Karen Human Rights Group Commentary

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Karen Human Rights Group Commentary

Published date:
Thursday, July 18, 1996

The State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) junta ruling Burma is now using mass forced relocations of entire geographic regions as a major element of military strategy. While this is not new to SLORC tactics, they have seldom or never done it to such an extent or so systematically before.

[Note: Some details have been omitted or replaced by ‘xxxx’ for Internet distribution.]

"I saw people moving, carrying their children, carrying their things. I saw them walking along the roads, and living along the roadsides. It makes you cry - they've lost everything, and their houses have been burned. People couldn't take much with them. You see many people carrying children, and a load on their back too. I saw it around Kun Hing ... it's everywhere! They're all over the place, I can't list all the places. They were moving close to the towns. They're just living in bamboo huts, I saw the places they're staying in. They're staying all packed together. They don't have any money to build proper houses, so they have to do that. I saw soldiers guarding some of these places. They looked like camps, many huts. I saw lots of these places. In some places the people beg along the sides of the road. They hold monk's bowls and just stand there by the roadside, all day long. They hope passersby will put some rice or money in their bowls. The children hold out their caps. I saw groups of 30 people or more standing together along the roadsides doing this." - Shan man who visited the relocation areas in Shan State

"... all the area between the Pon River and Salween River, all villages south of Shadaw and north of Shadaw, must gather at Shadaw. 7 June 1996 is the last day for all the villages to gather, we send this letter to inform you all. If you do not gather by the deadline the troops will enter the village and if we see anyone we will consider them as enemy." - SLORC written order sent to 98 villages in central Karenni on 1 and 2 June

The State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) junta ruling Burma is now using mass forced relocations of entire geographic regions as a major element of military strategy. While this is not new to SLORC tactics, they have seldom or never done it to such an extent or so systematically before. The large-scale relocations began in Papun District of Karen State in December 1995 and January 1996, when up to 100 Karen villages were ordered to move within a week or be shot [see "Forced Relocation in Papun District", KHRG #96-11, 4/3/96]. These were all the villages in the region between Papun and the Salween River, an area about 50-60 km. north-south and 30 km. east-west. Most of them were ordered to move to sites beside military camps at Papun, Kaw Boke, Par Haik and Pa Hee Kyo, where SLORC was gathering people to do forced labour on the Papun-Bilin and Papun-Kyauk Nyat roads. However, the main reasons for the forced relocation were to cut off all possible support for Karen guerrilla columns in the area, most of which has only been SLORC-controlled since mid-1995, and to create a free-fire zone which would also block the flow of refugees from inside Karen State to the Thai border. Recently, though, SLORC troops in the area have limited their movements rather than combing the area, allowing some villagers to trickle back to their villages. This may be partly because of rainy season or because of the current SLORC-Karen National Union ceasefire talks, but it is probably largely because SLORC realised it could not control the result - people were fleeing into hiding in the jungle, some were fleeing to Thailand, but none were heading for the relocation camps.

This has not stopped SLORC from conducting new and larger relocation campaigns. Starting in March 1996 it began an unprecedented forced relocation campaign in central and southern Shan State, covering the entire region from the Salween River westward for 120 km. to Lai Kha and Mong Kung, and from Lang Ker and Mong Nai in the south (about 60 km. north of the Thai border) northward to the area west of the ruby mines at Mong Hsu - a total area of 120 km. east-west and 180 km. north-south. [See "Forced Relocation in Central Shan State", KHRG #96-23, 25/6/96.] In this area, between March and June almost every village away from towns and major roads has been forced to move. Estimates are that at least 400-500 villages are included, a total of 60,000-80,000 people. Information gathered by both the Shan Human Rights Foundation and KHRG already includes the names of 320 villages, as well as 22 other village tracts (averaging 5-15 villages per tract) for which lists of village names are not yet available, in Kun Hing, Mong Nai, Nam Sang, Lai Kha, Mong Kung, Lang Ker, Mong Nong, and Kay See townships.

