COMMENTARY

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COMMENTARY

Published date:
Tuesday, December 21, 1999

There are now only a few days left in the current millennium, which leads one to think both of the future, of all the hope which it may or may not hold, and of the past, of how much the world has changed in a short thousand years - for that matter, the incredible pace of change just within the past century. From horses to the traffic in Asia’s megacities, from flightless to frequent flyer programs, from the abacus to the computer. Whether these things really reflect progress or not is open to debate (particularly each time your computer crashes), but the fact remains that for many people it is difficult to even imagine living the different pace and style of life of a century ago.

"He said, ‘A’Mo pay! A’Mo leh saun!’ [literally: ‘Mother, give! Mother, a present!’] I asked him, ‘What kind of present?’, and he came near to me so I was afraid. He said ‘A’Mo pay! Pay!’ and I said, ‘Give what?’, and I moved away from him little by little because I was afraid. I told him, ‘Go back. It is dark, go back.’ And I moved away from him. I spoke to him in Karen, but he spoke to me in Burmese. After I asked him to go back he went back. … As for me they couldn’t rape me, but they did it a lot to my friends and my nieces, so I couldn’t stay anymore. I was afraid and sometimes our hearts become cold and sometimes hot [angry], and we couldn’t sleep until morning. In the night my heart and hands became cold with fear of them. My husband was not sleeping beside me." - Woman aged 42 who fled her village in Pa’an District in August 1999 ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #21)

There are now only a few days left in the current millennium, which leads one to think both of the future, of all the hope which it may or may not hold, and of the past, of how much the world has changed in a short thousand years - for that matter, the incredible pace of change just within the past century. From horses to the traffic in Asia’s megacities, from flightless to frequent flyer programs, from the abacus to the computer. Whether these things really reflect progress or not is open to debate (particularly each time your computer crashes), but the fact remains that for many people it is difficult to even imagine living the different pace and style of life of a century ago.

Of course, these changes have affected people in some parts of the world much more than in others. Very few people in Burma have ever flown on a plane, owned a car, or touched a computer. One recent media article even commented that Burma will likely be one of the countries least affected by the Y2K problem, simply because there is so little computer-based technology there. For the 85% or more of Burma’s population who live in farming villages, the crop cycles, the family networks and the lifestyle of a century ago would appear much the same as today - if the SPDC military junta would leave them alone to live their lives in peace. Change comes slowly to Burma, and this can be a good thing if a country is at peace - but when the majority of the people are suffering and change comes too slowly in politics or human rights, the effects can be devastating. The uprisings of 1988 are now 12 years behind us, Ne Win’s dictatorship began 38 years ago, the Karen Revolution is finishing its 51st year. How many more years before concepts like human rights and democracy finally change the face of Burma so that villagers can simply live in peace?

"I could support my family if we didn’t need to fear them, and if they didn’t disturb us. But in this messy situation, I had no time to work." - Man aged 29 from T’Nay Hsah township, Pa’an District ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #24)

Few villagers in Burma have much opportunity to ponder the millennium when survival becomes more of a struggle each year, when they face never-ending demands for forced labour, most of their crops, and all of their money from soldiers in various different uniforms. KHRG reports throughout 1999 have shown the suffering and brutality which villagers are still up against, and sadly there is no sign that the flip of the calendar to the new year is going to change any of that. Instead, we are only seeing steadily increasing repression in all districts. The latest area where villagers have begun to flee their villages en masse is southeastern Pa’an District, in central Karen State near the Thai border. The situation in this region is documented in detail in our most recent report "Beyond All Endurance: The Breakup of Karen Villages in Southeastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #99-08, 20/12/99).   [Please note: this report is already available in print form and will appear on our website very shortly.]

