Forced Labour Briefing Notes


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Forced Labour Briefing Notes

Published date:
Tuesday, February 10, 1998

These notes list some of the main types of forced labour currently experienced by villagers in most of the main rural Karen areas of Burma, including Karen State, Tenasserim Division, parts of Mon State and Pegu Division, and the Irrawaddy Delta. This list does not include all the types of forced labour, it only tries to give an idea of the main types. For further details on labour conditions and the implementation of this forced labour please see KHRG’s written submissionto the ILO Commission of Inquiry dated August 1997. Details and supporting evidence of the situation in each of the areas listed below is available in existing and upcoming KHRG reports.


These notes list some of the main types of forced labour currently experienced by villagers in most of the main rural Karen areas of Burma, including Karen State, Tenasserim Division, parts of Mon State and Pegu Division, and the Irrawaddy Delta. This list does not include all the types of forced labour, it only tries to give an idea of the main types. For further details on labour conditions and the implementation of this forced labour please see KHRG’s written submission to the ILO Commission of Inquiry dated August 1997. Details and supporting evidence of the situation in each of the areas listed below is available in existing and upcoming KHRG reports.

Presently the SPDC is rapidly expanding the concentration of its armed forces in most Karen areas, and the burden of forced labour on all villagers is increasing even more quickly; each Battalion is demanding more and more forced labour of villagers, and the number of these Battalions is also increasing. Several major military offensives have been conducted over the past year, particularly in Dooplaya and Tenasserim, and an offensive is expected soon in Papun District of Karen State. The SPDC has greatly extended its control in Karen areas in the past year, and is continuing on a program to gain complete control over all Karen areas. Forced labour is used both to gain control (as porters, camp labour, etc.) and once control is established (as camp labour, forced labour on roads and other "development", growing cash crops for the military, etc.)

Karen areas are looked upon by the SPDC as areas of active or potential resistance, and their policy in all such areas (particularly in the last 2-3 years) has been to "drain the ocean so the fish cannot swim"; in other words, undermine the ability of the civilian population to survive until they can no longer support any opposition. This is characterised by mass forced relocations, destruction of villages and the village economy, and completely unsustainable levels of forced labour. The current SPDC plan for consolidating control over areas where there is resistance appears to consist of the following steps: 1) mount a military offensive against the area; 2) forcibly relocate all villages to sites under direct Army control; 3) use the relocated villagers and others as forced labour, portering and building military access roads into their home areas; 4) move more Army units in and use the villagers as forced labour to build bases along the access roads; 5) allow the villagers back to their villages, where they are now under complete military control and can be used as a rotating source of extortion money and forced labour, further consolidating control through "development" projects, forced labour farming for the Army, etc. If resistance attacks still persist or if villagers fail to cooperate at this last stage, retaliation is carried out against villages by executing villager elders, burning houses and other means. The first 2 steps of this strategy can be combined or reversed in order in some cases. Throughout Burma we can see examples where this process is at various stages: in central Shan State and eastern Tenasserim Division, SPDC is working on stages 1 and 2; in Dooplaya District of central Karen State, which they just occupied in early 1997, they are implementing stages 2 and 3 (see "Refugees from the SLORC Occupation", KHRG #97-07, and "Clampdown in Southern Dooplaya", KHRG #97-11); in the free-fire zones of southern Tenasserim Division (see "Free-Fire Zones in Southern Tenasserim", KHRG #97-09) they are between stages 3 and 4; while in the western plains of Nyaunglebin District, Thaton District and many other areas they have already reached stage 5. Once at the final stage of control, the Army units are not withdrawn; instead, they focus all of their time on using villagers for forced labour on roads, railways, dams, new Army camps, farming on confiscated land to grow cash crops for Army profit, logging, digging and tending Army fishpond projects and sugarcane fields, providing materials for brick-baking, hauling goods, etc. The ways which SLORC and SPDC units have invented to use villagers for forced labour are countless.

In 1994/95, a rival Karen group called the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) was established to oppose the Karen National Union (KNU), and this group quickly allied itself to SLORC. This group was of great help to SLORC in capturing many Karen-held areas. Since that time, the DKBA has lost most of its political direction and command structure and now mainly acts as an SPDC militia and as guides/messengers for SPDC units, primarily operating in Pa’an, Thaton, Dooplaya, and Papun Districts. Most local DKBA units demand extortion and small-scale forced labour from villagers, and some have been assigned responsibility for certain stretches of road construction, particularly in Pa’an District. To do this they round up villagers for forced labour and use methods almost identical to those of the SPDC. There is even one report (as yet unconfirmed by KHRG) that along one stretch of the Myawaddy-Kawkareik-Pa’an road the DKBA is building a road parallel to the SPDC road simply due to an argument over which group is supposed to "control" the area; villagers have to provide all the forced labour to build both stretches of road.


