FREE-FIRE ZONES IN SOUTHERN TENASSERIM

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FREE-FIRE ZONES IN SOUTHERN TENASSERIM

Published date:
Wednesday, August 20, 1997

In September 1996, the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta ruling Burma began a campaign of forced relocations and forced-labour in Tenasserim (Taninthari) Division of southern Burma. The campaign, which intensified in January 1997, involved the forced relocation and destruction of at least 60 Karen villages as well as clampdowns on Burman and Mon villages in a region measuring about 140 km. north-south and 20-30 km. east-west. This land corridor lies between the Andaman Sea coastal motor road in the west and the Tenasserim River valley in the east, from Palauk (100 km. south of Tavoy) in the north to Tenasserim town in the south.

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

"The SLORC held a meeting and said "Next month you have to move to Kyauk Taung". Some people went, but most people ran away and scattered all over the place. As for us, we ran to the forest. We ran this entire rainy season. We ran in the middle of rainy season and stayed in the forest for many months, 4 or 5 months. In the forest we couldn’t do anything, just stay under the roof in the rain. We went back secretly and got food we had stored in the village. My son had gone to Thailand, so it was only my 2 daughters and I. We couldn’t bear it. We couldn’t build anything, it was raining and we were very cold. My children were sick, and I got sick too. We ran every time we heard the Burmese were coming. If they see you in the forest they don’t ask questions, they just shoot you.

So we went down and stayed among the Pwo Karen. That village didn’t have to move, but if they do wrong [i.e. if any fighting happens in their area] the Burmese will force them to move to Mi Sein Kyu, so many of them are frightened and run away. Staying there we also had to be afraid of the Burmese coming. They came many times, very often. If they see people in the village they question them and kill them, so we ran away. We had to build their roads, and give money also. I was staying there with my 2 daughters. If we didn’t go [for forced labour] we couldn’t stay in the village, so my daughter had to go. They didn’t give her anything. No food. She came back and ate at home. She is 16 years old. She had to go every day for 2 months, then she got a rest because it was harvest time. After harvest she would have to go again, every day until the road is finished. It was very heavy work for my daughter. Now they will start it again, so we ran away.

I couldn’t carry my things with me, because I had to carry my baby. He is 6 years old but stunted. We came here on foot. It took 2 nights and 3 days [for the trip over the mountains from the free-fire zone to the Karen-held Tenasserim River valley]. By the time I arrived here my chest was very painful. Now we have nothing, just 2 or 3 blankets. My baby isn’t well, he has a stomach ache and diarrhoea and didn’t sleep the whole night." 

Karen woman aged 42, a widow with 8 children, from one of the free-fire zones in Tenasserim Division explaining how she came to Karen-held territory. The place where she took refuge and told us her story has since been overrun by SLORC forces. ("Naw Muh" from Pyi Cha village, Interview #35)

In September 1996, the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta ruling Burma began a campaign of forced relocations and forced-labour road building in the Palauk-Palaw, Mergui and Tenasserim regions in Tenasserim (Taninthari) Division of southern Burma. The campaign, which intensified in January 1997, involved the forced relocation and destruction of at least 60 Karen villages as well as clampdowns on Burman and Mon villages in a region measuring about 140 km. north-south and 20-30 km. east-west. This land corridor lies between the Andaman Sea coastal motor road in the west and the Tenasserim River valley in the east, from Palauk (100 km. south of Tavoy) in the north to Tenasserim town in the south (see map with this report).

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 were issued orders that all families must move into the centre of their villages. 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, Wa 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 motor road, the Boke - Ka Pyaw - Kyay Nan Daing motor 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 various existing and new motor 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.

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. From December 1996 to January 1997 alone, at least 20 villagers were 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 for only 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 Za Di Win village was arrested on 12 January because SLORC blamed him that people in his village hadn’t moved to the relocation site, even though he and his family had. In the words of a witness, "Since the villagers hadn’t returned to Za Di Win and they hadn’t gone to Bena Mi [relocation site], the SLORC arrested the pastor, Thra Dah Lu. They said, "You are a pastor, why can’t you control your servants?" They tied his hands behind his back and made him sleep where they leave their shoes …" ("Saw Ler Htoo", Interview #45). Villagers paid 20,000 Kyats to secure his release, but by late January he had still not been released and was being held at a camp of Infantry Battalion 17 with his hands tied behind his back day and night.

Battalions involved include Infantry Battalions #280, 101, 17, 103, 19 and 433. The primary aims of the relocation campaign are apparently to eliminate the possibility of civilian support for the Karen National Union (KNU), to bring all civilians throughout the region under direct SLORC control, and to gain a captive population for forced labour building roads into the area. These roads would support the establishment of Army posts throughout the region, where SLORC currently has almost no bases. The villagers will also be forced to build and maintain these posts. Most of those interviewed in this report say that if a road comes into their area they will have to flee permanently.

In early January SLORC troops increased their patrols into the relocation areas to hunt out and execute villagers in hiding, re-issue orders to move, and burn villages which had not cooperated. These sweeps led to an increased flow of people fleeing the free-fire zones to areas held by the Karen National Union (KNU) along the Tenasserim River, where over 1,000 had already taken refuge and were depending on the charity of local villagers to survive. Very few fled to Thailand, because the trip is very difficult and there was no refugee camp in that part of Thailand at the time. Then in February the SLORC launched its mass offensive against the KNU 4th Brigade area, including parts of the Tenasserim River where these people were taking refuge.

The offensive is still ongoing, but has already resulted in the fall of many Karen-controlled areas to the SLORC. [For more details on the offensive see "Refugees from the SLORC Occupation" (KHRG #97-07, 25/5/97).] Publication of this report, which is based on extensive interviews conducted by KHRG in the free-fire zones in January 1997, was pre-empted by the SLORC offensive; however, the offensive did not target the existing free-fire zones, but the Karen-held areas just to the east and north. Therefore, the situation for villagers in the free-fire zones remains much as they have described it in this report - except that now there are many more SLORC troops in the region who can hunt out the villagers in hiding, and with the fall of the KNU-held areas to the east there is no longer anywhere to run. In the face of the offensive, even many of those who had fled the free-fire zones to seek refuge in the KNU-held areas found themselves with no option but to flee back into those same free-fire zones, where they now face a life of forced labour in a relocation site or a life in hiding in the forest and the risk of being shot on sight.

This report is divided into three main parts: an executive summary (above), a description of the forced relocation campaign and the situation in the free-fire zones, and an Annex containing the full text of KHRG interviews with villagers. If the Annex is not included with this copy of the report, it is available on request from KHRG. All the names of those interviewed have been changed to protect them, and some other names and details have been omitted. All false names are shown in quotes.

Note regarding place names: many places have different names in different languages. For example, Mergui is known in Burmese as Meik and in Karen as Blih; Tenasserim is known in Burmese as Taninthari. Villages often have sections or outlying associated villages with their own names; for example, Naw Ber village is also known as Pyi Cha Naw Ber, because it is associated with Pyi Cha; Wah Lo and Noh Aw are often considered as outlying sections of Pway Palaw, hence Pway Palaw Wah Lo and Pway Palaw Noh Aw. In some places, 2 or more villages use the same basic name but are distinguished by the ethnicity of the residents; for example, there is a Burman Ta Po Hta and a Karen Ta Po Hta (Karen Ta Po Hta is also known as Ah Sh’Gan) which are separated from each other by a small river. We have attempted to transliterate place names and people’s names as consistently and accurately as possible, but please note that place names may be spelt differently in reports by other organisations.

