STRENGTHENING THE GRIP ON DOOPLAYA: Developments in the SPDC Occupation of Dooplaya District

Published date:
Wednesday, June 10, 1998

Upon occupying most of the villages in the region, SLORC officers began calling villagers who had fled to come back to their villages, promising peace and freedom from harrassment. When the villagers returned, many village elders and community leaders were immediately arrested and tortured while the SLORC officers demanded that they hand over weapons. Most did not even know the location of any weapons, but they were forced to try to obtain some anyway so that the SLORC units could report that they had captured weapons in battle. At the same time, most villagers found their movements severely restricted. They needed passes to leave the village and in most areas were only allowed to do so from sunrise to sunset, which made it very difficult for them to farm if their fields were far from the village. The troops immediately began looting the houses and fields of villagers who had fled without returning, and after this had been done they began stealing livestock and possessions and demanding money from the villagers who had returned. At first villagers were not used for much forced labour in hopes that more of them would come back, but as new Army camps were established the troops began using them more and more. Currently, most villages in the region face constant demands for porters to carry supplies and ammunition for SPDC patrols, and also have to do rotating shifts of forced labour building and maintaining Army camps and as servants at those camps.

The Current Situation in Dooplaya

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 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/SPDC 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 different parts of the region. Under the newly-named SPDC regime the program of occupation is continuing.

"They came last April [1997]. They have been forcing us ever since they came. When they arrived in the village all the villagers fled, so they called the villagers back into the village. At first they did not use the villagers as porters, but after the villagers had all been back in the village for a while they started. First they forced us to build buildings for them, then when that was finished they started using us as porters."

"Saw Htoo Wah" (M, 35), Dta La Ku villager from Kwih Lat Der (Interview #2)

"Even when we were in our house they came to our house and demanded chickens. We let them take what they wanted , but when their Sergeant came with a big truck he saw our coconuts and took the coconuts without asking permission. Then he went and took his soldiers’ gun and shot at the coconuts [in the tree] to destroy them. If you speak, they tell people, ‘You are very clever to speak, so I will kill you’. … They threaten people and say, ‘Now you are in our hands. If we decide to kill you, you can’t do anything.’"

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village (Interview #5)

Upon occupying most of the villages in the region, SLORC officers began calling villagers who had fled to come back to their villages, promising peace and freedom from harrassment. When the villagers returned, many village elders and community leaders were immediately arrested and tortured while the SLORC officers demanded that they hand over weapons. Most did not even know the location of any weapons, but they were forced to try to obtain some anyway so that the SLORC units could report that they had captured weapons in battle. At the same time, most villagers found their movements severely restricted. They needed passes to leave the village and in most areas were only allowed to do so from sunrise to sunset, which made it very difficult for them to farm if their fields were far from the village. The troops immediately began looting the houses and fields of villagers who had fled without returning, and after this had been done they began stealing livestock and possessions and demanding money from the villagers who had returned. At first villagers were not used for much forced labour in hopes that more of them would come back, but as new Army camps were established the troops began using them more and more. Currently, most villages in the region face constant demands for porters to carry supplies and ammunition for SPDC patrols, and also have to do rotating shifts of forced labour building and maintaining Army camps and as servants at those camps.

"I was a teacher. At that time the school had already closed. They arrested me and interrogated me about the places where the KNLA were hiding, and I answered that I had not seen them. Then they punched my jaw once on each side and asked me to wait there. … Then they tied me up with rope. They tied my hands tightly behind me and made me lay on my belly, then they interrogated me again. This time only one person was interrogating me. He asked me, ‘Isn’t it true that you have guns and a radio?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve never had those kinds of things’. … Then they tied me up for 10 days and beat me badly until I had to sleep with blood all over my body every night. They punched my nose twice, and blood was running down from my nose. They beat my body as well. They punched me in the chest, left, right, left… They punched me in my head and on my temples. Both of my shins were beaten with a big stick. They tied me up tightly, made me lay down and then beat me badly on both shins until both of my shins were completely bruised. That was the most painful thing I ever had to bear. … Later they came back and told us that they would kill us because we had broken their law. They told us that if we could find just one gun for them then they would set us free at once."

