Tenasserim Division: Forced Relocation and Forced Labour
SLORC's campaign of forced relocations and forced-labour road building in the Palauk-Palaw, Mergui and Tenasserim regions, which began in September 1996, is now being accelerated. [Note: Mergui is known in Burmese as Meik and in Karen as Blih; Tenasserim is known is Burmese as Taninthari. Both are towns in southern Tenasserim Division. Mergui is on the Andaman Sea coast about 200 km. south of Tavoy, and Tenasserim is on the southern Tenasserim River, 50 km. south of Mergui and 20 km. inland. Palauk and Palaw are smaller towns on the Tavoy-Mergui road, 100 and 140 km. south of Tavoy respectively].
Almost every village between the Tavoy-Mergui-Kawthaung car road in the west and the Tenasserim River in the east, from Palauk in the north to Tenasserim town in the south has been ordered to move one or more times between September 1996 and January 1997. The area measures about 120 km. north-south and 30 km. east-west. At least 35-40 villages, ranging in size from 20-150 households, have been affected. The area is almost entirely populated by Karen, with some Burman villages along the coastal road and the coastal reaches of main rivers. Almost all the villages ordered to move are Karen, but the people of several Burman villages have been issued orders that all families must move into the centre of their village.
Generally village headmen are summoned to the nearest military camp and ordered to move within a few days, though some have been given less than 24 hours. Villagers are ordered to destroy their own houses by removing the floor, walls, and roof, and if they do not then troops will burn their entire village. Several villages have already been completely or partially burned, including Pyi Cha, May Way, Wah Tho, Ku Teh, Wa Thu Lo, Ka Weh, Wah Lo, Noh Aw, and Ta Po Kee. The troops have even burned down SLORC schools in these villages which formerly had SLORC-provided teachers (though the villagers had to pay for them as well as the school and all related costs).
The villagers have been ordered to move to the roadsides along the Tavoy-Mergui-Kawthaung car road, the Boke-Ka Pyaw-Kyay Nan Daing car road, or to Burman villages on the lower Tenasserim River, depending on the area. No land, materials or assistance are provided. In every case the villagers are then used every day as forced labour on car roads. As soon as one road is finished, they are assigned to another road, and if there is any break in the road labour they are called to do forced labour building and maintaining the Army camps in the area.
Several thousand villagers (including the Karens who have been forced to move there and the Burmans and Mons who already live in villages along the road) are being used every day as forced labour to resurface the Tavoy-Mergui car road as well as its continuation south of Mergui. This road is ruined every rainy season and takes several months of forced labour to build and improve each year. SLORC is also constructing new car roads, including a branch of the north-south road running through Boke, Ka Pyaw, Aleh Chaung, Mazaw and Kyay Nan Daing (at least 40 km.) and a road from Tagu to Ta Po Hta and Ta Po Kee (estimated 30-40 km.).
Forced labour construction on these roads began in November/December 1996. Villagers are being forced to move to these roadsides and work every day along with villagers who already live there, many of whose houses have been destroyed without compensation to make way for the roads. People from over 50 km. away from these roads are also being forced to walk 2 days to get there in order to work on rotating 10-day shifts hauling dirt, building embankments, breaking rocks and digging ditches. Children as young as 12, people over 60, and women still breastfeeding their infants are being forced to do this work. In many villages and relocation sites, one person per household must be provided at all times without exception. No money, food, shelter, medical care or medicines are provided. Soldiers are often present but only to guard, never to work, and they often beat the villagers for resting. No convicts are being used.
Many villagers have moved as ordered, but the majority have fled into the fields and forests near their villages, where they build shelters in hiding and try to go back and forth to the village to maintain their fields, harvest their betelnut and tend their livestock. Whenever SLORC troops enter the area of their village they must hide, because anyone seen in these areas is shot on sight. Since December 1996, at least 20 villagers have been shot on sight or tortured to death simply for being found around their villages.
Those who have moved to the relocation sites as ordered can sometimes buy a pass from local SLORC authorities to return to their village, usually only for 1 or 2 days, but even these passes are no guarantee against being shot on sight. Villagers in the relocation sites have also been arrested; for example, the Baptist pastor of Zah Di Win village was arrested on 12 January because people in his village hadn't moved to the relocation site, even though he and his family had. At last report he was being held at a camp of Infantry Battalion 17 with his hands tied behind his back day and night, and had not yet been released.
Since early January, SLORC troops have increased their patrols into the relocation areas to hunt out and execute villagers in hiding, re-issue orders to move, and burn villages which have not cooperated. Battalions involved include Infantry Battalions #280, 101, 17, 103, 19 and 433. The overall operation seems to aim at clearing out the entire civilian population between the coastal plains and the Tenasserim River 50 km. to the east, and using these people to push new military roads into these areas so SLORC can set up Army posts throughout the region (which the villagers will also be forced to build). This would make it more difficult for Karen soldiers to operate in the area, and would provide SLORC with positions which could be used as a springboard for attacks on the southern Tenasserim River valley in the future. According to the villagers doing the labour, the SLORC is in a great hurry to finish the new roads. Those still hiding in the area say that if the roads come, they will have to flee. Over 1,000 have already fled the villages and relocation sites to reach areas along the Tenasserim River to the east which are under Karen National Union control. They have scattered among existing villages there and are mainly depending on charity from villagers who live along the river. Very few have made it to Thailand, but this is very difficult and there is no refugee camp for them in this part of Thailand, so they are only likely to end up on construction sites, or doing bonded labour or sweatshop labour.
Details, maps, interviews and photos regarding the situation in these areas will be available in an upcoming KHRG report and photo set.