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COMMENTARY

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Published date:
Thursday, April 6, 2000

Recent months have seen a great deal of activity internationally related to Burma, with Thailand hardening its stance toward refugees and the Non-Governmental Organisations who help them, the United Nations once again condemning Burma for human rights abuses, the International Labour Organisation deciding to take unprecedented steps to press the SPDC to cease forced labour, officials from many countries meeting in South Korea (despite the SPDC’s anger) to discuss what to do about Burma, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai Government seriously discussing the possible forced repatriation of Karen and Karenni refugees, multinational corporations challenging American selective purchasing laws in the U.S. Supreme Court, and several other developments. In the meantime, the international media has been in a scramble over a sideshow, all trying to be the first to get an exclusive interview with Johnny Htoo and Saw Luther, the teenage cheroot-smoking leaders of God’s Army in Tenasserim Division.

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"After they get a lot of paddy, they report to other countries that their country produces a lot of paddy. But really they beat civilians and take the paddy from us. They are just starting to do this now so we still have enough rice to eat, but if they keep doing this for many years, I don’t think there will be enough." - Karen villager (M, 42) from Dooplaya District talking about increasing rice confiscation ["Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00), Interview #2]

Recent months have seen a great deal of activity internationally related to Burma, with Thailand hardening its stance toward refugees and the Non-Governmental Organisations who help them, the United Nations once again condemning Burma for human rights abuses, the International Labour Organisation deciding to take unprecedented steps to press the SPDC to cease forced labour, officials from many countries meeting in South Korea (despite the SPDC’s anger) to discuss what to do about Burma, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai Government seriously discussing the possible forced repatriation of Karen and Karenni refugees, multinational corporations challenging American selective purchasing laws in the U.S. Supreme Court, and several other developments. In the meantime, the international media has been in a scramble over a sideshow, all trying to be the first to get an exclusive interview with Johnny Htoo and Saw Luther, the teenage cheroot-smoking leaders of God’s Army in Tenasserim Division.

While many of these things appear quite interesting and exciting, they have not altered in any way the desperate situation being faced by rural villagers inside Burma, which only continues to worsen with very few of them even realising that they are being so avidly discussed internationally. As always, at KHRG we have continued to be flooded with more information on human rights abuses carried out by the SPDC Army than we can possibly publish, yet we know that even these reported abuses are only the tip of the iceberg. Our latest reports have attempted to present a cross-section of much of this information to give at least a qualitative picture of the suffering and desperation confronting villagers in several different areas.

"In a pool we can’t leave some fish to catch, so we have to catch them all … Right now, I do not fight Nga Pway [KNU/KNLA]. I am fighting the civilians. If the people dare to shoot one bullet at me, it is enough. I will shoot into the village. I have no relatives there." - Words of SPDC’s #415 Light Infantry Battalion Commander Kayin Maung Nyo at a meeting with 70-80 village heads from Kya In township on 25/11/99 ["Starving Them Out", Interviews #5 and #9]

One of these is Dooplaya District, a region of thousands of square kilometres covering much of the central heartland of Karen State from the Kawkareik-Kyone Doh line in the north to Three Pagodas pass in the south. Much of this region used to be at least partly controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), but in 1997 the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC, predecessor to the current State Peace & Development Council, or SPDC) mounted a mass military offensive and captured most of the territory. Initially it looked like the SLORC/SPDC was so confident of its control in the region that it might not go too hard on the villagers. However, the Karen National Liberation Army regrouped and began guerrilla operations, and as usual the SPDC has responded by terrorising the Karen villagers of the region. The KHRG report "Starving Them Out: Forced Relocations, Killings, and the Systematic Starvation of Villagers in Dooplaya District" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)presents interviews with villagers in and from the region which show a progressive increase in repression since the SLORC occupation in 1997. The most alarming developments have happened since November 1999, with a sudden increase in arbitrary detentions, torture, killings and particularly forced relocations of villages. Until the past few months, the SPDC had limited forced relocations in Dooplaya to a few villages here and there, but since November the regime has begun a campaign of much more systematic forced relocations. The commander of SPDC Strategic Command #881 and his subordinate Battalion Commanders called all 70-80 village heads in Kya In township to a landmark meeting just outside Kya In Seik Gyi on November 25th 1999, at which the village heads were told that all villages not already under the direct control of the military must move as soon as the rice harvest was completed in December, that anyone remaining in these villages would be shot on sight, that the entire rice harvest must be handed over to the Army by December 20th for storage, and that villagers would have to approach the Army each day to receive their daily ration from this stockpile. The commanders went on to tell the villagers that they would be regularly interrogated about KNLA activities and later executed if they were found out to be withholding information, and that all villagers who had been KNLA soldiers at any time within the past 15 years would be sought out and executed.