"Saw Lay Doh" (M, 33), Waw Lu village, who was arrested after his village was occupied; after 10 days during which even his family was not allowed to see him, he was finally released and fled (Interview #1)

"Every time the SLORC [SPDC] Army comes the men have to run away and hide, because they try to capture the men whenever they come. Every day 6 people must go to stay with them so that they can use them whenever they need them. Wherever they want to go those 6 people must go with them and carry their things, which are very heavy, sometimes until they cannot carry anymore. Sometimes they have to do other work, and sometimes it is dangerous. People who do not dare to go must give 1,500 kyats for 3 days [in lieu of 3 days of work]. If people don’t go then the Burmese will never set free the previous group. People must always stay with them and keep rotating." 

"Naw Eh Ghay" (F, 53), Meh Tharaw Hta village (Interview #6)

"They forced the people to carry cement from Ber Kler to Htee Hta Baw [over 20 km/12 miles as the crow flies, much farther on land], at night time in the rainy season when the river was flooded. So the people were in trouble. Some came back ill. Some coughed up blood, and some were vomitting with blood. Some had wounds on their backs and others had wounds on their sides. We had pity on them when we saw them."

"Pa Bway Htoo" (M, 44), Dta La Ku village headman, talking about forced labour for #61 Infantry Battalion (Interview #4)

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 Htee 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 road in the east, from Wah Lay south to Kyo G’Lee and then west to Po Yay and Kyaikdon, has to cross mountainous terrain and is being built mainly with earth-moving equipment by soldiers under the direction of a battalion of Army Engineers currently based at Kyo G’Lee. At first this road appeared to be the only one not being built with the forced labour of villagers, but in May 1998 there were reports that villagers in Kyaikdon are now being forced to break rocks, lay the roadbed and work on at least one bridge near the Kyaikdon end of the road. The forced labour is being ordered and supervised by Frontline Engineers #904 Battalion. Bulldozers and forced labour are also being used to realign the streets in Kyaikdon itself, destroying some of the large betelnut plantations that are central to the landscape and the livelihood of the village. No compensation is paid, and the villagers even have to buy the fuel for the bulldozers.

"They have to build the main roads and also rebuild the streets in Kyaikdon. They have to improve the roads and streets, the Burmese are digging the earth with bulldozers in the betelnut plantations, they are destroying all the betelnut trees but they never pay anything to the villagers. The villagers even have to buy the fuel for their bulldozer! They never buy their own fuel." 

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village, talking about forced labour in Kyaikdon (Interview #5)

"Then they brought prisoners [convicts] up into the jungle on Army trucks. Along the way they tied the prisoners’ necks and hands tightly to the sides of the trucks and made them stand up straight. When they arrived at the T’Ku Kee church they let them get down from the truck. Some prisoners couldn’t stand up anymore and they fell down. The soldiers saw that and kicked them and hit them until they became unconscious. Then they picked them up and dragged them under a shady tree. I heard that they will use those prisoners to do road construction. The road will go from Kyaikdon to [Kya In] Seik Gyi. I know the prisoners are in Kyaikdon right now because I saw Aunty S--- at the bible school there and she told me, ‘Now Kyaikdon is full of Burmese military and prisoners.’" 

"Naw Eh Ghay" (F, 53), Meh Tharaw Hta village (Interview #6)

The reason for bringing in convicts to do much of the manual forced labour on the road network is to reduce the amount of forced labour required of villagers so that fewer people will flee. This methodology applies particularly in villages right along the border with Thailand, and in the southern part of the ‘hump’ of Dooplaya. In some of these areas villagers are only used for forced labour as guides, occasional portering or light labour, while operations porters and people for heavy forced labour are rounded up and brought from towns and villages further inside Burma. However, this trend appears to be lessening as reports are that villagers throughout Dooplaya are now being used for more and more forced labour of all kinds. This may be because the SPDC knows that the Thai Army is now denying asylum to new refugees and forcing many of them back into Burma, so they no longer have to worry so much about people fleeing forced labour to Thailand.