"They confiscated our fields but forced us to work on those fields for them. They only sat around and ordered us while we ploughed, sowed, and transplanted. When we finished the harvest they took all the paddy. They didn’t give us anything even when we reaped, gathered, winnowed and put the paddy in the [milling] machine. We had to go and sell things like oil, onions, and beans on the other side of the mountain. We bought rice from them [SPDC soldiers] with the profit, but they sold us old rice that smelled bad." - Pwo Karen woman from Kawkareik township ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #42)

"For each month our village had to give 14,000 Kyat for each of 2 people [to not send 2 porters], so we gave them 70,000 Kyat in 3 months. He took the money from every village. Our village is only small, he demanded more from the bigger villages. From Ker Ghaw he collected for 6 people [porters] at 12,000 Kyat each, 6 people from Tee Wah Blaw, six from Tee Law Thay and six from Sghaw Ko tract, all at 12,000 each. He just took money, not people [he didn’t want the porters]. There are other village tracts too, like Pah Klu tract, Loh Baw, Meh Pleh Wah and so on as far as Tee Wah Klay and Day Law Pya. He also beat people, and a lot of villagers from our village ran away. … Sometimes he demanded 10 people or 30 people from each village, took the money for that all for himself and then still called for ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labour]. He demanded people as well as money. Sometimes when they were going to patrol to Meh Pleh and come back he took more than 10 villagers from our village." - Woman aged 47 from T’Nay Hsah township describing how an SPDC commander extorts 316,000 Kyat per month in ‘porter fees’ alone for himself from the 5 villages surrounding hers ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #2)

For a few years now, the SPDC has been trying to gain full control over the region of the Dawna Mountains, a steep chain running north-south parallel to the Thai border through Pa’an and Dooplaya districts. Last year they destroyed villages and drove out villagers in the part of the Dawna which lies in northeastern and central eastern Pa’an District. This year they are focusing slightly further south, on T’Nay Hsah township north of the border town of Myawaddy. Villagers there began fleeing their villages in mid-1999, saying that SPDC and DKBA troops in the region were demanding unprecedented amounts of forced labour, particularly as porters, and so much in cash fees that almost no one had money to pay anymore. Anyone who could not pay was forced to do even more forced labour, which no one dares to do any more because of the intense fear of a relatively new menace in the area - landmines.

Since 1995-96, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has relied increasingly on the use of landmines to make up for its disadvantage in troop numbers and shortage of ammunition. The KNLA has become expert at making cheap landmines out of readily available raw materials, and has been laying these all over the Dawna range to protect supply lines and staging areas as well as to kill and maim SPDC troops, thereby demoralising them and making them afraid to leave their base camps. The KNLA mining campaign has been quite successful in its aims, but the SPDC has responded by laying landmines everywhere themselves. The SPDC mainly uses their own ‘MM1’ and ‘MM2’ mines, manufactured in Burma in factories set up for them by the Chinese government. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), never wanting to be left behind, has also begun the indiscriminate laying of landmines.

The result is a nightmare for the villagers who are trying to scrape out survival by working their ricefields. The KNLA tells village heads which pathways they have mined but not exactly where the mines are, and regardless of this many villagers are maimed or killed by KNLA mines. The SPDC and DKBA give no notification whatsoever, and to make things worse they often deliberately mine pathways to ricefields and around villages to deter villagers from producing food which they believe may be used to feed the KNLA. None of the armies map their mines. The SPDC and DKBA are increasingly resorting to using villagers who are doing forced labour as porters to clear mines by forcing them to march in front of the soldiers. In many cases they even round up villagers specifically to force them to march in front of the columns to detonate any landmines. They often demand women for this work.

"I portered for them [SPDC troops] when they patrolled the area between Pah Klu and Ker Ghaw. They guarded us from behind and forced us to go in front of them and walk among the landmines. Four of us had to go in front of them and all of us were villagers. If the landmines were there, they would have liked us to die by them. We were afraid to go because we could not see where the landmines were buried underground. If I went and stepped on a landmine and my leg was blown off, how could I earn my living? My family would be broken-hearted, but I wouldn’t dare to hang myself, even though it would break my heart." - Sgaw Karen man from T’Nay Hsah township ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #34)

Those who are maimed or killed by landmines while doing forced labour are either left to die, or sent to hospital but given little or no money for their expenses. In most hospitals in Burma the patient must pay all the bills day by day, and is ejected as soon as s/he runs out of money, even if not yet healed. KHRG has interviewed several landmine victims who had this happen to them. For villagers who step on mines around their villages or while going to and from their fields there is even less hope. There are usually no medics or medicines in their villages, and most die before other villagers can get them to medical help. Villagers have also lost many of their cattle to landmines.

