PORTER STORIES: CENTRAL KAREN STATE

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Published date:
Thursday, October 31, 1996

This report contains the testimony of three Muslim men who suffered and witnessed serious SLORC human rights abuses in central Karen State in mid-1996, including forced portering, forced road labour, executions, torture and looting. The abuses discussed here and the testimonies of these men show that brutal treatment of porters and other villagers by the SLORC Army are not restricted to conflict situations or major military offensives, but are daily Army routine. Their stories also give an idea of how Muslims, who are generally mistreated and discriminated against by everyone in Burma, are particularly targetted for the heaviest abuses by the SLORC Army.

This report contains the testimony of three Muslim men who suffered and witnessed serious SLORC human rights abuses in central Karen State in mid-1996, including forced portering, forced road labour, executions, torture and looting. It is important to note that all of these occurred in a part of Karen State where there has been very little fighting over the past year, where SLORC claims to have brought "peace". The testimony of these men - particularly "Htun Win", who was beaten unconscious and left for dead because he could no longer carry his load - show that brutal treatment of porters and other villagers by the SLORC Army are not restricted to conflict situations or major military offensives, but are daily Army routine. Their stories also give an idea of how Muslims, who are generally mistreated and discriminated against by everyone in Burma, are particularly targetted for the heaviest abuses by the SLORC Army.

These men are from Myawaddy, a Burma-Thai border town in central Karen State, and Nabu (Karen name T’Nay Cha), 30-35 km. (20 mi.) northwest of Myawaddy in the direction of Pa’an. SLORC has been using civilian forced labour to build and improve an entire network of roads throughout this area in order to consolidate its military control of the region. While "Maung Hla Shwe" and "Maung Chit Win" (interviews #2 & #3) were used as road labour and porters in this area northwest of Myawaddy, "Htun Win" (interview #1) was forced to carry loads to an area 80 km. (50 mi.) south of Myawaddy along the Thai border, an area captured by SLORC from the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1995. SLORC is now massing troops in this area as well as further to the west, in apparent preparation for a new major offensive against KNU areas a bit further south. This offensive is expected to begin in November or December, and if it does then testimonies such as those in this report will become even more horrific and commonplace, and up to 20,000 refugees could be driven into Thailand.

The names of the men interviewed in this report have been changed and some details omitted to protect them; false names are enclosed in quotes. 

 

Abbreviations

SLORC = State Law & Order Restoration Council, Burma’s ruling military junta
KNU  = Karen National Union, main Karen opposition group
DKBA  = Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen group allied with SLORC
Ya Wa Ta/Village LORC = Village Law & Order Restoration Council, SLORC administration at the local level; often includes civilians, but is completely under military control.

 

Topic Summary

Forced labour as porters (Interviews #1,2,3), beatings / execution of porters (#1,2,3), porters killed by landmines (#1), sick porters denied medicine (#1,2), porters shot while escaping (#2), warrants for escaped porters (#2,3), forced labour on Nabu - Daw Lan road (#2,3), "Asia Highway" (#2), torture / execution of villagers (#2), villagers shot for running from the troops (#2), looting (#2), porter fees (#1,2), rice taxes (#2,3), DKBA presence (#1,2,3), breakup of villages (#2,3).

 

Interviews

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INTERVIEW #1.

NAME: "Htun Win" SEX: M AGE: 28
FAMILY: Married, 1 daughter aged 14 months (a previous child died when 12 days old)
ADDRESS: Myawaddy town, Karen State INTERVIEWED: 22/8/96
DISCRIPTION: Burmese Muslim, shopkeeper

["Htun Win" was carried into a refugee clinic in Thailand at the end of July, but was too weak and delirious to be interviewed until one month later. He was feverish, the muscles in both his thighs had been beaten to pulp and were severely infected, his right arm was badly damaged and swollen to a huge size, his left eye was badly injured, he had intense pain all over his chest and one of his left ribs was broken. During that month he underwent surgery 3 times, 1.5 litres of pus was drained from his arm and a similar amount from his thigh. His thigh muscles are too far damaged to ever heal properly; he will probably never walk perfectly again, as medics expect him to regain only 60-70% mobility in his legs. He has a corneal scar in his left eye which will permanently affect his vision, and at the time of writing he still suffers from chest and rib pain. He had been a SLORC porter for only 2 weeks.]

