Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts: Villagers Flee as SPDC Troops Resume Burning and Landmining of Villages
Villagers from Dweh Loh township, just southwest of the town of Papun, have begun fleeing the area in large numbers after SPDC troops burned and then landmined at least 9 of their villages in March 2000, at the same time that villagers throughout the region have been fleeing in increasing numbers from increased SPDC militarisation and forced labour.
Villagers from the 9 burned villages in the hills above the SPDC garrison village of Meh Way told KHRG that SPDC columns entered their area at harvest time in November 1999, causing all of them to flee into hiding in the forests to avoid forced labour and forced relocation. While they made forays from their hiding places to try to retrieve rice and belongings and salvage some of the harvest from their fields when they could, the SPDC columns began landmining the pathways around their home villages. In December, villager Kyaw Yeh (male, age 30) from Baw Wah Der village was sneaking back to his village to feed his pigs when he stepped on one of these mines. He died 3 days later.
The villagers hoped that the columns would move on, but they remained around the villages, and in March 2000 they began burning one village after another, including the villages of Meh Gha Law, T’Kaw Hta, Baw Wah Der, Lay Hta, Maw Bpu, Tee Th’Reh Kee, Dta Baw Kee, K’Pu Soh, and Maw Thay Hta. The troops also burned all the rice storage barns they could find in order to eliminate the food supply, and burned the villagers’ hill fields which were being prepared for the June/July 2000 planting. The scrub in these fields had been cut and was being dried for the usual burnoff before the rains; however, by torching them early, only part of the scrub was burned and the villagers say it will now be impossible to do a proper burnoff or to plant a crop. They no longer dare go back to their villages for food either, because the troops mined the villages after burning them and are still encamped near the villages. Faced with starvation, many of the villagers have now fled the area.
The people of other villages in Dweh Loh township are also fleeing, telling KHRG that they can not bear the increasing burden of forced labour demanded by SPDC Army camps, building barracks and fences, building and maintaining roads, cutting and hauling bamboo and firewood, standing sentry along vehicle roads and going as porters. According to a KNU source, there are now a total of 38 different SPDC Battalions active in the three townships of Papun District, and all of them demand forced labour from the villagers. For example, the K’Dter Dtee camp alone of Infantry Battalion #308 demands all of the above types of forced labour from everyone in Pah Lo, Daw Thu Klah, Baw Kyaw Leh, Noh Paw Tee, Taw Klaw Kee, and Meh Baw Kee villages in Dweh Loh township. People still living in their villages also complain that every time an SPDC column comes to their village their livestock, money and valuables are stolen. Villagers are also fleeing Bu Tho township, southeast of Papun town, saying that they are being used as forced porters and for other forms of forced labour, including along the road under construction from Saw Bweh Der to Kyauk Nyat.
SPDC troops in the region have been working on several military access roads, sometimes using bulldozers under heavy guard but more often using the forced labour of villagers. The road from Kyauk Kyi to the Thai border at Saw Hta is now finished but must be rebuilt after every rainy season; a branch off of this road is also being built from Pwa Ghaw to Ler Mu Plaw, with plans to extend it northward to Bu Sah Kee in Toungoo District. Forced labour is also ongoing on a road from Papun to Pah Heh, Saw Bweh Der and Kyauk Nyat, with the last section still not finished, and there are reports of plans for additional roads from Shwegyin to Papun and from Papun District to Pah Saung in southern Karenni (Kayah) State.
