Developments in the SLORC/SPDC Occupation of Dooplaya District
Dooplaya District of central Karen State, a large region which stretches from the Myawaddy - Kawkareik - Kyone Doh motor road in the north to the Three Pagodas Pass area in the south, was largely controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) until 1995. In that year a major SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) offensive completed SLORC’s control of the Thai border from Myawaddy southward to Wah Lay and captured the northern part of the ‘hump’, a mountainous portion of Dooplaya which projects eastward into Thailand. In a much larger offensive in February-March 1997, SLORC succeeded in capturing almost all of the remainder of Dooplaya District. Over 10,000 new refugees fled to Thailand and are now interned in Noh Po refugee camp, but most villagers remained inside the district, either trapped by the speed of the SLORC advance or hoping to survive under the SLORC/SPDC occupation. Many of these villagers have subsequently fled or tried to flee to Thailand due to forced labour and other abuses by the occupation troops.
After occupying areas such as Dooplaya, normal SLORC practice is to forcibly relocate all small or remote villages to garrison villages where they are under direct military control, then to use the villagers as forced labour building and servicing new military camps in the area and to build military access roads into the area. This has been the case during the one-year occupation of Dooplaya, though it has been enacted in various ways and to varying extents in the different parts of the region. Under the SPDC (State Peace & Development Council, the new name of SLORC since November 1997) the program of occupation is continuing.
Currently an entire network of roads is being constructed and/or improved, primarily centred on the main trading village of Kyaikdon, on the Hong Thayaw river in Dooplaya’s central plain. The principal roads being constructed include a road to Kyaikdon from Kya In Seik Gyi to the west; improvement of the bullock-cart roads northward from Kyaikdon to Kyone Doh and Kawkareik, a new road from Wah Lay southward across the ‘hump’ to Kyo G’Lee, then turning west to Po Yay and Kyaikdon, another new road from Kyo G’Lee eastward to Tee K’Pler through the mountainous southern portion of the ‘hump’, and a planned road from Saw Hta (a.k.a. Azin) southward to Tee Hta Baw, a site on the Thai border north of Three Pagodas Pass. Work is also ongoing upgrading the existing dirt road from Kyaikdon to Saw Hta and on to the Thai border at Lay Po Hta / Ber Kler.
In mid-February 1998 two convoys totalling 50-70 military trucks loaded with convicts from prisons in other parts of Burma were brought to Kyaikdon and Saw Hta to begin forced labour on several of these roads. Each truck was packed tightly with 30-50 prisoners, so the total may be anywhere from 1,500 to over 3,000 people. However, villagers also continue to be used as forced labour on roads around Kyaikdon. The exception is the Wah Lay - Kyo G’Lee - Po Yay road, which has to cross mountainous terrain and is being built with earth-moving equipment by soldiers under the direction of a battalion of Army Engineers currently based at Kyo G’Lee. In this area of the ‘hump’ and in some areas right along the Thai border further south, most SPDC and DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a Karen group allied with SPDC) units are not using local villagers as forced labour except as guides; instead they are bringing in civilian forced labour for portering and other work from further inside Burma, from as far as Pa’an and other towns. Many of the porters seen in the area are ethnically Burman. The apparent reasoning for this is to prevent villagers near the border from fleeing to Thailand, to lure refugees in Thailand into returning and to make it easier for Thai authorities to justify forced repatriation operations. However, SPDC and DKBA may begin to clamp down on villagers in the southern part of the ‘hump’ in retaliation for the early February attack on Dta Law Thaw (a.k.a. Sakanthit) village by the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). The KNLA claims that SPDC forces were temporarily driven out of the village, and that more than 20 SPDC troops in the attack. The KNLA also recaptured and continues to hold the villages of Bo Kler Kee and Kyaw Plaw near Dta Law Thaw.
