks to make repairs it must ask permission from Ma Wa Ta [Township LORC], and construction of new church buildings is not permitted. As for the [regional] Christian convention, previously anybody could go but now only 5 people per village are permitted.

In Rangoon, people dare to quietly abuse even an officer of the Army walking alone on the street, but in rural areas even Privates lord over the civilians. Sometimes a person doing absolutely nothing is slapped. The soldiers order the villagers to buy them boats and televisions and there are always at least 3 or 4 prostitutes staying with the soldiers stationed at the village. There are two kinds of SLORC soldiers. One is rude, and always wanting to dominate the villagers. The other is polite, using family words [i.e. addressing people as ‘brother’, ‘mother’, etc.] and soft words with the villagers, but he will ‘purchase’ rice for an unfair price, and when he returns to his unit [headquarters- on rotation] he will sell it for profit. So both types are bad. Soldiers are usually rotated every two months. When they are rotated, the village tract must collect 100,000 Kyats for each officer [perhaps two or three officers rotate each time per tract].

Regarding recruitment [as SLORC soldiers], our villagers have headaches about this. The soldiers come at least one time per year and demand 10 people for this purpose. Alternately, the villagers can give 200 Kyats per house in order to opt out of the recruitment process. Now, however, the SLORC soldiers have come to realise that they can get money this way, and so whenever they want money they come and demand new recruits.

We heard that there are many problems and difficulties in coming to Thailand, but we hoped that it would be better than life in our village, and so we came.

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INTERVIEW #2

NAME: "Saw Kler Eh"          SEX: M          AGE: 30
FAMILY: Single
ADDRESS: Nyaung Done Township, Irrawaddy Division          INTERVIEWED: 3/6/96
DISCRIPTION: Karen Christian farmer

In May 1996, many farmers from the whole of Irrawaddy Division were arrested because they could not provide ‘Saytanar’ rice to the SLORC [this is different from the ‘Saytanar’ (‘goodwill’) rice mentioned above; see below for explanation]. This year, the whole of Irrawaddy Division was ordered to grow dry season rice. If a farmer is unable to grow it, the rice fields must be confiscated. [Note: According to laws established under Ne Win’s BSPP and still being selectively employed by SLORC, the State owns the land, water and air, therefore the State is legally entitled to confiscate the rice fields of those farmers not meeting their rice production quotas, and ‘sell’ it to others]. So previously farmers could possess about 30 acres of rice fields, but nowadays the average is 12-15 acres.

The name of the dry season production is ‘Theetatye’. The method was developed in China, and it has a production target of 100 baskets [of unhusked rice] per acre. Farmers who had already planted and begun raising soya bean crops [this is often done in fallow ricefields during dry season] were forced to destroy these without compensation and grow the dry season rice crop. The time frame for this crop production is about three and a half months and the water must be pumped from the rivers by machine. However the average production of Theetatye rice for this year was 45 baskets per acre. The reasons for the poor production figures are that insects destroyed the paddy [these types of insects are more prevalent during dry season], as well as lack of fertilizers, lack of fuel for pumps and farm machinery, and lack of water pumps.

Ma Wa Ta [Township LORC] had agreed to distribute diesel fuel, fertilizer, water pumps and hoses, but only a few were received. According to the arrangement, each 5 acres of fields were to be allocated 8 gallons of diesel per month, to be purchased at 28 Kyats per gallon [official price, much lower than market price], and 75 kilograms of fertilizer per month. But in actual fact the farmers received it once only, at the beginning of the cultivation period, 7 gallons of diesel at 80 Kyats per gallon. As for urea and/or phosphate fertilizers, the farmers received nothing. On the black market, the price of urea is about 1,750 Kyats per 50-kilo bag, and phosphate costs 1,200 Kyats per 40-kilo bag. Across the period of production of dry season rice, for a five acre area approximately 5 bags of fertilizer [using 50% urea and 50% phosphate] is required. Water pumps are available only on the black market, and are expensive. The SLORC placed a quota of 5 baskets of paddy per acre on this ‘Saytanar’ rice. For other costs, to hire a plowing machine costs the user ten baskets per acre; to hire a pair of oxen and a cart costs 200 - 300 Kyats per day; also the farmer must put aside one basket of paddy per acre in order to grow the next season’s crop; finally, there are water pump fees, insecticide costs, casual labour costs [during intensive work periods of planting, weeding and harvest] so there is not much left for the farmers themselves. Moreover, each farmer in Irrawaddy Division must give fees totalling about 3,000 Kyats per family per month. So, some unfortunate farmers whose crops are very poor are unable to meet the ‘Saytanar’ rice quota, let alone have enough rice left for their own needs.