"They are going to force our village to Kyaikdon. They said so. They wanted to separate us from the Kaw Thoo Lei [KNU/KNLA]. I heard that they were going to confiscate the villagers’ rice and paddy when the villagers finished working [harvesting]. They are going to keep it in Kyaikdon. They will force the villagers to go and stay and eat there. I heard about this while the villagers were harvesting the paddy but they hadn’t confiscated it yet before I came here. The village head told us in a meeting. The villagers couldn’t tell [what to do]. When they finish their work, they will run or they will hide their paddy and run. Some villagers aren’t going to send their paddy [to the Burmese].

- Villager (M, 20) from Kya In township who fled after the SPDC announced they would confiscate the rice and relocate the village in December 1999 ["Starving Them Out", Interview #7]

The villagers reeled from the effect of these proclamations, and people immediately began fleeing their villages into hiding. Some abandoned their crop in the fields, while others handed their rice to the Army as ordered but then did not dare to move to relocation villages or confront soldiers every day to ask for their ration. The Army proceeded with its plan to clear out the villages; some have been forced into the centre of their villages, while others have been moved outright. Many people are now in hiding. For the first time, serious starvation threatens central Dooplaya District, traditionally a very fertile rice-producing region. People in hiding as well as those still in villages are living on taro roots and foraged food, not daring to go to the Army for their daily ration. KNLA activity continues and villagers in hiding are seen as ‘enemies’ of the SPDC, so the arrest and torture of village elders for information has increased, as has the incidence of summary executions of villagers found in the fields. More people are now attempting to flee to Thailand, only to find that Thai forces make it extremely difficult to cross the border, and even if they can cross the border the Thais also make it very difficult for them to gain admission to a refugee camp. Several thousand would-be refugees are now reported to be stranded just on the Burma side of the border, hoping to cross before they are attacked.

"All of the villages were destroyed after they arrived. Kwih K’Neh Ghaw, Htee Noh Boh, Kaw Wah Klay and Kaw Nweh were destroyed because people couldn’t stay and eat…Wherever they call and drive you, you have to go. People couldn’t stay in Noh K’Rer and P’Yaw Pu Hta either. They came and burned down people’s huts and drove out the owners, so people dared not stay in their villages and had to stay in the places where they drove them. They drove them to Kaw Wah Klay, but Kwih K’Neh Ghaw went to Naw Shaw Sin Ko. They drove out two or three villages in the same area, but they didn’t allow them to stay in their own area… They forced people to Meh Gu village. They will do it in every township and village, and they will take all the paddy. They will do this to stop our Karen [KNLA] from having rice to eat, because if they don’t do it like this they cannot restrict them. So they do it to control them; when they gather people and paddy, I think their aim is to capture and control the Karen." - Villager (M, 51) from Dooplaya District speaking of the recent destruction of villages and confiscation of rice ["Starving Them Out", Interview #16]

