COMMENTARY

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COMMENTARY

Published date:
Tuesday, May 25, 1999

The rainy season appears to be beginning early this year, and as the rains begin many people look back and evaluate the past dry season. Though the period since October/November 1998 has not featured a major military offensive, the situation for rural villagers in eastern Burma has continued to deteriorate and there have been some extremely worrying new developments. In general, the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) regime has continued to use increased militarisation, forced relocations and tighter controls on villagers as a means of consolidating its control over remote regions, and as a result more and more villagers are becoming internally displaced each month while life becomes even more desperate for those who are already displaced and hiding in the forests. This dry season the SPDC has also added a new weapon to its arsenal which is now terrorising villagers and driving many of them to flight: the ‘Sa Thon Lon Guerrilla Retaliation’ execution squads.

"They tied him up, covered his face and forced him to go with them. His wife came down [out of the house] and said, ‘My husband is a good person.’ The Burmese who captured him said to her, ‘He is a good person now, but in the past he was a bad person.’ Then they pulled him away. … When they pulled him out of our village they were beating him, and we heard the next day that they killed him in Yay Leh and threw his body in the Sittaung river. Some people saw it. He shouted loudly and said, ‘I am not the leader of the defenders.’ … The rest of the Burmese left in the village called people to come to the school for a meeting. I didn’t dare go, I stayed in my house. Many people hid in their houses. They said, ‘Let this serve as an example. We won’t forgive you next time. In the future, you must live and stand for people on this side [the side of the SPDC], you shouldn’t contact the KNU. The day we hear about you contacting the KNU, you will know.’ This is really dangerous." – 34-year-old Karen villager from Yan Myo Aung relocation site in Nyaunglebin District, describing an arrest by a Sa Thon Lon execution squad; KNU is the Karen National Union ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 21)

The rainy season appears to be beginning early this year, and as the rains begin many people look back and evaluate the past dry season. Though the period since October/November 1998 has not featured a major military offensive, the situation for rural villagers in eastern Burma has continued to deteriorate and there have been some extremely worrying new developments. In general, the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) regime has continued to use increased militarisation, forced relocations and tighter controls on villagers as a means of consolidating its control over remote regions, and as a result more and more villagers are becoming internally displaced each month while life becomes even more desperate for those who are already displaced and hiding in the forests. This dry season the SPDC has also added a new weapon to its arsenal which is now terrorising villagers and driving many of them to flight: the ‘Sa Thon Lon Guerrilla Retaliation’ execution squads.

Sa Thon Lon is an abbreviation for the Bureau of Special Investigations, a branch of the SPDC’s Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI) headed by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, who is also Secretary-1 of the SPDC. In 1998, reportedly under the direct orders of Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the Sa Thon Lon ‘Guerrilla Retaliation’ (Dam Byan Byaut Kya) force was formed in Nyaunglebin District, which covers part of northwestern Karen State and eastern Pegu Division. An estimated 200 Non-Commissioned Officers were selected from several of the Battalions in the area, given special training and sent into the villages of Nyaunglebin District east of the Sittaung River. They operate in small sections of 5 to 10 men, have no fixed base and often move between villages at night. They wear camouflage short pants and civilian clothes, so the villagers often call them the ‘Short Pants Group’ or the ‘Guerrilla Group’. They also go by the names A’Htoo Ah Na Ya A’Pweh (‘Special Authority Group’, a reference to their authorisation by Khin Nyunt) and Shwit A’Pweh (‘Shwit’ group; when asked to explain this, they have told the villagers that ‘shwit’ is the sound of cutting someone’s throat). Local SPDC Operations Commanders and Strategic Commanders have told villagers that the regular Army has no control over them, and they are never seen together with regular SPDC troops. They operate secretively; many of them use pseudonyms, and villagers are ordered not to even look in their faces. However, they have been very open in telling villagers their mission, which is to systematically execute everyone who is suspected of having any contact whatsoever with the Karen opposition forces, regardless of how minor that contact or how long ago it occurred.