The Relocation Region

The main relocation region is a corridor of land measuring about 140 km. north-south and 20-30 km. east-west (see map with this report for details). This land corridor lies between the Andaman Sea coastal motor road in the west and the Tenasserim River valley in the east, from Palauk (100 km. south of Tavoy) in the north to Tenasserim town (250 km. south of Tavoy) in the south. The region is not densely populated, containing about 40 villages averaging 20-150 households per village. Just to the south in Tenasserim township, an additional 20 villages have also been forced to move. Almost all of the villages are Karen, though there are also Burman and Mon villages along the coastal motor road in the west and along coastal reaches of rivers.

On a map the main relocation region can be divided into 3 areas: the northern area, east of the Palauk-Palaw road and containing villages such as Maw Ma Sa, Pyi Cha, Wa Tho and Mi Chaung Thaik, extending as far south as Za Di Win. The central area, 50 km. further south, lies east of the town of Mergui and has villages such as Yah Da Pat, Ka Pyaw, Maw Me Thi, and Aleh Chaung. The southernmost area lies just north of Tenasserim town, in the southernmost bend of the Tenasserim River (where the river flows south, then west for 30 km., then north to Mergui). This area contains villages such as Mazaw, Tone Pyaw, and Nga Yan In in the west, and Ta Po Kee, Ka Weh and Ta Po Hta in the east. In the northern area many of the villages are Pwo Karen, while in the remainder most of the villagers are Sgaw Karen.

Following is an incomplete list of the villages forced to relocate. (*) indicates Burman or Mon villages which were not forced to move, but where everyone was forced to move into the centre of the village.

Northern area: Maw Ma Sa, Pyi Cha, Naw Ber, Mi Kyin Thu, Mi Sein Kyu, Keh Ma, Paw Ka Toh, K’Say Po Kee, Pa Nweh Po Kloh, Nya Htaw, Pyi Cha Maw, Wa Tho, Tee Thaw, Shan Toke, Tee Preh Maw, Aw Pu, Kyaw Leit, May Way, Aw Pu Kee, Mi Chaung Thaik, Za Di Win, Wah Gone (*).

Central area: Naw Tro, Kaw Kee, Kyet Ma Oh, Wa Thu Lo, Yah Da Pat, Maw Me Thi.

Southern area: West of the hills: Mazaw, Tha Kan, Tone Pyaw, Tone Pyaw Po, Muka Pala, Nga Yan In, Tee Law Thay Kee; East of the hills: Ta Po Kee, Bler Hta, Ka Weh, Maw Bleh, Pway Palaw, Noh Aw, Wah Lo, Ler Kaw Htait (*), Ta Lein Dah (*).

Even further south in the area of Kyeing Chaung of Tenasserim (Taninthari) township, the villages of Kaw Malaing, Shan Ein Daung, Kamon Kyone, Myama Ein Daung, and Kyauk Mi Chaung, total population 2,830, were ordered to move within 18 days to the motor road between Baw Law and Nyaung Bin Gwin by Infantry Battalion #103 on 25 October 1996. On 8 October 1996, Infantry Battalion #17 ordered the villages of Htee Thee Day, Plaw Pa Ter, Tha Ya Ku, Chan Tha Oo, Wa Tha and Pit Tawn, all in the Pawat area well south of Mergui, to leave their villages within one day or be shot. They were not told where to go. The villages of Wa Yit, Kyo Taung, Kru Kreh, Kesaw Naw, Sin Gu, Anaing, Ka Bwee, Lay Loh, and Hgaw Loh in Tenasserim township were also ordered to move at the end of September 1996. In the Wai Yeh area west of Tenasserim town, all Karen villages were ordered to move into the central part of their villages by Infantry Battalions #103, 101, and 17, who told the villagers they are to be used to build a new road from Lay Thay in the south up to Beh Ya. These and other relocations south of the Tenasserim River area are not covered in detail by this report.

In the northern area, villages were ordered to move to sites in the west, dotted along or near the main north-south Tavoy-Mergui motor road, where the SLORC Army has posts. Three of the main sites are Kyauk Taung in the north, Naw Ber, and Kain Kee in the south near Palaw. SLORC has bases at Kyauk Taung and at Palaw Gone, which is very near Kain Kee. In the central area, the main relocation site is at Ka Pyaw village, a village of 170 households. There is no SLORC base at Ka Pyaw, but the new Boke - Ka Pyaw - Kyay Nan Daing road goes right through the centre of the village, and SLORC has forced the relocated villagers to build small huts along this road. In the southern area, villages west of the hills have been forced to move to sites dotted along the north-south motor road, such as Shan Taik, Ka Maw and Za Weh, while villages east of the hills have been ordered to move to Burman villages near the southernmost reach of the Tenasserim River, particularly Ta Po Hta and Ta Lein Dah.

At least 6 SLORC Infantry Battalions have been involved in the relocation campaign. Infantry Battalions #280 at Palaw and #101, also with a post at Palaw though the Battalion is based at Kywe Ku, have taken most of the responsibility for operations in the northern area. Infantry Battalions #17 and #101 have been responsible for operations in the central area, though #101 is now operating more extensively in the northern area. IB #17 supervises construction of the Boke - Ka Pyaw - Kyay Nan Daing road, and also attacks and loots villages as far north as Za Di Win and Mi Chaung Thaik. IB #17 was also involved in the burning of some villages in the southern area in November 1996. In the southern area, the principle groups are from Infantry Battalions #433 and #103, both based in Mergui, and #19, which has posts around Taninthari and does most of the supervision of the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road construction. Most of these Battalions have posts in several places. SLORC is constantly rotating its Battalions both within the region and to other regions, so these are regularly subject to change, particularly since a major military offensive is ongoing.

Motives for the Relocations

"I can’t guess why they come and torture us. I can’t guess. We didn’t do anything to them. We are not people who gather ammunition and go against them. We are just farmers." 

"Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village in the southern area (Interview #2)

"It is their policy to relocate the villages and to force them to work, because they accuse them of supporting the resistance groups. They are afraid that the villagers will join their enemy."

"Saw Ler Htoo", a schoolteacher from the northern relocation area (Interview #45)

"The villages near the enemy are Ta Po Hta, Ta Lein Dah, Th’Ray Kee, and Ler Kaw Htait. Those villages have to work for the enemy full time. But the other villages like Bler Hta, Ta Po Kee, Ka Weh, and Pway Palaw, they regard them as Kaw Thoo Lei area, "black area", enemy area, and they cannot control it. So the SLORC ordered them to move …"

"Saw Tha Ker", a KNLA officer in the southern relocation area (Interview #20)

"They have ordered this since September [1996]. They said it was because Kaw Thoo Lei [Karen soldiers] could go among us."