In Toungoo (Karen name Taw Oo) District, which forms the northern tip of Karen State, the SPDC strongly controls Toungoo Town and the western plains of the district (which are actually in Pegu Division), while the rugged hills in the east of the district are not yet completely under their control. In the strongly SPDC-controlled western part, the villagers and townspeople have to do all the usual types of forced labour for such areas, including road-building and maintenance, Army camp rotating labour, and rotating labour cleaning up the town. Many Toungoo townspeople have been used as forced labour renovating and maintaining the local historical palace, and thousands of people from villages throughout the area were forced to do rotating shifts of forced labour constructing the Pa Thee Dam just east of Toungoo until its completion in 1996. People from this area are also now taken in increasing numbers as porters for Army units going to destroy the hill villages in the east of the District.

In the hills making up the east of the District, SPDC troops have been using all the villagers since at least 1996 as a constant source of forced labour to build a military access road through the hills from Kler Lah (a.k.a. Bawgali) to Bu Sah Kee. This road has only recently been completed, but the villagers are still used as forced labour maintaining it (it is washed out every time it rains) and as sentries along it. Another road is now being built with forced labour from Kler Lah to Maw Kee, and there are reports that the SPDC also wants to push the road further south from Bu Sah Kee into northern Papun District to support a possible offensive there. Now that the road is operational, troop numbers have been greatly increased throughout the eastern parts of the District and they have been destroying all the hill villages and ordering them to move to Army-controlled sites such as Ye Tho Gyi Army camp so they can be used continuously as forced labour on the roads and Army camps. Most of the villagers are in hiding in the hills, hunted by SPDC patrols who often shoot them on sight. All of these patrols use large numbers of munitions and supply porters captured from the villages or the plains to the west.


Nyaunglebin District (Karen name Kler Lwe Htoo) is in Pegu Division, but most of the villagers there (particularly in the eastern half of the District) are Karen. The western part of the district is in the Sittang River plain; in this area the SPDC is firmly in control, and people must do regular shifts of forced labour of various kinds for the local Army, such as camp labour. They must also maintain the north-south road, particularly from Shwegyin to Kyauk Kyi, and in at least one area the villagers must stand sentry along this road. Many people from this region, particularly from Shwegyin town and the surrounding villages, are now doing forced labour as porters, human minesweepers and messengers by SPDC troops who are going eastward into the hills of Nyaunglebin and Papun Districts to destroy villages and hunt villagers.

In the eastern hills of the District SPDC troops have been burning all villages and food supplies and hunting villagers in hiding to shoot them on sight. Many of these villages have been ordered to move to sites along the Shwegyin - Kyauk Kyi car road, where they would be used as forced labour for the local Army camps and on the road, but almost none of them have gone to these sites, preferring to take their chances in hiding in the hills. The SPDC program in this area intends to destroy all villages and remove the civilian population so that there can be no further opposition.


Papun (Karen name Mudraw) District is entirely Karen, consisting mainly of rugged hills dotted with small villages of 10 to 30 households. SLORC/SPDC has always had difficulty controlling this region, and as a result since March 1997 they have conducted a campaign to remove the civilian population from the hills. Over 100 villages immediately surrounding SPDC-controlled garrisons such as Papun, Meh Way, Ku Seik and Ka Dtaing Dtee have been ordered to move to the garrisons, while over 179 villages have been completely burned and destroyed by SLORC/SPDC patrols (KHRG has compiled lists of these villages, yet even these lists are not complete). Most villagers throughout the District are living in small groups in hiding in the hills, trying to plant crops in their hill fields while dodging SPDC patrols which come from Papun, Shwegyin, Pwa Ghaw, Pa Heh, Kaw Boke and other camps in the area to destroy all remaining villages and food supplies, and to hunt villagers and shoot them on sight. These patrols range in size from 50 to over 300 troops, and come with anywhere from a dozen to over 100 porters to carry their munitions, supplies, and whatever they loot from the villages before they burn them. These porters are taken by force from Shwegyin and Papun towns, from the garrison villages, and from among the villagers who have relocated as ordered to the garrisons. The patrols capture some villagers along their way as porters, but most villagers they see are simply shot on sight.

