Nyaunglebin District: Internally Displaced People and SPDC Death Squads
Nyaunglebin (known in Karen as Kler Lwe Htoo) District is a northern Karen region straddling the border of northern Karen State and Pegu Division. It contains the northern reaches of the Bilin (Bu Loh Kloh) River northwest of Papun, and stretches westward as far as the Sittaung (Sittang) River in the area 60 to 150 kilometres north of Pegu (named Bago by the SPDC). The District has 3 townships: Ler Doh (Kyauk Kyi in Burmese), Hsaw Tee (Shwegyin), and Mone. The eastern two-thirds of the district is covered by forested hills dotted with small Karen villages, and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) operates extensively in this region. The western part of the district is in the plains of the Sittaung river basin; here there are larger villages of mixed Karen and Burman population, and this area is under strong SPDC control. 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 reports by KHRG monitors in the region and interviews with internally displaced villagers and new refugees, the situation continues to worsen for villagers in eastern and western Nyaunglebin, particularly with the recent creation of SPDC ‘Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ death squads.
Finding itself unable to suppress Karen resistance activity in the eastern hills of Nyaunglebin District, in early 1997 the SPDC (then named SLORC) began a campaign to wipe out all Karen civilian villages in the hills. Where villagers could be found they were ordered to relocate westward into the plains; where they could not be caught, their villages were shelled without warning, looted and then burned to the ground, while villagers found afterwards were shot on sight. In 1997 KHRG compiled a list of 35 villages in Shwegyin (Hsaw Tee) township alone which had been completely destroyed. Most villagers fled into the hills to live in hiding in small groups of families while trying to grow small patches of rice, and many others moved westward as ordered into the plains, either to stay with relatives or to garrison villages along the main roads as the SPDC troops had demanded.
Many of the people who moved into the plains have now fled back into the hills, and some have been interviewed by KHRG monitors. They say that they returned to the hills because they could not survive in the plains; they had no land to plant, there was no paid labour to survive on, and they could not face all the demands for forced labour and money from the SPDC troops. Some had died because they were not used to the water and the illnesses in the plains. In the end they fled back into the hills, even though they knew their villages had been destroyed, that they would have to live in hiding and that they would be shot if found by SPDC patrols. Now they join the thousands of Karen villagers who have lived internally displaced in these hills since 1997.
In the hills the villagers are hiding in small groups of a few families in high valleys and other remote places. They try to grow small patches of rice but have little or nothing to eat; most meals consist of a small amount of rice or thin rice gruel, combined with salt or chillies if they are lucky enough to have these, and some forest leaves or sour cucumber soup (which just consists of cucumber boiled in water with a bit of salt; cucumbers are grown among the rice in hill fields). As in many other areas, much of the already small rice crop was destroyed by the lack of rains early in the season and the plague of insects brought on by the drought.
SPDC patrols come through the hills as often as 2 or 3 times per month, burn any rice storage barns they find, shoot at villagers they see in the fields or the forests, and burn any shelters they find. When they find belongings they loot them and destroy whatever they don’t want or can’t carry, even smashing the bottoms out of cookpots. From September to November 1998, before the rice was ready to harvest, SPDC patrols went through many of the hillside ricefields they found pulling up the paddy plants by the roots, stomping them down with their boots or cutting them with machetes and threshing the grains off onto the ground. Then in November 1998, SPDC patrols opened fire on groups of villagers harvesting rice on at least 3 separate occasions, in Tee Nya B’Day Kee, Thaw Ngeh Der, and Tee Mu Hta villages. When an SPDC patrol opened fire on villagers harvesting paddy on 21 November in Tee Nya B’Day Kee, a villager named Saw May Lay tried to run with his 9-month-old daughter in his arms, but he was hit by shrapnel in the legs and one arm, while the baby was killed after having one leg ripped off and the other broken by fragments of the same shell. Several other villagers were also seriously wounded by bullets and shell fragments in these attacks.
The displaced villagers are always fleeing from one place to another to avoid the patrols. Some villagers say they won’t build a proper shelter with a raised floor until rainy season, because in dry season the SPDC patrols are almost certain to find and burn it. They have no change of clothing and few or no blankets, and have to sleep around fires in temperatures which can drop to 10 degrees Celsius or lower at this time of year. They have no medicines and speak of treating gunshot wounds by applying sesame oil after saying incantations. When interviewed one villager sent out a plea for help with supplies of rice, cookpots and medicines, saying that other things they can make from the forest but not these. These villagers don’t dare go down into the plains for fear of arrest as ‘insurgents’, and it is difficult or impossible for most of them to get to Thailand because they would have to pass through all of northern Papun District, where SPDC troops have destroyed even more villages and are patrolling to shoot villagers on sight. However, a small group of just over 100 refugees managed to make this difficult journey with the help of the KNLA and arrived in Ban Sala refugee camp in Thailand on 10 January 1999. Many of these were from Ler Wah and Tee Mu Hta villages of Ler Doh township, both of which were shelled and burned by SPDC troops in November 1998. The troops also shot at the villagers and burned the entire rice supplies of many families in these villages, giving them little option but to flee for Thailand.
‘Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ Death Squads
Since October 1998 a new type of SPDC battalion has been formed in Nyaunglebin district, apparently with the specific purpose of carrying out extrajudicial executions: the ‘Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ death squads. Many details about this Army unit still remain vague because the only information thus far available comes from villagers in areas where they operate; the information presented here has been compiled by KHRG from piecing together consistent bits of data from interviews with human rights monitors and villagers in and from the region.