"The Burmese said, 'Drive them away from here! Let everything be done within 5 days, otherwise we'll set fire to the houses'. The Burmese from Mong Pan themselves gave this order. They started from Chiang Tong and made their way to us. So we had no chance to take our belongings. As soon as they said 'Get out', we started to move. As we didn't have carts or anything, we started moving right away. We were given no chance to go back or look again on our place. If we did, they would kill us." - Shan woman over 50 from Lang Ker township

"The Burmese soldiers came to the monastery. They said to the monks: 'The village must move. If we come back again and the village hasn't moved we will burn the village and the monastery.' They said this to the monks, then they went into Wan Ho Hai ..."--Shan Buddhist monk from Lai Kha township

"They used dry straw and held it up to the roof. They said nothing, no warning. Even though they knew that we were still in the house they set it on fire. I was just holding my baby. As soon as I knew the house was on fire I just held my baby and ran out of the house. I couldn't take anything - we just tried to escape from the fire. ... After that I didn't go back to see, but people told me our house had burned down completely." - Shan woman from Chiang Tong township whose house was set alight with her inside

The relocations follow a standard pattern: SLORC troops come to the village and order all villagers to leave within 5 days, after which they will be shot on sight. If any objections are raised, village elders are beaten and some houses are burned as an example. Some people have had their houses set alight while they were still inside, and some elderly people who refused to move have been burned to death inside their houses. Others have been shot for returning to their villages after the deadline to retrieve belongings or food. In some cases the soldiers order them to move to specific sites along car roads or around big villages, but in many cases they are just ordered to move to a town or a patch of scrub on the outskirts. Some troops even tell villagers to go to Thailand if they want, as long as their villages are cleared. Nothing is prepared at the relocation places; many of them are waterless fields or tangled scrub. Most people cannot take all their belongings, and large herds of livestock have been left behind to be killed by SLORC troops. At many relocation sites the SLORC troops confiscate all the villagers' rice, then ration it back out to them at a rate of only 3 small milktins per person per day (supposedly to make sure that they will not have any to give to Shan soldiers; however, this is not even enough for sustenance). People from the area say that the whole area is in chaos, that thousands of people who used to have farms and livestock are living in shelters along the roads, begging for food by running out to passing vehicles with hands outstretched or simply standing quietly by the roadside with a monk's bowl. Towns and villages which haven't been moved now have up to 5 or 6 families living in each house and others occupying every available shelter and cattle shed. In areas like Chiang Tong 50 villages have been forced to move into 3, and villages which used to have 60 families now have 7,000 people. Some of the relocated people are now being used as forced labour on projects like the Nam Sang - Kun Hing and Lai Kha - Pang Long roads, the Lai Kha - Mong Kung railway, working at army camps and standing sentry on roads.

"The quarter of Ton Hoong is full of villagers, staying in every corner, everywhere. In paddy field shelters, and where the farmers pile their straw, even in the cattle corrals, people are staying everywhere. By the time I got there it was raining very heavily. ... When they get sick there is a hospital but there is no doctor there, so they have to rely on herbal medicine. Some have died." - Shan farmer from Chiang Tong township

"It was raining heavily, and there was a hailstorm. The shelter where [my mother] was staying was very old and worse than this house [a simple bamboo hut with dirt floor], and the house fell down on her. They had to lift the house up off her. When we left for Thailand she still couldn't walk very well." - Shan woman who was forced to move to Lang Ker, then fled to Thailand a month later

Monks who meet the refugees coming through the border estimate that during the peak of the exodus in April, 200 or more people per day were fleeing through each of the 4 or 5 main border crossing points. It appears that at least 15,000 people have fled to Thailand, where they disappear as labour in the Thai lychee orchards or to building sites and sweatshops in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, because there is no refugee camp for Shan people. Numbers have decreased through May and June, because the roads on the Burma side of the border have washed out and because many people do not have the 4,500 Kyat it costs for the car fare from Nam Sang to the border - but people are still crossing.