In Dweh Loh and Bu Tho townships it is estimated that half of the population remain in their villages suffering from forced labour, extortion and looting, while the other half are living in hiding in the forests. However, in Lu Thaw township north of Papun virtually the entire population is in hiding in the forest. This is the area hardest hit by the SPDC campaign to destroy all remote villages in Papun District which began in 1997, resulting in orders to relocate over 100 villages and the unprovoked burning and complete destruction of close to 200 villages [see "Wholesale Destruction" (KHRG #98-01, February and April 1998), and KHRG Photo Set 97B]. Since that time, villagers throughout all of Lu Thaw township and part of Nyaunglebin District to the west have been living in hiding in the forests, trying to survive by growing small patches of crops and fleeing higher into the hills whenever SPDC patrols come near. Whenever sighted by SPDC patrols they are either shot on sight or captured as porters (KHRG documented 62 killings of this nature which occurred in the region between March 1997 and January 1998, not including many who were shot but managed to escape). The past 3 months has seen a greater number of people fleeing the Lu Thaw area as well, due to starvation and the increasing presence of SPDC troops. KNU sources report that not only have the number of battalions increased throughout Papun District to a total of 38, but they have been much more active in hunting out villagers since December 1999.
Just to the west in Nyaunglebin District conditions are similar in the hills. In the plains near the Sittaung River, new refugees report that the Sa Thon Lon‘Guerrilla Retaliation’ execution squads continue to operate. These special squads were hand-picked by the SPDC in 1998 and operate by executing anyone and everyone suspected of any present or past contact with the Karen opposition forces, however minor this contact may have been. [For further details see "Death Squads and Displacement" (KHRG #99-04, May 24, 1999).] The units executed dozens of people, usually brutally by cutting their throats. Villagers who have recently fled the area say that the units continue to operate but have toned down their operations somewhat; they still come to the villages in small groups, but now if they see anyone they suspect they return and report to the regular SPDC Battalions, who then come to execute the suspected villager. One villager told KHRG that unlike the Sa Thon Lon victims of 1998/99, whose heads were sometimes displayed on poles to intimidate the other villagers, the bodies of victims are now carried away and buried far from their villages so that other villagers cannot find them, possibly to eliminate evidence.
The desperate situation is reflected by the number of villagers from Papun District arriving at refugee camps in Thailand. After the SPDC’s 1997 village destruction campaign began, several thousand refugees crossed the border, but then the flow lessened to a small but steady stream as most people struggled to survive in hiding in the hills around their villages. However, since January 2000 more people have been crossing the border. The numbers below only include new arrivals at Meh Ka Kee (a.k.a. Mae Khong Kha) refugee camp:
January 2000 40 families 201 people
February 2000 52 families 244 people
March 2000 47 families 242 people
April 1-14, 2000 61 families 297 people
April 15-20, 2000 71 families 356 people
It is important to note that Papun District is not a densely populated area, with most villages consisting of only 10-15 families, so these numbers are significant particularly when it is remembered that they are only the tip of the iceberg. They have more than tripled this month, and this trend may well continue until the rains make travel very difficult in July. Most of the April arrivals fled the burned villages, landmines and the new SPDC columns in Dweh Loh township.
Even these numbers are artificially low, because new refugees can only sneak into the refugee camps 2 or 3 families at a time; villagers fear that any larger groups will be detected by the Thai Army before they can reach the camps and summarily forced back across the border at gunpoint. Those who do manage to find their way into the refugee camp are not allowed to build huts by the Thai authorities, but instead are forced to stay in barrack-like ‘holding centres’ with no proper walls or privacy and insufficient space. The low floor in the Meh Ka Kee holding centre floods whenever there is a heavy rain. At present the Thai authorities are refusing to register any new refugees anywhere along the border and have set up ‘admission boards’ of Thai military and civilian authorities which until now have had the sole purpose of rejecting every new group of refugees to come before them. None of the refugees from Papun District to reach the refugee camps have yet been forced back across the border, but their status is extremely tenuous and they are living under inhuman conditions.
More information on the current situation in Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts, based on extensive KHRG interviews with villagers in and from the region, will be presented in an upcoming KHRG report. For additional background, maps and photos, see "Wholesale Destruction: The SLORC/SPDC Campaign to Obliterate all Hill Villages in Papun and Eastern Nyaunglebin Districts" (KHRG #98-01, February and April 1998), "Death Squads and Displacement: Systematic Executions, Village Destruction and the Flight of Villagers in Nyaunglebin District" (KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99), KHRG Photo Set 97-B (September 1997), KHRG Photo Set 99-A (March 1999), and KHRG Photo Set 99-B (August 1999).