Displacement of Villagers in Southern Pa’an District
The region commonly known as Pa’an District forms a large triangular area in central Karen State, bounded in the west and north by the Salween River and the town of Pa’an (capital of Karen State), in the east by the Moei River where it forms the border with Thailand, and in the south by the motor road from Myawaddy (at the Thai border) westward to Kawkareik and Kyone Doh. Pa’an District is also known as the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA’s) 7th Brigade area. The western parts of Pa’an District and the principal towns have been controlled by the SLORC/SPDC military junta for 10 years or longer, while the eastern strip adjacent to the Thai border has come largely under their control over the past 3 years. The easternmost strip of Pa’an District near the Moei River is separated from the rest of the district by the main ridge of the steep Dawna Mountains.
The KNLA still has extensive operations east of the Dawna and in the mountains itself, while the plains further west are primarily controlled by the SPDC and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). On both sides of the Dawna range there has been continuous low intensity fighting, with some larger battles, between the KNLA and the combined forces of the SPDC and DKBA, and this fighting has intensified over the past year. Some villages were previously forced to move by the SPDC in retaliation for this fighting, but in most cases the SPDC battalions realised that without the villagers to use as a shield and as forced labour they were only more vulnerable to attack, so the villagers were gradually allowed or ordered to return home. Until recently most villagers were somehow managing to survive in the area. However, the past two to three months has seen a sudden flight of villagers in southern Pa’an District. Most have fled into the forests to become internally displaced, while some have fled to the Thai border. At this stage it is difficult to estimate numbers, but it appears that five to ten thousand villagers are affected, and several hundred of these have already arrived at the Thai border.
There are several reasons why these villagers, many of whom had not fled before, are suddenly fleeing. The first of these is a general increase in forced labour for SPDC and DKBA troops in the area. This includes forced labour building and maintaining Army camps and roads, as sentries and messengers, and as porters to support both SPDC and DKBA troops patrolling and fighting the KNLA in the region. The villagers have had to do this kind of labour before to a lesser extent, but what is terrifying many of them into fleeing is that they are increasingly being used as human minesweepers during forced labour as porters.
Landmines are being used extensively throughout the area by all parties to the conflict, the SPDC, DKBA, and KNLA. The KNLA generally lays its mines slightly off the pathways and notifies local villagers of which routes are mined, but the SPDC and DKBA lay mines indiscriminately on pathways, around farmfields and in abandoned villages without notifying anyone. Villagers’ cattle are regularly killed by these mines. When a villager’s cow steps on an SPDC mine, the owner must keep quiet because if the SPDC finds the owner he is fined "to pay the cost of the landmine". Villagers in the area are more and more frequently being maimed or killed by all of these mines; due to the difficulty of getting to medical help, most of those who step on the mines are killed. Now the combined SPDC/DKBA columns in the area are sending their forced porters out in front of the column to detonate mines, and in many cases are specifically rounding up women in villages to march in front of columns and act as human mine detonators. Even if the villagers know which paths have been mined by the KNLA they don’t know the precise locations of the mines, and if they do or say anything which indicates they know the route is mined, then the SPDC troops will accuse them of being KNLA collaborators and torture or execute them. Villagers from Taw Oak village report that at least 6 people from their small village have died in the past year from landmines, particularly from forced labour as human mine detonators. In Sgaw Ko village, a few months ago an SPDC patrol demanded that a group of women from the village go with one of their patrols to detonate mines, but the village headman would not allow it so he went in their place. He was killed by stepping on a landmine. Fear of being killed by landmines is giving villagers no choice but to flee their villages to avoid forced portering.