"My uncle was chairman of xxxx village, and he had to move to Kun Hing. I visited him. He hasn't got anything now. He couldn't bring anything with him, and he had to leave all his livestock behind. His house is no good now, not like before, and he's got 4 children, 3 of them daughters. My uncle told me he wants to come to Thailand. From nearly every house there are people coming to Thailand now. He is over 40. He asked me to find him work here, but I said I couldn't promise anything." - Shan man telling of his family in Kun Hing area

"Some go to Bangkok and they have to be scared all the time, always hiding from the police. That man there, he used to stay in Bangkok and he's used to being arrested and sent to prison. He's not afraid of them anymore, because he knows he'll be in jail for not longer than 3 months, then released. In jail at least he can eat rice. Not like in Burma. Before they came here, even though they had the chance to work for themselves, they had rice and crops, but in the end it was all taken by the Burmese. Over there we could barely survive. So what have we to fear from the police?" - Shan farmer who has worked in Thailand for several years, explaining why many refugee workers consider the risk of imprisonment as 'illegals' in Thai jails better than life in Burma

SLORC is using these relocations to try to put pressure on some of the many groups of Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army (MTA) which did not surrender with Khun Sa in December 1995, such as Yord Serk's Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), and to cut them off from any possibility of obtaining food or support from civilians. However, the relocations also target groups which have had ceasefires with SLORC for several years, such as the Shan State Army in the area west of Mong Hsu, the Pa'O National Army south of Nam Sang, and Garn Yod's Shan State National Army (SSNA, which broke away from the MTA last year and made a ceasefire with SLORC), because SLORC is apparently afraid that the MTA-remnant groups will contact the ceasefire groups and convince them to fight. SLORC generally takes any opportunity it can to weaken ceasefire groups in preparation for eventually disarming them.

Most of the villagers who have been forced to move are rice farmers who don't really care which group is which, they just know they must give food or money to whoever points a gun at them. SLORC now tells them that they will only be allowed to go home when every Shan soldier has surrendered. The SLORC troops seem to think this will happen within a few months, but the villagers know better and they have no idea what will become of their future.

Throughout June and July 1996, SLORC has conducted a mass forced relocation campaign covering more than half of the geographic area of Karenni (Kayah State) and affecting at least 183 villages so far with an estimated total population of 25-30,000. [See "Forced Relocation in Karenni", KHRG #96-24, 15/7/96.] The first orders to move came as early as April in Baw La Keh (often spelled Bawlake) area on the Pon River. However, the biggest wave of relocations began on 1 June, when an order was issued to all 98 villages between the Pon and Salween Rivers, an area 120 km. north-south by 15 km. east-west, to move to relocation sites beside SLORC Army camps at Shadaw and Ywathit. The order clearly stated that after 7 June, anyone seen in or around any of these villages would be "considered as enemy", i.e. shot on sight with no questions asked. Shortly afterward the relocations spread. To the south, villages in Pah Saung township were ordered to move to a relocation site near Pah Saung by 20 June. Villages surrounding Mawchi and to the north and west all through the Too River watershed were ordered to move to Mawchi, Bu Ko and Kwa Chi by 20 June - a total of at least 52 known villages. At least 26 villages east of Pruso and Deemawso were ordered to move by 25 June, and 7 to 10 villages in the Daw Tama area east of the Salween River were forced to move to Daw Tama by the same deadline. Even just to the northeast of Loikaw, the capital, at least 29 villages have been forced to sign papers stating that they will be forced to move if any shots are fired in their area.

