[Some details replaced by ‘xxxx’ for Internet distribution.]
"There is no poverty, there is no starvation, there is no unemployment. There is law and order, there is peace. There is no problem. … A lady can drive alone in her car at night to Mandalay." - Brig-Gen David Abel, the SPDC’s economic minister (quoted in The Bangkok Post, October 7, 2000)
"You are informed to come with 3 servants with 3 days of supplies, and 20 viss [32 kg/70 lb] of betelnut as a Christmas present. … If you do not come, we will call with the big gun." - SPDC Army order document issued to a village in Toungoo District ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"(KHRG #2000-04, 12/10/00)]
"What do I have to say? I tell you this. They are torturing us by forcing us to work and porter and by taxing us. We must go whenever they force us to go. As for me, if I hadn’t gone to work for them, I wouldn’t have gotten this illness." - Karen villager in Dooplaya District ["Starving Them Out"(KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)]
The world is replete with repressive regimes, but even among the most repressive there are few who would try to claim that "there is no problem" in their country. As virtually everyone in the world knows, you cannot hope to solve a problem until you admit that it exists, yet the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta in Burma endlessly persists in facing every problem with nothing but barefaced denial. They don’t even seem to realise how ridiculous they appear to the outside world when they claim that ‘there is no poverty’ in a country ranked among the world’s ten poorest by the United Nations; that ‘women enjoy perfect equal rights’ in a country where sexual abuse by the Army and trafficking in women and girls are huge problems; that ‘the Burmese race is immune to HIV’ in a country with possibly the worst HIV infection rate in east Asia; and that ‘there is no forced labour’ in a country where villagers flee their villages en masse to escape demands to build roads and haul supplies for the Army. They probably do not even realise that by making such statements they only help the opposition by presenting themselves to the world as outright liars. The economy is in ruins, there is widespread malnutrition in the cities and much worse in the rural areas, and villagers are fleeing abuses until thousands of whole villages lie abandoned, but the SPDC will persist in saying ‘nothing is wrong’ until the problems completely overwhelm the country and them with it.
"One time, #xx [Infantry Battalion] tortured me. They punched me hard and deliberately and demanded things. They did this to me because I was having difficulty getting things from the villagers. They would have killed me if I couldn’t get anything from the villagers. The soldiers said, ‘They are your villagers. If you can’t control them, hand them over to me. I will come myself and control them.’" - a village headman in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages" (KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00)]
"We flee and stay in the jungle. We look and listen for any news. … When they come from the east, we flee to the west. When they come from the west, we turn to the east. We avoid them up and down, and we have escaped each time. We go between the rocks and the valleys, and to the sources of the streams. … In the past, they came up and destroyed everything and went back. Now, they come and after destroying things like rice and paddy, they plant landmines. They have planted a lot of landmines in this area. Many of our villagers have already stepped on them. In the future it will not be easy to stay here." - 31 year old internally displaced villager in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
The hundreds of interviews recorded and processed by KHRG researchers over the past year show that for rural villagers the situation has only become more desperate than ever before. Over the past 6 months our work has particularly focused on northern Karen regions: the districts of Toungoo, Nyaunglebin, and Papun. This October we have released the report "Peace Villages and Hiding Villages: Roads, Relocations, and the Campaign for Control in Toungoo District" (KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00), and in December we hope to release a comprehensive report based on over 100 interviews conducted with internally displaced people and refugees in Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts.
In Toungoo District, things have become progressively worse for villagers over the past 3 years as the SPDC has forced them to build roads deep into the hills of the district, then used those roads to establish a heavy military presence throughout the area. All villages in the hills not under the direct control of an Army camp have been designated ‘Ywa Bone’ (‘Hiding’) villages and ordered to move to garrison villages, but the villagers have chosen instead to hide in the hills while SPDC patrols destroy their houses and rice storage barns, wipe out their crops and hunt them down for capture. In the villages under direct SPDC control, the elders have tried to save their villages from destruction by making informal agreements with the commanders - that they will not contact or support the resistance and will comply with all SPDC demands for forced labour and other things, in return for not having their villagers tortured or their village burned or relocated. The SPDC has designated such places as ‘Nyein Chan Yay’ (‘Peace’) villages, but the situation there is anything but peaceful. In every case the village elders have not been able to keep up with the constant stream of demands for forced labour, money, food and building materials, and they are threatened, beaten or tortured when they cannot comply. In some cases ‘Peace’ villages have been accused of not providing enough intelligence on the movement of resistance forces and have been partly burned or forced to move. In the end, many people are fleeing the ‘Peace’ villages to take their chances in the hills. Meanwhile, most SPDC officers no longer even seek an informal agreement with village elders, but simply decree which villages are to be ‘Peace’ villages - and every village which is not ‘Peace’ is automatically ‘Hiding’. Things look poised to become even worse with the completion of new forced labour road projects from Bu Sah Kee to Ma La Daw and Klay Soe Kee to Mawchi.
