Flight of Dta La Ku Villagers in Dooplaya District
Dooplaya District covers much of the southern half of Karen State, from the Myawaddy - Kyone Doh - Pa’an motor road in the north to the Three Pagodas Pass area 160 kilometres (100 miles) further south. In early 1997 the SLORC regime mounted a major military operation and successfully occupied almost all of this area, though the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) is still very active in guerrilla operations. While the SLORC/SPDC has gradually increased its repression to establish control over the area, they have also formed and employed a Karen proxy army called the Karen Peace Army (KPA) under Thu Mu Heh, a former KNLA officer who defected in 1997. The SPDC removed the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) from most of the region and made a show of giving ‘authority’ over the area to the KPA.
The KPA set out to gather recruits by promising villagers that the families of those who joined would be exempted from forced labour for the SPDC, and by trying to force all able-bodied men of the Dta La Ku people to join. The Dta La Ku are a religious minority among the Karen, numbering some 5,000 people, who live mainly in southern Dooplaya District. They have been persecuted and pressured to join the struggle by both the SLORC/SPDC and the KNLA, even though taking part in an armed struggle or supporting one goes directly against their strict religion and lifestyle.
All of the above developments have been documented in previous KHRG reports - see "Strengthening the Grip on Dooplaya" (KHRG #98-05, 10/6/98), "Clampdown in Southern Dooplaya" (KHRG #97-11, 18/11/97), and "Refugees from the SLORC Occupation" (KHRG #97-07, 25/5/97). At the time of publication of the last KHRG report, most of the Dta La Ku refugees in Thailand had returned to their villages in Burma, but they were under increasing pressure to join the KPA and they had sent a delegation to request SPDC military authorities for permission to gather and live together in one small area near the Thai border, where they would be free of forced labour and KPA pressure and in return would not take any part in the struggle. Since that time, the local SPDC Strategic Commander granted them the permission they desired. About 2,000 Dta La Ku villagers gathered in the Kwih Lat Der / Taung Ka Lay area near the Thai border hoping to be able to farm and practice their beliefs freely without forced labour and military pressure.
Now the KPA is no longer demanding that all Dta La Ku men join the army. However, over the past two months the SPDC military has reneged on its promise and has begun placing ever-increasing demands on the Dta La Ku villagers to provide porters and other forced labourers. Most of the forced labour demands are being made by troops from Light Infantry Division #44, particularly Light Infantry Battalion #343. The latest demand is that Kwih Lat Der and some other villages each provide 4 porters at all times, rotating the people every 5 days, or pay 80,000 Kyats per month. 80,000 Kyats is a huge sum of money for rural villagers. Even Kwih Lat Der, a large village which now has 150 households, could only come up with 40,000 Kyats the first month, so they negotiated a deal whereby they have to send 2 of the 4 people demanded and pay 40,000 Kyats. SPDC patrols coming through Kwih Lat Der area also demand additional porters every day and charge 100 Thai Baht per day as a fine for anyone who cannot go.
Further into SPDC territory and away from the border with Thailand, the 40 Dta La Ku families of Meh T’La village are being forced to provide 2 porters at all times on a 5-day rotation to carry rice and ammunition to Kyaikdon for the SPDC, and 100 people at a time also have to do forced labour building a security fence along the local motor road. Villagers are not allowed to go to their fields to tend their crops without a pass, and cannot stay in their field huts for more than 2 consecutive nights. Last month a 20-year-old man named Maw Lu Po from the village was executed by SPDC troops for being caught in possession of medicine. He was bringing injection sets for the villagers, who have no doctor, but the troops accused him of possessing medicine to give to KNLA units. The village was also forced to move to another site by the SPDC, but was then ordered by the local KNLA unit to move back or be shelled with mortars. The villagers don’t dare go back against SPDC orders, and many see no option but to flee. At the same time villagers, including Dta La Ku, in Kru Tu Kee have been forced to provide 100 baskets of seed paddy, plant a crop and tend it for SPDC troops in the area. Dta La Ku villagers from Ywa Thay village claim that they have also been facing an increase of forced labour as porters for the SPDC, the KPA and remnants of DKBA, as well as forced labour building and maintaining an SPDC camp, pathways, and planting and tending a rice crop for the local SPDC Battalions. One village elder from this area stated that they could survive under the SPDC for the first year of the occupation, but by the end of the second year "everything is gone" because of all their demands for food and forced labour.
Dta La Ku villagers from Kwih Kler village in central Dooplaya report that they are also being used as SPDC porters and that the only way to escape this work is to pay money, but they have no money left. In the months before rainy season (up to June 1998) they were also forced to cut down many of their coconut trees to clear a path for a new road route. Construction on this road (probably a more direct route to replace the existing Azin - Kwih Kler - Lay Po Hta road) has not yet begun, but will probably begin with heavy use of forced labour after the end of rainy season in October or November. SPDC officers have ordered all Dta La Ku villagers who have already left Kwih Kler to return or have their homes and fields confiscated by the Army, but some of those who have left say they won’t go back anyway because they can no longer take the burden of forced labour.
In the Kwih Lat Der area, village elders have approached local SPDC military commanders, asking for the release of porters and protesting that portering and soldiering go directly against Dta La Ku religious beliefs. In response, they were scolded by the SPDC officer for "being too much bother", and since that time the officer has sent out word through all his troops that if the Dta La Ku are not willing to support the Army with their labour then they are to be driven out of Burma.