"When they came and captured my husband, we were all in the house: my mother, my children and me. When they called him to go with them, I told my husband, ‘Don’t be afraid, pray to God.’ Then Shan Bpu took his knife and held it to my throat telling me not to speak. He said, ‘Don’t say anything! Don’t open your mouth! Or you will die!’ I was afraid and couldn’t speak. … They pulled him from place to place and then killed him at Teh Su while we were still in Yan Myo Aung. … We didn’t have contact with the KNLA and we don’t have a well known name, the Burmese soldiers had never asked about us before, so how could we have known that they were going to come and kill us?" – A villager from Mone township recounts the night theSa Thon Lon took away her husband and killed him ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 19)

"One night at 9 o’clock they entered Shan Su village and arrested Ko Kyi Hmwe, the 43 year old son of U Poh Bin. I saw them kill him outside of the village. They did that sort of thing in other villages also. They stabbed U Than Myint from Ma Oo Bin village with a knife, they did it in the middle of the village. While he was working on his pond, they went and called him and then killed him without asking any questions. In Leh Gkaw Wah village, which is near Ma Oo Bin, they called Maung Ba Aye down from his house and killed him without asking anything." – A villager from Shwegyin township lists some of the Sa Thon Lon killings in his area ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 20)

They have carried out this mission relentlessly, and since their appearance in September 1998 they have killed anywhere from 50 to well over 100 villagers in the plains just east of the Sittaung River. They reportedly have ‘lists’ of villagers to kill and enter villages looking for them. Usually they surround people’s houses by night and take them to the forest for execution, or they summon people on various pretexts and then execute them. Their methods are deliberately brutal; they usually kill with knives, often by cutting the throat, and then mutilate the bodies by beheading them, gutting them or cutting off ears or tongues. They leave the bodies where they lay or dump them in the river, and in several cases they have hung villagers’ heads along the pathways as a warning to others. In one such case in Mone township in December 1998, they even forced local villagers to guard two heads to make sure they were not removed, under the threat that if the heads disappeared they would be replaced by the heads of those guarding them. The purpose is obvious: to deliver a message to villagers throughout the area that any contact, however minor, with the resistance forces will be punished by death, if not now then years from now. Many have been killed simply for having guided a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) column or provided them a tin of rice one time 5 or 10 years ago. Several village headmen and former headmen have been executed for contacting the KNLA just because in the past the KNLA came to them to demand food or taxes. Burmans who live in the area have been targetted just as much as Karens, because many of them oppose the SPDC or are sympathetic to the Karen forces.

"They hung one of the heads on the path out of the village that goes to Mone and another on the path to Ler Doh. We had to cut bamboo and weave it into stands like those used for drinking water and then put the heads on them. … [T]hey ordered people to do sentry duty around those heads and if the heads disappeared, they said the villagers would have to replace them with our own heads. They kept them there for over a month and then another Army group came and forced the villagers to bury the heads." – Villager aged 30 from Mone township who was forced by the Sa Thon Lon to guard the severed heads of villagers Saw Aye and Po Theh Pyay ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 24)

"Ka Ni Ni was yelling in the jungle because his throat wasn’t completely cut. When we were worshipping in church at noon he was yelling, people heard it and went to him but he died when they got there. People buried him after the Short-Pants group left. We couldn’t bring him home because all his blood had run out. As for Hsah Tu Ghaw, there was a hole in his side where they’d stabbed him with a knife. And as for Pa Bee Ko, he had been ill almost to death even before they killed him." – A woman aged 22 from Tantabin township in southern Toungoo District describes a Sa Thon Lon execution which occurred in April 1999 ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 22)

The main function of the Sa Thon Lon squads is killing, but they have also incorporated other tactics in their efforts to keep the population in fear. They have established strict curfews and require villagers to have passes when leaving their village or relocation site. People caught outside the village at night or caught in their fields in possession of a stockpile of food or medicines have been executed. In Nyaunglebin and southern Toungoo Districts, they are forcing people to fence in their entire villages so that their movements can be strictly controlled. In Mone township they have forced the people of several villages to kill all their dogs so that Sa Thon Lon units can enter villages by night without detection. And whenever they meet villagers along the path, even by day and with a valid pass, they beat them simply to keep them in fear.