"I have come to stay in Kler Lah. The government tormented us and forced us to come stay here. They are keeping us like a group of insects. They don’t understand the difficulties we have in coming to stay in this village. They don’t take care of us or see whether we are getting food or not, the only thing they understand is that we must stay here. Some people are getting seriously sick. They are suffering from many different things." - villager in Toungoo District who was forced to relocate to Kler Lah ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"When we went to Bu Sah Kee and Kheh Der, the soldiers were cutting the villagers’ betelnut trees. They were destroying the people’s things. When the soldiers saw us they didn’t question us about anything, they saw us and shot at us. If they had seen us and asked us, ‘Where is your village?’, we would have said, ‘We are civilians’, however, they saw us and shot at us. It is senseless." - internally displaced villager in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"We have to go [to porter] to Bu Sah Kee and Kwih Soe. Only the women go, because when the men go, the soldiers keep them for a week or a whole month. As I am talking now, 10 or 20 villagers have gone. They haven’t come back yet and it has already been over two weeks. Some have small babies and they are crying. … The Burmese don’t dare to go alone, so they call the women and force them to go in front. We see that it is very terrible for the women sometimes, but we can’t do anything." - villager from a ‘Peace’ village in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"The villagers don’t want to help, because they don’t want to stay in the village anymore. They must give money to the Burmese but they can’t give anymore. Each year they must pay nearly 1,000,000 Kyat. They want to flee also but they have no way to flee. They hope we will all have to flee together to a ‘Ywa Bone’ [‘Hiding’] village. For this reason it is a big problem for the village headman…" - a village head in a ‘Peace’ village in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
But the SPDC plans for Toungoo District go beyond simple military control - in February 2000 they announced in the media plans to develop the Karen hill town of Than Daung Gyi as a tourist ‘hill resort’ to attract both tourists from Rangoon (though few people outside the junta have the resources to take holidays) and international tourists. Immediately after the announcement, new Army battalions were moved in, land began being confiscated from the townspeople and surrounding villages, and people started doing forced labour on a road to the hot springs at Ker Weh. The local SPDC authorities have also announced a plan to place computers in the small number of high schools in the district, and that villagers will be expected to pay the cost for the project, which they have announced as 35 million Kyat (close to US$100,000 at market exchange rate, over US$5 million at official exchange rate). All this for what will probably be 4 or 5 computers. Orders have already begun being issued for villages in the region to hand over hundreds of thousands of Kyat apiece. [For details on these and other aspects of the situation in Toungoo District see "Peace Villages and Hiding Villages" (KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00).] This is nothing new, in fact it is typical of SPDC ‘development’ projects - the villagers are ordered to ‘contribute’ as much as 10 times the cost of the project, and then the computers will probably end up at the Township SPDC office or the Strategic Command. This is exactly what happened in 1995-96, when Apple Computer donated some Macintosh computers to the SLORC junta - several thousand dollars for each computer were extorted from local townspeople and villagers around Pa’an, but their children never got to use them; after a brief stay in the high school they were moved to the Township Law & Order Restoration Council (LORC) office. [See the KHRG report "Interviews on the School Situation" (KHRG #96-16, 10/5/00).]
