COMMENTARY

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COMMENTARY

Published date:
Thursday, September 16, 1999

9-9-99 is now behind us, and it failed to produce the nationwide uprising in Burma which some people had hoped for. This does not mean that ordinary people in Burma are coming to accept the rule of the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) military junta, it only means that the regime has been very successful ingraining people with a pathological fear of doing or saying anything, and in creating economic conditions where people have to focus every ounce of their energy simply on surviving from day to day. In this sense, the systematic creation of intense poverty has worked in the regime’s favour. It could prove to be a double-edged sword, and the SPDC would be foolish to sit back on its successful suppression of the 9-9-99 movement. The emotions brought to the surface during this movement may take time to ferment in ordinary people, but they may still come out into the open on a day with no numerical significance, when no one expects it. Just before September 9th, one Burma-based diplomat was quoted in the media saying, "You can’t plan an uprising". That is true, but you also can’t predict one.

"If the KNLA shoot at them, they torture the villagers. It seems very strange to me. When the KNLA shoot at them, they come to torture the villagers by beating them, forcing them to drink water [pouring gallons of water down their throats while holding their noses closed], and taking things from them. So we villagers told the KNLA soldiers that if the Burmese are near our village please don’t shoot at them. After that, when the KNLA shot at them near H--- village, they told the villagers that if the KNLA shot at them like that again they would throw 3 villagers into the river. When we heard about this we were very frightened." – Karen woman from Thaton District describing how the SPDC troops attack the villagers instead of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #10)

9-9-99 is now behind us, and it failed to produce the nationwide uprising in Burma which some people had hoped for. This does not mean that ordinary people in Burma are coming to accept the rule of the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) military junta, it only means that the regime has been very successful ingraining people with a pathological fear of doing or saying anything, and in creating economic conditions where people have to focus every ounce of their energy simply on surviving from day to day. In this sense, the systematic creation of intense poverty has worked in the regime’s favour. It could prove to be a double-edged sword, and the SPDC would be foolish to sit back on its successful suppression of the 9-9-99 movement. The emotions brought to the surface during this movement may take time to ferment in ordinary people, but they may still come out into the open on a day with no numerical significance, when no one expects it. Just before September 9th, one Burma-based diplomat was quoted in the media saying, "You can’t plan an uprising". That is true, but you also can’t predict one.

From 1988 to 1992, the most common word in the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta’s rhetoric was ‘crush’ – Crush all Destructive Elements, Crush All Those Seeking the Disintegration of the Union – and this was backed up by constant military offensives against non-Burman ethnic peoples and pro-democracy groups. From mid-1992 until 1994, the rhetoric changed as the SLORC began courting the favour of the international community by signing several ceasefire deals and talking about ‘peace’, ‘development’, ‘open market economics’ and ‘proceeding towards multi-party democracy’. The international community, always eager for trade with resource-rich and cheap-labour countries, began to respond warmly, even though the human rights situation on the ground continued to worsen. There were still local offensives and the SLORC was using its troops to conduct more and more forced relocations; forced labour and all abuses increased as the fighting diminished. The human rights movement warned governments not to trust the rhetoric, but were gradually losing ground to the prospect of trade. Then the rhetoric promptly disappeared in 1994 when the SLORC mounted new mass military offensives. Almost overnight Daw Aung San Suu Kyi changed from being SLORC Secretary-1 Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt’s ‘sister’ into a ‘snake in the grass’ and an ‘axehandle of the imperialists’, and the rhetoric was once more ‘Crush All Those Holding Negative Views’.