As a result people in the plains of Nyaunglebin District are terrified of the Sa Thon Lon, many of them dare not tend their fields and many Karens and Burmans are fleeing westward across the Sittaung River, eastward into the hills or southward to Pegu and on to Thailand. At the same time, the Sa Thon Lon force has now expanded its area of operation westward to include the plains of Pegu Division west of the Sittaung River, and northward into Tantabin township of Toungoo District. This development is cause for extreme concern, because it may indicate that the Sa Thon Lon squads are an experiment which the SPDC may begin to expand and implement in other regions as well. The SPDC is certainly capable of doing so, particularly with the Sa Thon Lon being under the direct control of Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt. It is possible that there are also some internal SPDC politics at play in this case; while the regular Army veterans like General Maung Aye in the SPDC are known to favour conventional military offensives, Khin Nyunt is believed to favour more subtle tactics to destroy the opposition. The Sa Thon Lon initiative is definitely consistent with Khin Nyunt’s methods, and may also be an attempt to show that his tactics are more effective than those of the other Generals. At the same time, this initiative gives Khin Nyunt and the DDSI an armed wing, essentially their own private army. For these reasons as well as the human rights concerns involved it is important to watch closely any expansion in the size or area of operation of the Sa Thon Lon force. It is ironic that despite this and all of his other known activities, Khin Nyunt has managed to be labelled a ‘moderate’ by many in the international community simply because he is often friendly in conversation and is better at sounding reasonable than the other Generals. However, the existence of the Sa Thon Lon proves otherwise; that there are no moderates in the SPDC, only hardline military men with different tactics but the same overall goals. (The Sa Thon Lon and the overall human rights situation in Nyaunglebin District are described in detail in "Death Squads and Displacement: Systematic Executions, Village Destruction and the Flight of Villagers in Nyaunglebin District", KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99)

For many villagers in the plains of Nyaunglebin District, the Sa Thon Lon is simply the final straw in a long litany of abuse which is making it impossible for them to survive. Many of them have been forcibly relocated several times over the past few years, and there have been new waves of forced relocations into SPDC-controlled sites since the beginning of 1999. Conditions in the relocation sites are bad, nothing is provided and there is little or no access to good water, health care or education. Those who try to farm their fields have to face the movement restrictions imposed by the Sa Thon Lon and regular SPDC troops, and have to fear encountering the Sa Thon Lon at all times. Droughts and floods have destroyed most of the rice crop for two years running, yet even those who manage to get a crop have to pay heavy crop quotas to the SPDC authorities as well as the Army. The quotas have actually increased despite the crop failures, so many villagers have had to buy rice on the market just to hand it over to the authorities, and are surviving on thin rice gruel themselves. Many people have had to sell all of their belongings and go into debt in order to pay these crop quotas and the ever-increasing extortion fees being demanded by all of the SPDC units in the region.

"People who have hill fields must give 12 baskets per acre. Whether our fields yield or not we must give them what they order. They told us, ‘We don’t care if there’s a hole in your bucket, just bring us the water.’" – A woman from Kyauk Kyi township, Nyaunglebin District, talking about SPDC rice quotas imposed on farmers ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 44)

"From each basket they took out a ‘donation’, then they took an extra 5 baskets from my field for the Ma Ah Pa [Township Peace & Development Council] without paying anything, then they took 4 bowls [about 8 kg / 18 lb] for free from each acre of my field, and they also took 25 Kyats out of my money just for themselves. They are just crooks, and I said to them, ‘Ma aye loh, tha ko dway!’ [‘Motherfucker, thief!’] But they didn’t say anything back to me, they were just quiet because they’re satisfied once they’ve got their money from you." – A farmer from Mone township complaining about SPDC corruption when collecting rice quotas ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 46)

Similar burdens are being imposed on villagers in rural areas nationwide, particularly in non-Burman areas close to regions where resistance forces are active. Forced relocation, or the threat of forced relocation, to Army-controlled sites is being used all over Karen districts as a way to bring all villages under direct SPDC control. Many villages are paying bribes in the hundreds of thousands of Kyat to the local military to avert forced relocation orders. In Toungoo District, some villages have tried to avoid forced relocation by making informal agreements with local SPDC Army commanders that they will comply with all Army demands quickly and completely, if only their villages are not burned or forced to move; these villages have now been dubbed ‘Peace Villages’. However, most of them have found that they simply do not have the people or the resources to keep up with all of the SPDC demands for forced labour, food, and money. When they cannot comply the troops once again threaten them with forced relocation, arrest the elders or burn some houses. People in the ‘Peace villages’ and other SPDC-controlled villages in the plains of Nyaunglebin and Toungoo Districts are regularly forced to labour on the roads and as servants at Army camps, and they are also taken as porters by Army patrols heading eastward into the hills to "mop up" the villagers there. (For more information on the situation in Toungoo District see "False Peace: Increasing SPDC Military Repression in Toungoo District of Northern Karen State", KHRG #99-02, 25/3/99.)