‘Saytanar’ rice is collected by the Agricultural Produce Trading Department [exact term in English unknown]. The farmers must transport their rice to the storage depots, which are guarded by soldiers in order to protect them from being burnt down by angry farmers. According to the soldiers, this ‘Saytanar’ rice is to be exported to China in exchange for weapons.

In May they started taking action against farmers who failed to meet the quota requirements, which were due in April. The farmers unable to meet the quota requirements number around 15-50 per village [out of perhaps 100-400 houses per village in total]. These farmers were instructed to bring their own food supplies along with them, and they were placed under detention in the police jail cells, or in school buildings once the cells were all full. Then the quota requirements were again demanded of them. Those failing to give it continued to be held in detention. [Most would have to sell their belongings or land for money, then buy rice on the market to pay the quota.] In May at Wah Kema town, the school was filled with detained farmers, and I saw 33 farmers, some handcuffed, the others tied with rope, all guarded by police, walking on the road to be relocated. This was a public demonstration that anybody who failed to give rice would be treated this way. The same thing happened in Myaung Mya, Ein Meh and Pantanaw. I know a Karen farmer about 50 years old from Pantanaw who had never been arrested or been to jail in his life, and after he was detained he felt ashamed that his hands could not grow enough rice, and putting the blame on them, he slashed at his wrists and had to be sent to hospital. Now all of the farmers are very unhappy about ‘Saytanar’ rice and are discussing that if the same thing happens again next year, then everybody will refuse to give rice and will instead go to jail.

Rice plantation farmers who want to change to fish farming are not permitted to do so. If they are to dig a pond then the authorities tell them that they require a ‘Form 39’, which is seldom issued to farmers.

For new road construction projects some paddy fields were destroyed. I saw a woman crying at Nyaung Done - Seh Kaw boat jetty, and then a monk asked her why she was crying. She replied that her dry season rice was going to mature soon, but as part of the SLORC plan for Nyaung Done-Pantanaw road construction she had just received an order to destroy her paddy within a day, and she was at a loss as to what to do.

People from Irrawaddy Division must work on these road construction projects. People from my village must work on the Myaung Mya-Lat Putta road. Some went with their whole families, and worked for about two months. Alternately, substitutes can be hired for 100 Kyats per day. The road is about 20 feet wide and 15 feet high. There is no clinic or medical assistance, and some accidents, but no deaths I know of. But last year, on the Shwe Laung-Wah Kema road construction, some died as a result of cholera. There was a SLORC army officer there who rode a horse and abused the villagers. Then one day his horse slipped and the front legs went into a hole. The officer was thrown from the horse and died from a broken neck. I don’t know his name but the villagers were very glad and named him ‘Officer Broken Neck’.

Nowadays, the SLORC army is taking in a lot of new soldiers. People from towns always refuse to join and pay money instead, so the soldiers are demanding people from the rural areas to join the army. For my village, soldiers from Infantry Battalions #92 and #93 set up recruitment signboards and promoted the Army. They ordered one person from every family to attend a meeting. In my case, my brother went, and then a drunken sergeant gave a speech and everybody had to listen. He said, "Join the army to protect the nation" but nobody showed interest, so then he swore at them and explained further, "Anybody who joins the army will be pardoned of any criminal or civil offense, whether murder, rape, robbery or debt. For any debtor who joins, the amount of your debt must be collected and paid to the creditor by the other members of your village. All the ethnic groups have surrendered to us, so do you know why we are recruiting soldiers to fight? We are going to fight the Americans." But the villagers were also creative, and they replied that growing rice is also necessary for feeding the country, and recruitment must come second to the harvests. If farmers grow rice twice a year, then they come to recruit soldiers twice a year.

So now some villagers eat their dinner by the light of the moon because they are too poor to buy fuel for lighting. Also, some farmers have disputes with one another when the river levels decline after the rainy season and more land is exposed [these areas being of quite substantial size] and each seeks to take control of the land, in some cases leading as far as murder. So four or five members of my village were imprisoned because of such disputes.

This last dry season, a fire burnt down many large shops along the market lane of Kyone Ma Ngay village. That place was assigned for demolition and reconstruction by the Ma Wa Ta [Township LORC], but the shopkeepers gave money to prevent that from happening. Then the fire started at around 1 a.m. close to a black market fuel shop, and so people were saying that it was not an accident because now, in order to reconstruct, the shopkeepers must again give money to the Ma Wa Ta.