"They love to live in their own villages. It is not easy for them to flee to Thailand. The problem if they come here is that the Thais will drive them back to Burma. The Thais already drove many of them back once when they came last time. So although they must live as slaves in Burma and they don’t like to live like that, they must live that way."

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village (Interview #5)

In the central plain of Dooplaya, SPDC troops have a very heavy presence at Saw Hta, Kyaikdon and all other main villages, and the amount of forced labour imposed on villagers is increasing. All civilians with motor vehicles in central Dooplaya are now forced to use them to carry SPDC Army supplies, and the owner must even pay for the fuel. Army trucks are not used because they are possible targets for KNLA attack. On March 22nd a villagers’ car carrying SPDC supplies was blown up by a KNLA landmine on the road near Kwih Kler, killing a man and his child. No compensation was given.

"If a villager has a vehicle he must use it to carry rations for the Burmese. If the car is destroyed by a bomb the Burmese won’t do anything for him, he must take care of himself. … A car was just destroyed by a bomb, just above Kwih Kler. It happened this week, on Sunday [March 22nd]. It was a bomb buried in the ground. I don’t know exactly whose bomb it was. The car blew into two parts. A child died and the driver was hurt in his chest. The child was about 9 years old. His village was Taw Wah Law. … It was a villager’s car carrying rations for the Burmese. Now the Burmese use the villagers’ cars to transport their supplies because they think the KNLA will not shoot at the villagers’ cars but they would shoot at the Army’s cars. … [T]he people who have cars must wait around to drive for the Burmese whenever they need them and wherever they need to go. But these car owners must buy the petrol themselves. The Burmese never buy the petrol for them." 

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village, talking about the situation in Kyaikdon (Interview #5)

SPDC authorities in Kyaikdon say they want to ‘develop’ the village, and have been realigning and reparcelling much of the land there. As mentioned above, the streets of the village are being realigned using bulldozers and the forced labour of villagers, in the process destroying some of the betelnut plantations which give the village much of its beauty and upon which the people rely for their livelihood. The villagers receive no compensation and even have to pay for fuel for the bulldozer. At the same time, the SPDC has divided the village into plots and ‘appraised’ each one, and every family has been forced to buy their own land from the Army or lose it, even if their house is already on it. Each plot is roughly the size of a small Karen house with a garden around it and is ‘appraised’ for 30,000 to 50,000 Kyat, more than the life savings of most villagers. However, if people wished to retain their property they had no choice but to sell enough of their belongings in February/March 1998 to pay the specified amount to the SPDC Battalions. Furthermore, those with plots appraised at a high value in the central part of the village were ordered to put zinc roofing on their houses at their own expense or lose their property. Previously most houses in the village had leaf roofing. This order is similar to those already issued to people living in many towns throughout Burma, as part of the SPDC’s ‘development’ campaign. Some villagers cynically comment that people from other areas get the best deal, because they can pay the same price to buy a plot in Kyaikdon as the people who already own it. Some people from other parts of the region have done so and moved to Kyaikdon.

"Every villager had to buy their own land. They each had to pay 30,000 to 50,000 Kyats. People had to sell their belongings to get the money to pay for their land. And on land which is 50,000 Kyats they ordered that the owners must put zinc roofing on their houses. As for the betelnut plantations, if the owner stays close by they can get the fruit, but if not then the KPA took all of it. They also demand taxes on all the crops. The KPA took all the houses and crops of everyone who fled to Thailand, and they sold those houses."

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village, talking about the situation in Kyaikdon (Interview #5)

In keeping with the SPDC’s usual strategy, small villages throughout the region have been forcibly relocated if they are too remote to be under direct SPDC control. All small villages in the Kya In / Kya In Seik Gyi area, along the Atayan River in the west of the district, have now been given orders to relocate to big SPDC-controlled villages or to roadsides. In eastern and southern Dooplaya, many small hillside villages have been ordered to move to larger 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.