"Secretary-3 Lt. Gen. Win Myint said longing for a cool and pleasant environment at the time the weather is too hot and yearning for a warm surrounding when the weather is frigid are the basic wants of the people. ... Thandaung which is 4,400 feet above the sea level is a suitable place to be developed into a hill station as it is surrounded by bluish green mountains and a favourable weather. ... Thus, Thandaung, a tea growing area, has been chosen to become a hill station. ... Thandaunggyi is 28 miles from Toungoo and has an area of over 1,000 acres. ... Eighteen private companies have made plans to develop the town to become a resort station within a year." - article in the SPDC-controlled media (The New Light of Myanmar, 12/2/00, pages 6 and 12)
"They plan to make Than Daung Gyi a resort for tourists, then they will get money from Than Daung Gyi. They are also going to keep their units and their families there. They are going to rebuild that place thoroughly. That is why they have moved the villagers and forced them to relocate somewhere else. They also took the villagers’ land and places like their tea leaf plantations." - KHRG field researcher in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"This year I made a hill field, but I didn’t get any paddy. When the Burmese came and saw that we were harvesting the paddy, they came to watch and kill us. We dared not harvest the paddy. They shot to kill us, but we dared not complain." - internally displaced villager in Toungoo District["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"The villagers have had to run as displaced people for many years already so it is very difficult for them to work. They don’t have enough rice and paddy and some of them are faced with starvation. The place where they live is between the SPDC army’s camps so it is difficult for them to travel. The SPDC have also planted a lot of landmines everywhere, so they don’t dare to travel very far." - field report from KHRG field researcher in Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
Slightly further south in the hills of Papun and eastern Nyaunglebin districts, the SLORC/SPDC began a campaign in 1997 to force all the villagers out of the hills by systematically shelling and burning their villages and killing villagers on sight [see the KHRG report "Wholesale Destruction", February 1998]. Approximately 200 hill villages were destroyed in the process, and tens of thousands of people began living on the run in the forest. They are still there. By 1999 their situation had stabilised somewhat, with many of them living in groups near the ruins of their villages, growing what crops they could in their old fields and dodging SPDC columns and landmines. However, in September/October 1999 the SPDC sent more battalions into the area to wipe out as many villagers as possible. Deliberately timing their operations for the late 1999 rice harvest when villagers would be easily visible harvesting the hillside fields in groups, the SPDC columns moved through the hills shooting at families who were harvesting, then landmining the fields and burning the villagers’ shelters after they had fled. Villages which had been rebuilt and villages near Meh Way which had escaped being burned in 1997 were burned, and the troops specifically hunted out villagers’ rice stockpiles and burned them or dumped them on the ground [see KHRG Information Update #2000-U1, April 25th 2000]. As a result, now the villagers are not only in hiding and on the run, but they are also beginning to starve. With all of the SPDC patrols and the increasing numbers of landmines dotting the region, only a small trickle of aid sent across the border from Thailand has managed to reach them. It is estimated that well over 30 SPDC Battalions are now patrolling the region, and it is becoming harder all the time for the villagers to escape. KHRG researchers have already conducted over 100 interviews with people in the region and those who have managed to escape to Thailand and we are still gathering additional information for a comprehensive update on the situation which we hope to release in December 2000.
"[T]hey are destroying the paddy and rice. We managed to reap some of our paddy, but then we fled. We had to leave all the paddy that we couldn’t reap. … The enemy troops came and searched and found our paddy barns. When they saw the paddy barns, they took everything. The villagers keep boxes and rice inside and they took it all. They burned down all the paddy barns that they saw. They leave nothing. When they see our chickens, pigs, and buffaloes, they eat some and some they don’t eat, they just shoot them dead." - 31 year old internally displaced villager in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
"They wrote a letter telling us to go back and cooperate with them. We did not go back, and they said if we did not go back to cooperate with them by the deadline which they told us, they would do worse and worse things to us. They said they will cut off our roots and energy [destroy their houses and food]. … If they want us to go back and cooperate with them, then they shouldn’t be planting landmines in our villages and shooting dead all the people, including women and children. … On the [deadline] date that I mentioned before, they came and planted landmines again, but they said that they never plant landmines. They do, though, and we should all see through what they say." - 40 year old internally displaced villager in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
"They had fled and stayed at the source of a river named the Saw Theh Loh Kloh. It was time to cook for the afternoon and they thought they would cook. They chopped some firewood. The enemy came to watch and listen, then came out of the jungle and shot at the place where they were living. When the soldiers opened fire, they fled. xxxx’s wife was carrying their small son, who was in her arms and sucking milk. When the enemy shot him, it hit him directly in his neck and a part of his head chipped off." - 31 year old internally displaced villager in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
"The villagers were all fleeing separate ways. We dared not go back to get our things. We couldn’t see each other. The Burmese met me first. They shot at me with a small gun [assault rifle]. They shot at me with a small gun two times when they started shooting. After that, they shelled us with a big weapon [a mortar]. It hit a young girl, an older Auntie and me all at the same time. It hit me on the hand. The shell hit the girl in her thigh. She fell down and didn’t speak anymore when I looked at her face. Her name was Naw Dah. The whole side of her thigh was broken. She didn’t die well. They shot and killed her with a small gun later. … The villagers were searching for each other for two days. I was so hungry. I didn’t eat rice for two and a half days. I didn’t eat anything. I was afraid and didn’t dare to make noise. We stayed like that." - 35 year old internally displaced Karen woman describing what happened when SPDC troops found their group of hiding villagers [upcoming KHRG report]
"If they see us, they shoot at us. They treat us as the enemy. They order us to go to their place, but we don’t go so we are the enemy. They don’t let us stay in the jungle." - 63 year old villager hiding in the forest in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
To support these intensive military operations and similar operations in other districts, the SPDC has been forcibly conscripting large numbers of people to do forced labour portering military munitions and supplies along with the Army columns. However, as so many villagers are in hiding and they cannot catch many of them to be porters, they have had to find more systematic ways of bringing porters in from outside. One of their methods has become apparent through KHRG interviews with escaped porters in the field, and involves using ‘labour agents’ to shanghai people from the trains going between Rangoon and Mandalay. They trick young men with the promise of a job or grab anyone caught in Toungoo without a ticket, then once they have accumulated 10 or 12 men they sell them to the police, who pay the agents 3-4,000 Kyat per head with money they have extorted out of local villagers as bribes to avoid portering labour. The police then hand them over to the Army for an indefinite shift of unpaid portering into the hills. In addition to this, both Burmans and Karens from central Burma and Karen State are rounded up for any small infraction and handed over to the Army.