"They just sent a letter. It said, 'When you see this order you must move immediately. If you don't you will be driven away and beaten like dogs and pigs, maybe even shot dead. If you refuse to leave your house, you will be burnt together with your house.'" - farmer from Baw La Keh township, Karenni, who was forced to move

"Then suddenly the soldiers invaded our village and said we have to follow them. They said, 'By this time you should have arrived at the relocation place in Ywathit. We will burn all the possessions left behind in your village. Go!' and they pushed us and told us to go quickly. There were 75 soldiers from #430 Battalion. Our village only has 25 families. ... They said, 'You must not refuse. Don't you see our guns? If we see you in your village we'll come, 10 Battalions will come to your village and we'll kill anyone who's left here. For the old men and women I will allow them 3 days to stay here, but the rest of you must come back and get them later'. We only had half an hour to get ready, and then they took us from the village with their guns pointed at us." - Kayah villager who was forced to move to Ywathit relocation site in mid-June

"As for us, we were told to stay in a paddy field which the owner had just prepared for the coming planting. He had just put fertilizer on it. ... They just put sticks in the ground and said 'This is for you, this is for you', and so on. ... They made 12 foot by 9 foot plots of land for each house. You need 2 plots of land to build a house, and you have to buy each plot, they don't just give it." - Shan farmer in Karenni who was forced to move to a Baw La Keh relocation site

The forced relocations cover almost every area where the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) has ever operated. The KNPP has been fighting Burmese occupation for over 45 years. (Note: the Karenni call their homeland Karenni and fight for the independence the British regime granted them in 1875, while SLORC calls it Kayah State.) In March 1995 the KNPP made a ceasefire with SLORC, but SLORC broke the ceasefire on 29 June 1995 with fresh attacks. By the end of March 1996, SLORC had taken all of the main KNPP bases near the Thai border. The KNPP reorganised and guerrilla columns were sent further inside Karenni to disrupt SLORC forces. Rather than hunt the guerrilla columns, SLORC is removing the entire civilian population so the columns will have no means of support, and also to try to get civilians to pressure the KNPP to surrender. Thus far almost the only areas of southern and central Karenni not to be affected by the relocations are areas where the Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF) operates; the KNPLF made a ceasefire with SLORC in 1994 which is still holding. A report we have not confirmed yet, however, suggests that some villages in KNPLF area have now been ordered to move as well.

Most of the villagers affected by the relocations are ethnically Kayah, and there are also many Shans in some areas (with no connection to events in Shan State). Even in areas east of the Salween River which have not been ordered to move, most people are living in hiding in the forest due to fears of fighting in the area, SLORC troops taking porters, and their fear of sudden forced relocation at gunpoint.

"SLORC told us, 'All the groups have made ceasefires with us except the Karenni. Karenni are very headstrong.' They said, 'If there is water, there will be fish.' When they said that, we hurried to run away." - Kayah farmer from Shadaw Township who was ordered to move to Shadaw in June

"They said that people who live in Daw Kraw Aw area are rebels. 'So', they said, 'We can kill you anytime we want. All people in Kayah [State] are rebels.' In our village they said, 'In this village, you yourselves are all rebels.'" - farmer from Shadaw township

Most of the people ordered to move have been fleeing to the relocation sites, towards Thailand or to other areas. A few are attempting to hide in the forests, though most feel this is too dangerous. SLORC has promised food and places to stay at the relocation sites, but on arrival people find neither. At some sites hundreds of people are living in monasteries, abandoned huts, shelters, or under other people's houses. At Shadaw some barracks are being built beside the military camp to house some of the people. At most sites, SLORC troops simply allocate an area of scrubland and tell the villagers to clear it. At Wan Mai, near Baw La Keh, the troops have confiscated farmland, marked it out with stakes and are forcing the relocated villagers to buy plots from the Battalion to build their houses. No one has any land to farm, nor are they allowed to go back to farm their home fields. Most people had no chance to bring much food with them and SLORC provides none, so at most sites SLORC has relented and allowed people to go back to their villages to get supplies. This is only for a limited time: for example, at Shadaw people were told that they must all be back by 27 June, and after that anyone outside the camp would be shot on sight. Near Baw La Keh, villagers were told that by July all roads would be blockaded and even cross-river ferries would stop operating in the area. It is important to note that these relocations are all happening at planting and growing time for the year's only rice crop, so this year at least half of Karenni will have no rice harvest. SLORC soldiers have made clear to the villagers that this is fine with them - as one villager told us, "They told us that it is not necessary for us to grow anything, because we won't eat it ourselves, we will only use it to feed the rebels."