"…now Kalay Kee and Kyaw Kay Ko have to move because the Burmese accused them of feeding the KNLA, so the Burmese won’t allow them to stay there anymore. The people of Kyaw Kay Ko have to move to Kya In and the people from Kalay Kee have to move to T’Ku Kee. I heard that relocations will also occur in many other places. Even the villagers in Kya In [western Dooplaya] must move to the roadside. I also heard one village headwoman say, ‘If I’m going to build a house I will build it at the roadside, because we must move there anyway.’"

"Naw Eh Ghay" (F, 53), Meh Tharaw Hta village (Interview #6)

"…all the Muslims around Saw Hta and Kyaikdon must become Buddhists, because if they don’t the SPDC says they will kill them. … Many Muslims used to stay in Pa Klaw Nee village, near Kyaikdon, but now they’ve had to move. They can stay near Kyaikdon, but they have to become Buddhist. So now there are many Muslims pretending to be Buddhist."

"Pa Lah" (M, 35) from central Dooplaya (Interview #5)

The situation in Dooplaya is now growing more complex due to the formation of a new army, the "Nyein Chan Yay A’Pway", literally "Peace Force", led by Thu Mu Heh. In English they are 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 with the support of the SLORC/SPDC, 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’ jutting eastward into Thailand and along the Thai border north of the ‘hump’, from Wah Lay to Myawaddy; the KPA does not yet operate in these areas.

The SPDC appears to favour the KPA over the DKBA, whom they have never trusted; this is understandable, given that the DKBA was originally formed with the idea of Karen autonomy in Karen State, whereas the KPA has been formed by a corrupt officer with no interests except money and power. Villagers from Dooplaya have already reported that the KPA and the DKBA cannot stand each other, and it is possible that the SPDC will pit the two groups against each other in the future. With so many groups now tangled in the struggle in Dooplaya the villagers feel more confusion and less hope than ever, and the SPDC is trying to use this feeling to strengthen its control over them.

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. The KPA has now completed training of its first group of recruits in Kwih Kalay, but it has yet to organise itself very well on the ground. At the moment its main activity is recruiting. It maintains an office near the major SPDC base in Saw Hta and 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.

"Last month they gathered the people and divided them into two groups. One group was to be a people’s army [i.e. regular KPA] and the other group was to be village defenders who would be sentries in each village. They took their training in Kwih Kalay and the leader told them that they could stay in their own houses after the training, but after they finished they were not allowed to stay in their own homes. There were 50 of them in that training. The leader sent them from Kyaikdon to Kya In Seik Gyi, so then they knew that their leader did differently than what he said and many of them tried to escape. They ran away and hid themselves, they didn’t want to go to other villages, they couldn’t agree with their leader because he’d said they wouldn’t have to leave their homes. We don’t know how to help the people who are in this trouble now." 

"Pa Bway Htoo" (M, 44), Dta La Ku village headman (Interview #4)

Thus far the group hardest hit by the KPA’s recruiting drive 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 wear solid-colour sarongs (unlike other Karen men) and 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. Many of them returned to their villages at the beginning of 1998 after their elders reached an agreement with DKBA representatives that they would not be used for forced labour or otherwise harrassed by SPDC troops if they returned. However, just after that the DKBA disappeared from the area when the SPDC replaced them with the KPA. In April 1998, 187 Dta La Ku families fled across the border into Thailand again after being abused and threatened by SPDC and KPA forces.

"Many Dta La Ku fled to Thailand but they stayed together near here, not at the refugee camp. They fled because the Burmese forced them to do labour and portering. They fled from #44 and #356, then they went back again but #61 came and forced them to carry heavy things so they fled again. Then the DKBA came and told them if they became DKBA they would be free from harm by the SLORC, so they waited for the DKBA’s help. But the DKBA disappeared. Then the KPA appeared and ordered the Dta La Ku to become soldiers, but the people didn’t want to carry weapons because they knew that even if they didn’t use them to shoot at others, those others would shoot at them." 