Those who have moved to the SPDC garrisons such as Meh Way are being used as forced labour building and maintaining Army camps and as porters for patrols setting out into the hills. There is as yet no major road construction in the area; the SPDC is pushing a road from Kyauk Kyi in Nyaunglebin District eastward to Saw Hta at the Thai border, but they are doing this with bulldozers under heavy military guard in order to finish it as quickly as possible. Most people in the area believe the main purpose of this road is to support a military offensive in this area within the next year, and if such an offensive strengthens SPDC control then major forced labour building roads would probably follow.


SLORC/SPDC control in Pa’an District has greatly strengthened since 1995, and more Battalions have moved into the area. Other than skirmishes, fighting in the area has mainly been confined to the Dawna Mountains near the Thai border. Most of the SLORC/SPDC Battalions have focused since 1995 on consolidating their control by using the forced labour of villagers to build a large network of roads throughout the region; construction on roads from Kawkareik to Nabu (a.k.a. T’Nay Cha), Kyone Doh to Myapadine, Nabu to Pata, Nabu to Daw Lan and Kyaw Ywa, Nabu to Bee T’Ka and Pain Kyone (a.k.a. Dta Greh), and Pain Kyone to Pa’an has been continuous. Another new road is being built with forced labour from Hlaing Bwe to Meh Th’Wah (at the Thai border near the former Karen headquarters of Manerplaw), and the DKBA has supervised forced labour on construction of a road from Pa’an to their headquarters at Khaw Taw (a.k.a. Myaing Gyi Ngu or Pyi Taw Win). At the same time, forced labour continues on maintenance and improvement of existing roads from Myawaddy to Kawkareik and on to Kyone Doh and Pa’an, and from Pain Kyone to Hlaing Bwe and Shwegun. Villagers throughout the area regularly have to rotate working on 2 or 3 different roads at the same time. Villages near the Dawna Range in the east have also been sporadically relocated to these roads.

All of this forced labour is augmented by forced labour building and maintaining new Army camps as more Battalions move into the region, as rotating servants to the soldiers at these camps and as porters. Pa’an District is the DKBA’s main area of activity, and villagers often find they must do forced labour both for SLORC/SPDC and for the local DKBA unit. Muslims are particularly targetted for forced labour in the area, and in 1995 the Muslim half of Nabu, one of the principal villages in the District, was destroyed to make way for an Army camp of SLORC Light Infantry Battalion #547.

Many of the Battalions in this area have also begun using villagers as forced labour in local money-spinning schemes; for example, LIB #547 officers force local villages to provide fuel and materials for brick-baking, then the soldiers are forced to spend 8 or more hours per day baking bricks (in addition to their full shift of military duty), which are then sold in local markets for the profit of the officers. Battalions in the area have also often demanded that villagers cut, haul and provide logs, which sawmill owners are then forced to saw into timber so that they can be sold for the profit of the Army. Battalions have confiscated prime farmland without compensation, then forced the farmers to plant, tend, and harvest rice or other cash crops, which are then entirely confiscated for consumption or sale by the Army. KHRG has just received a report (as yet unconfirmed) that the local SPDC has notified villagers in Bee T’Ka village, one of the principal villages in the area, that a rubber plantation is to be established in their area. The villagers are extremely worried by this, because it means their farmland will be confiscated and they will be forced to cut, clear, then plant and harvest all the rubber for the benefit of the Army. Such projects have been carried out in areas further south (see below), and they usually incorporate thousands of acres.