The situation is at least as bad in Shan State, which is the focus of "Exiled At Home: Continued Forced Relocations and Displacement in Shan State" (KHRG #2000-03, 5/4/00). Faced with resistance by Yord Serk’s Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), in March 1996 the SLORC delineated a huge area of central Shan State and ordered the forced relocation and destruction of every village in the region, whether or not these villages had had any contact with SURA. Over 700 villages were relocated and destroyed, with well over 100,000 people displaced. However, if anything SURA only appeared to get stronger, so throughout 1997 and 1998 the SLORC, now renamed as the SPDC, expanded the target area and also forced people who had already been moved to relocate again into larger sites under more direct military control. By mid-1998, over 1,400 villages in 8 townships had been forcibly relocated and destroyed, displacing a population of at least 300,000 people. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been struggling to survive in relocation sites throughout the region, foraging for food and begging from cars passing on the roads. The SPDC provides them nothing. Many who tried to hide in the forests around their villages have been shot on sight by SPDC patrols, and in some cases there have been systematic massacres of as many as 40 people at a time. Kun Hing township has become possibly the bloodiest township in all of Burma, with shootings on sight and systematic massacres having occurred on many occasions since 1997. The Shan Human Rights Foundation has documented the individual and group killings of well over 300 villagers in this township alone since 1997. In the latest instances at least 44 people have been massacred; first, 19 villagers were given passes to leave Kun Hing relocation site and return to their villages in Keng Kham village tract, only to be intercepted and massacred by SPDC troops when they arrived there on January 30th2000. Then less than 2 weeks later, an SPDC patrol found a group of internally displaced villagers making offers to an ancestral shrine in Kun Pu village tract on February 12th. The patrol executed all 20 men, and later killed 5 women and children hiding in a nearby hut. These massacres are intended simply to terrorise and intimidate the villagers so that they will either go to relocation sites or flee to Thailand.

"The villagers were going to a ceremony for the guardian spirits of Keng Kham village tract at Meh Hin Tang. The 20 people did not come from the relocation site. They had been living in the jungle, and then they were going to the ceremony and the Burmese soldiers met them on the path and took them away… The soldiers found them on the path, then they shot over their heads, so they were afraid to run away. Then they took them to another place and killed them later, but no one knows where. The Burmese soldiers didn’t kill them at that place [Meh Hin Tang]." - Shan refugee (M, 40) telling the story of the February 12th 2000 massacre of 20 Shan villagers by SPDC Infantry Battalion #246 in Kun Hing township ["Exiled At Home" (KHRG #2000-03, 5/4/00), Interview #6]

"They said they would shoot all of us dead. They also burned all the rice and paddy that we left behind. They burned the paddy barn so we didn’t get anything to eat at the relocation site… It was all burned, so we didn’t have anything… The villagers from Mark Pun gave me a place to build a shelter. The villagers didn’t give us food, so we had to find it. We went into the jungle to find vegetables, but if the SPDC soldiers saw us they killed us. We found vegetables and then sold them in Murng Pan and bought rice… it was not enough. Sometimes we had to do without meals." - Shan refugee (M, 50) who fled after he could no longer survive in a relocation site ["Exiled At Home", Interview #5]

"People had to do forced labour every day. If a husband has to porter, then the wife has to go to forced labour. They can’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to forced labour because my husband already went to porter.’ They can’t stay at home freely, they have to do forced labour. The husband is a porter, the wife works forced labour, and the children go begging in town." - Shan refugee (M, 37) describing life in Hwe Mark Pun relocation site, Murng Pan township ["Exiled At Home", Interview #4]

At least 100,000 Shan villagers have fled the relocations across the border into Thailand, and over 1,000 per month are still crossing; for the most part the SPDC troops have allowed them to go, happy to see the Shan people leaving Burma. In many cases they have even confiscated their National Identity Cards as they leave, so that if Thai authorities try to send them back to Burma the SPDC can claim that they never lived there. In Thailand there are no camps for these refugees, so they have no option but to join the illegal labour force. In the past there was work for most of them in the lychee orchards and rice fields of Fang District and the construction sites of Chiang Mai, but the economic crash of 1997 has shut down many of the construction jobs and the steady influx of new refugees has overflowed the job market. New refugees are finding it hard to find work to survive, so many must head further into Thailand where many of them end up sold into bonded or slave labour in Thai sweatshops, brothels, and the homes of rich and influential Thais. At the same time, the general crackdown against illegal labour in Thailand since late 1999 has resulted in the arrest and deportation of many of the Shan refugees, but the Thai authorities refuse to even consider the possibility of setting up refugee camps for them.