"Many villagers’ legs have been blown off from stepping on landmines. I foraged for food until I dared not forage any more. The last time I went foraging with other villagers, a girl’s legs were blown off by a landmine and two of her sisters were hurt. They are over 20 years old and married. One did not lose her leg, but the other did. Two of my grandchildren also lost their legs. About 12 villagers from Ker Ghaw have been injured, and 3 have died. Kyaw Per died, he was about 50 years old. Also Lin Noh, who was about 30 years old, died this year. The villagers don’t know if it is the Burmese or the KNLA who plants the landmines. We don’t follow them so we don’t know. One of the villagers was shooting squirrels near his house and stepped on a landmine. Now no one dares to go on the upper side of the pagoda. They plant them near the village, by the pagoda and monastery, where the villagers go to take care of their cattle. When I went to find bamboo shoots there, one cow stepped on a mine. Boom!! It blew its front leg off, and it died." - Man aged 60 from southeastern Pa’an District ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #37)

Villagers from eastern Pa’an District speaking to KHRG now speak of landmines more than almost any other single topic, which was not the case 2 or 3 years ago and is still not the case in most other regions. Landmines are becoming a central issue in their lives, one which has been sufficient to make many of them finally give up and flee their villages. Others are fleeing the increase in many kinds of forced labour, the inability to pay extortion fees any longer, and in some villages (particularly the village of Pah Klu in T’Nay Hsah township) the constant attempts by SPDC soldiers and officers to rape women. For the remainder, the SPDC has added another final straw to make them flee - since August they were notified that all hill villages in southeastern Pa’an District would be forced to Army-controlled sites by the end of 1999, and that anyone still remaining in the villages would be shot on sight. The villages are now emptying out as villagers flee into the forests rather than face forced relocation and Army control.

"I couldn’t stay near my place because they are going to stir up our place. I heard them say that they are going to drive all the villagers out to the same place. They didn’t tell us where or when they will drive us out, but they said that they would. They will gather and force out all of the villagers that are living around Meh Pleh Toh. They will block every path that passes or goes through Meh Pleh Toh until nothing can move, even food and other things. I heard that they will make trouble for people who stay in the mountains, that especially if they see men they will kill them at once. Our village head alerted us. If they see them, they will shoot dead all villagers as far as they can see." - Man aged 29 who fled his village in T’Nay Hsah township in August 1999 ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #24)

"…the villages like Thay Wah Pu and Wah Klu Pu and others are all going to be forced down to the lower places, maybe to Ko Ko. Then they will send their Army to that place so there will be one Army unit to guard every village. … we heard it from the Ko Per Baw secretly. They said that 2 Divisions of Burmese Army troops will come here. A unit of troops will guard each village. All the villages: Toh Thu Kee, Thay K’Dtee, Loh Baw, Pah Klu, Tee Wah Klay, and Wah Klu Pu they will move to a place near Ko Ko, but we don’t know where exactly because they did not tell us where. Then they will guard us." - Man aged 60 from T’Nay Hsah township ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #20)

The exodus took on large proportions beginning in August, involving several thousand villagers. Most fled to their farmfield huts or into nearby forests, hoping to survive by holding out until the November harvest. Some found they could not last that long because there were too many SPDC and DKBA patrols always on the lookout for porters and villagers in hiding, so they fled further into the hills or toward the Thai border. One villager from T’Nay Hsah township told KHRG that when the people of his village were finally harvesting in early November, an SPDC Column arrived in their fields and they had to flee. The Column stayed for a week, piled up all the paddy they had already cut and burned it, then laid landmines around the fields which had not yet been harvested. After they left, two villagers stepped on these mines when they tried to complete their harvest. None of the others now dare to return to their fields.

