Central Karen State: New Refugees Fleeing Forced Relocation, Rape and Use as Human Minesweepers
Since mid-August, new flows of refugees have begun arriving at the Thai border from Karen villages in southeastern Pa’an District, central Karen State. Over 100 families, totalling well over 500 people, have arrived thus far and they say that many more will follow. Those who have arrived so far come from the villages of Pah Klu, Taw Oak, Tee Hsah Ra, Kyaw Ko, Tee Wah Thay, Tee Khoh Taw, Tee Wah Klay, B’Naw Kleh Kee and Ker Ghaw, most of which are within 2-3 days’ walk of the border. They have fled through heavy rains along washed-out and treacherous pathways which can best be compared to mudholes, making it almost impossible to make it over the hills which are on the way [to see the type of conditions they are fleeing through see Photo Set 99-B, photos #P11-P15]. The rains also make it impossible to find shelter along the route or to find materials to build shelter once they arrive anywhere. Because of these factors, villagers usually avoid fleeing at this time of year at all costs, so their flight in itself indicates the desperate situation they must be facing in their villages.
According to Karen National Union (KNU, the main Karen opposition group) sources, troops from as many as 5 different SPDC Light Infantry Divisions have been sent into the area for an operation to run from August to December 1999, intending to subjugate the area with a special focus on clearing landmines by using villagers as human minesweepers. Some villagers who encountered a KHRG volunteer while fleeing said that they were told the SPDC has already issued an order that all villages in the Meh Pleh Hta area are to be cleared out and that all villagers remaining there will be shot on sight. Other villagers interviewed in detail by KHRG say that they have been informed by Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA, a Karen group which works with the SPDC) units in their area that two SPDC Light Infantry Divisions are coming to the area to clear all villages; that all villagers will be forced to move into the centre of their villages and will be guarded there by SPDC troops, and that SPDC patrols will take the villagers and march them in front of the soldiers to set off any landmines. The DKBA reportedly told village elders in Pah Klu that the SPDC troops are coming to kill all of the villagers.
This region is more heavily landmined than any other part of Karen State. Since 1996, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA, armed wing of the KNU) has been laying large numbers of mines to compensate for its disadvantage in numbers of troops, and the SPDC and DKBA have both responded by greatly increasing their own use of landmines. None of these armies properly maps its landmines. Throughout 1998 there were several dozen cases of villagers in the area being killed or maimed by setting off KNLA and SPDC mines and tripwires, particularly when being used as human minesweepers by SPDC troops. [For examples, see "Uncertainty, Fear and Flight: The Current Human Rights Situation in Eastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98)].
Villagers interviewed by KHRG say that increasing numbers of SPDC troops have been arriving in their villages, looting their belongings and taking all of their rice and livestock. SPDC troops have already destroyed all of the villagers’ farmfield huts in the area of B’Naw Kleh Kee village, and this is the middle of the rice-growing season when villagers need to live in their farmfield huts. SPDC Light Infantry Battalions #310 and #102 have occupied the area of Pah Klu and Taw Oak villages, and Light Infantry Battalions #9 and #2 have occupied the area of Ker Ghaw and Kyaw Ko villages. Villagers complain that though they have already paid heavy fees to avoid forced labour as porters, these troops are still rounding them up as porters, and it is usually the porters who are used as human minesweepers. The situation is particularly bad in Pah Klu village, where another group of unidentified SPDC soldiers has also arrived. This group wears short pants and other civilian clothing, and spends most of their time trying to rape the women of the village. They have already raped several women including village elder xxxx, a widow aged over 40. Women who have fled the village say that this group is always trying to call women to come to their camp, and they come into the village at night looking for women. As a result, the women of the village began gathering to sleep in groups at night, and if the soldiers came they would shout and sometimes wave knives at them to scare them away. However, the women say they could no longer dare stay in Pah Klu village under these conditions so they fled with their families.
Villagers from Pah Klu area say that these rapist troops are Burman and that their commander gives them no rations, only alcohol. They take all of their food from the villagers, who refer to this Army group as the "S’Ker Po", or "Short Skirts", apparently a sarcastic reference based on their use of civilian clothes and their attempts to sleep with all the women of the village. From their description, they resemble the Sa Thon Lon execution squads which the SPDC has deployed in Nyaunglebin District, where the villagers call them the "Short Pants" [for detailed information on these squads see "Death Squads and Displacement: Systematic Executions, Village Destruction and the Flight of Villagers in Nyaunglebin District" (KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99)]. Their area of operation is 200 kilometres in a straight line northwest of the Pah Klu area. These execution squads operate in civilian clothing, travelling from village to village often by night and executing anyone suspected of present or past connections to opposition groups. Even before the flight of the latest refugees, there had been several reports that the SPDC planned to bring some Sa Thon Lon execution squads into Pa’an District. KHRG has not found any evidence to confirm these rumours. It is possible that the "S’Ker Po" troops at Pah Klu are a Sa Thon Lon execution squad, but there have not yet been any reports of them carrying out any executions.
The villagers who have already reached the Thai border say that many more are on their way. They report that almost no one is now left in B’Naw Kleh Kee village, and that few people except the monks and their helpers are still left in Pah Klu. If this operation continues through to December, as can be expected, there will be continuing flows of refugees. Thus far the refugees have arrived at two main locations: Tee Ner Hta, which is near the existing refugee camp at Beh Klaw (a.k.a. Mae La); and Law Thay Hta, which is west of the Thai town of Mae Ramat, about 35 kilometres north of Mae Sot. 335 people from 67 families arrived at Law Thay Hta and were visited by representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on August 20th. The Royal Thai Army then forced this group to move to a village not far away called Dta La Oh Klah, where they are now receiving food supplies from international non-governmental organisations. When they were forced to move, their number shrank to 224 people from 57 families; the others either drifted to existing refugee camps, into the illegal labour market, or back across the border. An estimated 50 or more families have arrived further north at Tee Ner Hta, near the refugee camp of Beh Klaw. When they first began arriving, the border here was manned by Thai "Aw Saw" volunteer militia, and the first 30 families have been allowed to proceed to the refugee camp. However, the "Aw Saw" have now been replaced by regular troops of the Royal Thai Army, and since August 24th or 25th these soldiers have refused to allow new arrivals to cross the border, stranding them on the Burmese side of the Moei River. An estimated 20 families are already stranded, with more families arriving each day. These families have no medicines, little or no food, and are in danger of attack or capture by SPDC forces. The Karen Human Rights Group strongly urges the Thai army and authorities to immediately allow these families to cross the border and seek refuge in Thailand, and the international community to take whatever action is appropriate to ensure that this happens.
For more information and photos from the region, see KHRG Photo Set 99-B (August 1999) and KHRG Photo Set 99-A (March 1999) under ‘Pa’an District’,"Uncertainty, Fear and Flight: The Current Human Rights Situation in Eastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98), "SPDC Orders to Villages: Set 99-B" (KHRG #99-03, 19/4/99), and "SPDC Orders to Villages: Set 99-A" (KHRG #99-01, 10/2/99). Further details on the current situation in the region and