Thaton (Karen name Doothatu) District, once an area of heavy confrontation between Karen and SLORC forces, has been strongly controlled by SLORC/SPDC since 1995, and here, as in Pa’an District, the DKBA acts as an extra arm of the SPDC forces. For years now, villagers in this area have had to do heavy rotations of forced labour at Army camps, as servants for soldiers, sentries and human minesweepers daily on roads through the area, and as porters. To avoid this, many had fled and were hiding through the area, but this is no longer possible because there are not so many hills or extensive forests in the District. The DKBA forces know all the hiding places and in 1995/96 they routed out all those in hiding by destroying their hidden food supplies, so almost all of the villagers now have to stay in their villages and face the forced labour. The men of the villages often still flee temporarily to avoid the frequent sweeps for porters. Village headmen are all chosen by local SPDC military authorities, and they generally have to send quotas of all types of forced labour according to written orders from the Army. If they fail to comply they are arrested and tortured. In the past villages in this District have been shelled with mortar barrages without warning for failing to comply with written orders for forced labour (for example, Kyaun Sein village in 1993, for failing to provide road sentries to protect a military convoy). Human rights monitors from the area are currently reporting that all villagers are now being forced to hand over rice to the troops, usually on the order of two milktins of rice per day, because the troops are not receiving adequate rations. Villagers are also being forced to do labour making charcoal under supervision of the DKBA, which the military sells outside the area for profit. Several villages have been ordered to produce and hand over 1,000 pounds of charcoal each.


Dooplaya District lies in central Karen State just south of Pa’an District. In the far north of the District, just south of the Myawaddy-Kawkareik car road, conditions are very similar to those in Pa’an District, with rotating forced labour on roads, at Army camps, cutting and milling logs, and performing other work for the profit of SPDC officers.

Much of the rest of Dooplaya was strongly or partially controlled by the Karen National Union, until SLORC launched a major offensive in February 1997 which captured most of the area. This offensive used an estimated 20,000 troops and an approximately equivalent number of forced labour porters. Weeks before the offensive began and during its course, SLORC troops were surrounding markets, cinemas and railway stations and stopping passenger cars in towns, villages and along roadways all along the Andaman seaboard in order to capture civilians and send them to the frontline for this forced labour. Most were used for several weeks or over a month before they escaped or were released, only to be replaced by villagers native to the captured areas.

While over 10,000 new refugees fled the offensive to Thailand, most villagers were trapped inside the District, and these are now facing the new SLORC/SPDC occupation. Most of the offensive troops were rotated out by mid-1997 and replaced by occupation troops who are to stay for a longer time period. There is currently no fighting other than skirmishes in a few parts of the District. The occupation troops are concentrating on consolidating control over the region, which involves several operations. After sweeping the villages to identify, arrest and generally execute anyone with suspected past connections with the KNU, the authorities ordered most of the hill villages away from Army posts or the central plain of the region to move to Army-controlled sites, and the villages were destroyed. The troops used villagers with carts as forced labour hauling food, belongings and building materials they had looted from villages to Saw Hta (a.k.a. Azin) and other sites. Since then there has been extensive confiscation of land and use of villagers as forced labour building new Army bases through the region, particularly the major base at the village of Azin, as well as bases at Kyaikdon and other locations in northern Dooplaya, and Kyun Chaung and other locations in southern Dooplaya. Forced labour on roads to improve military access began soon after the occupation and has intensified greatly since the end of the rainy season in October 1997. Some of the roads being built or improved with forced labour enter the region from the west (Kya In Seik Gyi to Kyaikdon), from the north (Kyone Doh to Kyaikdon), from the east (Dta Law Thaw/Sakanthit to Azin), and from the north of the region south to the Thai border (Kyaikdon to Azin and Lay Po Hta/Ber Kler). In the south of Dooplaya, extensive forced labour has been carried out to improve the road from Three Pagodas Pass at the Thai border to Thanbyuzayat near the Andaman Sea coast. This network of roads is only likely to expand, and will be followed by the establishment of more new Army camps throughout the region. Both the roads and the camps will likely be built with the forced labour of villagers.

Villagers throughout the area already have to do forced labour as porters, messengers, and rotating servants for the soldiers at the existing camps, and as sentries on the roads. Once military control over the area is consolidated, forced labour on Army money-making projects will probably increase. In southern and western Dooplaya, extensive rubber plantations have already been established which operate entirely on the forced labour of villagers. For example, in 1996 three hundred villagers at a time had to do 6-day rotating shifts of forced labour near Lain Kweh, southwest of Kawkareik, clearing confiscated land and planting rubber trees to establish a 3-mile-square plantation for Infantry Battalion #231. These plantations tend to cover large areas of land, and all of the rubber produced is for military profit. At a larger forced labour rubber plantation further south in Yay Hla Mine township of Mon State which was begun in 1996, SLORC officers told villagers that the rubber produced was under contract to be sold to Singaporean and Korean companies for export.