"Pa Bway Htoo" (M, 44), Dta La Ku village headman (Interview #4)

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. After the KPA was given authority over the area early this year, the four main villages of the Dta La Ku (Kwih Lat Der, Kwih Kler, Maw, and Kyaw Kwa) were ordered to provide family registration lists which had to include the numbers of all Dta La Ku men aged 40 and above, and all those aged 15 to 40. After receiving these lists, the KPA informed the Dta La Ku that they were actually KPA signup lists and that all boys and men aged 15 to 40 would 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 they refused. It appears that the local SPDC commander stayed out of any open participation in the dispute, but he did not prevent the KPA from increasing the pressure on the Dta La Ku until many of them fled once again to Thailand in April 1998, both from KPA threats and forced labour for SPDC troops.

"To get people into the KPA they didn’t say that people must become KPA, they just said that they wanted to know how many families there are in each village and how old the people are. After that, they said that men 15 to 40 years old must become KPA. Only the Dta La Ku. They will take all, because they already know our number and our ages."

Dta La Ku village elder (Interview #3)

Since February 1998 Dta La Ku elders have sought a solution to this problem; first they approached the Thai authorities with a proposal to allow the Dta La Ku to stay as refugees in Thailand if life became impossible in Burma, but were answered only with Thai threats and absurd accusations that it was the Dta La Ku who had attacked and burned Huay Kaloke refugee camp. Then they approached the SPDC with a proposal to let them live all together in one or two villages in Burma under a promise that they would take no part on any side of the struggle if the SPDC would only leave them alone; the villages they chose were adjacent to the Thai border, so that if the SPDC should break its promise they could flee to Thailand. At first the local SPDC commander spurned their offer, stating that he is the commander and it was not the place of the Dta La Ku to tell him how to use his power. However, the elders still remain hopeful of this option, perhaps because there is no other, and in the meantime they have convinced the local KPA representatives to stop threatening them and pressuring them to join for the time being. Despite this, it appears that as the situation in Dooplaya becomes more complex the position of the Dta La Ku can only become more and more difficult.

"Now the problem is for the Dta La Ku people. Dta La Ku can’t carry weapons and become soldiers. Everyone knows that we do not make good soldiers. First they came to make the family list [of all families in his village]. But after we gave them our family information, they changed our family list to the KPA list. So we bravely stood up to them and told them that we would never enter into the Peace Army. We told them, ‘If you want to kill us, we agree to die, but we can’t do their "peace" work’. They needed us to become soldiers. They would teach us through their training, they would give us guns. So we said that we couldn’t do work which involves carrying weapons and shooting people. ‘If you kill us we agree to die.’ So they got angry with us and told us that they will report us to Than Shwe and the UN. We said do as you like, if you want to report to Than Shwe, we don’t mind [Than Shwe is Chairman of SPDC]. If you want to kill us we will let you kill us. That is our problem. … [Another villager added:] Lone Shwe [a KPA officer] said that if we don’t do as the others do, it means we are their enemies. Yes, he said that."

"Pa Hla Myint" (M, 30+), Dta La Ku villager from Kwih Kler village (Interview #3)

"If you have a gun then others will think you are their enemy, and everyone wants to shoot you. That’s why we don’t want to carry guns. I want to say this. If you are not carrying weapons and I’m not carrying weapons, we see each other and sit together and talk to each other in peace. If you and I are both carrying weapons, then it is not easy for us to sit together. We will have to be afraid of each other and stay far from each other. If neither of us have weapons, we don’t need to be afraid of each other, we will sit closely and talk to each other. So it is not easy for us to answer [to groups which ask them to take sides]. If we carry weapons, the other groups will think about us, "Are they our enemy?" And then they dare not come to sit with us. So we don’t want to do bad things like that. Real peace is to sit together like this." 

Dta La Ku village elder describing the dilemma of the Dta La Ku, who are always being pressured to take up arms for one side or another (Interview #5)