The name ‘Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ means ‘Guerrilla Retaliation’ unit, and is the name they have told to villagers in several places. In Mone township they are also known as ‘Sa Sa Sa Dam Byan Byaut Kya’; the prefix ‘Sa Sa Sa’ (or ‘Sa Thon Lon’, for ‘Three S’s’) is the abbreviation for DDSI (Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence), which is Burma’s pervasive Military Intelligence headed by SPDC Secretary-1 Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt. Some villagers claim that this group was ordered created by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt himself and that they remain under his direct command, though we have no confirmation of this. However, they do operate independently of the local Operations Command and Strategic Commands, and are often referred to as ‘A’Htoo Ah Na Ya A’Pweh’, meaning ‘Special Authority Force’. Based on the composition of the unit and its function, it is very likely that it was formed by special order from Rangoon, and may remain under Rangoon’s direct command.
According to the information available, the unit was formed by selecting the ‘bravest’, in other words the most brutal, 5 to 12 soldiers from each of the many Infantry and Light Infantry Battalions operating in the region, most or all of them being Corporals and Sergeants, and assembling them into a special battalion of 200 to 300 troops under the command of an officer named Bo Maung Maung from Infantry Battalion #351. The unit is divided into 3 groups: ‘Mone Thon Mone Daing Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ (‘Monsoon storm guerrilla retaliation unit’), ‘Galone Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ (‘Garuda guerrilla retaliation unit’), and ‘D’Pyet Hleh Dam Byan Byaut Kya’ (‘Sweeper guerrilla retaliation unit’). They usually operate in small patrols of 5 or 6 men, scattered in several villages but focussed on the plains east of the Sittaung River and the westernmost reaches of the hills. Many people call them the ‘short pants’ because they do not wear Army uniform; they are usually in short pants and T-shirts or in non-standard camouflage clothes, and carry non-standard weapons such as AK47 and AR assault rifles (the SPDC Army standard is the much more ungainly G3 or G4, though China has recently given them the ability to produce new assault rifles which look like an AK47 but use NATO-standard ammunition). They operate independently, are not answerable to the local Operations Commanders, and when they are present around a village other SPDC troops are notably absent.
The main function of these units to date has been to execute any civilian even remotely suspected of present or past connections with the KNU (Karen National Union) or KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). This connection can be as minor as a distant relative in the KNU, or having given some rice to a KNLA unit several years ago, or an unsubstantiated accusation by anyone. The main intention is probably to strike fear into all villagers of having anything whatsoever to do with the KNU/KNLA. Estimates on the number of people executed since October vary widely, from 30 to 80 or 100. Victims have included Burmans as well as Karens, because many Burmans are intermixed with the Karen population in the plains and many Burmans in the area sympathise with the KNU/KNLA.
According to villagers in the area, when the Dam Byan Byaut Kya units suspect someone they kill them without any interrogation, often at night. Some have been shot, some stabbed to death. Afterwards local villagers have been ordered not to touch, cremate or bury the bodies. The troops have thrown some of the bodies in the river, and have also on several occasions cut off the heads of their victims after killing them. After executing two farmers from Myeh Yeh village, the troops cut off their heads and hung them along the path between Tai Kya Sai and Ter Bpaw villages. The villagers were then ordered to guard the heads to make sure no one removed them, under threat that if the heads were removed those assigned to guard them would be severely punished. Dam Byan Byaut Kya troops have also been reported to burn houses, shell villages and kill villagers simply on encountering them on pathways or away from villages; for example, one Dam Byan Byaut Kya unit found 4 Karen men and one woman from Twa Ni Gone village staying at a hut with some rice while they fished at a large pond, released the woman and executed the 4 men with no questions asked. On Christmas Day 1998, a Dam Byan Byaut Kya unit entered Bpaw Pee Der village and opened fire on a group of young people playing volleyball (volleyball tournaments are popular entertainment on Christmas), killing Saw San Myint. The troops then cut off Saw San Myint’s head, stuck a cheroot in his mouth and hung it along the path toward Mone town.
One of the units responsible for some of the most brutal attacks is commanded by Sergeant Shan Pu. This Sergeant was reportedly interested in an 18-year-old schoolgirl in Lu Ah village of Mone township, so she fled the village. In response he threatened to kill her parents and the village headman if she would not return and marry him, so she reportedly returned and they are now married.
The activities of these death squads are frightening many people into fleeing, not only those who have had close or distant connections with the KNU/KNLA but also those afraid of being executed for some false suspicion or for no reason at all. Combined with the forced labour, extortion and other abuses already being inflicted on the villagers of western Nyaunglebin District, this threat has driven some people beyond the limit of their endurance. Some of the Karens and Burmans from the western plains of the district do not dare flee through the hills to Papun District and the Thai border, so they have fled along the main roads through the plains, southward to Kyaikto and Pa’an, then eastward to Kawkareik, crossing the border from Myawaddy to Mae Sot and ending up in Huay Kaloke (Wangka) refugee camp far to the south of their area of origin. The Thai Army has treated these new arrivals with great suspicion, considering them as ‘economic migrants’, particularly the Burman refugees. On 29 January 1999, the Thai Army attempted to forcibly repatriate all of the new arrivals at Huay Kaloke, including those from Nyaunglebin District, but were convinced by Non-Governmental Organisations and representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to hold back until the arrivals could be interviewed to determine their status. The Thai Army has now completed these interviews in the presence of UNHCR representatives, but no decisions have yet been announced. There continues to be grave concern for these refugees, particularly as the UNHCR has given no guarantee that it will oppose a forced repatriation if that is what the Thai Army decides to do.
Further details, interviews with the villagers affected and photographs from some of these areas will be presented in an upcoming KHRG report and photo set.