Karenni (Kayah) State: Continuing Flight of Villagers to Thailand
In mid-1996 the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta ruling Burma broke a ceasefire with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) by launching a military offensive aimed at gaining complete control over areas of Karenni (Kayah) State near the border with Thailand. To support this military campaign, at the same time the junta launched a mass forced relocation campaign against rural villagers throughout the state, hoping to undermine the KNPP by removing or wiping out the entire civilian population in rural areas. Since then over 200 villages covering at least half the geographic area of the entire state have been forcibly relocated, burned and destroyed by Burmese Army troops under the command of the SLORC, which was renamed the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) in November 1997. There is no accurate census data available, but most of the villages only have 10 to 50 households and estimates of the number of villagers affected range between 30,000 and 50,000.
The SLORC/SPDC ordered all villagers to move into Army-controlled relocation sites within one to two weeks, after which anyone seen in their home areas would be "considered as enemy", i.e. shot on sight, and all houses and belongings found in villages would be confiscated or destroyed by the military. Over the following year relocation camps were established at several sites, including Shadaw and Nwa La Bo in northern Karenni, Ywathit, Daw Tama, Baw La Keh, Tee Po Kloh, Kay Lia, Mar Kraw She, and Daw Tama Gyi in central Karenni, and Mawchi and Pah Saung in southwestern Karenni. Several hundred people were ordered to move into each of the smaller sites, while several thousand people were ordered into larger sites like Shadaw. On arrival at the sites they were provided with nothing, and many people began to starve and die of disease. They were not allowed to farm, though some were allowed to return to their villages to retrieve some food supplies. Many used this opportunity to flee into hiding in the forests, joining others who had hidden in the forests rather than go to the relocation sites.
Since 1997 there has been a steady trickle of families escaping from the relocation sites back to hide in the forests surrounding their home villages. According to reports from some of these villagers, conditions in the relocation sites have steadily deteriorated since the beginning. Villagers in the sites were provided with nothing at first, though once many of them started to starve the Army began giving small rations of rice in some sites. This rice, which was most likely confiscated from farmers in other areas, was quickly cut to less than half what people need to survive. People only have access to medicines if they can pay inflated prices for them and bribe the government medics, so many have died of treatable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and dysentery and other infectious diseases are widespread.
According to villagers who fled the sites recently, in response to starvation the Army now allows villagers in Shadaw relocation site to plant food, but the area of land allocated is very small and the soil is bad so the villagers have only been able to grow a small quantity of corn and nothing else. At the same time, villagers in Shadaw relocation site are still being used for forced labour both inside and outside the relocation site. The Army forces them to maintain Army facilities and a school, and also to maintain roads. There are reports that they are now being used to build a new road as well, though it remains unclear where this road is going.
According to escaped villagers, at Nwa La Bo relocation site north of Loikaw the Army is using the interned villagers as forced labour on an Army rubber plantation. There is no school, hospital or clinic in the camp, so those who get sick can only get treatment if they can get a pass to go to Loikaw town and pay for transport and treatment. Villagers also report that at Daw Te Her, a newer site north of Loikaw, boys aged 13 and above have been taken away in groups of 20 for military training, and that none of them have been seen since.
People who have recently fled the Mawchi area in southwestern Karenni claim that in Mawchi relocation site villagers have been forced to hand over all of their rice to the Army. Their rice is stockpiled in a church under Army guard, and they can only obtain a 3-day’s supply at a time. There have also been reports that relocated villagers around Mawchi as well as Mawchi townspeople are being used as forced labour on the new road being built from Mawchi to Toungoo. This road winds through rough terrain for something like 160 kilometres / 100 miles, and is following the route of an old destroyed pre-war British road. The report, as yet unconfirmed by KHRG, claims that the villagers have been forced to work on the road within 8 miles of Mawchi. Near the other (Toungoo) end of the road, Karen villagers have already been used as forced labour clearing the route and laying the roadbed since early 1998 [for more details see "False Peace: Increasing SPDC Military Repression in Toungoo District of Northern Karen State" (KHRG #99-02, 25/3/99)].
In towns such as Mawchi and Loikaw it appears that the townspeople are also living under intense restrictions. KNPP sources say that there are now 4 SPDC Battalions based in and around the state capital of Loikaw, and that townspeople have to obtain passes in order to leave the town limits.