"It became very difficult to do anything to make a living. We couldn’t work our fields in the old village because if the soldiers found us, they would shoot us. We heard that if we came to work in Thailand, we would have enough to stay here and eat." - newly arrived Shan refugee (M, 40) from Kun Hing township ["Exiled At Home", Interview #6]

"If we are allowed to work and if there is work to be done, and if the Thai people employ us, we would like to work. But if it’s difficult to get work, then we would like to stay in the [refugee] camps… Work is not always available so sometimes it is difficult. But we just manage to survive. We want to be able to live peacefully… we feel safe here and a bit happier. The main thing we worry about is getting work; even if the police give us trouble it’s not as bad as the Burmese soldiers." - newly arrived Shan refugee (M, 30) from Murng Pan township ["Exiled At Home", Interview #3]

The Shan villagers find little support internationally either, from foreign countries which insist on seeing Shan State as nothing more than a source of illicit drugs. While most foreign governments completely ignore the plight of Shan villagers, they simultaneously discuss possibilities for giving aid to the SPDC to ‘combat the drug menace’ in Shan State. Such aid, given either directly or through the UN Drug Control Programme, ignores all the available evidence of the SPDC’s involvement in supporting drug warlords, encouraging opium production, taxing the heroin trade, facilitating drug transport and money-laundering. These foreign governments choose to ignore the evidence because they want to be seen as ‘doing something’ about drugs, yet they refuse to deal with anyone except their brother government, i.e. the SPDC. The result is money thrown at a regime which is actively involved in drug production, taxing and transport. The SPDC facilitates yet another increase in drug production, resulting in more aid, while the donor governments take advantage of their own people’s ignorance about Burma to pull the wool over their eyes and pretend that the SPDC is working to ‘eradicate drugs’. Over the past several months, the SPDC has forcibly relocated at least 60,000 Wa civilians from northern Shan State to the Thai border, claiming that this was to stop them from producing drugs. Forced relocation is the SPDC’s idea of a ‘drug eradication’ program. All of the villagers from the relocated areas interviewed by KHRG have been rice and fruit farmers with no involvement at all in the drug trade, but if it suits the SPDC’s military objectives to relocate them then the regime will certainly paint them as though they are involved. Any ‘drug eradication’ aid given to the SPDC for the townships affected by the relocations will only be used to justify further forced relocations and the attendant killings and other abuses of the local population, while politicians overseas boast of how much they are doing to save the children of their own country from the ‘drug menace’.

"The Burmese soldiers only said, ‘All of you will be moved.’ They relocated us to Kho Lam. We had to go… The soldiers threatened that if we didn’t move, they would burn all our houses. … They said we had three days. But before the deadline the soldiers came and drove us out. We all moved together to Kho Lam…Some people didn’t have enough food in the relocation site, so they returned to their villages to get food. But also many people tried to forage just outside of the relocation site, and the soldiers didn’t allow us to go outside so they killed them… It was very difficult to survive in Kho Lam. … Sometimes the village men went back to pick their vegetables and crops. The Burmese soldiers killed them like they would kill a chicken or a bird. … I heard about many incidents of Burmese soldiers killing villagers, but I only knew one. He was my Uncle. He went back to his village to gather vegetables and the Burmese shot him." - Shan woman aged 30, explaining why she recently fled a relocation site in Nam Zang township ["Exiled At Home", Interview #1]

One villager interviewed by KHRG for "Exiled At Home" witnessed preparatory drilling work for the Salween Dam project, yet another SPDC initiative which threatens the lives of villagers throughout the state. If the project is completed, it will flood out an area from southern Shan State almost as far north as Lashio, engulfing much of the Salween River and 3 of its major tributaries, submerging hundreds of villages and forever eradicating any possibility of tens of thousands of villagers, many of them already relocated, from returning home. However, the project aims to channel water and power to Thailand and powerful interests are involved, so it will likely go ahead unless there is a change of government in Burma in the near future. Once the dam is complete, the SPDC will garner huge profits from selling water and power to Thailand while simultaneously wiping out much of the homeland of the troublesome Shan people.