 "Saw Pler Wah" (male, 55) from Maw Ma Sa village, northern area, speaking about the reasons his village was ordered to relocate (Interview #37)

There are several clear reasons for this forced relocation campaign. The primary reason is in line with the current SLORC military strategy that in every part of the country where there is armed resistance, the entire civilian population is driven out so that the resistance has no means of support. The area is then designated a free-fire zone where any civilian seen is considered as enemy and shot on sight. This strategy is currently being used in several other areas as well, including Papun District of northern Karen State, Karenni (Kayah) State, and Shan State. In the Tenasserim Division case, the SLORC Army has no permanent bases in the area, so it is clearing out the civilians to SLORC-controlled sites, then using them as a captive source of forced labour to build and improve access roads into the region. As noted by a villager from the southern relocation area, "In my opinion, they asked them [the villagers] to move to their places so they could make them work. If the villagers all stay in one place, then it is easy for the Burmese to make them work." - ["Saw Hla Htoo" (male, 44), a village elder in the southern area (Interview #14)] The access roads can then be used to support the establishment of military bases throughout the area which would severely restrict the activities of Karen resistance. Whether or not the SLORC would then allow the civilians to return to their villages depends on how successful they feel they have been in wiping out all traces of Karen resistance. They would definitely want some civilians around for use as forced labour building and maintaining their new posts, to act as servants for the soldiers, to do continued forced labour maintaining and guarding the roads and on money-making schemes such as logging and forced farming, and as a source of extortion money. The success of SLORC’s major military offensive on the Tenasserim River this year can only strengthen their motivation to continue with this campaign to completely control the region between the river and the coastal plain to the west.

"If the road is good they can transport things better than before. The more they can transport, the more they can fight until the KNU falls. If the road is good they will come and stay along the road. They will still call the villagers to work - I don’t think the future will be good. I think that people will have to flee. If the road is good and they come into the village, they will destroy most of the villages. If we have to run we will run up into the hills." 

"Saw Hla Htoo" (male, 44), a village elder in the southern area (Interview #14)

[When asked about the benefit of the road reaching his village:] "No, if it is like that we dare not stay any more. How will we finish the road from Ka Weh to Ta Po Kee? If we stay here we would have to build the roads, and we would not be free to do anything anymore. If that happens we will have to stay in the bush. We will have nothing to eat, but we will have to bear it like this." - "Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village, southern area (Interview #2)

There are also reports that SLORC plans to develop some areas in this part of Burma as tourist destinations and "nature parks", in some cases with the support of foreign environmental organisations, and there are confirmed reports of forced relocations of villagers on islands in the Mergui archipelago to support these projects. [The possible connection of forced relocations with foreign-supported SLORC projects in Tenasserim was reported by The Guardian Weekly (London) on 30/3/97 in an article entitled "Focus on Burma: Save the Rhinos but Kill the People".] Whether this is also a factor in the forced relocations documented in this report will only become clear when we can see how SLORC "develops" this area.

The Orders to Relocate

"They sent a message to the headman, then he called the villagers together and read out their order that within 6 days everyone had to move out of the village." 

"Saw Win Htoo" (male, 39) from Tha Kan village, southern area (Interview #10)

"The Burmese ordered us to move. They arrived in the village. They called the elders and people were fleeing as fast as they could, many even fell down and were bleeding as they ran. They ordered us to move within 7 days - after that, if we didn’t move we couldn’t dare stay." 

"Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village, southern area (Interview #2)

The orders to relocate have been issued to the villagers by local military units which are all under the direct orders of the recently-created Coastal Command, which is headed by Brigadier General Thiha Thura Sit Maung. This regional command was created to strengthen SLORC control over Tenassserim Division by any means necessary, and Sit Maung himself has been proven responsible for serious human rights violations in his past career.

In some villages, troops came to the village and told the headman, who was then left to tell the villagers. In the southern relocation area in September, a military commander sent out orders for all headmen in the area to attend a meeting in Ta Po Hta, as noted by a village elder from the area: "They ordered the villagers to move in September - they called the village heads to a meeting in Ta Po Hta and ordered them to gather the villagers and move. In November they just came to burn the houses." ["Saw Kyaw Ni" (male, 40) from southern area (Interview #7)]. In other cases, the military commander simply sent a letter to the headmen informing them of the order and telling them to inform their villagers.

The Destruction of Villages

"Aw Pu Kee is ruined, Aw Pu is ruined, the villages that are ruined are Mi Chaung Thaik, May Way, Kyaw Leit, Shan Toke, Tee Preh Maw, Maw Ma Sa, Wa Tho, Pyi Cha, Nya Htaw, Pa Nweh Po Kloh, ... The Burmese ordered them to move, all of them. They burned some of the villagers’ houses, and even their [paddy storage] barns. In November they were ordering them to move. They go village by village." 

"Saw Eh G’Lu", northern area (Interview #45)

To ensure that the people have to move out, in most cases the villages were ordered destroyed. Most of the relocation orders included an order that villagers must destroy their own houses, as noted by these villagers:

"They ordered us to destroy our house by ourselves so we did it … We took off the roof. They ordered us to take off the floor and the roof but we didn’t do that, we took off only the roof. … They ordered us to destroy all the houses, they said if we do not they will burn everything." 

"Pi Htoo Htoo Mo" (female, 68) from southern area, who used to live in a large house of teak and cement (Interview #5)

"They told us to take out the walls and the floors and put them somewhere. I said, "If we do that it will take a long time to rebuild so we’ll just take off the roof", but they said "Don’t take the roof off, or the wood [posts, rafters etc.] will be destroyed". They said they wouldn’t burn anything, but then when our time was up [to move] they burned everything. We left only the roofs, but they burned them anyway. [They may have wanted the leaf roofs left on in order to start the fires.] They also took things on their way through. For example, in this house there aren’t even any plates left." 

"Than Htay" (male, 29) from southern area (Interview #1)

Karen houses are generally built on posts, with the floor raised 5 to 10 feet above the ground. Some of the orders demanded the complete destruction of the houses, while others specified that the walls and floors must be removed, or that the roof and walls must be taken off. This would prevent anyone from comfortably living in the house, and would also allow passing SLORC patrols to see easily that no one is in the houses without having to approach them. To ensure that the villagers complied, SLORC units promised to completely burn down any village in which the houses were not properly dismantled.

"Sure, people have to destroy their houses. They have to destroy them. The houses that are part of Pyi Cha and all the wooden houses all have to be destroyed, and people must build at the main road. Then when all the wooden houses are destroyed, they will burn them. They haven’t burned them in our village yet. But they have in Pyi Cha, Wa Tho, and Ku Thay. The people who live under their power, even outside Pyi Cha, they burned their houses. They even came upstream [into the hills] and burned houses." 

"Saw Lweh Say" (male, 25) from Naw Ber village, northern area (Interview #44)

Most of the villages ordered to move have had at least some of their houses burned down by SLORC patrols, while others have had entire sections or the entire village burned. The villages of Pyi Cha, May Way, Wa Tho, Ku Teh, Wa Thu Lo, Ka Weh, Wah Lo, Noh Aw, and Ta Po Kee have all been either completely burned or had significant portions burned. In Ka Weh village alone at least 60 houses were burned. Most of these villages were burned because SLORC knew many of the villagers were still hiding in the forests nearby and living from whatever food they had stockpiled. In a few cases fighting occurred near the village so SLORC burned it; for example, a week after SLORC had ordered Wa Thu Lo to move, they sent a patrol to the village. On the way they encountered Karen troops and there was a firefight, so the SLORC troops went and burned 20 houses in the village. Once villages are marked for burning, the troops destroy indiscriminately, and in the process they have burned down several SLORC-run primary schools as well as houses, churches, and even livestock sheds and latrines. In the southern relocation area, a villager saw SLORC troops deliberately burn down the SLORC-sanctioned primary school even though it was set well apart from the villagers’ houses:

"The Burmese gave us permission to build this school. We built it ourselves, we built it up over 3 years. They sent 2 teachers, a husband and wife. … This year there was no school. [Q: But it was a SLORC-run school, so why did they burn it?] They just burned everything that was in their path, no matter what." 