I moved from Thaton to Myawaddy. I have already been working there for 3 years. I was arrested in Myawaddy. It was on a Saturday. I had a fever so I cannot remember exactly. [It was early July.]

Q: Why were you arrested?

A: Because I couldn’t pay the porter fees for two weeks [’porter fees’ are just routine extortion money demanded from all civilians by the Army]. Just at that time they needed porters, so someone brought me a message from the chairman of the local Ya Wa Ta [Village LORC]: "’Htun Win’, come to the office for a while." At the time, I had a fever and I had an intravenous drip in my arm. They came by car and I got into the car. The car stopped in front of the office. I didn’t take anything with me because they said it would only be a moment. I had only the set of clothing I was wearing.

Instead they sent me to Maw Kee and Ka Neh Lay [frontline areas 80 km. (50 miles) southeast of Myawaddy, which SLORC seized from the KNU in 1995]. We travelled by truck for half a day to Kway Ta Maw mountain. The truck stopped there, at the foot of Kway Ta Maw, and I had to carry for 14 days. On the way, we faced fighting three times. I had to carry three 120 mm [mortar] shells, and 75 mm[recoilless] shells, and four 60 mm [mortar] shells. Altogether up to 7 shells at one time. It weighed about 25 viss [40 kg. / 88 lb.]. There were more than 700 porters. We were all walking together, but after we faced the first fighting the soldiers divided us into two groups. SLORC was fighting KNU and ABSDF. The SLORC Battalions were #356, 88, and 275. I was carrying for #356. I think they were headed further than Ka Neh Lay.

Q: Do you know any of their commanders’ names?

A: I can’t remember. The commander was very brutal. He was from #3 Company. He kicked me in the face with his boots. Now I can’t see clearly anymore. When I fell down, he stepped on me with the heel of his boot and he broke my rib. When I cough, I feel terrible pain in my whole body.

Q: Tell us step by step.

A: I was ill at that time, so I couldn’t carry this heavy load. I was carrying it for 14 days and I fell down unconscious. On the way, while walking, I suddenly fell down. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The commander threw water on my face and told the soldiers: "If he can’t carry anymore, we cannot leave him like this. Otherwise the enemy will find out our movements." Then the commander ordered me to stand up. He said, "Stand up! Why don’t you stand up? You are just pretending!" He stepped on me and broke my rib. He hit my back with a G3 rifle butt, then he pulled me up and kicked me and hit my arm. Then a soldier beat me on my arm with his rifle butt. They carried on kicking me and they hit my legs. I couldn’t count it - kick and hit... hit and kick... They hit me, but they didn’t shoot me because we were too close to the enemy. But as for me, I wished I was shot dead, so I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. They beat me trying to break both my thighs, because after that I couldn’t stand anymore. My face was covered with blood. And the commander thought I would die soon. Then the soldiers said: "We cannot leave him like this. If we do, we give information to the enemy." Two soldiers were pulling me up, and when I was halfway up the commander cursed me and kicked me again. I suddenly saw a big flash in my eyes [he had been kicked in the eye] and I got up slowly. Then the commander kicked me down the slope beside the path. I went unconscious.

That path was very old and the ditch was about 3 metres deep. The path was on the hill, called Kyaut Taung hill. My body was stopped from falling further down by the bushes. When the commander kicked me down the slope, other porters from Myawaddy saw me. Later when they were moving with the troops they ran away, and the same day at about 4 p.m. they came back to save me.

