Central Karen State: Villagers Fleeing Forced Relocation and Other Abuses Forced Back by Thai Troops
Over the past four months, villagers from southeastern Pa’an District in Karen State have been steadily arriving at areas along the Thai border 35-60 km north of the Thai town of Mae Sot. They have risked treacherous travelling conditions during the rainy season to make the journey, camping in makeshift shelters along the way with little food or clothing. Testimonies collected from recent refugees indicate that the SPDC is intensifying its operation from August-December 1999 to clear all villages in the southeastern corner of Pa’an District in order to undermine Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) activities in the region. (See KHRG Information Update #99-U3 from August 27, 1999.) Villagers who arrived on the Thai border just before 9-9-99 informed KHRG that the SPDC Army has issued several forced relocation orders for villages in T’Nay Hsah (Nabu) Township. Light Infantry Battalion #102, under Company Commander Saw Htun Aung and Battalion Commander Than Aung, has ordered the villages of Kwih Lay, Pah Klu, and Taw Oak to move to Ker Ghaw, the site of a Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA, a Karen group which works with the SPDC) camp. Similarly, the villages Saw Ko, Thay K’Dtee, and Taw Thu Kee have been ordered to relocate to Tee Wah Blaw.
According to the villagers severe human rights abuses are being committed by SPDC forces against villagers throughout the region. According to a villager from Kwih Lay, SPDC soldiers conscripted the villagers for forced labour. When SPDC forces arrived in Kwih Lay the soldiers commissioned both men and women for forced labour, and even children under 10 were ordered to fetch water for the troops. While serving as a porter from Kwih Lay to Pah Klu, the villager also witnessed rapes conducted by the soldiers, including the rape of one mother of two who is mentally handicapped in Pah Klu. The villager reported that when her husband, Saw Duh Lay Loh, grew angry and threatened the rapists with revenge, the soldiers took him outside the village and killed him. The SPDC troops have told the villagers that they will be forced to walk in front of their columns in order to clear landmines, which are laid heavily throughout the area by all sides to the conflict. In the past year the SPDC Army has used villagers as human minesweepers in this region of Pa’an District, killing and maiming dozens of people. [For further information about landmines, see "Uncertainty, Fear and Flight: The Current Human Rights Situation in Eastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98)] This and other testimonies collected by KHRG indicate that the SPDC is inflicting a terror campaign that includes torture and forced labour while they systematically destroy the villages.
Villagers from the area around T’Nay Hsah (Nabu) report that SPDC troops have come into their villages, occupied their houses, looted their belongings and livestock, then burned the farmfield huts, leaving them homeless. The Army then informed the villagers that they must continue working in their fields, and that once they finish harvesting the rice (in December) they will be expected to deliver all baskets to the soldiers. If they wish to get their own rice back, they will have to buy it back from the Army for 250 Kyat per basket. By confiscating most of the rice for the army’s own use, there will be little left over for the villagers’ consumption. This situation is particularly desperate because the villagers have virtually no money, and their gardens and livestock have already been confiscated by the Army with the occupation of their villages.
Many villagers, informed in advance that the Army is planning a relocation of their village, have chosen to flee to the Thai border rather than face months of forced labour. They are grouped in primarily two locations, one in Tee Ner Hta across the Moei River from Beh Klaw (Mae La) refugee camp, and the other near Law Thay Hta, about 35 km north of Mae Sot and west of Mae Ramat. Both sites are located in Karen State on the west bank of the Moei River, which forms the border with Thailand. Over 70 families who arrived to Tee Ner Hta last month have since scattered. Thirty-seven families from five villages including Pah Klu, B’Naw Kleh Kee, Htee Wah Klay, Htee Law Thay, and Day Law Pya were admitted to Beh Klaw refugee camp last month but the other families who tried to cross later reported to KHRG that the Royal Thai Army denied them entry. They had no option but to remain at Tee Ner Hta. The SPDC forces soon discovered their location, and later heavily shelled their temporary camp, at which point they scattered in different directions in the jungle. Some of them managed to join those presently at Law Thay Hta, though the whereabouts of the majority are still unknown. There are additional reports that more than 80 families have managed to enter Thailand and are currently seeking admission to Beh Klaw refugee camp, though their future remains uncertain.
Currently 61 families (244 people) are clustered at Law Thay Hta, some having arrived as recently as 2 weeks ago, though most arrived between one and four months ago. The majority of these families are from villages in the area around T’Nay Hsah and Myawaddy townships. With their food supply rapidly dwindling or already depleted, the villagers decided to cross in late August/early September to the Thai Karen village of Dta La Oh Klah to work as hired farm labour with the intent to buy rice. In early September they set up a temporary camp near Dta La Oh Klah, but remained there only 5-6 days before the Royal Thai Army discovered their location and forced them to cross the border again, on the grounds that their "camp" was illegitimate. In the move back to the Karen side, at least six families disappeared into the Thai illegal labour market or attempted the dangerous journey back to their villages. In the days leading up to 9-9-99, the SPDC forces patrolled the border area near Law Thay Hta, and the villagers once again fled to safety in Thailand. That time they dispersed in the area around Dta La Oh Klah, taking day labour jobs and staying in surrounding villages. Again the Thai Army discovered them and forced them back to the Karen side once the danger of attack by SPDC forces had passed. Soon after this, the SPDC Army and KNLA engaged in fighting north of the villagers’ location. Warned by the KNLA of an imminent SPDC attack, the villagers again crossed to Thailand on September 25th, returning to the Karen side on September 28th when KNLA soldiers convinced them they were in danger of re-discovery by Thai authorities, and because the imminent threat of attack by SPDC forces was over. In interviews with KHRG, all of the villagers expressed a desire to enter Beh Klaw refugee camp, but insisted that the Thai Army had denied them access to the camp and forced them to re-cross the border twice. From the villagers’ point of view, they have little option at this point but to continue their present situation of waiting on the Karen side of the border until Thai authorities allow them entry to refugee camps. In statements to NGOs and the UNHCR the Thai Army has denied blocking access to the refugee camp to any new arrivals, but this contradicts the testimonies of many of the villagers themselves. The Karen Human Rights Group again urges the Thai army and authorities to consider the desperate situation of these refugees, to reverse their current practice of blocking the families from entering Thailand, and finally to allow them to seek refuge in camps within its borders.
For more information and photos from the region, see KHRG Information Update #99-U3 (August 27, 1999), 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). All of these are available in full on this web site. Further details on the current situation in the region and interviews with some of the affected villagers will be presented in a future KHRG report.