Townspeople, villagers in the relocation sites and those in hiding in the forest have all been affected by the drought which caused the failure of the 1998 rice crop. Some estimates claim that the combination of the drought and the SPDC campaign of village destruction has caused the crop for the entire state to be no more than 10% of normal for this year. It appears that because of this the Army is now freely allowing people to flee the relocation sites, and many people have taken advantage of this to flee back to the forests surrounding their home villages to try to survive there. It is difficult to obtain reliable information on how many people remain in the relocation sites, but there are probably still one or two thousand people in Shadaw, the largest relocation site, and several hundred up to a thousand in most of the other sites.
Many people have been living in hiding in the forests for 2 to 3 years now, and they are regularly joined by more who are fleeing the relocation sites. SPDC patrols have destroyed almost all of the 200 or more villages which have been relocated, but people still try to live in small shelters in the forest and grow small amounts of food in their old fields or in patches of cleared ground. In northern and eastern Karenni, the KNPP says that there are 3 SPDC platoons currently doing most of the sweeps to eliminate villagers. These patrols pass through destroyed villages as often as every week or two to hunt out and destroy shelters and food supplies and shoot on sight any villagers that they find. According to the KNPP, the SPDC patrols have also placed landmines and booby-traps in some of the villages they have destroyed because they know that the villagers in hiding regularly revisit their destroyed homes. In Mawchi area of southwestern Karenni, the patrols only come through every two to three months but when they come they are much more thorough than their counterparts in the north, covering every village and all the surrounding territory. When the relocations first started in 1996 many people in the area northwest of Mawchi simply ignored the orders and managed to stay in and around their villages, but in 1997 and 1998 SPDC troops razed villages throughout the area and physically drove people into the relocation sites. Now many of the villagers from Mawchi area have moved southward to the forests along the border with Karen State and have been trying to survive there.
For the people in the forests throughout Karenni the situation has been desperate for some time now. They have to regularly flee SPDC patrols, survive on little to no food and no medicine, and many of them have died of treatable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and dysentery. Some villagers from the area around Mawchi say that many in the forests there have already died of diarrhoea. The villagers in the forests long ago exhausted whatever food supplies they had hidden before the relocations began, and the drought and crop failures of 1998 have hit them very hard by wiping out whatever small quantities of food they were growing to survive. As a result of the complete lack of food and the continuing sweeps by SPDC troops, many more of them have been forced to consider the difficult and dangerous flight to refugee camps in Thailand.
Up until mid-1998 the SPDC troops were actively trying to block escape routes to Thailand, but it appears that the food situation and a shift in military thinking may have changed this. While still hunting out and killing villagers in the forest, they also seem to be allowing more villagers to head for the Thai border. The military may be thinking that forcing people into relocation sites is no longer viable because there is no food, and that if people flee to Thailand then this still clears the area of civilians, which is one of their main military objectives.
For people in northern and central Karenni the flight to the Thai border is extremely difficult and dangerous; it takes several weeks travelling with the entire family, there is little or no prospect of food being available along the way, and there is always the possibility of encountering an SPDC patrol. However, many have been making the trip. Immediately following the first wave of relocations in mid-1996, about 3,000 people arrived at existing Karenni refugee camps in Thailand. A few months later another 1,300 arrived, and then the flow decreased to a trickle as most people settled in to live in hiding in the forest or were effectively blocked from escape by SPDC troops. However, since January 1999 approximately 1,200 people have arrived in the refugee camps, most of them fleeing the Shadaw area of north-central Karenni. Some have been living in hiding in the forest for one to three years and fled because they could no longer produce or obtain any food. Others recently fled relocation sites back to the forests around their villages, but quickly found that there was no food to be had there and that SPDC patrols posed a constant danger. Most of the new arrivals are in very bad physical shape when they reach the border, sick, weak from the journey and emaciated from lack of food. There have also been handfuls of new arrivals from the Mawchi area; many more from this area would like to flee, but it is twice the distance of the trip from northern Karenni and twice as difficult and dangerous to travel, and there are few or no people available who can guide them along the way.
Most of the new arrivals have been accepted into the refugee camps by Thai authorities, though most of them are in a site called Karenni Camp 2 and there are serious concerns over the safety of this site. The camp is just 20 minutes’ walk from an SPDC Army post just across the border, and has been attacked before by SPDC-backed forces. The attack occurred on January 3rd 1997; three refugees were killed and nine others were wounded, and there was no attempt by Thai forces to defend the camp.
Further details on the current situation in Karenni and interviews with some of the affected villagers will be presented in an upcoming KHRG report. For more background on the Karenni forced relocations from 1996 to 1998, see the KHRG reports "A Struggle Just to Survive: Update on the Current Situation in Karenni"(#98-06, 12/6/98), "Update on Karenni Forced Relocations" (#97-01, 5/3/97), and "Forced Relocation in Karenni" (#96-24, 15/7/96).