"Than Htay" (male, 29), southern area (Interview #1)

SLORC knows very well that most of the villagers flee into hiding in the forests around their villages, so columns are sent out to search out and destroy their homes, shelters, and food supplies, and to capture or shoot on sight any villagers who are found.

"The first time they came we didn’t run very far, just nearby. Then they came and looked for us so we fled upstream. The third time they came we fled up here. That was 20 days ago. They came in two groups - each group had 100 people. When they come they shoot. We don’t know what they shoot at, whether they’re shooting in the sky or at us. We’re just afraid and we run away. The first time they came I was in my house, and as soon as we heard they were arriving we ran away into the forest, upstream. I can’t run quickly, I just ran slowly. Everyone ran. That time they killed a man. His name was Than Oo, he was about 25. He and his wife had no children, but she is about 2 months pregnant. The Burmese forced her to go back down with them." 

"Pi G’Mwee Paw" (female, 70) from Mi Chaung Thaik village, northern area, who arrived in KNU-held area at the end of January (Interview #38)

"The SLORC came to xxxx and sent for the headman of our village. They commanded us to move that very day, and they said if we didn’t move they would know that we are their enemies. They ordered us to move to Ta Lein Dah. Then a month after that, they came up through Kaw Maw Praw, they came up past Saw Htay’s house and they shot him dead. That was at Wah Kha, at Ta Nay Lay Ko. … A lot of them came that time. … On their way they burned all the houses, about 40 or 50 houses." 

"Than Htay" (male, 29), southern area (Interview #1)

"In xxxx village there were over 60 houses, before they were destroyed. … I was hiding and I watched, I saw the enemy coming but I didn’t dare stay and be seen. I didn’t count them, but there were over 100. They started setting fire to the roofs of the houses. Some of the roofs were high up, so to reach the roof they set fire to long sticks and reached them up to burn the roofs. All of the planks were still on my house and they burned it all. They even burned my toilet, and also my chicken-house and my rice barn, they burned it all. Then as they came back they ate up all my sugar cane. They had no knife to cut it so they pulled it all up by the roots." 

"Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village, southern area (Interview #2)

"On their way to Mi Chaung Thaik they arrested villagers in May Way, about 70 or 80 villagers. They made them march 2 soldiers, one villager, 2 soldiers, one villager, and so on, and 40 villagers had to go in front of the column and they made them walk unsteadily, like they were drunk [i.e. to zigzag along the path in order to step on any mines], and they told them to show the way." 

"Saw Eh G’Lu", northern area, talking about a SLORC patrol that came in mid-January (Interview #45)

"They came to my house, tied my son with rope and hit his head with a gun. They forced me to carry things. They made me start carrying out in the fields and forced me to carry to Ka Weh, they went and burned the houses there … There were about 200 soldiers, and almost as many porters. I was a porter for 5 days. … The youngest porter was 15 years old, and the oldest was 55 - I was the oldest." 

"Pu Htoo Nay" (male, 55), a village elder in southern area (Interview #7)

"They came and captured me in my field hut. They said they captured me to show them to places where they needed to go. … Some of the porters that they had captured along their way were 15 years old. The oldest was over 50. Along the way they shouted at the porters and hit them. They also left one young porter among the mountains because he could not carry things - he felt very weak because he was ill. The Burmese thought he might die, so they left him alone in a wild place. … They also shot Saw Pay Lay. They shot him in the back while he was gathering his harvest at his farm." 

"Saw Kyaw Ni" (male, 40), a village elder in southern area (Interview #7)

Reaction of the Villagers

"So many of them came! I ran up into the mountains, and down into the valley. They ordered the village to move but we never moved, we just ran away when they came. I put together some food at my house and took it with me when I ran. I built a small hut way up a stream." 

"Saw Po Gyi" (male, 30+), southern area (Interview #6)

Some villagers went to the relocation sites as ordered, but the vast majority fled. Some went to the homes of their relatives in other villages, often only to find that those villages were also being forced to move. One to two thousand fled eastward, to KNU-controlled territory along the Tenasserim River, where they had to rely on the charity of other villagers because they could carry along little else but their children. But most villagers fled to their farmfield huts, into the forest surrounding their villages, or upstream into the hills, unwilling to go too far from their homes and their land. In the bush they’ve built shelters and try to survive by covertly going back and forth to their gardens, fields, and paddy storage barns, knowing they face the possibility of being shot on sight if seen by a SLORC patrol.

"They ordered us to destroy all the houses, they said if we do not they will burn everything. … We dare not stay in the house because we’re afraid of the Burmese soldiers. This place was built for keeping cattle, but now we live in it. We’ve been living here for 2 months now. … We can’t do anything except run into the jungle and hide ourselves. If they see us they will kill us, so we must stay near the forest like this." 

"Pi Htoo Htoo Mo" (female, 68), southern area, who used to live in a large house of teak and cement (Interview #5)

"In xxxx they burned many houses. More than 30. More than 40. They also burned rice barns and chicken houses - if we try to count everything they burned we can’t do it. Then I thought we would stay in the forest, in the bush. I built this hut. In this hut there are 16 people, just my family." 

"Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village, southern area (Interview #2)

"On the 8th of November they ordered us to move to Palaw. We had to move within 2 weeks. They said we support Kaw Thoo Lei. There are no Kaw Thoo Lei soldiers in our village, though they passed through fairly often. I didn’t move, I came here [to KNU-controlled territory]. Those who stayed behind had to pay over 100,000 Kyats to SLORC so that they could stay in the village. They paid, so they thought they could stay in the village. But now on January 7th they were ordered again to move to Palaw. … I think if they give more money to SLORC then maybe they can stay for another year." 

"Pu Ler Ghaw" (male, 77) from xxxx village, northern area (Interview #49)

Some villagers defied the SLORC orders by living in their villages by day and going out into the bush at night, often even sleeping in their villages. In order to be able to do this, many villagers partially destroyed their houses as ordered by SLORC - removing part of the roof, most of the floor, and all of the walls, but then staying in what was left of their homes. Those who do this must constantly listen for news of any SLORC movements into their area, and be prepared to run for the jungle at any moment.

"The Burmese ordered us to destroy all our houses, but the villagers have only half-destroyed them. The Burmese said if we don’t take apart our houses they’ll burn them all. Here I stay in my house with only half the floor, with no walls, with only a roof. So if the Burmese come we can run and hide, and they’ll think nobody stays here. [Even the ladder to get into his house was hidden out the back.] Now there are 20 families coming and going in the village but they can’t dare sleep in the village, they only stay in the daytime and then leave. Only 6 families sleep in the village at night." 

"Saw Keh Ler" (male, 46), a pastor in southern area (Interview #8)

It is impossible to state exactly how many villagers have been shot on sight in the free-fire zones of the area, but in December 1996 and January 1997 alone there were about 20 confirmed cases. Most of those who are shot die, because they are either executed where they fall by the troops who shot them or they are left to die with no treatment. SLORC troops are very explicit in telling the villagers that anyone, man, woman, child or the elderly, sighted in their villages will be considered as enemy and shot on sight.

