"They were going to burn our houses so they wanted us out of our houses, and they didn’t give us any chance to take our possessions. We all ran away. The Burmese took all my things and destroyed whatever they didn’t want. I had nothing. When I arrived at another place, some people who saw me gave me some clothes to wear. I fled and stayed in the forest. All the villagers stayed in the forest. We had to sleep on the ground for one or two nights, then move to another place for one or two nights. We had to run all the time, every month. We had no chance to build a hut all through hot season. Sometimes we made a roof out of grass or a plastic sheet, but we had to sleep on the ground. It was very hard to cook. We ate rice with some salt and forest vegetables. We lived like that from March until July. There were 40 families with us. A lot of people were ill: diarrhoea, malaria, beriberi, abscesses, stomach pains and so on. We had no medicine there, we just had to use the roots of trees. People died of illness, especially the children - they died of illness and weakness. Where we were staying I saw over 50 people die of illness. … Then we made a hut in our farmfield. We planted our paddy, and we were eating some that we had grown [the first rice; some can be harvested as early as October]. But on November 5th, they [SPDC troops] came and destroyed all of it before we could finish the harvest. They burned all the paddy we had already gathered in the rice barn, and they destroyed all that we hadn’t yet harvested by walking through our fields like this [she imitated soldiers walking through the fields, sweeping machetes and rifles back and forth to knock down the stalks; once knocked down, the rice is very quickly destroyed by insects and parasites]. We ran away. After they destroyed our field we couldn’t get any more rice, we couldn’t do anything, so we lived on rice soup until the rice we had with us was gone, and then we came here. If we didn’t come here, they would shoot us if they saw us."
Naw Muh Eh", Female, 53, Nya Mu Kwee village,Shwegyin township; fled to Thailand in Dec/97 after 8 months in hiding (Interview #52, 12/97)
Since the beginning of 1996, the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta ruling Burma, renamed in November 1997 as the State Peace &Development Council (SPDC), has launched campaigns in many parts of Burma to forcibly move or wipe out all rural villages which are not under the direct physical control of an Army camp. In February/March 1997, SLORC began a campaign to forcibly relocate or obliterate all villages in the hills of Papun District, northern Karen State, and eastern Nyaunglebin District, straddling the border of Karen State and Pegu (Bago) Division. These remote hilly areas are dotted with small Karen villages averaging 10-20 families each, which have always been difficult or impossible for the Burmese military to control because the villagers always flee before they arrive. As a result, SLORC and subsequently SPDC have been carrying out a campaign to forcibly relocate those villages already close to their bases, where they can easily round up the population, and to obliterate all other villages without warning, hunting and killing on sight any villagers they see there.
The initial wave of village destruction was carried out through March and April 1997. In June, new waves of patrols were sent out to burn all remaining signs of habitation and food supplies, to hunt villagers hiding in the forest, burn them out and shoot them. Since November 1997, after the end of the rainy season, the newly-named SPDC regime sent out new patrols to burn out the hiding villagers again, to drive them off the meagre rice crops many of them had managed to plant and to destroy those crops. Through visiting destroyed villages, interviewing villagers, information compiled by independent monitors with other organisations, and some KNU field reports, KHRG has compiled a list of 105 villages ordered to relocate, 180 villages completely burned and 10 others partially burned. The population of these villages averages about 100. The shelters where villagers are hiding have also been burned whenever they are found. These lists are by no means complete, and right now SPDC patrols continue to burn villages and shoot villagers in the area. A list of 62 confirmed killings of villagers by SLORC/SPDC troops is also included in this report, though the true number is almost certainly at least double that. Many more have also died of disease and hunger while in hiding.
The main areas targetted are the Bilin (Bu Loh Kloh) and Yunzalin (Bway Loh Kloh) river valleys and adjacent areas west, north, and northeast of the town of Papun, as well as eastern Shwegyin township in Pegu Division. In the beginning approximately six SLORC Battalions were involved in the operation, and under SPDC the number has now increased to at least 10 Battalions; the Battalions are regularly rotated in and out, so that altogether since the beginning at least 23 different Battalions have been involved at one time or another.