"After 5:00 in the evening, the Burmese soldiers did not allow us to walk on the road outside the village [relocation site], and if they saw us they would shoot us. We couldn’t have our own fields, because the villagers already owned the fields around the relocation site… The villagers go to the areas around the relocation site and work the fields [hire themselves out for a daily wage]. We can only hire ourselves out to work by the day. When the paddy was yellow and ready to harvest, we made a big stack. Then the Burmese soldiers ordered us to return to the relocation site, and during the night the Burmese soldiers went to the fields and threshed the paddy for themselves. The soldiers forced someone to drive a trology [small Chinese tractor which can haul a small cart] from town to the field, then to carry the paddy back to the camp. When the field owner went to the field to collect his paddy, there was only a little bit left." - Shan refugee (M, 37) describing life at Hwe Mark Pun relocation site in Murng Pan township ["Exiled At Home", Interview #4]

While the situation in many parts of Burma is leaving people little option except to flee, government policy in Thailand is becoming less and less receptive to them. The Thai government claims to offer sanctuary to legitimate refugees who are ‘fleeing from fighting’, but this is not true. Particularly since August 1999, Thai forces along the border with Burma often actively block people from crossing the border or force them back across at gunpoint [for examples, see "Beyond All Endurance" (KHRG #99-08, 20/12/99) and "Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)]. Since the siege of the Burmese Embassy by a dissident fringe group in October 1999 and the siege of Ratchburi Hospital by the same group in January 2000, the situation has only worsened. Having whipped the Thai populace into a state of mindless anti-Burmese hatred, the Thai government and army are now exploiting this to justify clamping down on refugees and migrant workers. Restrictions on refugees in the camps have increased, while Non-Governmental Organisations which help the refugees have been pressured and raided. All new refugees who manage to arrive at an existing refugee camp in Thailand now have to face an ‘admission board’ comprised of representatives from the Thai Army, Thai Ministry of Interior, and other Thai authorities, none of whom have any training or knowledge in refugee law or international conventions. These newly established boards accept no input from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), non-governmental organisations, or refugee representatives. For the past several months, they have systematically rejected the refugee claims of any and all new arrivals who have faced them and earmarked all of these people for forced deportation. None of these deportations have yet occurred, but there is little to stop the Thai authorities from doing so because the UNHCR, the only organisation on the border with a mandate to protect refugees, refuses to do or say anything publicly to oppose these rubber-stamp rejection boards for fear of harming their cosy relations with the Thai military and government.  Meanwhile, the recent arrivals remain in the camps as unregistered refugees, in some cases segregated from the registered refugees, and wait to find out what will happen to them.  Now the Thai Government and National Security Council are openly talking about sending all of the refugees back to Burma within 3 years, without any reference to whether such a repatriation would have to be voluntary or not.

"We had a problem when the Thais drove us back to Htee Maw Hta. We met the Thai Army above the Kwih Ler Taw border. They called us and asked, ‘Where are you going?’ We said that we were going to Noh Po [refugee camp]. They said that when they looked at us, they pitied us. At the time it was evening. They told us to stay there and tomorrow they would come to see us at 8:30 a.m. So we slept well. Then they came at 8:00 and called us and gathered us in a field. Then they asked ‘What is the problem that you face?’ We told them about how the Burmese oppress us and that we had left our paddy. Some villagers had left 50-100 [baskets of] paddy. They told us they pitied us a lot. They asked, ‘What did you leave in your house?’ The villagers told them about what they had left. They said, ‘You came here but you left your belongings in your house. It is not possible. Now you must go back.’ We dared not complain to them about anything. They sent us back across the border to the Htee Maw Hta area." - Refugee (M, 43) from Dooplaya District who was forced back across the border by Thai forces in late 1999 ["Starving Them Out", Interview #9]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has now become part of this mass repatriation discussion. In March, Assistant High Commissioner Soren Jessen Petersen went to Rangoon and convinced the SPDC to agree to ‘accept’ the refugees back from Thailand and to give the UNHCR a monitoring presence in Burma. Though Petersen stressed that there would have to be a political discussion first and that certain guarantees would have to be met to protect the refugees, the Thai authorities jumped on the announcement and began speaking as though repatriation is imminent. Anyone looking at the continuing flows of refugees trying to enter Thailand and listening to their testimonies of ever-increasing abuses and repression can see that any discussion whatsoever of repatriation is grossly premature until there is significant change in Burma. However, the UNHCR has made very clear by its past actions in Bangladesh and Rakhine State of Burma that it is fully willing to legitimise a forced repatriation operation and turn a blind eye to forced labour and other abuses against returnees, as long as it is allowed to have an office in Burma. In this sense, the UNHCR cannot be trusted to protect refugees or returnees and it is essential that they be kept under close scrutiny by their donor governments. Unfortunately, this is very difficult because the agency carries out all of its negotiations behind closed doors with Thai officials and refuses to disclose the substance. Both the Thai authorities and the UNHCR have made very clear that negotiations about repatriation will only include the Thai government, the SPDC, and UNHCR representatives - representatives of the refugees themselves or of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) will be entirely barred from the process.