Just how powerful the KPA will become will depend on its usefulness to the SPDC. Currently each village in central Dooplaya has been ordered to provide 2 or 3 KPA recruits or face heavy fines. In recruiting, the KPA refers to some people becoming KPA soldiers and others becoming a KPA ‘people’s militia’. It appears that it plans to operate largely on a village militia basis, sending many of its trainees back to their home villages to exert direct KPA/SPDC control. One of the inducements offered to villagers who join is that they will be posted back in their home villages, although there have been reports that this promise is already being broken. In March some recruits already fled the KPA when their training ended and they discovered they were being sent away from their villages. If the KPA attempts to post soldiers in every village 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 later the KPA told 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 number of SPDC troops has greatly increased since February at Lay Po Hta, directly across the border from the Thai Karen trading village of Ber Kler, and that enough supplies have been brought in for a year or for a significant operation. Until March 1998, the SPDC officers had an agreement with the Thai Border Patrol Police and Thai Army that they and their troops could walk into and out of Ber Kler village anytime during daylight hours, as long as they wore civilian clothes and were unarmed. Many of them came every day bringing charcoal, stolen cattle, looted furniture and other items to sell, then used the Thai money they obtained to buy alcohol, clothing, and dry or tinned foods to augment their insufficient rations. Ber Kler shopkeepers complained that the soldiers constantly tried to steal small items and slip them into their bags, and that the officers always wore pistols in the backs of their sarongs. Groups of soldiers also crossed the border to steal betelnut from the plantations surrounding the village. A Thai villager’s gun was stolen out of the back of his truck, and a Ber Kler shopkeeper was 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.

"We can’t trust in Thai soldiers. They do not dare to shoot. They will never shoot, even when their duty is to shoot. … [At the checkpoint] They are border police. They just sit at their gate which is by the border. They don’t dare go into the forest. They’re even afraid to stay here in the village! They’re not brave." 

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village, now a shopkeeper in Ber Kler (Interview #5)

Due to fear among the villagers and growing tensions caused by the SPDC’s threat to attack and burn Noh Po refugee camp, the Thai forces finally told the SPDC troops not to come into Ber Kler village anymore. However, they can still be seen there, though in smaller numbers, and the Thai forces do nothing about it. There are still no Thai security forces posted on the side of the village closest to the SPDC base. 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, but this and the other concessions by Thai forces are most likely only seen as signs of weakness by the SPDC commanders across the border and the junta leadership in Rangoon.

Many villagers from the central plain of Dooplaya and the areas closer to the Thai border 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. For several months now, SPDC officers have deliberately fed these fears by telling villagers in central Dooplaya that they will soon attack and burn Noh Po refugee camp, particularly if the KNLA attacks them anywhere in this part of Dooplaya.

Noh Po refugee camp lies west of the Thai town of Umphang, about 200 km. south of Mae Sot. It was created in early 1997 to shelter new refugees fleeing the SLORC offensive and subsequent occupation of Dooplaya District. It currently has a population of approximately 10,000. The camp has not yet been attacked, but after attacks on other refugee camps in March 1998 tensions were very high, and this was made worse by the SPDC’s open threats to villagers in Dooplaya that they would attack the camp. In the area around the camp in the week leading up to March 27th, Thai soldiers reported that SPDC troops were entering Thailand every day to look for weaknesses in the border defences; each time, the SPDC patrols would continue into Thailand until they were seen by Thai soldiers, then withdraw. The SPDC has ordered the DKBA out of the area across the border from Noh Po; there are a few KPA members there, but not enough to attack Noh Po. Therefore, if an attack comes it will have to be conducted by SPDC troops using the KPA as a front, or possibly by a DKBA group brought in from elsewhere specially for the attack, as was done in the March 23rd attack on Maw Ker refugee camp.

"The method of the Burmese is that even if they attack, they will always say it was the KPA or DKBA who did it. They will never say it was the Burmese. Even if KPA or DKBA won’t go with them the Burmese will still say it was KPA or DKBA, because they will just mimic the DKBA or the KPA when they attack." 

"Saw Lah Htoo" (M, 24), K--- village, answering who he thinks will conduct the attack on Noh Po (Interview #5)

Thai soldiers in the area have admitted that they cannot effectively defend Noh Po camp, yet the refugees continue to be held in this fenced camp like prisoners, with no permission to leave or reenter. Thai authorities told the refugees in the camp to dig bunkers, and they have done so. Since the end of March, tensions have lessened somewhat as no attack has been forthcoming. However, the camp could still be attacked at any time, and it is important to note that many of the past refugee camp attacks have come just when tensions are at their lowest and people are not expecting them.