Army columns of 50 to 300 men move from village to village. On arrival near a village, the troops first shell it with mortars from the adjacent hills, then enter the village firing at anything that moves and proceed to burn every house, farmfield hut, and shelter they find in the area. Paddy storage barns [small sheds raised on posts for storing paddy, which is unhusked rice; in this report generally referred to as ‘rice barns’] are especially sought out and burned in order to destroy the villagers’ food supply. Any villagers seen in the villages, forests, or fields are shot on sight with no questions asked. The troops bring porters with them from Shwegyin, Meh Way, Papun and other places to carry their munitions, supplies, and the food and valuables they loot from the villages, but if they need more porters they take any villagers they catch, and they have already taken many women and men, some aged over 65, for this. However, the objective is not to catch villagers, as in several cases they have surrounded villagers in field huts and then simply opened fire instead of trying to catch them. The patrols seem to have no interest in interrogating the villagers, only in eliminating them. Villages very close to Papun, Meh Way and Shwegyin have been ordered to move to Army-controlled sites such as Meh Way and the Shwegyin - Kyauk Kyi motor road, but the vast majority of villages have been given no orders whatsoever, they have simply been destroyed. Most of the villagers in the area say they do not even understand why this is being done, and that they think SLORC/SPDC is just trying to wipe out the Karen population. KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army] troops are not based in any of these villages, and have never yet been in a village when it was attacked.
The villagers generally hear up to a day in advance that a SLORC/SPDC column is coming, so they flee further into the hills and very few of them are sighted by the troops. Once the troops have destroyed their village and passed on, they survive in leaf shelters or small huts which they build in the forest and try to continue taking care of their fields. Those whose paddy storage barns have not been destroyed generally share out their rice with those who have no more food. Most are living on plain rice with some jungle leaf soup, and salt if they are lucky enough to have any. Almost all livestock has been left behind and slaughtered by SLORC/SPDC troops, who simply shoot it, eat a small part and leave the rest to rot. SPDC patrols are now returning to areas which they previously burned out in order to seek out and destroy the forest huts where the villagers are hiding, destroy any remaining rice supplies and shoot any people they can find.
Every new patrol that comes around forces the villagers to flee yet again and build new shelters elsewhere. Malaria and other fevers, diarrhoea, dysentery, and other diseases are widespread and the villagers have no medicine whatsoever. Many children and the elderly have already died. The villagers have very few belongings left and little food. Many of them managed to plant a limited rice crop in intervals between SLORC/SPDC patrols and tended it through rainy season. Some of them have managed to get a partial harvest, but in many areas Army patrols drove them off their crop at harvest and other crucial times, so the crop was lost. In some areas, particularly Shwegyin Township, troops went through the hill fields burning or knocking down the crop at harvest time. Most villagers in hiding are now sharing their rice and living on rice soup, knowing their food cannot last more than one or two more months. At least 1,500 villagers from the area have managed to escape to refugee camps in Thailand thus far, but this is difficult and dangerous because of SPDC camps and patrols along the way and the landmines placed along many of the paths by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Many of them have also heard of the abuses against refugees by Thai authorities. However, if this campaign does not stop immediately it is certain that many more will attempt to flee to Thailand.
Just to the north of Papun District, there has also been a steady increase in troop numbers in eastern Toungoo District. These troops have just completed construction of a military access road into the Bu Sah Kee area, which was formerly very difficult to access, and they have been increasingly clamping down on the civilian population there. At the same time, SPDC troops are pushing a military supply road straight across the affected areas of Shwegyin Township and Papun District, from Kyauk Kyi in Pegu Division (in the Sittang River valley of central Burma) directly eastward to Saw Hta on the Salween River, which forms the border with Thailand. This road is expected to be used as a springboard for an offensive to secure the Salween River and the entire region, to block off KNLA supply lines and the escape routes of refugees and to allow the establishment of new military camps and further sweeps through the area to wipe out the Karen civilian population. The troops have burned and destroyed all villages along the route and have been constructing the road with bulldozers under heavy military guard. The troops cannot capture enough villagers in the area to use them for forced labour on this road, but the fact that they are using bulldozers instead of bringing in forced labour from elsewhere makes it apparent that they are in a hurry to complete it. It was heavily damaged in rainy season, but is expected to be completed by mid-1998.
This report consists of a detailed breakdown of the campaign to wipe out the villages, supported by excerpts from KHRG interviews with villagers in the area and newly arrived refugees in Thailand which were conducted in June and December 1997. This is followed by an Annex of the full text of many of those interviews. Photographs of some of the affected areas have already been released in KHRG Photo Set #97-B of 22/9/97. The information for this report was gathered by KHRG through over 60 interviews with villagers in hiding and refugees, visits to approximately 30 of the destroyed villages and many hiding-places of villagers. Information was also provided by several independent human rights monitors working in the area, and KHRG would like to thank especially Saw D. M. and Saw N. N. for the information they provided. KNU field reports radioed in by frontline units were occasionally used to fill in gaps in the information. In the report we have tried to keep our descriptive analysis minimal; most of the story is told by the words of the villagers.