"Not all of us fled here, but nobody stays in the village because they dare not, and the Burmese won’t allow them to stay either. We know that some people went to stay in other villages, and some are hiding in the jungle, and some are trying to come here [the refugee camp], but they haven’t arrived yet. There are a lot of people who want to come here, but they can’t because some are sick, so they just hide." - Karen refugee (M, 37) who recently reached Thailand from Dooplaya District ["Starving Them Out", Interview #4]

Even though it may take a long time for the parties involved to make a comprehensive agreement and plan, the very fact that these discussions are ongoing will likely be seen as a green light for Thai authorities and Thai forces to turn back new arrivals by force at the border. If and when an agreement is reached, it will likely be sprung upon the refugees as a fait accompli; Thai forces would then begin procedures to coerce or force the refugees to return, while (just as they did in Bangladesh) the UNHCR would try to pretend the repatriation is voluntary in order to keep their agreement alive and ‘resolve’ the refugee situation. Meanwhile, no UNHCR presence of a handful of ‘protection’ and ‘development’ officers could possibly hope to monitor a repatriation along a 2,000 kilometre border without a UN Peacekeeping Force at their disposal. No such force is likely to appear, though, and the refugees will have to hope that NGOs and foreign governments are willing to protect them from whatever programme the UNHCR, the SPDC and the Thai government will soon be preparing for them.

"I don’t have a plan. I would like to stay here as long as the situation is bad in my home village. I would like to return when it’s safer." - Shan refugee (M, 25) who fled Kun Hing township to Thailand in early March 2000 ["Exiled At Home", Interview #7]

"Because of the Burmese oppression, even if we don’t enjoy it here [at the refugee camp], we will stay because we can do nothing else. We came to stay here and left everything behind us. At the time we hadn’t finished our work so our paddy was all left in the fields. Even if we want to go back we dare not, because they have oppressed us horribly there. If they didn’t stay there, we would go back." - Karen refugee (F, 44) from Dooplaya District interviewed in January 2000 ["Starving Them Out", Interview #1]

Some of the clearest evidence showing how the SPDC still feels complete authority to abuse villagers in any way it pleases comes directly from the writings of officers of the regime, in the form of written orders which they constantly send to village heads. KHRG has been collecting and translating these as evidence for 8 years now, and in the past year we have seen more than ever before. While this partly results from improved information gathering methods, it also shows the continuing cynicism of the regime in the face of the most blatant evidence possible. In the past year we have published translations of over 500 such order documents, yet they still keep coming. In the latest set, published as "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A" (KHRG #2000-01, 29/2/00) we have reproduced 292 orders, the vast majority of them stamped and signed by SPDC military officers and local authorities. They include orders restricting the movements and activities of villagers, demands for forced labour, support for military operations, extortion of money, food, goods and building materials, and orders summoning village elders to attend ‘meetings’ at which SPDC Army officers or officials dictate demands for forced labour, money and materials and threaten the village for any failure to comply. The language of these orders is one of the best indications of the SPDC mentality, reflecting how the regime views the entire civilian population as its duty-bound servants.

