Continuing Hardships for Villagers in Northern Karen Districts
Villagers in the northern districts of Karen State and Karen areas of eastern Pegu Division and northeastern Mon State continue to suffer SPDC operations involving village destruction, forced relocations, uprooting of their crops and forced labour. Areas referred to in this report include Taungoo (Karen name Taw Oo) District, Nyaunglebin (Kler Lwe Htoo) District, Papun (Mudraw) District, and Thaton (Doothatu) District. This information was recently reported by KHRG monitors based in or visiting these areas. The situation in Taungoo District will be reported in detail in an upcoming KHRG report.
Taungoo (Taw Oo) District
Taungoo District forms the northern tip of Karen State, sandwiched between Karenni State to the east, Shan State to the north, and Pegu Division to the west. The vast majority of villagers in this region are Karen. Many live in small, difficult to access villages in the very steep and forested hills covering most of the district. Further west, the hills let off into the gentler terrain of the Sittang River valley near Toungoo town.
For two to three years now the villagers in the western plain of the district have faced heavy burdens of forced labour on roads, army camps and the Pa Thee dam project, while some of their villages just east of Toungoo town were forcibly relocated to make way for the dam. Things have been even worse for the hill villagers, as over the past two to three years the SLORC/SPDC has steadily increased its troop presence in this previously inaccessible area. As troops moved in villages were burned and food supplies destroyed, a road was pushed through the rugged terrain from Bawgali Gyi (Kler Lah) to Bu Sah Kee for military access, and villagers suffered from the forced labour on this road as well as demands for army camp and portering labour. Many fled into hiding in the hills.
Now most villagers are back in their villages in the area but are facing increasing pressure from the military. Most of the villages are now referred to as "Nyein Chan Yay" ("Peace") Villages, meaning that the villagers are supposed to be allowed to stay there peacefully as long as they obey SPDC orders. This includes the villages of Bawgali Gyi (Kler Lah), Ye Tho Leh, Ye Tho Gyi, Kyaut Pon (Ler Ko), Kaw Soe Ko (Dtay Sein Taung), and Kaw Thay Der (Pyaun Tho). All of these are on or near the road from Bawgali Gyi to Bu Sah Kee (this connects with the road up from Toungoo town). However, this road is only passable for about 20% of its length at the moment, because the rains have destroyed the entire length from Kaw Thay Der to Bu Sah Kee. As a result, villagers in the "Peace" villages are being ordered to provide porters. They don’t dare go so they must pay money, and most of them can no longer afford to pay. Where the passable road ends at Kaw Thay Der, the villagers must pay money and also go as porters to carry supplies to outlying SPDC camps such as Naw Soe and Bu Sah Kee. Currently all of this portering labour is being done by women, because if men go they are kept as porters for 2-3 months, or until they die or escape, whereas if women go they are generally freed after 1-2 weeks. Each "Peace" village has to send women to the closest Army camp each day to act as messengers, and must also send shifts of villagers to do forced labour clearing the undergrowth from the roadsides.
Battalions operating in the area include SPDC Infantry Battalions #26, 30, and 48. Villagers are punished if any fighting occurs in their area. Two to three months ago a column of IB #48 was ambushed near Kaw Thay Der village and responded by going into the village, calling out all the villagers and systematically beating them. Villages which are not considered as "Peace" villages because they are not under direct SPDC control are open for destruction. Saw Wah Der village has been ordered to move to Kler Lah since several years ago but has never obeyed, so this year all the best houses in the village (those with wooden construction and metal roofing) were burned. This village has been burned many times over the years. Now some of the villagers have fled to Toungoo town, while others live in hiding in the forest, where they cannot plant rice for fear of detection. Instead they plant cardamom and sell it in the "Peace" villages to survive.