"When they saw them, they called them but the villagers ran away and the Burmese shot at them. There were 1 woman and 2 men, altogether 3 of them. Two of them escaped. Her husband ran away but he didn’t know the way so he was running toward the Burmese. They knew that he wasn’t a soldier, just a villager, but they shot him. The first bullet hit here [in the right side of the neck just below the jaw]. He fell down and then they asked him questions, but he couldn’t speak much. They stabbed him in the heart 3 times with a knife, then shot him dead. They shot him here in the heart [he signalled the bullet going in the centre of the chest and out his back], and then took off his trousers and then just left him that night." 

"Saw Ghay Htoo" (male, 40+) from xxxx village, describing the shooting of xxxx villager Saw Mi Thaw (age 22) at his field at xxxx, northern area (Interview #41); Saw Mi Thaw’s wife (Interview #40) was 9 months pregnant at the time her husband was shot.

"…he, his eldest son xxxx and his daughter xxxx, altogether 3, went back to get rice at their farm and the Burmese came at night. It was at xxxx. They captured them and beat the father to death. His daughter escaped, and the Burmese poured petrol on his eldest son and burned him but he didn’t die. He escaped and now he stays with an old man at xxxx" 

"Ma Sein" (female, 30) from xxxx village, northern area, describing the killing of her elder brother Kyaw Shwe (age over 50) from xxxx (Interview #42)

Hiding in the forests and the fields, most of the villagers have very little food and no medicines. This year’s ricefields should have been prepared between February and May, then planted in June or July for harvest late in the year. However, due to the free-fire policy and the military offensive, it is very unlikely that many of these villagers have had any chance to put in a rice crop this year. This means that almost none of them will have any food at all by late 1997, nor will they have anywhere left to run to.

Relocation Sites

"After they moved, the villagers had to build their houses right alongside the road at Naw Ber, all along the sideroad up to where it meets the main road, which is 15 minutes’ walk away. They settled along both sides of the road until there was no room left along either side, and then they had to build along the main road. Some of their houses are about this size [a small bamboo shack with dirt floor]. Those which they made quickly are even smaller than this." 

"Saw Lweh Say" (male, 25) from Naw Ber village, northern area (Interview #44)

The SLORC ordered all of the villages to move to relocation sites to the west, dotted all along the road that follows the Andaman Sea coast. Some of the main sites along or near this road are Kyauk Taung, Palauk, Naw Ber and Kain Kee (near Palaw Gone) for the northern area and Kyay Nan Daing, Pyin Gyi, Shan Taik, La Tha and Za Weh for the southern area. Ka Pyaw, which is the main relocation site for the central area, is well east of the main road but is right on the new road being built from Boke to Kyay Nan Daing. In the southern area, the villages farthest to the east (and hence over a day’s walk from the main road) have been ordered to move southward, primarily to the Burman village of Ta Po Hta on the Tenasserim River, which is easily accessible by boat for SLORC troops based in the town of Taninthari and is also a hub for forced labour on the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road.

All of these sites are either very accessible to SLORC camps or along motor roads where forced labour is being used - usually both. While most villages have been ordered to move to such sites, Burman and Mon villages (most of which are already along motor roads or otherwise accessible to SLORC troops) have been given orders that all villagers must move into the central part of their villages so that they can be more easily controlled. While this may not sound serious, it still amounts to forcing people to destroy their family homes and is leading to overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions for many people, combined with the increased awareness of being tightly watched and controlled by SLORC.

Some of the relocation sites are ricefields along the road which have been confiscated from farmers, and the relocated villagers are simply told to settle there; such sites usually have a very poor water supply and flood in rainy season. In many other cases, people are simply ordered to move to a certain village and left to find or buy their own place to build a shelter in the village or just outside of it. For example, in Ta Po Hta no place at all was allocated, and there is no extra space; in Ka Pyaw, the new road cuts right through the centre of the village and the relocated villagers were told to build shelters there, right along the edges of the dusty road they’re being forced to build; in Naw Ber, the displaced have built shelters all along the roads leading away from the village.

"It is just an open field like a football ground. There is no place to plant, it is all other people’s land. They gave us no chance to choose a place." 

"Naw Eh Htoo" (female, 52) from Maw Ma Sa village, northern area, describing the site to which her village was forced to relocate (Interview #37)

"They didn’t prepare a place for the villagers. They just ordered us to go down to the Burman side of Ta Po Hta. They ordered us to destroy our houses - 80 houses were destroyed. They said if we didn’t destroy them they would burn them. They said we had to move so they could cut off the movements of Kaw Thoo Lei." 

"Pu Htoo Nay" (male, 55), southern area (Interview #7)

"They ordered us to move around the village monastery, not so far from the road. They sent a letter to the village saying we cannot stay outside the village [away from the centre of the village], that if the soldiers saw us outside it wouldn’t be good. They said they’d beat us. They said we have to stay right in the village. The letter said we all had to move within a week. I moved to the monastery because I was afraid. There are 30 households in our village, and we all moved to the monastery because we were all afraid. We couldn’t go anywhere. I stayed there for 4 months. Even when we were staying at the monastery they made us pay money, and I ran out of money so I came here [KNU-controlled area]." 

"Naw Yaw" (female, 35) from Wa Tho village, northern area; shortly after this interview was conducted, Wa Tho village was ordered to move to Naw Ber (Interview #46)

"The Burmese ordered us to move to a place near the car road. We went and stayed there for 2 months, then we ran away and stayed in the forest. There was nothing there [at the relocation site]. They didn’t give anything, no food, rice, or money. Instead, we had to give them money and food. Everyone ran away." 

"Ma Sein" (female, 30) from xxxx village, northern area (Interview #42)

The villagers are provided with nothing at the relocation sites, but more forced labour is demanded of them than ever before in their lives, and in many cases they even have to continue paying extortion money. For many, the only way to survive is to go back to their home villages and farms to find food, but this is not always allowed. The only way people can go is if the soldiers will sell them a "pass". The type of pass available depends on the whim of the local military and the distance from the relocation site to people’s home villages. At some relocation sites, passes are only good for one day (morning to sunset) and cost 15 Kyats per person. At other sites, the pass may be good for up to 5 to 7 days, but the holder must return to the relocation site to sleep every night. Where villages are a long distance away, passes are sometimes issued allowing a villager to be absent from the relocation site for a few days at a time. However, it is important to note that the villagers’ home areas are free-fire zones, and any villager seen there can be shot on sight with or without a pass.

"They ordered us to move to La Tha, at the main road. We had to go and live in a ricefield beside the car road which is very hot and dry. To leave we needed a movement order for a 1-day trip, and we could go in the morning and come back in the evening, but the Burmese soldiers said we must not go back to our village and that was final. The one-day pass costs 15 Kyats." 

"Saw Tha Dah" (male, age 29) from Nga Yan In village, southern area (Interview #11)

"People have to stay in the fields at Kain Kee, they have to build shelters and find food somehow. They just built small huts. … We went there. We had to go. Four villages had to move there: May Way, Kyaw Leit, Shan Toke, and Kyaun Hla. There are over 80 households that moved there altogether. They have to go back to their homes to get their food, like going back to steal it. You have to get a pass - for 5 Kyats you get a pass for 5 days. Later we had to pay 10 Kyats to get a pass for 7 days. With a pass you can go back to your village in the morning but you have to come back in the evening, then after 7 days your pass expires. You have to go back quietly and cultivate, but then when harvest time arrives you are not allowed to harvest. If we go back to pick our betelnut we have to collect it secretly, because if a SLORC patrol sees they will shoot you down even if you have a pass. They haven’t shot anyone dead yet, but they said they will." 