"All villagers must sleep in the village at night and must not sleep in any gardens / fields outside the village. … Everyone must ask permission from the village authorities in order to travel to other places such as Toungoo, and must go only when the authorities have registered them and given permission. … The family lists will be checked in all villages, and if someone is not sleeping at home at night when the family lists are checked by the authorities, he will be regarded as one who has contact with insurgents and appropriate action will be taken." – Extract from a typed SPDC order letter issued to some of the ‘Peace’ villages in Toungoo District ("False Peace", page 11)

In the rugged hills of Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts the SPDC has trouble rounding up the villagers for relocation, so in 1997 the regime began a campaign to destroy all villages and food supplies in order to undermine the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The KNLA is still very active, but the villagers are now struggling to survive. Several thousand of them live in hiding in the forests, eating jungle vegetables, trying to grow small amounts of rice and avoiding the SPDC Army patrols which regularly come to hunt out and burn their shelters and food supplies, rip up their crops in the fields, and shoot villagers on sight. The SPDC logic in the remote hills of all Karen districts is that the civilians support the resistance, so to undermine the resistance they are trying to depopulate the area by a combination of forced relocations, village destruction, and starving out or killing the villagers who try to remain near their land. Numbers are difficult to estimate, but there may be 5,000-10,000 villagers in hiding in the hills of Nyaunglebin District, 20,000-30,000 in the hills of Papun District, and 2,000-5,000 in the hills of Toungoo District.

"The day after they were shooting in our village, they went to Kler Kee village. The villagers had already fled when they got there but had left their belongings in their houses. They entered the village and shot the pigs and chickens, then they burned the village. After they burned Kler Kee village, they went to stay at Lah Soe. There are 2 or 3 farms at Lah Soe and they destroyed them all. They pulled out the paddy and stomped on it, they didn’t eat it." – A villager from the hills of Nyaunglebin District describes some of the actions of SPDC columns in his area ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 61)

"The SPDC soldiers ordered the villagers from Bu Sah Kee, Hsaw Wah Der and Klay Soe Kee to move to Kler Lah. Some villagers went to the relocation village but most of them ran to hide themselves and live in the jungle now. Whenever the SPDC soldiers see them in the jungle they capture them and kill them, and they also destroy their paddy fields and gardens when they see them. The SPDC soldiers accuse the villagers who stay in the jungle of helping the KNU, so they burn their paddy and fruit gardens and they also burn down their huts." – Excerpt from the report of a KHRG field reporter in the hills of Toungoo District ("False Peace", page 26)

In Karenni State the situation is at least as desperate. Approximately 200 villages were forced to relocate to Army-controlled sites beginning in 1996, displacing 20,000-30,000 people and wiping out approximately half of the villages in the entire State. Many went to the relocation sites, but many others hid in the forests to try to survive. SPDC patrols have burned and destroyed almost all of the relocated villages since then, and continue to sweep the forests looking for villagers in hiding. At the same time the population has gradually drained out of most of the relocation sites because there is no way to survive there and no services are provided; the villagers have to forage outside the sites for food and eventually flee back into the forests. The crop failures which have hit Burma over the past two years have also hit the Karenni in the relocation sites and the forests, and since January approximately 1,500 new refugees have arrived sick and weak at the refugee camps in Thailand, no longer able to survive either in the relocation sites or in the forests near their home villages. (For more details see "Continuing Fear and Hunger: Update on the Current Situation in Karenni", KHRG #99-05, 25/5/99)