As a result of the increasing pressure for forced labour, over 900 Dta La Ku have crossed the border to become refugees in Thailand, and elders from Dta La Ku villages in Dooplaya District claim that close to 2,000 more are preparing to cross the border any time between now and the rice harvest in two to three months. The over 900 refugees already in Thailand are staying around the Thai Dta La Ku village of Lay Taw Ko. The Dta La Ku refugees are not willing to go to the existing Karen refugee camp at Noh Po, because they fear that among the 10,000 refugees already at Noh Po they would have no chance to maintain their religion and lifestyle. Furthermore, Thai officials have told them not to go to Noh Po because Noh Po is a strictly closed camp and the Thai officials fear that the Dta La Ku would always be slipping in and out in order to attend religious events at their religious centres. Should another 1,000-2,000 Dta La Ku refugees arrive in Thailand, how they will be received remains uncertain.
The Situation for Other Karen Villagers
Among non-Dta La Ku people in the central parts of Dooplaya, the situation remains similar to what it was several months ago. People in villages where SPDC units are garrisoned have to do regular shifts of forced labour portering, maintaining Army camps and maintaining roads. They are not allowed to leave their village without a pass. In some areas, the pass requires them to return before sunset even if their fields are a long distance away, while in other villages they can get a pass allowing them to spend one or two nights in their field hut. Even with a pass they face the possibility of being shot on sight by SPDC patrols, and it is difficult to tend a crop and protect it from animals while only being allowed to stay in the field hut for one or two nights at a time.
All of the former village schools which were operated by the villagers themselves or by the Karen National Union (KNU) have been forced to close down under the SPDC occupation. The SPDC has only set up a few schools in major villages such as Azin and Kyaikdon, but few children outside these villages have access to these schools, particularly young children. As a result, most children in Dooplaya are no longer able to go to school. Medical clinics formerly supported by various organisations and the KNU have also closed, and very little medical help is available. Even in the central village of Azin there is no clinic; villagers there can go to an Army doctor who speaks Karen, but they must pay. Most villagers now in Dooplaya have little choice but to risk a trek to Thailand if they want to obtain medicines.
At least several hundred families remain internally displaced in central Dooplaya, not daring to go back to their villages but afraid to run to Thailand. Some of these families already fled to Thailand once but were shot at and terrorised by Thai troops at Thay Pu Law Htwee in November 1997 (see "Strengthening the Grip on Dooplaya", KHRG #98-05, 10/6/98, for further details). The SPDC regularly issues orders for these people to return to their villages, but they dare not for fear of arrest. They stay in small groups of shelters in the forest, fleeing from one shelter to another every month or two when an SPDC patrol comes near their shelters. Each family has 4 or 5 shelters and 2 or 3 small ricefields, scattered in different places so that they can keep ahead of SPDC patrols. Many of these people have already died of disease, particularly children and the elderly.
In January 1998, many Karen villages in the far south of Dooplaya were forced by SPDC Infantry Battalion #230 to relocate to Thanbyuzayat and Three Pagodas Pass. Meh K’Naw, Meh K’Wa, Htee Kay, Htee Klih Thu, Lay May, Htee Po Yu, Ah Pa Lone, Lay Po, Hsing Pyay, Kwih Prer Htee, Maw Po and other villages were given 3 days to move, after which several houses in each village were burned and Meh K’Naw and Htee Maw Keh villages were burned completely. Suffering from lack of food at the relocation site, the villagers finally managed to get permission to return to their villages, but they now have to pay extortion money regularly to IB 230 and go on rotating shifts of 3 days’ portering labour. Anyone who cannot go must pay 1,000 Kyats.
The KPA and the DKBA
It appears that the Karen Peace Army (KPA) has been largely unsuccessful in its recruitment drive, and its membership still numbers no more than about 200. Very few villagers joined under the promise of exempting their families from forced labour, so in many villages the KPA simply demanded 2 or 3 recruits. However, many of those who initially joined the KPA have since run away, according to villagers from Dooplaya. The KPA is now less prevalent along some parts of the border with Thailand, and it seems the SPDC has withdrawn them from certain areas. Some SPDC units still have two or three of them attached to the unit to do errands, but the KPA has been marginalised as an effective force. For the most part they stay at their base at Klih, 10-15 kilometres north of Kyaikdon.
At the same time the SPDC has brought at least one group of DKBA soldiers back into central Dooplaya. Sources in the area report that a group of 38 DKBA soldiers has been moved in to Tha Der Ko, near Kwih Kalay. They are building a pagoda there, and visitors to the area claim that they are using the forced labour of local villagers, both Buddhist and Christian. It is unknown as yet whether other groups of DKBA have been brought back into other places in central Dooplaya, though a village elder from southwestern Dooplaya says there are now DKBA in his area as well. Tha Der Ko is only about 5 kilometres south of the KPA headquarters at Klih, making it very possible that there could be a confrontation between the two groups. One KPA officer has told Dta La Ku villagers further south that Dooplaya belongs to the KPA, and that the DKBA can only be allowed there to do religious work, nothing political or military. It is possible that this is the explanation which the SPDC has given to the KPA, and this would explain why the DKBA are building a pagoda. However, it appears strange for the SPDC to bring the DKBA back to an area from which they were previously ejected just to build a pagoda. The SPDC may be planning to marginalise the KPA further and reinstall the DKBA gradually in the region, or it may be planning to set up a fight between the two. It is well known that the two groups see each other as potential enemies. If there is an open fight the KPA would stand little or no chance, unless the SPDC took their side and used this as a method to severely weaken the DKBA. The SPDC continues to distrust the DKBA, while the KPA tends to be a much more loyal proxy army. At this point it is still impossible to predict the effect of any potential reintroduction of the DKBA into central Dooplaya, but it is a situation which calls for close observation.
Further details and interviews with refugees and internally displaced villagers in Dooplaya District will be presented in an upcoming KHRG report.