"Pu Soe" (male, 66) from May Way village, northern area, describing how he and 80 other families had to survive at Kain Kee relocation site (Interview #36)

Some villagers reported that in the northern relocation sites, SLORC was beginning to order all villagers to hand over all of their rice, then line up to receive a rice ration each week. The ration is 2 small milktins per person per day (the average working villager eats 3 milktins per day), and no ration is given for children under 2 years old. SLORC has done this in many other forced relocation campaigns, and the purpose is to prevent villagers from having any rice to give to resistance forces, as well as to make it harder for them to flee. Although the villagers are theoretically receiving back their own rice, the military officers generally sell a lot of the supply to traders, and they also switch their low-grade military ration rice with the villagers’ good rice. Even without being forced to hand over their rice, villagers in the relocation sites are probably already facing a serious food crisis due to the limited amount of rice they could take with them to the site and the difficulty of obtaining any vegetables or meats. Furthermore, growing rice is labour-intensive, but the time spent doing forced labour combined with the restrictions on movement passes will not allow most people to spend enough time in their fields to grow a proper crop this year. As a result, many or most of them will probably have to flee the relocation sites before long.

"We can’t stay there, because starting this year we’ve been ordered to take all of our paddy to the SLORC. We must give them all our paddy, then we must go and ask for paddy from them every week. They started this in November. They don’t give back enough, only 2 milktins per person per day. For some this is enough, but not for everybody. [Most villagers eat 3 milktins of rice per day.] And they don’t give any for children under 2 years old. We must find rice ourselves for our young children. Wah Gone, Kyauk Taung, Ler Pa Doh and Pyi Cha villagers have to give all of their paddy to SLORC. Then SLORC sells a lot of it to Burmans who are traders." 

"Nai Thein" (male, 45, Mon) from xxxx village, northern area (Interview #51)

Forced Labour

"They gave us nothing, we had to take our own food. We had to work from 6 a.m. until 11 a.m. and from noon until 6 p.m. Before we used to come back and sleep in our house, but now [since SLORC burned his house] we have to sleep in the forest. If SLORC comes to the village again I think we’ll have to move. If you run you have to run fast, and if not you have to go and work on the car road." 

"Saw Tamla Htoo" (male, 18) from xxxx village, central area, who was forced to do road labour even after his village was burned (Interview #22)

"They must build the road, and when that’s done they have to go to do things in the Army camp, like mixing cement and baking bricks. The camp is at Palaw - #280 Battalion. The car road is not finished yet. We build it until it’s finished, then start again to build another one!" 

"Saw Lweh Say" (male, 25) from Naw Ber village, northern area (Interview #44)

Before this relocation campaign, people in villages accessible to SLORC were already forced to do labour on roads, at army camps and as porters on a regular basis. However, many of the villages in the relocation areas, particularly in the eastern parts furthest from SLORC bases, generally ignored orders for forced labour knowing that SLORC patrols would almost never come to their villages. This situation was one of the motivations behind the relocation campaign, to bring villagers under control and make them available for forced labour. Since the relocations the overall amount of forced labour being done in the region has greatly increased because of all the work being done to build and improve military access roads in order to strengthen SLORC control. As a result, those in the relocation sites have been used constantly for forced labour, while those who were already doing forced labour are also facing increased forced labour demands. SLORC does not want to allow people to flee to the forests or to other areas, as they are needed in the relocation sites for forced labour; this is one of the reasons for the continuing military sweeps to flush out the people in hiding (the other main reason is to cut off any possibility of civilian support for KNU activity).

"They ordered people to move to Kyauk Taung in rainy season. In Mi Sein Kyu, everyone had to move to the motor road in the rainy season. We went and stayed by the motor road and did nothing but work for SLORC until we came here [to KNU-held area]." 

"A’Kyaw" (male, 60+) from Mi Sein Kyu village, northern area (Interview #43)

"Our houses have been burned and we have to rebuild them, some don’t have enough to eat, not enough rice - and they want us to build the road! We aren’t free yet, and we have told them so." 

"Pati Hla San" (male, 48) from xxxx village, southern area (Interview #2)

The main forced labour being done is road construction and maintenance, on both existing and new roads. 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 motor 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. Villagers from the southernmost reaches of the Tenasserim River are also constantly forced to rebuild and maintain the road which runs from Taninthari town up the east side of the Tenasserim River to Ta M’La and on to the mine at Thein Daw.

SLORC is also constructing new motor roads, including one which branches southeastward off the main north-south road and runs into the central relocation area, through Boke, Ka Pyaw, Aleh Chaung, Pa Thwee, Mazaw and Kyay Nan Daing (at least 40 km. long). Another new access road being built runs eastward into the southern relocation area, from T’Gu to Ta Po Hta, and local people believe SLORC plans to continue this road northward to Ta Po Kee, through the heart of the southern relocation area (estimated total length 30-40 km.). Villagers in this area say that if the road comes through, military camps are sure to follow, and they will have to flee for good.

Forced labour construction on these new roads began in November/December 1996. Villagers are being forced to move to the 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. Even after finishing the year’s work maintaining existing roads, people from villages and relocation sites 50 km. and more to the north of the new roads are forced to walk 2 days to the new roads in order to work on rotating 10-day shifts hauling dirt, building embankments, breaking rocks and digging ditches.

"For building the road we have to buy things, carry things, do everything. We have to buy petrol, pay for the car, buy stones - we have to buy everything, and we also have to go and do it ourselves. It is the motor road, it goes to Palaw and also to Tavoy. We also have to go work on it in Palaw. The width is 8 plah [12 feet], and the section we have to work on is 12 miles. Every day until it is finished! It can never be finished." 

"Naw Eh Htoo" (female, 52) from Maw Ma Sa village, northern area (Interview #37)

"I had a big house, but it was in the way of the road so I had to tear it down and rebuild it - now I only have a small house. The others whose houses were destroyed had to go and live in their parents’ houses. When we were forced to move here I sold all my land. Now I have only 6 tins of rice left." 

"Saw K’Htoo" (male, 35), central area, who was forced to move to Ka Pyaw and since moving had spent most of his time doing forced labour on the road (Interview #25)

The main stages of the construction are building up the embankment, digging 2-foot deep drainage ditches along both sides of the road, resurfacing and smoothing the road, and clearing the scrub along both sides of the road. In most cases the roads are being built wide enough for 2 Army trucks to pass each other. Most of the roads are dirt and are not being paved. They are being "engineered" incompetently by Army officers and built straight across streambeds and floodplains in many cases. Most of them will be wiped out every rainy season, and then the villagers will be forced to build them again.

"Even if we work on it for 10 more years, it will never be finished. It’s finished, then it’s ruined, then it’s finished, then it’s ruined, the rain comes and it’s ruined. The roads in Burma get ruined very easily." 