"In xxxx Village Tract, do not give paddy, rice or ‘set kyay ngwe’ [protection money] to the enemy. [We] will burn and relocate the villages who give these. [We] will decree them to be hard core [enemies]. Call one person from each house and explain this [to them]." - SPDC Order from #xxxInfantry Battalion to a village in Toungoo District ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #3]

"…to repair the damaged parts of the camp, send without fail 500 bamboo [poles] from Gentleman’s [your] village to the camp, right now as soon as [you] receive this letter. If [you] fail, serious action will be taken." - Order sent to a village in Papun District by the local Army camp on May 23rd 1999["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #171]

"Regarding the above subject, to fence yyyy camp we allotted you [to supply] wood and bamboo, and we will not accept any reason if you are late. If you fail, the village sawmill / rice mills / other commercial activities will be stopped, and we will force the village to relocate, you are informed." - Order sent by #xxx Light Infantry Battalion to a village in Dooplaya District on February 22nd 1999 ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #191]

"For the collection [transport] of [Army] rations along the xxxx / yyyy bullock-cart path, to provide security, women / men villagers from my village must send information on time and quickly (to xxxx camp) about everything unusual we see along the path from mile numbers 35 to 36; and will do sentry duty for the whole area to obey the order. … If I don’t report unusual information from my area, in the event that soldiers or civilians are [subsequently] killed, injured, or rations are lost, my village will take responsibility and in accordance with whatever is decided by the persons in authority [we] will reimburse [pay compensation] and accept any punishment with full satisfaction [without complaint], I sign this pledge below." - Pledge which a village headwoman in Papun District was forced to sign and thumbprint by the local SPDC military ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #4]

Many of the orders demand forced labour well after May 14th 1999, when the SPDC claims to have issued ‘Order 1/99’ to stop all forced labour demanded under the Villages Act and the Towns Act, two colonial-era pieces of legislation allowing the use of corvee labour. In reality, SPDC officials never refer to these Acts when they demand forced labour anyway, and they have continued to demand forced labour since May 14th 1999 at least as much as they did before; in fact, most villagers testify that forced labour has increased since that time. The May 14th order was primarily issued to head off pressure from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an arm of the United Nations system which has been pressing the SPDC to abolish its use of forced labour. The regime signed ILO Convention 29 prohibiting forced labour in the 1950s but has never complied with its obligations. Increasingly frustrated, the ILO finally took one of the strongest steps available to it by appointing a Commission of Inquiry to investigate. The Commission scrutinised thousands of pages of evidence on both sides and interviewed hundreds of witnesses and victims of forced labour, and concluded that the SPDC was in flagrant violation of Convention 29. Action was demanded from the SPDC but none was undertaken, so in 1999 the ILO barred the SPDC from any assistance or participation in ILO conferences or programs.

"To carry the rations tomorrow, send 10 people from Chairperson’s village to me. Do not be late. Arrive at 5 o’clock in the morning. I will be waiting." - Written order from a #xxx Infantry Battalion camp commander to a village in Toungoo District, dated November 15th 1999 ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #26]

"[We] already ordered you to send a messenger (every day) but [you] have failed, so the fine is 1,000 Kyat. … [We] will order you again on the day when [you] must send a messenger. … Take the census of every house and send the combined registers to the camp to arrive on 14-9-99. … Report the list of overnight guests. If [you] don’t report it, [you] will be fined 500 Kyat. … If [we] call for loh ah pay [forced labour], [you] have to come on time. … [You] have to come to the camp and sign to get permission to transport rice. … On Tuesdays and Fridays, those who will go to the market must come first to the camp to get permission. … Regarding the above subjects, [we] already gave orders to the Chairperson, so if [you] don’t obey, serious action will be taken." - Order document sent by #xxx Infantry Battalion to a village in Toungoo District on Sept. 13th 1999 ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #28]

"For the use of xxxx Army Camp, send ‘loh ah pay’ labourers to arrive on 14-7-99 at 7 o’clock in the morning as listed below." - Order issued by #xxx Infantry Battalion on July 13th 1999; it goes on to demand a total of 185 forced labourers from 6 different villages in Papun District ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #41]