Current Thai policy is to deny asylum to all new refugees, and many groups of refugees from Dooplaya have already been forcibly repatriated at gunpoint by Thai troops. In November 1997 one group of new arrivals was refused entry into Noh Po camp by Thai authorities, so they camped out in a remote area of fields and forests at Thay Pu Law Htwee. The Thai Army then camped near them, and before daylight on the morning of November 15th they fired M79 grenades among the refugees, wounding a 60-year-old couple. They then fired small arms, and when the refugees panicked and fled a six-month-old baby was dropped by his mother and died of a broken neck. When it was light, the Thai troops appeared and tried to claim that someone else had done the shooting, even though it had come from their camp. They ordered the refugees to march back toward Burma, and when some refused several of the headmen were tied up and beaten in front of the others. The group was then force-marched all day to a site right on the Burma border and very close to the major SPDC camp at Lay Po Hta. Finally, many of them were allowed into Noh Po much later. However, they were not allowed to build huts and several hundred new arrivals had to live for months through the hottest season of the year in long open shelters with bamboo slat floors, no walls or dividers, and plastic sheeting for a roof. With the current rainy season approaching, they were finally allowed to start building proper huts in the camp.

"When we were sleeping at about 5:40 a.m. they fired their big gun at us. An M79 shell [grenade] fell on a hut and 2 old people about 60 years old were injured. All the innocent people were shocked, ran out of the area and hid in fear. A newborn baby died because he fell to the ground while his mother was running with him. Then we heard the noisy sound of bullets [small arms] being fired. When the daylight came we found out that it was the Thai soldiers who were shooting at us. We looked all around our shelters and cleaned things up. After a while they came to see the place too. They asked the villagers, ‘Who was shooting at you last night?’ The villagers told them that it was them who were shooting at us. Then the Thai soldiers were quiet and didn’t say anything. … [T]he senior commander arrived at our place and called me and the other headmen. He told us to prepare our things and be ready in one hour to move to another place … Then the Thai soldiers were angry with the people who wouldn’t obey. They forced them, they tied some of them up and hit some of them. After that they called the villagers together and told us to be quiet. They told the villagers, ‘Now all of you see these three people we have tied up because they were not obeying us. This will happen to people who do not obey us.’ Then they kicked some people. Finally they called the headmen to come out in front and then ordered them to go in front of the people to lead them. So the villagers were following us. … The Thais guided us by car but we had to walk. We were walking along like that until noon, and by then we could see that the children were walking with difficulty and they seemed very tired. Some were crying sadly. The women were weeping sadly." 

"Saw Lay Doh" (M, 33), Waw Lu village, describing the shooting by the Thai Army at Thay Pu Law Htwee on November 15th 1997, and the forced move to a dangerous site just a few minutes from the SPDC base at Lay Po Hta (Interview #1)

The situation in Dooplaya appears anything but promising for the villagers. It appears that the SPDC is succeeding in using the KPA as a proxy army, both to exert further control over the villages and to fragment the Karen people. The option of flight to Thailand has been essentially cut off because of forced repatriations by the Thai Army and the threat of attacks on refugees already in Thailand. For most villagers, this means they have little choice but to try to survive under heavy restrictions and an ever-increasing burden of forced labour, extortion, and forced military recruitment. For religious minorities, primarily the Dta La Ku and the Muslims, survival will likely be most difficult of all; not only do they have to carry the same burden as all other villagers in Dooplaya, but they face a long uphill struggle to prevent their lifestyle, culture, and people from being completely wiped out.

"What I really want to say is that I want our brother Burmese to keep the Dta La Ku together in a safe place which is free from portering, forced labour and battle. We don’t want to be soldiers. I can’t understand why they don’t let us have a place like that. Burma is very big and I think that in such a big land there must be a safe place for us somewhere. But we can’t ask them for it because there are no educated people among us who can go and ask them. I hope our English brothers will help us by saying that for us. We are hoping for help from our English brothers."

"Pa Hla Myint" (M, 30+), Dta La Ku villager from Kwih Kler village (Interview #3)