Water is inadequate at some of the sites, and at every site disease is rampant. Those wishing medical help must buy their own medicines, and at Shadaw people must even pay for a 'clinic ticket' before they can go to the nurse. At Ywathit, the relocated villagers are already being used by the troops to do forced labour on a road, and at Wan Mai they must do army camp labour every other day; at the other sites, soldiers tell the villagers there will be no labour "for now", but all the villagers are sure they will be used as military porters and other labour in the near future.

"I saw a family whose children were very hungry, so their father went to the Army and asked for food, but they refused. He went home, but then he saw his children all so hungry and crying, so he went back and asked the Army again. They beat him, then they pushed him away and shouted 'Go away!' That man said later, 'I have to get away from here, if I stay here a long time I will die by starvation or by SLORC'." - Kayah villager describing conditions at Shadaw relocation site

"We are allowed to go only 3 miles in any direction. Even for that we have to take their written pass with us. That is to go within 3 miles. Beyond 3 miles, no written permission will be effective. Anyone found beyond 3 miles away will be shot on sight." - Shan farmer explaining movement restrictions at relocation site near Baw La Keh, Karenni

At least 3,000 people fleeing the relocations have arrived at Karenni refugee camps in Thailand, despite the difficulty and danger of the 4 to 7 day walk in the monsoon rain and mud through the forest and over mountains, with little or nothing to eat and the possibility of encountering SLORC troops at any point along the way. As of 3 July, 2,091 new people had registered in Karenni Camp 2, the main arrival point, and up to 100 more were arriving each day. In many cases entire villages are arriving together. A very high proportion of them are arriving suffering malaria, respiratory infections, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, dysentery, skin diseases, malnutrition and exhaustion. Many children have died on arrival at the camp - in the first week of July one observer estimated that one child per day was dying. Overseas organisations helping the refugees are saving as many people as possible with the resources at their disposal. SLORC officers just across the border have already demanded that the Thai Army hand all the refugees back.

"When we were on the way here we didn't know if we would die or not. I was with my whole family. We were very afraid and full of worry. My baby was born in Daw Bu Loh village along the way, in the afternoon. That evening I took a bath with hot water. In the morning I had another bath, and then we resumed the journey. We had to walk in the water the whole day and I got sick. Even though I had high fever I had to walk and hurry to arrive here. That night we had to sleep beside the path, and it was raining. ... When I arrived here I had fever, and my whole body was in pain. Now I feel very cold and I have headaches. My baby has a runny nose and can't breathe, he has to breathe through his mouth. When he coughs we can hear 'Krek! Krek!' When I arrived here I don't know what happened in my heart, I don't know what has happened to me." - Kayah woman who fled to Thailand after SLORC ordered her village to move or be shot

The main purpose of these relocation campaigns is in keeping with SLORC's current policy of "draining the ocean so no fish can swim"; anywhere there is opposition, the entire civilian population of the region is forced at gunpoint into relocation camps and told that they can never go home until the opposition group capitulates. This approach was used by SLORC several times before 1993, notably in Palaung areas of Shan State and Thaton District of Karen State, but since then forced relocations had been on a much smaller scale, generally only to achieve local military objectives. The current return to mass forced relocations represents a significant shift in SLORC military policy, away from the pretext of negotiated ceasefires and aiming for a forced surrender in every case. The geographic extent of the current scorched earth campaigns and the number of people being affected are greater than anything previously attempted by SLORC. Yet it is depressing to note that while the international community has been quick to condemn SLORC's recent actions against democratic politicians in Rangoon, none of those condemnations have so much as mentioned the more than 100,000 people who have at the same time been driven or burned out of their homes, forced into guarded camps rampant with dysentery and malaria, with no water or food, once-proud people forced into begging along muddy roadsides and facing starvation. SLORC relies heavily on this international ignorance and apathy about Burma's rural villagers, knowing it can conduct campaigns which systematically destroy the lives of tens of thousands without fear of repercussion. They are the bulk and the backbone of Burma's population, but yet again they stand ignored.