On February 25th 2000, the ILO Director-General released an update report on the SPDC’s progress. The report looked closely at ‘Order 1/99’. Using as some of its prime evidence the SPDC order documents in KHRG’s reports "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A" and "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C"(KHRG #99-06, 4/8/99), the ILO Committee of Experts and its Director-General both decided that ‘Order 1/99’ has had no effect, that forced labour is still rampant and systematic, and that the SPDC still stands in flagrant violation of its obligations. The SPDC responded by attacking KHRG as well as the Mon Forum and the Federated Trade Unions of Burma, all of whom had provided evidence which was used at the ILO. In a letter of March 20th 2000, SPDC Director-General of the Labour Department Soe Nyunt called KHRG and the other groups "unlawful organizations … composed of expatriates hostile to the Government of Myanmar". KHRG was specifically called an "unlawful organisation that ha[s] been opposing the Union of Myanmar in the name of ethnicity and human rights", and Soe Nyunt refers to some of the material in "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 99-C" as "an outrageous allegation made with an evil intent". Ironically, though, the letter makes only a very weak attempt to attack the actual material in the reports. As usual, the regime simply tries to deny the existence of the evidence, alleging that the orders are all fakes with "counterfeit stamps" and "forge[d] signatures", and asking, "The independent report of ‘KHRG’ contains over 100 orders. … This raises the question of how the ‘KHRG’ got hold of such a large number of orders." Soe Nyunt does not try to answer his own question though. Perhaps we obtained them because the SPDC issued them. Finally, the letter attacks the ILO Commission of Inquiry and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar (Burma) for using "scanty information" and accepting information from outside Burma - while omitting to mention that the SPDC barred the ILO Commission from visiting Burma and has barred the UN Rapporteur from visiting Burma for several years now.

"Chairperson, send without fail 10 male ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labour] servants on 8-10-99 to xxxx. (Chairperson or Secretary must come to bring them.)" - Written order dated October 8th 1999 from a Captain in #xxx Infantry Battalion to a village in Toungoo District ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #27]

"Regarding the above subject, 15 ‘loh ah pay’ servants from Chairperson’s village must come to xxxx village tomorrow at 7 o’clock. [You] must report information to the Camp. [You] must give 1,500 Kyats cash to the Column for the servants’ food every 15 days. Therefore, send 1,500 Kyat in cash with the servants tomorrow. [I am] writing this letter to inform you." - Order document sent by local SPDC authorities to a village in Toungoo District on June 24th 1999 ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A"Order #46]

It appears that the evidence has won the day over Soe Nyunt, though, because on March 29th the ILO announced that it would take a step it has never before taken against any government in its 83-year history. In June, the ILO will discuss steps to press other UN agencies, governments, labour and employers’ organisations to re-evaluate their relations with the SPDC in light of the forced labour problem. Though this does not necessarily imply any direct action that would materially weaken the regime, it is a huge blow to their prestige and legitimacy and should be seen as what it is: an unprecedented step by an international organisation that has never been taken against any government before. Finally, a recognition internationally of something the villagers have always told us about: the brutal seriousness of forced labour in Burma.

"According to a lot of people who have fled here, if international countries see the situation, and if they think that it is not good to stay like it is, and if they plan something, we believe that the situation will improve. But if they don’t do that, it can’t get better." - A new Karen refugee (M, 42) from Dooplaya District interviewed in January 2000 ["Starving Them Out", Interview #2]

The ILO Director-General’s report of 25/2/00, their press release of 29/3/00, and the SPDC response letter can all be found on the ILO website (www.ilo.org). All of the KHRG reports mentioned above can be obtained on request from KHRG, or are available online on this website.

Finally, please note the following update: In the report "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-A", Order #292 is labelled "‘Karen Peace Army’ Propaganda Letter" (see page 144). In the explanation of this letter, it was speculated that this group is somehow related to Thu Mu Heh’s group in Dooplaya District, which goes by the same name in Burmese (‘Nyein Chan Yay A’Pweh’, or ‘Peace Group’) but calls itself ‘Karen Peace Army’ in English. However, after making further inquiries it appears that there is probably no direct connection between the group which issued this letter and Thu Mu Heh’s group. According to KNU sources, a group of approximately 30 KNLA soldiers and their families surrendered to the SPDC in late 1997 in Than Daung township of Toungoo District, where this letter was issued. Since that time, the SPDC has named them ‘Nyein Chan Yay A’Pweh’, the same as Thu Mu Heh’s group, and has mainly used them for propaganda purposes such as this letter. The name ‘Peace Group’ comes from the SPDC’s rhetoric over the past 3 years, which calls the act of surrender ‘exchanging arms for peace’. There may be several small groups of surrendered Karen soldiers in various regions who have been given the name ‘Peace Group’ since 1997, but there appears to be no actual connection between such groups.