"Saw Lweh Say" (male, 25) from Naw Ber village, northern area, talking about endless road construction (Interview #44)

Usually the village or relocation site is divided into two groups of households, and the groups take turns doing forced labour for shifts ranging from 1 day to 2 weeks, depending on the worksite. Each household in the group must send one person to do the work without exception. Any household which cannot provide a labourer must hire someone to go in their place, which can cost 300 or more Kyat per day. No money, food, shelter, medical care or medicines are provided by SLORC at the worksite. Villagers must sleep in the scrub alongside the road or build small lean-to’s to stay in. Soldiers are often present but only to guard, never to work, and they often beat the villagers for resting. No convicts are being used.

At the worksite, the groups from each village are generally given a specific assignment to be completed within their shift, such as the completion of 1 furlong [220 yards] of road embankment. Many village elders, who are forced to go along on every shift to supervise the work, choose to subdivide the assignment by family; for example, each family is responsible for 3 yards of road out of the village’s assignment, and then people can go home as soon as their assignment is finished. At many worksites the soldiers only come along infrequently to inspect the work; they know that the work will be done in their absence, because otherwise village elders will be arrested and tortured and villagers will be beaten. Villagers who become sick are given no medicine, but they are usually allowed to go home on strict condition that they return for an extra shift of labour with the next group. If villagers become ill when soldiers are present, the soldiers often accuse them of pretending and force them to continue working.

"I dug the soil, carried sand and stones, broke big rocks with a big hammer and then carried them to the main road. Even if entire families worked together that would take longer than the whole summer. Thousands and thousands of people were there. About 2 platoons of soldiers watched the workers, and when the villagers didn’t work properly they beat them without mercy. … Once the soldiers got drunk and beat people. They ordered them to lie down in a row on the road and then beat them with a big bamboo pole. … They hit them 10 or 20 times - I didn’t count, so maybe even more. They also ran up and kicked each person twice as they lay there. The people were bruised and swollen all over." 

"Saw Tha Dah" (male, 29) from Nga Yan In village, southern area, talking about labour on the Kyay Nan Daing road (Interview #11)

"The workers were tired and they took a rest. It was midday so they were resting … The soldiers saw them and said they couldn’t rest, they had to work. … He was an old man already, 50 or 60 years old. They stomped on his legs and then kicked him in the hips. They kicked him 2 or 3 times and then ordered him back to work." 

"Saw Hla Htoo" (male, 44), southern area (Interview #14)

"We’ve been working on this for one month now, and we’ve done 4 furlongs [1 furlong = 220 yards]. At the beginning they promised that they would give us 60,000 Kyats for each furlong, but we’ve done 4 furlongs already and they haven’t given us anything, so I hate them. If they paid us, at least we could pay off some of our debt. I haven’t enough time to work for my family, so we just have to eat whatever we have." 

"Saw Ler Muh" (male, 35), central area, describing forced labour on the road near Ka Pyaw (Interview #28)

"They never gave us any food or money for working there. They never gave medicine for the sick - if we had any medicine and they found out, we had to share it with them!" 

"Saw Tha Dah" (male, 29) from Nga Yan In village, southern area, talking about labour on the Kyay Nan Daing road (Interview #11)

"They have to work even though they’re sick. If it’s very serious, they have to ask permission to rest. Sometimes they won’t give permission. The time when I was there, one villager from Meh Ngaw died. When that happened none of the villagers stayed there. The Army went to check the road and got angry because no one was there, and they asked, "Who gave them permission to go back?" The people told them, "One man died so they all went back to their village". But they said, "No. They have to come back. They have to make the road until it’s finished." 

"Saw Hla Htoo" (male, 44), southern area, describing forced labour on the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road (Interview #14)

"Everyone has to go and carry stone and rocks, even the widows. One person from every household has to go. If we fail to go, they come to beat us and then take us along with them. If we don’t go we have to pay 1,000 Kyats per day. For those who are sick, it is 500 Kyats per day. We have to go for 7 days each time, and they give us no food. … If we are careless they [the soldiers] are always watching so they can beat us. If our work isn’t good enough for them, they curse us, give us a punch and kick us. One time they kicked me, and he [the soldier] slapped me with the palm of his hand and gave me a heavy blow with his fist. Not a soft blow, a heavy and painful blow! He said, "We don’t want to hear about how you’re poor or starving. All we want is to see you working and constructing a good road!" … It is an old road that they are reconstructing. The other villages also have to go like us. We had to do it last year as well. We have to rebuild it almost every year, after the damage from rainy season." 

"Pati Wah Lay" (male, 51) from xxxx village on the southern Tenasserim River, describing forced labour rebuilding the road to the mine at Thein Daw (Interview #19)

Children as young as 12, people over 60, and women still breastfeeding their infants are being forced to do this work. The rule is one person per household, and there are no exceptions. Even if a household consists of only a 70-year-old couple or a widowed mother with small children, they must provide a person. As a result, many of those doing the labour are women, children and the elderly. Furthermore, able-bodied men are beaten much more regularly and brutally than women and children and they always face the possibility of being accused of "looking like a rebel" and executed if they displease a soldier in any way, so men aged 18 to 50 are often too afraid to go. Women with small children often take them along to the worksite because they are breastfeeding or because there is no one else to take care of them, and these children must sleep in the dirt or small lean-to’s alongside the road with everyone else. Many families go as a unit, parents, children and grandparents, so that they can finish their family assignment as quickly as possible and head back home.

"There are women working there. If you are under age 60, you have to go. The youngest must be above age 5 - children younger than that can’t go. We have to dig the ground. The soldiers come and scold and beat people if they are not pleased. If people work slowly or improperly they are beaten. There are some people working there who are not well. If you are not well they will let you go, but then you have to come back again an extra time." 

"Maung Shwe Than" (male, 35), a Burman from xxxx in the southern area who has had to work on the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road several times (Interview #18)

"There were about 2,000 people working there, from Ka Pyaw, Wa Thu Lo, ... Many old people as well as the young, and many women. Children about 10 years and up - their parents couldn’t come so they sent their children. And old people about 60. Some women came with 2 or 3 children, there were many children there and some people had to hire others to look after their children while they worked." 

"Saw Tamla Htoo" (male, 18) from xxxx village, central area, describing labour on the road at Ka Pyaw (Interview #22)

"The very old and the very young have to work together with us and do the same work. The work is divided the same for everyone, for example one yard per person. If we have to do 2 yards, then so do the women and the children." 

"Ko Than Aung" (male, 25), a Burman from xxxx village in the southern area who has done forced labour several times on the road from T’Gu to Ta Po Hta (Interview #16)

"I am the youngest. My parents already died. I have one brother and one sister. I stay with my sister. … I’m going to work on the road. … My sister asked me to work instead of her. My sister is sick. If she is well she goes. She is about 30 years old. She is married and has one child, a girl who is 4 years old. This is my second time. … It will take 15 days. … [The first time] ended 10 days ago. That time I had to work for 12 days. I had to dig a ditch. … [Q: Was it easy?] Not easy. [Q: Where did you sleep?] In the forest. … I was the youngest one there." 

"Thein Myint" (male, age 12), a Burman schoolboy in the southern area, interviewed on his way to forced labour on the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road (Interview #15)

"When I was there I saw a Burmese villager together with his 3 children digging and labouring together on the road. The father was digging the earth. His two sons, 7 or 8 years old, were carrying the earth along the road. He also had a daughter about 12 years old - she was lifting the earth for the 2 boys to carry [helping them lift panniers full of dirt and rock onto their heads]. Some of the villagers were already finished, but some like them had not finished yet, and they were still working there. When I saw them I thought, "How can they get food to eat?", because the father was doing the work, his 2 sons and his daughter as well, and the mother was cooking for them. The SLORC are doing this, making the villagers and even the children have to work for them, so the children don’t even have time to go to school. This makes a problem for the parents, and the children will only grow up to have the same problems. The children are supposed to start school at age 6. But the children who have to work on the road, how can they attend school? They become older, and as for that girl, she already has to work on the road so she can’t go to school any more. I don’t know if they were villagers or refugees [victims of relocation]. I think their children should be in school, but as long as the road is not finished they will never attend school." 