Since then ‘crush’ has remained in vogue, but now that 8-8-98, 9-9-99, and the need for mass military offensives are past, we may be in for a repeat of the 1992-94 period. Since changing its name to the SPDC, the junta has gradually been going back towards its 1992-94 rhetoric. Once again the regime speaks of ‘peace’, ‘development’ and ‘democracy’, even while it steadily worsens its repression on the ground. Now that there is not much territory under the complete control of ethnic resistance groups, the regime does not need to mount embarrassing mass military offensives. Instead, it is using its troops to consolidate its control over the civilian population through forced labour, mass relocations, systematic extortion and impoverishment of the rural villagers, which do not generate as much international attention as military battles. Secretary-1 Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt controls both the dreaded Military Intelligence and the Guerrilla Retaliation execution squads which are beheading villagers in Nyaunglebin District, but he is also having coffee with diplomats and being written up internationally as a ‘moderate’. The gradual change in rhetoric is once again beginning to be successful.

"[T]hey ask questions and they touch us with their guns. They force us to search for the KNU. They’ve come to a KNU place and there are KNU around, but they torture us instead. We always have to flee. When they came to our village they shot dead one of my cows and stole another. They always come and steal the villagers’ animals. They come and demand rice from the villagers, and the villagers have to give it to them." – Karen man from Thaton District ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #13)

Though the rhetoric is changing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are still ‘snakes in the grass’ and ‘axehandles’. The junta gets away with this because foreign corporations, pro-trade politicians and some of the business media are saying similar things, though in more subtle terms. A few years ago most Western politicians, governments and companies would never have dared call the NLD or its leaders ‘stubborn’, ‘out of touch’ or an ‘obstacle’, but now they say it openly and even with an air of self-righteousness. Why is this, has the situation changed? No, but the SPDC has managed to hold on to power despite the crumbling economy, the repeated crop failures, rampant inflation, the 1996 demonstrations and other crises, and foreign countries are increasingly impatient to trade.

Over the last few years many foreign governments have become more outspoken and active in their condemnation of the human rights situation in Burma, but this may be starting to change. Now that the SPDC has survived both 8-8-98 and 9-9-99, some governments may see this as an indication that the regime is in complete control and will remain so for the long term, and the next one to two years could see very significant movement by these governments toward working with the SPDC and away from criticising it. Already the Australian government, once one of the most outspoken critics of SLORC’s human rights abuses in Burma, is beginning to speak of the SPDC as the group most suited to protect human rights in Burma. In the U.S., the lobby to resume anti-drug aid to the SPDC is steadily getting stronger, while corporations are grouping together, using the courts and the business media to press harder and harder for lifting of the economic sanctions.

For those working for human rights and democracy in Burma, the next one to two years will probably become an increasingly uphill battle. Arguing solely on the basis of the legitimacy of the NLD, their 1990 electoral victory, the harrassment of their members or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize will not be, nor has it ever been, sufficient. It is now more important than ever before to present the case of the ordinary villagers of Burma, to increase international awareness of the suffering being inflicted on millions of people by the SPDC military. Those who want to engage the SPDC may be able to get away with calling the NLD ‘stubborn’ for not surrendering to the military, but it would be much harder for them to argue that mass forced labour or the systematic destruction of villages and crops are acceptable behaviour from a business or trading partner. More effort needs to be devoted toward increasing international grassroots awareness of the abuses being committed against ordinary villagers and townspeople in Burma, not just those being committed against Burma’s politicians.

"Then in the evening they entered the village and they didn’t say anything, they just started to shoot their guns. … Eight villagers were wounded, and six villagers died. The Burmese shot and hit my younger sister first. She is 17 years old, and at the time she was under the house. Her name is A---, she was pregnant. Later when we were taking her and reached M---pagoda, she delivered her baby. The bullet hit her shoulder and came out through the other side. After she fell down, the Burmese fired into the house, TA! TA! TA! TA!! When they fired, one of my daughters was hit in her head and she died in our house. She was sleeping in the house, and the bullet went through her head. I stayed near her and kept her younger siblings near her. As for me, one shot hit my shoulder and another grazed my head. Most of those who got wounded under my house were children, because they were playing under the house and the Burmese fired there a lot." – Karen woman from Thaton District describing a massacre by SPDC troops in March 1999 in which her brother and daughter were killed ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #3)