Tenasserim Division is the southernmost leg of Burma and consists of major Karen, Mon, Tavoyan, Muslim and Burman populations. In the far southern reaches of the Division there are few Karen villages, but in October 1996 all Karen villages in the Boke Pyin area were forced to move to relocation sites around the Burman village of Le Nya so that they could be used as forced labour rebuilding the Boke Pyin - Le Nya motor road. Many of the villagers moved as ordered and have been used as forced labour on that road, while SLORC/SPDC has provided them with nothing whatsoever.

Further north, in the areas south of Tenasserim (Taninthari) town and north of the town all the way up to Palauk 140 kilometres further north, at least 60 villages were ordered to move in late 1996 and early 1997 to SLORC-controlled sites and their villages were destroyed. Both the relocated villagers and those who already lived under SLORC control then began being used as forced labour to build new access roads into the areas of the destroyed villages in order to facilitate military control of the region. The two main access roads being built run from T’Gu to Ta Po Hta and northward to Ta Po Kee (30-40 km), and from Boke to Ka Pyaw, Mazaw and Kyay Nan Daing (40 km). They have been built entirely by the forced labour of villagers, with nothing but simple tools like hoes to cut through hills. These access roads lead into the relocation areas from the main north-south coastal road, and at the same time the villagers have been forced to do labour resurfacing this road from Tavoy to Mergui. Another road in the area which villagers are constantly being forced to rebuild and maintain runs from Tenasserim town up the Tenasserim River to Ta M’La and on to an SPDC mine at Thein Daw. New military camps are very likely to be established throughout the area, and villagers will also be used as forced labour to build, maintain and service these camps.

Throughout the Tenasserim and Paw Kloh valleys, the SLORC mounted a major military offensive in February 1997. Several thousand porters were required for this offensive, and these were rounded up from towns and villages all along the Andaman seaboard, by such diverse means as surrounding markets in Moulmein and stopping passenger vehicles on the coastal road. Fighting in this area is still ongoing, and there are reports of portering and other forms of forced labour being inflicted on villagers in areas already captured by SLORC/SPDC troops.

The Ye-Tavoy railway, a major project begun in 1993 and still continuing, has used over 300,000 villagers as forced labour in its construction. Since 1996, in some parts of the railway soldiers have been used as forced labour in the railway construction, but along many parts of the route villagers continue to be taken for this work. The controversial Yadana gas pipeline project crosses the railway route and has also involved forced labour in its construction, with villagers commandeered by SLORC troops in 1994-96 to do labour clearing and building the "pipeline road" along the route, helicopter pads, jetty and other supply delivery facilities at Ka Daik, and military camps and other military support facilities. All of the pipe has now been laid, but the 10 or more Battalions sent into the area by SLORC to secure the project are still in the area, and villagers still have to do forced labour maintaining their camps and acting as servants and porters for them.

Irrawaddy Delta

The Irrawaddy Delta region west and southwest of Rangoon is half Karen and half Burman. Karen villagers in the region are particularly persecuted and face worse forced labour than the Burmans, particularly since the "Bogalay Crisis" aborted Karen uprising of 1991. Since that time the concentration of SLORC/SPDC military in the area has greatly increased, and local people have had to provide all the forced labour to build their camps and support them. New roads are always being built through the area with forced labour, and since 1996 Karen villagers have reported having to do labour on the Pantanaw-Rangoon road, the Myaung Mya - Lat Putta road, and other roads. Between 1991 and 1994 the villagers had to do forced labour on a new "International Airport" near Bassein. In 1995 SLORC decided to develop Nga Saw beach on the sea coast as a tourist resort for "Visit Myanmar Year 1996", and as a result thousands of villagers had to spend the next year doing forced labour building a road from Nga Saw eastward to Thalat Kwa, near Bassein, as well as clearing the resort site and building structures to support the military who were sent in to guard and supervise the work.

One of the worst problems of villagers in the Delta is doing forced labour on SLORC/SPDC "double-cropping" and "triple-cropping" schemes. The authorities regularly issue orders for farmers throughout the region to grow second and third crops which are to be handed over partly or entirely to the Army, but give the farmers none of the necessary support, such as fertilisers, which are required to grow these off-season crops. The farmers generally fail to produce them, then have to buy the required rice on the market in order to hand it over to the Army or face arrest and imprisonment for non-payment of quota. These crops then form a major basis for the SPDC’s rice exports, as the Irrawaddy Delta is one of the most productive rice-growing regions of the country. The double- and triple-cropping programs also often feature in SPDC propaganda as evidence of "development".