Two hours earlier, they had shot one of the porters and he died. He was from Myawaddy. They shot him in front of me. He was my friend. He was sick, the same as me. He fell down two hours before I did. He couldn’t stand up and a soldier hit him with his gun. Then he shot him dead. He fell down face down and he was shot with a G3 in the back of his neck and the bullet came out through his mouth. He was my friend. His name was Htun Htun Oo. He was from Myawaddy. [At this point "Htun Win" began weeping and could not speak for a while.] His age was about the same as mine. He was living with his old mother, not married. He was a trishaw driver. Half way along he got fever. So many got sick. Not only us. So many. But some of them could still keep carrying. I asked for medicine, but they said, "We don’t have enough medicine for porters". We got only one handful of plain rice twice a day but sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes our rice had turned bad [old and smelly]. Even salt we didn’t get. After the meal we didn’t even get water. We had to clean our hands with our clothes. For drinking water, it was water from the river. Along the way we didn’t get water either. The soldiers swore at us [if we asked]. Sometimes we asked each other. Some of the porters had a water container and they got water on the way.

Q: Did they allow people to bathe?

A: Nobody was allowed. We had to lie down on the ground. We had no shelter at night. We had no blanket. We could only cover ourselves with our longyi [sarong]. When it was raining, we had to stay in the rain like that. We were all put together as soon as we stopped .

Q: What did you do when there was fighting?

A: Me, I had to carry ammunition for big weapons [mortars / artillery]. I had to stay a bit far from the fighting. But I could hear it very well. There was shooting continuously for 15 or 20 minutes, then they stopped and then started again. But they were shelling steadily. This happened 3 times. I would have tried to escape then, but I couldn’t manage to escape because soldiers were around in the back. We[porters] just sat down.

Q: Did some people get wounded?

A: Yes. By landmines and also by bullets. I saw four, 2 porters and 2 soldiers [by landmines]. And also 3 by bullets. They took them to the medic. The two porters died but the two soldiers survived. Both porters were wounded in their left leg. Then they were amputated, just beside me. I saw the medics carrying the porters, and they didn’t look in such bad condition. But I don’t know if they died due to their injuries or if they were killed on the way. When they stepped on the landmine, it was about 8 or 9 a.m. At that time the battalion was about to leave. One died shortly after and the other in the evening. The medic gave better treatment to the soldiers - he amputated them too and put on a dressing. Then they were carried away but I don’t know where. The dead porters were buried.

Q: How were you rescued [after being beaten and left for dead]?

A: I was carried by 6 people. They are Burmans from Myawaddy. We got to know each other along the way [as porters - after "Htun Win" was left for dead, these 6 men escaped later the same day and came back to save him]. I don’t remember what time of day the soldiers beat me, but I felt that it was very hot. Then my friends came at 4 p.m. We had to walk one day. People there were cutting wood. They knew them. I was carried to Thailand in a hammock of 3 longyis [sarongs] tied together. Then they put me in a car. A Thai driver took me for free, and I spent one night in Thailand. Then we crossed by boat [back to Burma]. In Myawaddy I told them I was a porter. Then they brought me in a trishaw to the Ya Wa Ta [Village LORC] office, but the chairman said "This is not a hospital!" and told me to go home. Then they took me to my house.

I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak clearly and I couldn’t open my eyes very well. My face was swollen. My mother-in-law tried to cure me with many kinds of medicine and my face felt better. We cured my fever with herbal medicine. I couldn’t speak very well but I could drink well. Then I was sent to the clinic. The doctor said that an operation was needed. I agreed. I had pain in my whole body and I still had fever. I was coughing blood because they had kicked me here [in the chest]. I couldn’t even drink for 2 days after they kicked me. My mother told me, "Do what you like. We are with you." If I had the operations, I would have to spend a lot of money. To operate on only one part of my body [his thigh] it cost me more than 4,000 Kyats. I called my mother to help and now all her savings are gone. And still I didn’t feel better. So I had to come here [to a refugee clinic in Thailand] and I came. People brought me here about 8 days later.

Now [a month later] I can’t stretch out my leg. I cannot walk. My whole body is in pain. [A medic added: "It will take him a long time to recover. Dr. xxxx had to do surgery three times. He got three blood transfusions because he had become so anemic and lost so much blood. Not only his body but also his eye is damaged. He will need an eye operation. He will be able to walk again, but not as well as before. His thighs were injured by the beating and the muscles became infected. Pus was coming out and he had already had an operation in Myawaddy. Some muscles of his thigh are gone now." His thighs healed with muscle tissue missing and fibrosis, making it so he can only walk with his legs in a ‘cramped up’ position; medics expect him to only recover 60-70% mobility. One of his left ribs was also broken, he had severe pains in his whole chest even a month after the beating, and his right arm was severely swollen from the beating - during the first surgery, the doctor drained 1.5 litres of pus from his arm. His left eye will have a permanent corneal scar which will affect his vision. He was too weak and delirious to be interviewed until one full month after his arrival at the clinic.]