"Wherever they see Shan people they despise and look down on us very much. They consider us as country bumpkins and treat us very badly, like beating and other kinds of abuse. When we meet them on the road, we are caught and used as porters. As we spend our time farming we don't have time to resist them. That's why we had to flee to Thailand. After the village was burned we tried to find hope for the future but we couldn't see any hope. We won't even be able to do farming like before, or trading. We felt that there's no hope at all to live in 'Union of Myanmar'. For these reasons, whatever may come, we made our decision and left for Thailand. We do as others do." - Shan farmer from Chiang Tong township who fled his village after his house was burned in February and his village was ordered to relocate in May.

"They are being forced to cut the grass at the side of the road. The Burmese are afraid that they will be shot [from the roadside scrub]. This road goes from Nam Sang to Kengtung. They have to clear about 4 metres along both sides, from Kun Hing to Nam Sang. These people doing the work are people who have been forced to move. They are from every village. In this area they've all moved. There's nothing left." - Shan Buddhist monk describing what he saw in Nam Sang area

"All of them were from Kung Sar. They had already moved to Kun Mong, but it is not far, so they came back to their village to get their rice, and by that time it was too late. So they met the Burmese, and they got shot. They weren't even going to stay in the village, they were just going back to get their rice." - Shan villager from Chiang Tong describing how 5 relocated villagers were killed and 2 wounded by a SLORC patrol in May

"They just put a stick at a spot and said 'Here is where you build your houses'. They only marked the place with a stick. 270 families have been forced to move there from 9 villages." - Shan farmer in Karenni who was forced to move to a Baw La Keh relocation site

"The Burmese said we must stay 3 complete years in that camp. They said, 'Don't think about your animals, we will kill them. For now you can bring them to our camp, but any we see later we will kill. Don't hold any hope for them.' They also said, 'We have to kill any people who are hiding in the forest.'" - Kayah farmer who moved to Shadaw as ordered in June

"We are not even allowed to go and work in our fields and farms or do any cultivation. They told us that it is not necessary for us to grow anything, because we won't eat it ourselves, we will only use it to feed the rebels. ... The Burmese troops said that there is no way for us to return home. They said, 'There will never be any way for you to go home, ever.'" - villager who moved to Baw La Keh relocation site, Karenni

"We had to run away. ... When I left I couldn't take everything with me. Since the father wasn't there, all I could do was take the children. Oh! It was very hard and miserable to move! First I tried to move to Nong Tao, which is not far from Wan Kaen. But we were told that we couldn't stay there, so finally we moved to Lang Ker - to Wan Kaen, to stay with my relatives. No one helped me, I did it all myself on my own, holding my baby all the time. Just mother and baby. My oldest boy can walk, so he walked along. My parents have a pushcart, so I put my smaller boy on the cart, and I carried my baby on my back with me while I carried other things on my front. ... Oh! It was terrible. My tears were even dropping along the way." - Shan woman from Lang Ker area. SLORC later burned down her house.

"It took us 6 days to walk here. We were very, very disappointed and unhappy. People were crying, we could not sleep and we could not eat. We saw deserted villages so we were very afraid and worried about that. I was upset because I saw there was no one there to look after the cattle, buffalos and chickens. I didn't want to sleep in those deserted villages. All the women and some of the men were crying. We were in a hurry so all our things were left behind. When we slept we dreamed about our houses and our things and we were very sad. I still burst into tears when I think about all I've left behind." - Kayah villager who fled Shadaw relocation site

"I've never seen a situation this bad. Before we just had to run to neighbouring villages to avoid them. But now it's everywhere, and they said they'll burn our villages and kill our animals. I've never faced problems this bad in my life." - Kayah farmer from Shadaw township