The latest report issued by the Karen Human Rights Group, "Caught in the Middle: The Suffering of Karen Villagers in Thaton District" (KHRG #99-07, 15/9/99) gives some idea of the extent of those abuses. There is Karen guerrilla activity in large parts of the region, but rather than mount military operations to fight the Karen resistance, the SPDC military tries to consolidate its control by regularly detaining villagers and village elders and brutally torturing them, committing arbitrary killings of villagers, stripping them of all their money and belongings and constantly using them for forced labour, all with the purpose of preventing them from being able to support any resistance. Even village-supported primary schools have been ordered to shut down since the beginning of this year by SPDC Army units in Thaton District. The villagers build, support and teach in these schools themselves, but the SPDC refuses to tolerate even a primary school which it does not directly control. The overall results are that the Karen resistance continues, while the villagers are living in fear and near starvation and many of them have fled their villages to other areas or to live in hiding in the forest. On September 5th, a Karen National Liberation Army unit blew up and temporarily disabled a small SPDC gas pipeline in the area, and this will only result in further reprisals against the villagers. However, this region is not accessible to foreign visitors to Burma, and as these operations do not involve a major military offensive it is very unlikely that the suffering of these villagers will get much attention internationally.

"They tied me up and hurt me. They beat me with a stick and punched me. My teeth still hurt now because of their punches. The Commander in charge of the troops, the Battalion Commander, was drinking alcohol while he was beating me. … I can’t count all the times that they punched me. They beat me with a stick. They tied me up and beat me on my head and my legs. They said I am Nga Pway [‘ringworm’, derogatory SPDC slang for KNU/KNLA]. I said I am not Nga Pway. They tied my legs, hands and neck. At night they tied my hands behind my back, beat and punched me, and then held me down in the river until I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, all the water came out of my nose. They asked me, ‘Do you have a gun?’ I said I didn’t have a gun, I am a villager and I have nothing, and I always went as a porter when asked." – Karen man from Thaton District ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #14)

"[T]hey force us to go for ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labour] building the motor road and their camp, digging trenches and fencing their camp. They also force us to go portering. Right now they’ve demanded 6 people. They got 5 people, and they collected money for the one they didn’t get." – Karen man from Thaton District ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #6)

The systematic nature of the repression of villagers can also be seen in the SPDC’s own words by reading the written orders which they constantly send to village elders demanding forced labourers, money and materials, and threatening the elders and their villages with severe punishments for any failure to comply. Thus far KHRG has published three sets of these documents since the beginning of 1999, totalling over 300 order documents. The most recent set, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C" (KHRG #99-06, 4/8/99), contains translations of 104 orders sent by SPDC and DKBA military units to villages in several parts of Karen State and an area of Mon State. One of the most striking things about such orders is the consistency of their language, whether they come from the southern tip of Burma or Chin State in the country’s northwest. This in itself gives some idea of the systematic nature of the persecution of villagers of all ethnicities throughout the country as a whole.

"From your village, children, men and all the villagers are absolutely (absolutely) not allowed out of the village on September 27 / 28 / 29, Thadin Kyut Hla Zan 7 / 8 / 9 [the corresponding Burmese calendar dates]. Don’t go at all for looking after your cattle, buffalos, farm affairs or picking vegetables. Inform the village that they will be shot and arrested if the Columns find out [that they have left the village]." – Written order sent to a village in Thaton District by the SPDC Army in September 1998 ("SPDC Orders to Villages: Set 99-B", Order #T1)

"For the digging of canals in Kyaik Mayaw Township in 1999-2000, to hire machines for digging, the ward / village must collect money according to their allotment and send it to the Township Peace & Development Council by the deadline of 27-4-99. If you cannot contribute the money, all wards / villages will start to dig on 30-4-99 the length for which you are responsible, you are hereby informed." – Written order sent to villages in Mon State by the SPDC Army in April 1999 ("SPDC & DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C", Order #2)