Q: What are you planning to do when you recover?

A: Until my left leg is cured, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know. Because now I have no more capital. I have nothing left. My house was by the riverside, and now since I have been here it has been destroyed by the floods. I don’t know what to do. I am just left with a few clothes and one pot. That’s all. The goods in my shop were carried away at the same time [the shop was in his house]. My wife couldn’t save anything. She had the child to take care of. When the river rose, she fled and came here.

I want to go back to Thaton. My mother stays in Thaton. Down there [in Thaton], they don’t have to pay as much as here. In Myawaddy we have to pay 500 Kyats per week as porter fees. Here [in Myawaddy], we can make money more easily. If you work hard, you can earn from 500 up to 1,000 Kyats per day. So each household has to pay 500 Kyats per week [much higher than in most other places]. I don’t know how everyone can get that money. But as for me, I failed to pay twice and here am I now! This was my first time as a porter. The whole journey [as a porter] was 14 days.

Q: Did you see any DKBA soldiers when you were a porter?

A: I only saw DKBA soldiers at the checkpoints and doing security along the road, the Myawaddy - Kawkareik road. [The DKBA sets up checkpoints merely to collect money from everyone who passes.]

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INTERVIEW #2.

NAME: "Maung Hla Shwe" SEX: M AGE: 36
FAMILY: Married, 6 children aged 7-17
ADDRESS: XXXX village, Nabu Township, Karen State INTERVIEWED: 20/8/96
DISCRIPTION: Burmese Muslim, farmer

["Maung Hla Shwe" arrived at a Karen refugee camp in Thailand at the end of June.]

I was doing slash-and-burn farming on the hillside, growing paddy. I don’t know exactly how many acres. Usually I got about 60 baskets of paddy [per harvest].

Q: Why did you leave your village?

A: I can’t stand doing unfair forced labour. We had to go with our own food and we had to dig the ground and build the road at our own cost. If you don’t go, you are beaten and pounded [a Burmese expression meaning beaten in many ways with various kinds of objects]. We had to work on the road between Nabu, Daw Lan and Pa’an. Sometimes the whole family has to go and sometimes they order 10 people from each section of the village. I can’t count how many times I went. 10... 20... 25... more than that. Sometimes for 10 days, sometimes 15 days. We have to go with our own food. If you cannot do the work or if you flee and go back home, you will be beaten.

Q: How far is it to the worksite?

A: About 10 or 14 miles away from our village. We had to stay there day and night. We had to arrange cooking for ourselves, eating for ourselves and sleeping for ourselves. Only when I had completed my work, then I could go home.

Q: Is it a new road or an old one?

A: A new one. I don’t know exactly why they are making it. I heard among my friends that it is like the "Asia highway" from Pa’an and Rangoon, and they want to make a shortcut through the Nabu-Daw Lan road. The road is planned to head to Than Ma Ya Taung and then to Wa Sakan village [north of Myawaddy, through a low part of the Dawna Range]. There has already been a road from Kawkareik to Nabu for a long time. [The "Asia Highway" concept is for a land route linking the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia through Burma and Thailand, passing through Rangoon and Pa’an, crossing the border from Myawaddy to Mae Sot and continuing to Bangkok. Going through Nabu would be a shorter distance than following the more travelled route to the south through Kawkareik. However, a more likely and immediate reason for the road construction in this area is to give the SLORC military better access and rainy-season offensive capability, and to improve their supply line so they can station even more Battalions in the area to control the population. Opening the Asia Highway does not seem to be a SLORC priority; they still refuse to open the cross-border "Friendship Bridge" between Myawaddy and Mae Sot, despite the fact that it has been finished for over a year and was entirely funded by Thailand. The bridge and the "Asia Highway" are used as weapons in SLORC’s "constructive engagement" policy with ASEAN, whereby SLORC uses trade to influence the policies of Thailand and other ASEAN nations.]