Three years ago the villagers of Bu Sah Kee settled in the forest away from their village for fear of SLORC abuses, and they continue to stay there. They continue to grow their hillside rice crops, but whenever SLORC/SPDC patrols come close they flee into the hills. Some of their crops are visible from the Infantry Battalion #26 camp in the distance, so in September Major Myo Myint ordered his troops to go and destroy all of Bu Sah Kee’s rice crop, presumably with the logic that some of this rice would be used to feed Karen troops. On 6 September, IB 26 troops began moving through all the ricefields, pulling up, cutting down or stomping down the villagers’ crops, which would not be ready for harvest until November/December. They managed to destroy approximately half of the entire crop of the village for this year. The 60 families of Bu Sah Kee now expect that when they run out of rice they will have to find a way to go and buy some in the "Peace" villages, but they have no money. According to the latest Karen National Union (KNU) reports, IB #26 continues to patrol Bu Sah Kee; the KNU reports that on 30 October they opened fire on Bu Sah Kee villagers in the fields who were trying to harvest some of the remaining rice, forcing them to flee, while on 31 October they shot and killed villager Pu Ee, age 60, and burned some stacks of harvested paddy that they found.
The SPDC is now trying to build a road from Kaw Thay Der to Mawchi, a town to the east in southern Karenni State. They began building this road with bulldozers early in 1998 but stopped work for the rains, and are expected to resume soon. Though they are not using forced labour on this road, it passes directly through the ricefields of Saw Wah Der village. The villagers had already begun preparing their fields for the 1998 crop when construction began, but when all the SPDC troops came to build and guard the road within sight of their fields they no longer dared to plant, so many of them will have no crop this year. Saw Wah Der village was later burned (see above).
Villagers of Saw Wah Der, Bu Sah Kee and Klay Soe Kee (Ye Tho Leh) are now all living outside their villages. According to one report as yet unconfirmed, SPDC forces in the area have given an order once again for all villages in the area, including the "Peace" villages, to move to Kler Lah and Kaw Thay Der. The troops have been ordering this for over 2 years now, but it remains to be seen when they will decide to clamp down and enforce it.
Nyaunglebin (Kler Lwe Htoo) District
Nyaunglebin (Kler Lwe Htoo) District straddles the border of Karen State and Pegu Division, stretching as far west as the western side of the Sittang River. The plains in the west of the district are heavily SPDC-controlled, while the Karen villages in the district’s eastern hills are more remote. For several years now SLORC/SPDC forces have tried to destroy Karen resistance in the eastern hills, largely by forcing villagers to move and wiping out their ability to produce food. Many villages in the parts of these eastern hills bordering Papun District have been destroyed since 1997 as part of the SPDC campaign to wipe out Karen villages in northern Papun and eastern Nyaunglebin Districts (see "Wholesale Destruction", KHRG, April 1998).
According to the report of a KHRG monitor in the eastern hills, villagers to the west in the plains must provide money to SPDC forces and also go as porters and army camp labour, but it is the villagers in the eastern hills who are suffering the worst. In August, SPDC troops began burning more villages in Ler Doh township. Oo Ker Kee, Tee Nya P’Tay Kee, and Nah Kee villages have been burned in this operation by Light Infantry Battalions #364 and 365. At Oo Ker Kee village, SPDC troops occupied a nearby hill and then commenced shelling the village with mortars with no warning. After the villagers fled, the troops entered and looted the village, then burned it. This is consistent with their village destruction tactics since 1997 in Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts. The villagers from these 3 destroyed villages are now hiding in the forest with little or no rice to eat. Part of their crop was destroyed, and they are not expecting to obtain much from their fields this year. Even the fields which were not destroyed have suffered from the lack of rains this year.