"As soon as you receive this letter, come quickly and bring 4 operations servants [frontline porters] to the Column. Why must we call many times? What is it? Find the answer. I won’t write next time." – Written order sent to a Karen village by an SPDC Intelligence officer in May 1999 ("SPDC & DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C", Order #15)

"From xxxx village, send 1 servant with food for 3 days on 20-5-99 to #xxx LIB, and send 1 volunteer from each family for the Nabu – Daw Lan road construction with panniers, mattocks and crowbars [‘dtan ta ywin’] on 20-5-99. Do not fail, you are hereby informed. If you fail, the responsibility will be yours." – SPDC written order sent to a Karen village in Pa’an District in May 1999 ("SPDC & DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C", Order #16)

"Come quickly and replace the following servants from Mothers’ villages … If the servants run away because you haven’t come and replaced them, we will shoot and catch them, so come quickly and replace them, you are hereby informed." – SPDC Army written order sent to a Karen village in May 1999 ("SPDC & DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C", Order #20)

Refugees continue to arrive at the Thai border fleeing these abuses once they can no longer survive in their villages or home areas. Many of those who have arrived most recently have come from southeastern Pa’an District, near the Thai border in central Karen State. In the past, very few new refugees have arrived in Thailand in monsoon season because SPDC troops tend to be less active and flight with children and belongings along the washed-out muddy and steep paths in the heavy rain is almost impossible. However, these people have been showing up at the Thai border during one of the wettest rainy seasons in recent times, an indication that SPDC troops are now very active in the monsoon season and also of how desperate the situation of these villagers must have become. Those interviewed so far by KHRG say they are fleeing because the SPDC military has announced that it will clear out all villages in their region by December and shoot anyone who remains. They say that already more troops are arriving, looting their villages and raping women in some villages. They also fear being taken as porters by the SPDC troops, particularly because this region is heavily landmined by the SPDC, the DKBA and the KNLA and the SPDC marches villagers in front of their columns as human minesweepers. (See KHRG Information Update #99-U3, "Central Karen State: New Refugees Fleeing Forced Relocation, Rape and Use as Human Minesweepers", August 27, 1999)

There are also increasing reports and rumours that the ‘Short Pants’ soldiers may have begun to arrive in Pa’an District, and possibly in Thaton District as well. The ‘Short Pants’ are the SPDC’s hand-picked ‘Guerrilla Retaliation’ execution squads which first appeared in Nyaunglebin District in September 1998 and began systematically executing all villagers who were suspected of even the slightest possible contact with Karen forces, even if that contact happened years ago. They have already brutally executed dozens of villagers in Nyaunglebin District, often cutting their throats and beheading them as a warning to other villagers, and hundreds have fled eastward into the hills in fear of them. (For more details see "Death Squads and Displacement: Systematic Executions, Village Destruction and the Flight of Villagers in Nyaunglebin District", KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99.) Thus far there are no reports of them conducting executions in Pa’an or Thaton Districts, but there have always been fears that they would be employed in more Karen areas and it is a situation which bears close watching.

"The DKBA also come, and the Short Pants group comes as well. The Short Pants group is very strong. … My cousin was returning from town when she met them. They told her, ‘You are a very beautiful woman’. She said ‘I am beautiful because I am Karen’. Then they tried to grab her, and my cousin ran away. They followed her to her house, and then they said to her, ‘You should join the Kaw Thoo Lei’ [said sarcastically as a threat to accuse her]. Then they called her parents down, slapped her mother’s face once and punched her father’s face once." – Karen man from Thaton District ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #1)