Q: Do they ask for porters in your village?

A: I had to go as a porter and so I got these wounds [on his hand]. I ran away because I could not carry anymore. I had to go as a porter and after more than one month I couldn’t carry anymore, so I ran away and I got shot in the jungle. I was hit on my hand and my side. Two bullets and three wounds. Here and here. The first bullet hit my hand and the second hit my [right] side and also my hand. I was running away and I looked back to see if I was safe. Then I was shot. I am not sure if it was with a carbine, but people who looked at my injuries told me it was. [M1 carbine rifle, carried by SLORC officers and NCOs.]

Later I treated it with some holy oil. Now it is getting better but I cannot hold things very tightly. I feel tingling, numbness and pain in my hand. One nerve was cut.

I was arrested [to be a porter] 4 months ago on the way back from the field to my village. When the soldiers saw us, they asked us to help them:

"Please help us for a while". So I just went to meet them. They made us go along the foot of the Dawna Range, to Tu Kaw Koh village area. We were always moving around in the jungle, not in the villages. I had to follow the column all the time wherever they went. You will only be free if you escape, otherwise you will never be released. I had to carry ammunition. Mortar shells. I don’t know which battalion. DKBA and SLORC were travelling together. There were about 50 DKBA and they were marching in the front. SLORC troops followed them. The porters were mixed amongst the SLORC soldiers, but some were also included among the DKBA troops. I was among the SLORC troops. There was no fighting while I was with them.

When we arrived in a small Karen village, they asked the women house owners, "Mother, where is Uncle?" [i.e. your husband]. When the women replied that he was not at home, they took the chickens and the pigs and ate them. If they saw a man, they took him as a porter. I saw a number of cases when they met some men along the way. They always suspected them of having contact with the KNU, so they took them, accused them of being KNU and beat them. I saw that happen in Naung Kine village. I saw a man beaten up in front of us. When they arrived in the village, that man saw the soldiers and ran away. The soldiers chased him and when they caught him, they tied him up, beat him and dragged him away. He was tied up with a rope, they tied his hands behind his back. They punched him and hit him with a rifle butt. Then they didn’t allow us to see and dragged him away. He was about the same age as me.

Also a young Karen man. He was carrying together with us in our group. He was not from our village - his village is a bit far from ours. He tried to run away. They caught him and killed him the same night. We heard that when they dragged him back, the SLORC soldiers kicked him and broke his backbone. Then they shot him dead. Because he didn’t manage to escape, he was killed like this. As for me, if I hadn’t succeeded when I escaped, I am sure I would have been killed like him. But they didn’t catch me, so I am still alive now.

We didn’t get enough food. Rice, fishpaste and wild bamboo shoots. Only this. Sometimes they gave yellow beans. We brought water with us. Sometimes when we arrived in a village, we asked water from the villagers. At night time, the soldiers guarded us. They put us altogether in one building. Sometimes in a school, in the monastery or at the Muslim hall [not a mosque]. There were about 100 of us. No women, but some men were older than me. They had white hair.

Many got sick, and they didn’t get any medicine. If you had money, you could buy medicine. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t get enough food to eat and I had to carry many days. I couldn’t stand this any longer so I tried to run away. I escaped in Tu Kaw Koh area. While I was carrying I suddenly put my load down and started running into the jungle. I just ran without stopping. Then, near the bushes, I got shot but I didn’t stop. My hand was wounded but I kept running.

I was wounded. The SLORC knew about me, that I was an escaped porter. They announced to the villagers that I was a wanted man. I dared not go back to my village. I sent a message to my family to leave the village and come to this side [to Thailand] with me. On the way, unfortunately we met with DKBA and SLORC again. We ran away, and my daughter got wounded by a gunshot. I don’t know who shot her [SLORC or DKBA]. She got the bullet in the right buttock. My daughter was injured so we couldn’t continue our journey. Her name is K---. Her nickname is A---. She is 18 years old. We went back to one of the villages to cure her and when she recovered we came here. Now she is okay. She got shot at the beginning of May. We arrived here on June 22nd. Now I want to just stay in the refugee camp with my family.