"In Nwa La Bo you can’t do any work to get food. The only way to get food is to sell all your belongings, such as the silver coins our parents gave us, and buy food. Finally, all our belongings were gone." – Karenni villager (age 27) describing why he fled Nwa La Bo relocation site into the forest ("Continuing Fear and Hunger", page 7)

"If the Burmese saw our footprints they followed us, so we had to hide in the bushes. They always followed our footprints to kill us. We never built houses and only prepared our beds to sleep. We could only stay a few nights in each place because when the Burmese came near we had to run to another place. We had to move from place to place so often that we can’t count how many shelters we built each year. If the Burmese saw our place we had to quickly move to another place." – Karenni villager 80 years old, describing the dangers of living in hiding in the forest in Shadaw township ("Continuing Fear and Hunger", page 5)

Further south in Pa’an District of central Karen State, many observers were expecting a major SPDC military offensive this dry season. Many SPDC troops were sent into the Dawna Mountains in the east of the district near the Thai border and there was a lot of localised fighting, but the expected mass offensive never materialised. Despite this, many people in and around the Dawna Mountains had to flee their villages into the forests or to refugee camps in Thailand because the SPDC troops heading into the mountains were taking large numbers of porters; some of the porters were also Burmans and other nationalities who say they were rounded up in towns such as Kawkareik and Myawaddy, or stopped and taken from public transport vehicles on the roads of central Karen State. Portering is especially feared in this area because it has been heavily landmined by all sides in the conflict and SPDC troops regularly force their porters to march in front of the column to set off mines. Farmers in the area are also fleeing because the SPDC and DKBA have ordered everyone living near their fields to move into the main village and have imposed heavy restrictions on their movements, and to enforce this they have shot some farmers on sight in the fields and burned outlying houses and farmfield huts. (See"Uncertainty, Fear and Flight: The Current Human Rights Situation in Eastern Pa’an District", KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98.)

Now that the Karen National Liberation Army operates using guerrilla tactics and no longer attempts to firmly hold territory, the SPDC will probably not have to mount major military offensives any longer and will present the lack of such offensives to the world as ‘peace’. In this situation it is essential that the outside world pay attention to the quieter but much more harmful military offensives which are really going on in the countryside: the widespread forced relocations, the Sa Thon Lon execution squads, the increasing restrictions on villagers, the forced labour and the rape of their villages, all of which are making it impossible for them to survive any longer. These SPDC tactics will never grab international attention in the same way as a major military offensive, but they are much more harmful to the population than any military battle ever could be. Not only are they ongoing and unending, but they are specifically aimed at the civilians rather than the opposition forces. Unfortunately, in the absence of major military battles, the international community is largely ignoring all of the SPDC abuses against the rural population and choosing instead to focus all of their attention on the political grappling between the SPDC and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many articles in the international media and statements by foreign activists and governments even go so far as to proclaim that the SPDC’s most serious human rights abuses are its detentions of NLD members and its efforts to force them to resign. These political manoeuvres may be important to the overall future of Burma, but there are far graver human rights abuses affecting hundreds of thousands of people going on in the countryside. If the international community protested as strongly against executions by the Sa Thon Lon Guerrilla Retaliation force as it does against the detention of NLD members, there is a good chance the execution squads would disappear. The SPDC, after all, wants the world to believe there is ‘peace’ in the countryside.

In the past, when the rains came it meant, if not peace, then at least a respite for the beleaguered villagers. SPDC mobile columns would withdraw to the plains, and troops based locally would stay in their camps. However, this rainy season does not look promising. Over the past several years the SPDC Army has been much more active in the rainy season, in some cases even launching military operations in the rains. There are no more withdrawals, there is no more respite, and therefore there is no chance for the people in the villages, the relocation sites, and in hiding in the forest to let down their fear or their guard even for a moment. The next SPDC patrol may be coming their way.

"The people from the foreign country said the SPDC are coming now. They said they will come and do good things, but they haven’t come to do good things. They have shot and killed the villagers. We don’t understand what they are doing. Will they clear out all the Karen people or not? We don’t see how they are going to clear out all the Karen people. We don’t know what their purpose is for clearing out the Karen people. However, they are still killing and eventually we will all be gone." – A 60 year old Karen man from a hill village in eastern Nyaunglebin District, interviewed while he was living in hiding in the forest ("Death Squads and Displacement", page 80)