These and many other systematic abuses are occurring right now in many different regions throughout the country but getting very little attention, and this is helping the SPDC to continue its courting of the international community. One issue which the SPDC is using in an attempt to gain international legitimacy and support is its supposed fight against the drug trade, though all available evidence points to the regime’s complicity in many aspects of this trade. Up until now, most of the debate over this issue has focussed on the main drug producing areas, primarily Shan State and parts of Kachin and Karenni (Kayah) States. Karen State has never been a significant source of any kind of narcotics. However, there have now been several unconfirmed reports coming from Karen National Union (KNU), Thai and other sources that the SPDC has brought some representatives of the Kokang and Wa, two of the major narcotics-producing groups, to the Myawaddy area of Karen State and is introducing them to the local Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), possibly with the aim of setting up amphetamines factories to be operated by members of the DKBA. The DKBA is always seeking ways to make money, and if they begin producing amphetamines and selling them across the border into Thailand it will be easy for the SPDC to lay the blame on the Karen National Union and to begin painting the Karen people in general as drug traffickers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency and the United Nations International Drug Control Programme would most likely play along, because it would help them to obtain larger budgets to operate in Burma. Not only would such an operation help the SPDC to obtain international legitimacy and anti-drug aid money by claiming that all opposition groups are drug traffickers, but it would also make it easier for Thai forces to block new refugees from entering Thailand or to forcibly repatriate existing refugees, simply by claiming that they are amphetamine traders.

Though the drug issue is beyond the scope of KHRG’s work in human rights, we raise the issue of these unconfirmed reports here because if they are true the repercussions will definitely affect the human rights of villagers throughout Karen State, just as the proliferation of the narcotics trade has already had such a devastating effect on the human rights of the millions of villagers in Shan State who do not grow opium. All of these issues are intertwined, and over the next few years economic, trade and narcotics issues are all likely to have strong effects on the human rights of villagers throughout the country. The villagers, who in most cases simply wish they could be left alone to farm their ricefields, are caught in the middle and their human rights are being attacked from all directions. It is essential that their voice begin to be heard internationally, before they are swamped by all of the forces arrayed against them.

All of the reports mentioned above as well as KHRG Photo Set 99-B, which contains recent photos from some of these regions, can be found on this web site).

"We worked in our ricefield and we planted sugar cane, but we could not eat because of all their demands. The government also demands ‘obligation’ rice. We only had a small rice field, and they demanded 6 baskets of paddy from my mother. The paddy all died, but we had to give this to them anyway. … We didn’t have a single grain of paddy to eat, it had all died. But we had to give them paddy regardless. … All the villagers who have a field have to pay. We have to give whatever they ask. If you don’t pay it, you can’t stay there. They will drive you out of the village." – Karen woman from Thaton district ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #7)

"There are children, old people, and many villagers living in the jungle. They have already been staying there for over 4 years. … They tortured the villagers until the villagers could not suffer it any more, so they fled and are staying in the jungle until now. The villagers are staying in the jungle very poorly. They are sick but they can’t get medicine." – Written report by KHRG field researcher ("Caught in the Middle", Field Report #FR8)

"My mother and father are dead, and now my brother is also dead. I have only one younger sister. The Burmese shot to kill. Now my relatives are almost all gone. If they do this for much longer, all of my relatives will be gone. They’ve done this to us, and still they accuse us that we are ‘Tha Bone’ [‘rebels’]. Even while we were going to get treatment in hospital, they were still accusing us of being ‘Tha Bone’." – Karen woman from Thaton district who lost her brother and daughter and was wounded herself when SPDC troops massacred 6 people in her village in March 1999 ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #3)

"They just want the villagers to suffer. They think that if they treat us like that then we won’t be able to do anything against them." – Karen man from Thaton District ("Caught in the Middle", Interview #12)

"The above mentioned village, send without fail 10 men tomorrow at 0600 hours NOW to repair xxxx camp." – Text of an SPDC Army written order sent to a village in Thaton District ("SPDC Orders to Villages: Set 99-B", Order #T3)