Q: Did DKBA ever come to your village?

A: Yes. They came to our village to ask for food and things. If we couldn’t give it, they would cause big trouble for us. If they see people who are traders or businessmen, they arrest them. They don’t like people who are trading at the border. I saw it. After they arrest them, they ask for money. If you can give them the amount they ask for, they will release you.

I had to pay 150 Kyats per month as porter fees. Each family also has to give 25 big tins of rice [about 400 kg. / 880 lb.] to SLORC. They pay at a very low rate, 90 Kyats per tin [market price is close to 500 Kyat per tin, at the time of printing]. I don’t give it because I do slash-and-burn farming. The [flatland] paddy farmers have to give it, as well as taxes for their paddy fields.

Q: How many families are there in your village?

A: Before Ya Wa Ta [Village LORC; in other words, SLORC] took power, there were more than 300 houses, but now there are only 27. Those who had enough money moved to the nearest towns and those who didn’t have enough money came here to the border. Only the elderly and some people who can’t afford to flee are still staying there.

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INTERVIEW #3.

NAME: "Maung Chit Win" SEX: M AGE: 28
FAMILY: Married, 3 children aged 1, 3, and 9
ADDRESS: XXXX village, Nabu Township, Karen State INTERVIEWED: 20/8/96
DISCRIPTION: Burmese Muslim, farmer

["Maung Chit Win" arrived at a Karen refugee camp in Thailand at the end of June.]

I am a farmer. I have 4 acres of paddy fields. But it is not my own, it belongs to my aunt. She rented them to me. I usually get 150 to 200 tins of paddy and I have to sell 10 tins per acre to SLORC, altogether 40 tins [about 600 kg. / 1320 lb.]. They pay 18, 20 Kyats [per tin of unhusked paddy; it takes 2 or 3 tins of paddy to make one tin of rice].

I also have to go for work on the Nabu - Daw Lan road. I went myself because I cannot afford to hire another person. I cannot count how many times. Each time, two or three days. Sometimes we have to go for 10 days continuously. Sometimes more, until we finish our assignment. We arrived here nearly two months ago. We could not stand this any longer, so we moved here. We also had to do other work [for SLORC]. Sometimes I could work at home for 3 or 4 days in a week. Sometimes only one day.

This year I have also been a porter. They make us go for 10 or 15 days, then if we have a chance we run away. The last time was not so far from my village, at the foot of the Dawna Range near Tu Kaw Koh and around there in the jungle. It was for 17 days, then I ran away. Usually they don’t release people.

We had to carry such a heavy load all day long, so sometimes we got so tired and we had to take a rest. Then if we fall behind, they beat us with rifle butts and kick us. I was beaten like that sometimes. Now the marks have disappeared, but at the time my shoulders were all black [from the heavy load]. I had to carry boxes of bullets for machine guns. It was for #44 Division. I don’t know the Battalion number but I know they are based in Thaton.

One night, I went to one soldier and asked him permission to go to the latrine. I got a light for my cheroot from the soldier and went to the latrine. Then I stuck the cheroot in the branches of a tree and ran away. They thought I was still there because my cheroot was still burning. But this time it was no use to go back home to my village, because if they see me there again they will send me as a porter again. So I decided to come here.

Q: How many families live in your village?

A: Once there were many. But now there are only a few over 20 - around 30 houses. There are Muslims and also Karens, mixed. The SLORC gives the most trouble to the Muslims. As you know, we Muslims usually have to suffer more than other people. I can’t say why this is.

Q: Do DKBA also come to your village?

A: Yes. Sometimes they give us trouble too. Once they were KNU, now they are with SLORC. They treat us the same way as SLORC and tell us:

 

"You Muslims, you are very headstrong [you don’t listen]". Before, when they were with KNU, we used to help them, to give them food, to hide them when the SLORC came. Now they are different from before and they treat us badly. Now they are oppressing us, like they do with the Christians. But of all the religions, Muslims are treated as the lowest. We are looked down upon. I tell you the truth. They don’t even allow Muslims to get ID cards. They don’t take any photos for ID cards for us.