Since July in the western part of Ler Doh township in the plains, SPDC Infantry Battalion #60 has reportedly been ordering each village tract (group of 5 to 10 villages) to provide 20 women to become ‘pwa thi lah’ (Buddhist nuns) and to go and take residence at the monastery in Klaw Maw village; this village also has a DKBA camp with an estimated 95 DKBA troops. There is a high proportion of Christians in these villages. Thus far some village tracts have complied while others have not, and an estimated 40 women have become nuns because of the order, some of whom were previously Christian and some Buddhist. DKBA troops have posted signs in Karen in front of the village churches of Pah Dta Lah, Hee Po Der, and Mah Bpee villages in this area of Ler Doh township, reading "Anyone who comes to this Church on Sunday we will shoot dead". As a result none of the Christians in these three villages worship any longer on Sundays. It is important to note that neither of these incidents is consistent with general SPDC and DKBA policy throughout Karen State. The SPDC is conducting forced conversions of Christians in other parts of Burma which are almost entirely Christian as a method to divide communities; however, the Christians are already a minority among Karens and therefore they are generally left to practice Christianity, though the SPDC often tries to instigate interreligious hatred. Some DKBA commanders have systematically persecuted Christians, particularly when the DKBA was first formed, but most do not, and there are even Christians within the DKBA and many living in a site across the Salween River from DKBA headquarters at Myaing Gyi Ngu (Khaw Taw). These incidents in Ler Doh township are probably local initiatives by particularly intolerant SPDC and DKBA commanders.
Papun (Mudraw) District
Papun District is bounded by Nyaunglebin District in the northwest, Thaton District in the southwest, and the Salween River and Thailand to the east. Over 100 villages in northern Papun District have been systematically shelled, burned and destroyed since 1997 by SPDC troops trying to eradicate support for Karen resistance in the region (for details see "Wholesale Destruction", KHRG, April 1998). About 100 of these were ordered to move, but many of the villages never saw the order because the villagers always flee when SPDC troops approach. In response, the SPDC launched a campaign to simply destroy all villages without warning.
The situation in northern Papun District remains very similar to what it was earlier in the year. Most villages have already been completely burned and destroyed, but SPDC patrols continue going through the area to burn any trace of villages which still remain, food supplies, and the shelters of villagers who are hiding in the forest. These patrols have reportedly mined and booby-trapped the burned remains of some villages, because they know that villagers are in hiding nearby and that they frequently return to scavenge for food, belongings and materials in the burned ruins of their villages. Villagers sighted in the region are sometimes taken as porters, but are more frequently shot or otherwise executed on sight. In Lu Thaw township, at least 2 more villagers were executed on sight in September. The vast majority of villagers are living in small clusters of shelters and lean-to’s hidden deep in the forests and high in the hills, trying to access their old hillside rice fields or to clear small new ones in the hills. These fields have not yielded much, especially with the lack of rain this past rainy season. In September, SPDC patrols were sent through Lu Thaw township to destroy rice crops where possible, and much of the crop was cut down with machetes or stomped down by the troops. Villagers in hiding in the forest are living primarily on roots and jungle leaves. Even in areas where SPDC troops seldom arrive, such as Day Pu Noh area, there is almost no rice available and villagers are surviving on rice soup, sharing around whatever rice they can find or buy from town. Villagers in this region are much closer to Thailand than those in the other districts mentioned in this report, but most of them do not want to go because of their very close attachment to their land, their extreme fear of landmines and SPDC troops along the escape routes, and their fear of abuse and forced repatriation by Thai troops which they know may await them on arrival at the border.
Thaton (Doothatu) District
Thaton District straddles the border of Karen State and northern Mon State. Being close to the coastal road and railway lines, this district is under quite heavy SPDC control, and the DKBA also has a significant presence in the eastern parts of the district. Only small Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) units can operate in the area, so while there is sporadic fighting in the area the villages there have not been systematically destroyed in retaliation. Several Karen villages near the Bilin and Donthami rivers were forced to relocate to larger villages in 1997. Some of the people from the villages in the Donthami area are now reportedly trickling back to try living back in their old villages or the surrounding forests. It is as yet unclear whether SPDC and DKBA troops will allow this to continue.
When fighting occurs the normal response by SPDC troops is to detain and torture local village elders. This is accompanied in the area by fairly regular and systematic looting, demands for money and forced labour as porters and at Army camps. The future of villagers in this area will largely depend on the amount of activity conducted by the KNLA; assuming that the KNLA continues to operate there, it is likely that the SPDC will eventually clamp down further on the villagers by conducting further forced relocations.
Further details, interviews with the villagers affected and SPDC written orders to villages in some of these areas will be presented in upcoming KHRG reports.