Destruction of All Hill Villages in Papun District
Since the beginning of 1996, SLORC has launched campaigns in many parts of Burma to forcibly move or wipe out all rural villages which are not under the direct physical control of an Army camp. In February/March 1997, SLORC began a campaign to obliterate all villages in the hills of Papun District, northern Karen State. The initial wave of village destruction was carried out through March 1997, but since the beginning of June 1997 SLORC patrols have stepped up their efforts to destroy all signs of habitation and food supplies wherever villagers had managed to rebuild. KHRG has compiled and confirmed a list of 68 villages which have been completely burned and destroyed and 4 more which have been partially burned. These are all Karen villages, averaging about 15 households (population 100) per village. This list is by no means complete, and right now SLORC patrols continue to burn villages in the area.
The main areas targetted are the Bilin (Bu Loh Kloh) and Yunzalin (Bway Loh Kloh) river valleys and adjacent areas west, north, and northeast of the town of Papun. At least nine SLORC Army battalions have been involved in the operation: Light Infantry Battalions #106, 107, 391, 546, 547, and 548, and Infantry Battalions #39, 57, and 59 (#106, 107, and 391 were rotated out of the area and replaced by #39, 57, and 59; at least six Battalions are active at a time). Each of the several SLORC posts in the area sends out columns of from 50 to 300 men which move from village to village. On arrival near a village, the troops first shell it with mortars from the adjacent hills, then enter the village firing at anything that moves and proceed to burn every house, farmfield hut, and shelter they find in the area. Paddy storage barns are especially sought out and burned in order to destroy the villagers' food supply. Any villagers seen in the villages, forests, or fields are shot on sight with no questions asked. The troops bring porters with them from Papun and other towns, but if they need more porters they take any villagers they catch, and they have already taken many women and men, some aged over 65, for this. However, the objective is not to catch villagers, as in several cases they have surrounded villagers in field huts and then simply opened fire instead of trying to catch them. The patrols seem to have no interest in interrogating the villagers, only in eliminating them. Villages very close to Papun and Meh Way have been ordered to move to Meh Way or to Army camps near Papun, such as Toh Thay Pu, but the vast majority of villages have been given no orders whatsoever, they have simply been destroyed. Most of the villagers in the area say they do not even understand why SLORC is doing this, and that they think SLORC is just trying to wipe out the Karen population. KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army] troops are not based in any of these villages, and have never yet been in a village when it was attacked.
The villagers generally hear up to a day in advance that a SLORC column is coming, so they flee further into the hills and very few of them are sighted by the troops. Once the troops have destroyed their village and passed on, they survive in leaf shelters or small huts which they build in the forest and try to continue taking care of their fields. Those whose paddy storage barns have not been destroyed generally share out their rice with those who have no more food. Most are living on plain rice with some jungle leaf soup, and salt if they are lucky enough to have any. Almost all livestock has been left behind and slaughtered by SLORC troops, who simply shoot it, eat a small part and leave the rest to rot. SLORC patrols are now returning to areas which they previously burned out in order to seek out and destroy the forest huts where the villagers are hiding, destroy any remaining rice supplies and shoot any people they can find. Units rotating in or out of the area or travelling between camps are also burning any signs of habitation they find. If they have not enough time to burn every house or if heavy rains prevent a good fire, they report the location to the troops at their destination and a patrol is sent out to destroy the site.
Every new patrol that comes around forces the villagers to flee yet again and build new shelters elsewhere. Heavy monsoon rains began in mid-June and will continue until October, and moving and building are very difficult. Malaria and other fevers, diarrhoea, dysentery, and other diseases are widespread and the villagers have no medicine whatsoever. Many children and the elderly have already died. The villagers have very few belongings left and little food. Most of them have managed to plant at least a limited rice crop in intervals between SLORC patrols and they are desperately relying on this crop, although many do not have enough rice to last them until they can harvest it in November/December. If the crop fails or if SLORC interferes with it, the villagers admit they do not know what they will do and the area will certainly be in a state of emergency. About 1,000 villagers from the area have managed to escape to Thailand thus far, but this is difficult and dangerous because of SLORC camps and patrols and the landmines placed along many of the paths by the KNLA. Many of them have also heard of the abuses against refugees by Thai authorities. However, if this campaign worsens in any way they may have no option but to flee towards Thailand.
Making the situation worse, SLORC is trying to build a military supply road straight across the northern part of the area, from Kyauk Kyi in Pegu Division (in the Sittang River valley of central Burma) directly eastward to Saw Hta on the Salween River, which forms the border with Thailand. They have burned and destroyed all villages along the route and have been constructing the road with bulldozers under heavy military guard. They have already pushed the road most of the way through by working from both ends, though the KNLA has now temporarily stopped the road construction by destroying the bulldozers. SLORC cannot capture enough villagers in the area to use them for forced labour on this road, but the fact that they are using bulldozers instead of bringing in forced labour from elsewhere makes it apparent that they are in a hurry to complete this road. The main purpose of the road will probably be to support a new offensive along the Salween River to gain complete control of the river and all adjacent territory along the border with Thailand. This offensive, which is expected to begin after the rainy season, would cut off and contain the Karen forces in Papun District, block off the further escape of refugees to Thailand and allow further sweeps through the area to wipe out the civilian population. It would also pose a major security threat to Thailand, as SLORC would probably follow it up with attacks on Karen refugee camps in Thailand's Mae Sariang District, and may also decide to begin claiming pieces of Thai territory east of the Salween River.
Details, maps, interviews and photos regarding the situation in these areas will be available in an upcoming KHRG report and photo set.