"The owners were harvesting it, and when they arrived the owners ran. Then they went and gathered it [the paddy they had already cut] in one place and burned it when they were about to leave. They gathered the paddy from P---’s hill field as well as some paddy from other villages and some sticky-rice; they gathered it from 6 hill fields and 4 flat fields, 10 fields altogether. … Then they laid landmines around there so the villagers wouldn’t dare go back. On the day when we went to check on things, one of us was wounded by a landmine. … That morning he wanted to go and tend his hill field and he asked me to go with him and check the path. So I went and was checking [with a stick] along the way, but the landmines were buried beside the path. He was following me, he turned and stepped off the path and a landmine exploded. I turned and looked and saw him running without one foot, and I called to him, ‘Don’t run!’" - Man aged 33 interviewed in hiding in his home area in late November 1999 ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #1)

From mid-August and all through September, several hundred families fled through the steep Dawna hills, through heavy rains and along washed-out and treacherous muddy pathways, to reach the Thai border in hopes of sanctuary. The first 37 families who tried to reach Beh Klaw refugee camp were admitted, while others made it to Huay Kaloke (Wangka) refugee camp. However, at the end of August the Thai Army refused to allow any more new arrivals to go to the camps, telling them that they must go back across the border. For weeks the refugees and the Thai Army played a cat and mouse game, the refugees crossing the border for a few days when the Army wasn’t there only to be ordered back into Burma as soon as their numbers swelled with new arrivals and the Army returned. Some managed to make it to the refugee camps but were not allowed to register there by Thai authorities, while others disappeared into the illegal labour market. When one of the groups had been forced back and was camped on the Burmese side of the border at Tee Ner Hta in early September, SPDC forces discovered their location and shelled them and they scattered in all directions. Now several hundred displaced people are stranded on the Burma side of the border at Law Thay Hta, protected only by some KNLA soldiers and KNLA landmines, most of them wanting to go to refugee camps but refused entry by the Thai Army. For its part, the Thai Army denies that it is refusing them entry, knowing full well that officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and most international aid agencies are prohibited from stepping across the border to check.

"The [Thai] police. They came just a few days ago and told us, ‘You can’t stay here anymore and you have to go back and stay there.’ They forced us to move within one day, so people separated into groups and ran. We stayed on the bank of the river until our Karen leaders here told us to come back and build our huts here, and they took care of us. We don’t have new arrivals from my village because they have all gone to Beh Klaw [refugee] camp already. They dared not stay and face all of the demands and torture, so they fled here, too. Some villagers still stay there because they are working on their paddy fields and can’t leave. But after they finish working more villagers will flee here…Right now we dare to stay here, but if people send us to the refugee camp we will go. If the Burmese come and shoot at us, we’ll have to run to the other side of the river, and when the dry season arrives [in November/December] we dare not stay here because we will be afraid of the Burmese again." - Man aged 36 interviewed in September 1999 while camped on the Burma side of the border after being forced back by Thai authorities ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #7)

Those who have managed to enter Thailand as well as those stranded on the Burma side of the border and some who are in hiding near their villages have all told KHRG that once the harvest period is over, many more will make for the border. In other words, starting now. This is also the first part of the dry season, when SPDC troops increase their movements and begin major operations, making it much harder for villagers to remain hiding near their villages. Given that more people are likely to try to reach the border, there are grave concerns about their safety if the Thai Army continues to deny entry to new arrivals. In addition, two long-standing camps which were adjacent to the border, Huay Kaloke (Wangka) and Maw Ker, have been closed and moved to a new site at Umpiem Mai, much further inside Thailand. Huay Kaloke was a natural arrival point for many refugees from southeastern Pa’an District, but now if they cross the border near there they would have to risk a journey of 50 kilometres to the north to reach Beh Klaw or 60 kilometres to the southeast to reach Umpiem Mai, and if they encounter Thai soldiers or police anywhere along the way they are arrested as illegal migrants.