Further inside in the central plain of Dooplaya things are somewhat worse for villagers. SPDC troops have a very heavy presence at Saw Hta, Kyaikdon and all other main villages, and villagers continue to be used for forced labour. A recent visitor to the Kya In area, along the Atayan River in the west of the district, reports that all small villages in the Kya In/Kya In Seik Gyi area have now been given orders to relocate to big SPDC-controlled villages. Muslims continue to be persecuted and banned from most areas where they previously lived, particularly the Kyaikdon area in the central plain of the district. According to villagers from Kyaikdon, SPDC troops there have threatened to kill any Muslims in the area, and there is a population of Muslims who have ‘converted’ (at least in public) to Buddhism because this is the only way they can still live there. SPDC authorities in Kyaikdon say they want to ‘develop’ Kyaikdon, and have been realigning and reparcelling much of the land in the village. In the process there are reports that some of the betelnut orchards, which occupy much of the land in and around the village and are central to the livelihood of the villagers, have been cut down. All villagers who want to live in Kyaikdon, including those who live there and never left, those who fled but have returned, and those who move there, are being forced to ‘buy’ their land, even if their house is already on it. SPDC authorities have divided all land in the village into plots big enough for a house and small surrounding garden, and villagers must pay 50,000 Kyats to the Army to buy their plot. If their house and garden already span more than one plot they must buy as many as necessary to keep their land. However, there are reports that if a villager is already living on the land he/she can get a ‘discount’ of part of the price.
The situation in Dooplaya is now growing more complex due to the formation of a new army, the "Nyein Chan Yay Sit", or "Peace Army", led by Thu Mu Heh. In English they are now calling themselves the KPA (Karen Peace Army). Thu Mu Heh was the commander of the KNLA’s 16th Battalion until February 1997, when he shocked the KNLA by surrendering to SLORC without a fight at the start of the offensive. The surrender had clearly been prearranged, and made the SLORC’s rapid capture of Dooplaya possible. As a KNLA officer Thu Mu Heh was notorious among villagers of the region for his corruption and mistreatment of villagers, and he is known to particularly despise the Muslim population of Dooplaya. However, since his surrender he has been paraded in the SPDC media, given gifts by SPDC leaders and publicly handed authority over several townships of Dooplaya. He formed the KPA, declared himself a General, and according to villagers from the area he has now been given authority over the entire region from Kawkareik in the north to Three Pagodas Pass in the south. In the process, the SPDC has ordered all DKBA forces in Dooplaya back to Pa’an District further north, with the exception of those in the ‘hump’ and along the Thai border north of the ‘hump’, from Wah Lay to Myawaddy; the KPA does not yet operate in these areas. On a political level, SLORC and SPDC have never trusted the DKBA, and it appears that they consider Thu Mu Heh and his KPA more reliable and predictable. Observers in the area report that the DKBA and the KPA already do not like each other, and it is possible that DKBA forces are being left in the ‘hump’ so that the SPDC can pit the two groups against each other at some point in the future.
After Thu Mu Heh surrendered, most of his troops fled and either returned to the KNLA or deserted. At present villagers report that he only has 200 or 300 troops. These are mainly untrained villagers who joined because the KPA is now promising that the families of all KPA members will be exempt from forced labour, extortion and other harassment by the SPDC (a similar promise was used to expand the DKBA when it was first formed). Villagers report that in at least some villages, once a person joins KPA a mark is made on his house to indicate that people in that house are exempt from forced labour. Right now the KPA has begun an intensive training course of all its troops, and in the meantime its officers and members who are already trained are acting only as adjuncts to SPDC Battalions, 2 or 3 of them assigned to each large SPDC unit. All KPA material supplies, including arms and ammunition, reportedly come from the SPDC.
The KPA’s major activity at the moment is recruiting, and the group they are most actively targetting are the Dta La Ku (a.k.a. Telekoo) people. The Dta La Ku are a Karen religious minority who have very strict beliefs and practices which in some aspects resemble Buddhism, in others Christianity as well as Animism. They are very devout, following strict codes regarding food, dress and lifestyle, and many other Karen regard them as being particularly holy and having special powers. The men are easily recognisable because they grow their hair long and wear it in a top knot, held by a kerchief or bandana. The Dta La Ku number an estimated four or five thousand, living in certain villages of Dooplaya and a small part of Thailand adjacent to the Burma border. About 1,500 of them fled to Thailand in September 1997 due to forced labour after the SLORC/SPDC occupation of their villages, but most of these have returned to their villages over the past one to two months after agreements were reached that the DKBA would keep them from being used continually for forced labour. Their greatest fear in returning has been the presence of KNLA landmines around the villages, and one Dta La Ku villager has already been blown to pieces by one such high-powered mine in the fields around his village.