Another reason causing people to flee is an increase in looting and extortion, particularly by SPDC and DKBA troops. For some time now DKBA troops have lost their material support from the SPDC and have been forced to live off the villagers, and now SPDC troops throughout Burma are receiving rations only sporadically, in some areas not at all. This has led to a general increase in the looting of villagers’ rice, livestock and belongings, demands for money, and forced labour on projects to grow food and make money for Army units. People in some villages have been forced to hand over one bullock cart and team per family to the Army, a very expensive demand if they do not have a cart. Earlier this year, the DKBA held a meeting and stated they would build a new office in Myawaddy town, then ordered all villagers to cut logs and do forced labour building the office or pay 3,000 Kyat per family. SPDC officers notified villagers in Pah Klu village that every family will have to pay 700 Kyat per month in extortion money for the next year. This comes at a time when villagers have already sold all their belongings to pay previous demands and are suffering a bad year for their rice crop because of the lack of rain early in the growing season. At the same time, they also continue to have to hand over rice to KNLA units in the area. They are just not capable of supplying all sides at once. In the Pah Klu area, the last straw for many villagers has come in the last few months. The KNLA hijacked a group of boats moving SPDC rations upriver for the SPDC camp at Pah Klu. In retaliation, the SPDC unit forced the villagers in the area to hand over what they said was the cash equivalent for the full value of the rations. When a second shipment came, the SPDC forced the villagers to carry the rations from the boats overland to the Army camp without military escort, so the rations were hijacked by the KNLA again. The SPDC has now demanded the full price of their rations yet again, and the villagers simply cannot pay so many have fled.
Many villages in the area already have a curfew of 4 p.m. imposed by the SPDC; they are only allowed to go to their fields in the morning with only enough rice for their lunch, and they must be back in the village by 4 p.m. (or by sunset in some villages) or they will be arrested and beaten or tortured, or shot on sight if seen outside the village. For many villagers whose fields are far from the village, this is making it impossible for them to grow a proper crop. At this time of year they would normally live in their field huts to tend their fields and drive off wild pigs and other animals.
The reason likely to cause the vast majority of the villagers to flee over the next several months is forced relocation. Some villages have already been forced to relocate to Ker Ghaw, where there is a significant DKBA presence, and the DKBA recently held a meeting in which they told village elders from Taw Oak, Pah Klu, Sgaw Ko, Kwih Lay and the entire Meh Pleh Toh area that all villages in this region will be forced to relocate after rainy season, as soon as the harvest is completed (i.e. in about December). They were told that they will be allowed to move to a designated Army-controlled relocation site or to any garrison town where they may have relatives, but that if they stay in their home area "you will be targets for our guns".
Villagers who attended the meeting say that this order was given to the DKBA by the SPDC, and the DKBA had to pass it on to the villagers. This is normally how things are done in Pa’an District; in the field, DKBA groups always move as part of SPDC columns and are used by the SPDC to give orders to villagers, point out those suspected of having links with the KNLA, and to loot supplies for the SPDC troops. The DKBA and SPDC are working so closely together in the area that many villagers now simply lump them together, referring to DKBA troops as "the Burmese".
If the relocations occur as planned, this will cause the vast majority of villagers to flee into hiding. For now those who can still pay the extortion and fees to avoid forced labour are still trying to live in their villages, but more and more are fleeing to their field huts and forests. Some have already been shot on sight by SPDC/DKBA patrols. Several groups of these people have fled to the Thai border, but the Thai authorities are refusing to let them cross the border because current Thai policy is to refuse asylum to all refugees except those deemed to be "fleeing from fighting", and Thai authorities say there is now no fighting in Burma. Some individual families have managed to covertly slip into refugee camps in Thailand or to Thai towns to look for work as illegal labourers, but those families who have been caught trying to cross the border individually have been forced back across into Burma at gunpoint by Thai troops.
In interviews with KHRG, villagers displaced within southern Pa’an District and those who have made it to the Thai border say that they still hope to be able to harvest their fields; those at the Thai border even say that they would not want to go into a refugee camp until after harvest time. However, some point out that most of their crop has already been destroyed by wild animals, and it is doubtful if there will be much to harvest even if they can return. If the forced relocations go ahead as planned, they will have to face not only the danger of landmines but also the very serious danger of being shot on sight by SPDC or DKBA patrols. Given the situation in the area, it appears that many of the villages in the area will be abandoned within the next few months, that most of the people will become internally displaced, that a growing number of them will attempt to flee to the Thai border, and that all of them will be refused entry by Thai forces. As early as November, with rainy season already over, there is also a strong chance of a large SPDC military offensive against the KNLA in Pa’an District, and if this happens then things for the villagers would be even worse.
Further details and interviews with internally displaced villagers in this and other parts of Pa’an District will be presented in an upcoming KHRG report.