"We didn’t bring anything with us when we fled, just only the clothes we were wearing. I couldn’t bring other things because I had to carry my 3 year old son. No one knows what the Burmese will do because if they see people in the mountains they shoot them dead, and if people stay in the village they force them to do ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labour]. We couldn’t do anything. I think all of the villagers left the village after I left; there were 17 households left and I think all have fled to the jungle. … We had to come during the rainy season so we had many problems on the way. We got sick and had no medicine and not enough food. We slept in the mountains for 5 days and arrived at the Moei River on the 6th day. We stayed at Tee Ner Hta for one day, then came here." - Man aged 40 who fled his village in August and managed to get in to a refugee camp ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #22)

Since early November, being arrested as an illegal migrant in Thailand often means summary deportation into the hands of SPDC authorities. This has already happened to tens of thousands of illegal workers from Burma in Thailand, many of whom would fit the international definition of refugees. The Thai government has been threatening to begin this campaign for over a year now, but they seem to have decided the time was politically right after a fringe group of Burmese exiles launched an armed attack on the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok on October 1st, holding hostages for 24 hours before negotiating a helicopter ride to the border and escaping. The attack severely strained the patience of the Thai government and population with political Burmese exiles in Thailand, despite the fact that the act was denounced by many Burmese pro-democracy groups. Their position, that of the existing and newly arriving refugees, and that of the illegal workers, has been seriously undermined by the Embassy attack, which also gave the SPDC a perfect opportunity to portray pro-democracy groups as terrorists and raised doubts throughout the international community about Burmese political exiles. All of these results were easily foreseeable, making one Karen National Union (KNU) representative at the time put forward the theory that the attack may even have been arranged by the SPDC itself. According to all available evidence this was not the case, however, and the attack was simply a badly thought out, if thought out at all, act of juvenile machismo by a fringe group trying to make a name for themselves. The perpetrators owe their lives and those of their hostages as well as their minor propaganda victory not to their own planning, but to the Thai government’s aversion to turning the incident into a bloodbath.

The mass roundups have now tailed off, but the situation for anyone from Burma in Thailand is still much more tense than previously. Through all of this, international pressure brought to bear on the Thai government has had little or no effect, while UNHCR, the only agency with a specific mandate to protect the refugees, appears to have limited their efforts to meeting with the Thai authorities and asking them not to deport those who request asylum. Their advice to real refugees and political activists being deported has been to tell the Thai immigration officials who arrest them that they are political or have a reason to fear persecution. This, of course, can easily backfire if the Thai officials have been paid off by SPDC officials to hand over political activists, or if others among the deportees decide to act as SPDC informers once across the border. However, the UNHCR has taken no apparent steps to try to screen even a tiny portion of those being deported, waiting instead for such refugees to approach their office in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Very few have done so, which is not surprising given that the office is in a part of town which has been hardest hit by the roundups, and has a closed gate with a uniformed Thai security guard who interrogates all who try to enter. Several refugees have told KHRG they don’t dare approach the office for these reasons. None of the other foreign agencies working with refugees have security guards, and it is difficult to understand from what or whom this security guard is supposed to protect the UNHCR officers. Regardless, it displays an extreme insensitivity to the concerns of refugees if they fail to see that very, very few refugees would dare approach an office with a uniformed Thai security guard. Or perhaps this is precisely the intent.

"If I go back to my village, I’ll have no rice to eat. My children have been working in the fields, but since there was no rain we didn’t get enough rice. My daughter has two small children, and my daughter-in-law also has two small children who are still breastfeeding. My daughter-in-law is ill in the hospital. When we are cured, we would like to stay here as refugees with all our children, but we don’t have any money to build a house." - Man aged 50-60 who fled to Thailand earlier in 1999 ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #45)

For all of those who have found our material useful, who have supported our work either materially or in spirit, and all who feel concerned for the forgotten villagers of Burma, we would like to forward you our best wishes and hopes for the coming year and the coming millennium. As the new millennium arrives and you look toward your own future, please do not forget the hundreds of thousands of villagers beginning it by laying awake in fear in their villages, hungry in the forests, or far from home and uncertain of their future in the refugee camps. Hopefully you will not have to read these kinds of reports much longer, and they can all return home and live in peace.

"It is not easy to go back. It will be many long years before the situation gets better. I think it will not change for a while. Some people say that the situation will become peaceful, but that will not be easy." - Man aged 30 from northeastern Pa’an District ("Beyond All Endurance", Interview #43)