Over the decades the Dta La Ku have been caught between many sides in the struggle all trying to coerce or force their support, including the KNU, the DKBA and the SLORC; they usually manage to stay independent, though they have often paid a heavy price for this in the form of retaliations by the Armies of all sides. Now the KPA is trying to force their support; this may be at the instigation of the SPDC, as a way of dividing the Karen population even further. The four main villages of the Dta La Ku (Kwih Lat Der, Kwih Kler, Maw, and Kyaw Kwa) have been ordered to report the numbers of all Dta La Ku men aged 40 and above, and all those aged 15 to 40. All boys and men aged 15 to 40 are then to be trained as KPA militia for their villages. Joining an armed group goes directly against the religious beliefs of the Dta La Ku and against their desire to remain above politics. So far they are refusing the order to become militia members, though they report that they are in fear of what retaliation they may face as a result. Dta La Ku elders and villagers report that if the SPDC and the KPA act against them, they will have to flee to Thailand rather than join the KPA.
Once the KPA has finished its training it is hard to predict how it will operate; however, its words and actions thus far appear to indicate that it may try to work on a village militia basis, sending many of its trainees back to their home villages to exert direct KPA/SPDC control. This would probably make life much more difficult for the villagers in terms of forced labour and extortion (particularly given the known corruption of Thu Mu Heh himself), though it may also reduce the number of villages in the central part of the district which SPDC troops would otherwise force to relocate. For example, Thay Pa Taw village was initially forced to move by SLORC/SPDC, but now the KPA is telling them to return to their village. The SPDC and KPA may decide to impose a system whereby any village which fails to provide KPA recruits is forced to relocate.
Regardless of the KPA’s existence, the number of SPDC troops occupying Dooplaya continues to be very high. Observers and villagers in the area state that the numbers of SPDC troops in the camp at Lay Po Hta, directly opposite the Thai Karen trading village of Ber Kler, have increased in February, and that enough supplies have been brought in for a year or for a significant operation. Under an agreement with the Thai Border Patrol Police and Thai Army, these troops can walk into and out of Ber Kler village anytime during daylight hours. Many of them can be seen walking around Ber Kler village in civilian clothes; they bring charcoal, stolen cattle, looted furniture and other items to sell, then use the Thai money they obtain to buy alcohol, clothing, and dry or tinned foods to augment their insufficient rations. Shopkeepers in Ber Kler state that they have to watch the Burmese soldiers at every moment because they try to steal small items and slip them into their bags. All soldiers are supposed to be in civilian clothes and unarmed, but according to the shopkeepers the SPDC officers usually carry pistols half-hidden in the backs of their longyi (Burmese sarong). One Ber Kler shopkeeper has already been beaten up by a drunken SPDC officer for refusing to sell him more alcohol. The Thai Border Patrol and Army take no action in response to such incidents, "because they are afraid", according to the villagers. Instead, the Thai Border Patrol Police regularly drink together with the SPDC officers.
Thai forces have only one post in Ber Kler and they have no post at all on the road which the SPDC forces use to walk into the village. Burmese soldiers have begun crossing the border into people’s betelnut orchards and stealing the betelnut from the trees. Many villagers and shopkeepers in Ber Kler are very nervous, feeling that the SPDC may want to take Ber Kler and that the Thai Army and the Thai Government have no will to defend it. Half of one hill just outside Ber Kler has already been given to SLORC/SPDC by local Thai forces as an appeasement offer. Villagers from parts of Dooplaya close to the Thai border furthermore say that SPDC officers have told them that if the KNLA mounts any attacks on SPDC troops in the area, the SPDC troops will retaliate by launching an armed attack on Noh Po refugee camp in Thailand.
Many of these villagers report that given the choice they would rather flee to Thailand than stay in their villages because of the forced labour, harassment and insecurity under the SPDC occupation. However, they say they are staying in their villages because they are afraid of losing their land and houses if they leave, and because they have heard that no new refugees are being allowed in Thailand.
Further details on the situation in Dooplaya will be available in an upcoming KHRG report.