"Saw Hla Htoo" (male, 44), southern area, describing forced labour on the T’Gu - Ta Po Hta road (Interview #14)

With the new roads will come new Army camps throughout the area. Villagers already know what that means, as they have already had to do forced labour building and maintaining Army camps, digging trenches, building bunkers, fences, and barracks, then having to serve at the camps as unarmed sentries, messengers and servants, cooking, carrying water, gathering firewood, … Many Army camps confiscate their farmland, then force them to farm it for the Army, and force them to cut and haul logs for sale. At the same time, they have to provide rice and livestock and pay extortion money in the form of "porter fees" and other "fees". Most villagers in the relocation areas say that if a road comes into their area they will never be able to live there again.

"We also had to work in their camp. We had to carry bamboo and wood and build shelters for them. We also had to pay them porter fees and other taxes, I think it must have been more than 1,000 every month. Moreover, the soldiers go and eat in Palaw town, then when they come back they make us give money to the camp to pay all their bills." 

"Pu Soe" (male, 66) from May Way village, northern area (Interview #36)

"We had to work for SLORC every day, and moreover one person has to go and sleep with the SLORC in their camp every night, and do whatever the SLORC orders them to do. We also have to build the road every day - my husband and my children have to take turns going." 

"Naw Hsah" (female, 36) from xxxx village, northern area (Interview #52)

"We have nowhere else to go, so whatever they order us to do we must do. When they don’t order us to work we work for ourselves. When they order us to go we leave our work and we go to build the road. If we have children then we send the children to build the road and we stay behind to do our own work. The people who have no children, they stay as one so they have to go as one. If we go somewhere else how will we live?" 

"Pati Wah Lay" (male, 51) from xxxx village on the southern Tenasserim River, describing forced labour rebuilding the road to the mine at Thein Daw; his village has not yet been ordered to relocate because it is on the road (Interview #19)

Effects of the SLORC Offensive

In January 1997, SLORC was already sending out many more patrols in all the relocation areas to seek out and destroy any means of support for the villagers in hiding, and to capture or shoot on sight any villagers they could. Then the mass offensive on KNU-held areas along the Tenasserim River began in early February. The main attack force came eastward from Tavoy and then down the Tenasserim River, over 100 km. north of the relocation areas, but shortly thereafter SLORC began a pincer-type operation, sending troops eastward through the relocation areas to reach the southern Tenasserim River at Kaweh Hta, Ler Pa Doh and K’Say Hta. These forces could then move up the Tenasserim River while the main attack force heading down to link up with them.

Most people in the free-fire zones found themselves cut off from flight to the Tenasserim River or the Thai border. An estimated one to two thousand had already taken refuge along the Tenasserim River, and found themselves fleeing the offensive troops along with the villagers who already lived there. They scattered everywhere, many of them fleeing back into the free-fire zones they had already left, going back to a life in hiding in the forest; except that this time, they had no food or belongings with them. Many of these will probably have no choice in the end but to go to the forced relocation sites and do forced labour.

Others stayed with the villagers who had given them shelter and made a run for the Thai border. In the area of K’Say Hta, Way Toh Ray and Si Pyet, where most of the people displaced from the northern relocation area were taking refuge, SLORC troops coming down the Tenasserim River managed to go around most of the Karen forces and arrive in villages suddenly, by complete surprise. Many villagers in this area literally had to run for their lives, and in some cases children and the elderly were left behind to the mercy of SLORC troops. Those who escaped had a long, difficult and dangerous flight through the hills eastward to the Thai border, having to dodge SLORC advance patrols and firefights all the time only to find that Thai authorities were blocking many from crossing the border. Many of the people originally from the free-fire zones were among the villagers trapped at Ta Ma Pyo Hta and other sites in Burma until the Thai Army finally allowed them to cross into Thailand because the SLORC Army was attacking them. These refugees from the free-fire zones can now be found among the other refugees from the SLORC offensives in the new refugee camp at Ban Tam Hin. At this and other new refugee camps, Thai authorities have forced everyone to live on the dirt under plastic sheeting for 5 months already. A particularly heavy rainy season began in June, and they are now living and sleeping in the mud. Foreign aid organisations urgently want to provide building materials, but Thai authorities will not allow it, hoping that if they force the refugees to live in a misery of mud, disease and bad food that they will decide to go back across the border of their own accord. The refugees are living in constant fear of forced repatriation by the Thai Army, but they know what awaits them if they go back and many say they would rather die.

Q: How long ago did you have to run from Aw Pu village?

A: Now it’s 3 months already. We ran from place to place to place, many times already. From Aw Pu we fled to Palaw town, then to Maw Ma Sa, then to Pyi Cha / Mi Kyin Thu, then we arrived in Bo Heh Kee, then to K’Say Hta, then to Si Pyet. I was in K’Say Hta just 2 weeks and Si Pyet just 5 days, then we had to flee. Then to Meh Pya, and then we arrived here [Baw Wih refugee camp in Thailand, which was soon after forced to move to Ban Tam Hin].

Q: Do you think you’ll have to run again?

A: I don’t know!

Q: How many houses from Aw Pu are here?

A: 4 houses. There were 22 households from Aw Pu staying [displaced] in Si Pyet. Some are probably still among the Burmese. They are scattered all over the place.

[Explanation: as people from a relocated village they would not be allowed to stay in Palaw town. After they arrived in Maw Ma Sa it was also ordered to move, as were Pyi Cha and Mi Kyin Thu. By the time they would have arrived in Bo Heh Kee in January, SLORC patrols were sweeping the area shooting everyone on sight. K’Say Hta and Si Pyet were KNU-controlled prior to the offensive, but the SLORC attack forced her to flee to Meh Pya, then SLORC reached Meh Pya so she had to flee to Thailand.]

- "Naw Kree Eh" (female, 30), a widow with 3 children aged 3, 7, and 9, from Aw Pu village, northern area. Her husband was murdered by SLORC troops 2 years ago at Kain Kee, after which she was repeatedly harassed as a ‘suspect’ until her village was forced to relocate and she fled. Taken from "Refugees from the SLORC Occupation" 

(KHRG Report #97-07, 25/5/97), Interview #T6, interviewed on 3/4/97.

"The situation now is more difficult than when the Japanese came. The Burmese give many more problems to the Karen people than the pu-kaw [‘short-legs’, i.e. Japanese] did. When the pu-kaw came they did not burn people’s houses, they just asked us where the English were. But now when the Burmese come all the Karen must run and hide, big and small. When the Burmese came and burned our village all the others ran, but I stayed near. I’m not afraid - the Burmese have shot at me many times before. I’ll search for roots and vegetables, and I’ll stay here - where else could I go?" 

"Pu K’Mwee", a 65 year old grandfather, almost deaf, living in a shed in a free-fire zone in the central area in defiance of a SLORC relocation order. SLORC troops had already burned half of his village (Interview #34).