"The porter broker sold us for 4,500 Kyat each. The police gave money to the porter broker, and then he gave money to us - 1,000 Kyat each. He said it was ‘part payment in advance’. I spent one night in the police station. When the total reached 15 people, they sent us in a group by truck. … The soldiers were waiting for us. After we were handed over to the soldiers, they sent us at once." - escaped porter from Rangoon Division who was taken from a train in Toungoo and forced to porter in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
Even these methods do not provide enough porters for all the Battalions, so the SPDC has also turned to the prisons. More and more convict porters are beginning to appear with SPDC columns in Karen State, from prisons everywhere between Moulmein and Mandalay. They are serving sentences for anything from curfew violations to murder, but once taken as porters they are kept until they escape or die, regardless of when their sentence ends. One escaped convict porter told KHRG he had been pulled from the prison just weeks before the end of his sentence and sent for what he soon realised was to be an indefinite period of portering. The SPDC has now further formalised this process by creating what are known as ‘Won Saung’ porter battalions or porter-gathering camps, which are essentially transit holding camps for convict porters. Hundreds of convicts are brought to these holding camps behind SPDC lines in the ethnic states, and SPDC Columns can then take as many porters as they need when they head out into the remoter areas. When interviewed, escaped convicts have described ‘Won Saung 1’ and ‘Won Saung 2’ near Pa’an town in central Karen State, and another Won Saung camp near Thaton in Mon State, but there are almost certainly others elsewhere. Escaped convict porters have described to KHRG researchers how they had to carry supplies and food looted from villages and were forced to dig foxholes and pound the looted rice for the soldiers. They witnessed soldiers abusing villagers, and one of them described to KHRG how he and other porters were kicked, beaten, slapped and verbally abused by SPDC soldiers who told them, "As far as we’re concerned, you’re already dead." Once taken as porters, the convicts are treated with unrestrained brutality, and it is not uncommon for one or more of a group of convict porters to die every day along the way.
"Before we reached Kyaikdon I couldn’t walk anymore. We were not so far from a village. My cheek was trembling badly. I told them I couldn’t carry anymore and I fell down with the basket of mines. They picked up the mines, the basket and me and then kicked me with their feet. When they saw I was tired, they pounded me on the back with their gun butts and I turned face up. They took off my basket and put it beside me. It is still painful when I am talking. They stepped on my neck three times and they kicked my buttocks many times. They left me like that. I don’t know if they thought I was dead and left me because I lost consciousness and later I remembered nothing. I had been left there." - a 28-year-old Burman convict from Pegu Division who was in Lashio Prison serving a one-year sentence for being out after the 9 p.m. curfew, and was taken to porter in Dooplaya District [upcoming KHRG report]
"They gathered all the prisoners from Mandalay and Meiktila prisons together. There were about 500 prisoners at that time. They divided us at Pa’an, Won Saung 2. They divided all of us and gave us to the Army units, so the Army units took us and ordered us to carry loads over the mountains. They ordered us to carry shells, bullets and rations. If we could not climb up the mountains, they beat and abused us. Some of the porters’ hands were broken and one porter died at that time." - a 46-year-old Karen convict taken from Mandalay Prison in May 2000 just before the end of his 1-year sentence for stealing a bicycle, and sent as a porter to Pa’an District [upcoming KHRG report]
"Theft - because of not having enough rice. Rice is very expensive. Everything is expensive. If you have a good job, you can eat but have no clothes to wear. So people do anything, and their lives are destroyed and some become convicts." - an escaped convict porter answering the question, ‘Which crime were the largest number of Insein Prison inmates in for?’ ["Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)]
Though it is the SPDC soldiers who inflict all of this abuse, the rank and file soldiers themselves are also victims. Most of the soldiers in the SPDC Army today were coerced or literally kidnapped into the Army, many of them when they were only aged 14 or 15. Once in, they are isolated from the outside world, their officers steal most of their pay and their rations and order them to get their food from the villages, and they are threatened with beatings for failing to round up enough forced labourers. It is no wonder that villagers describe wild-eyed recruits storming the village, hungry and frightened, grabbing every bit of food in sight and rounding up children, the elderly, nursing mothers and anyone else who can’t run fast enough to go for forced labour at the Army camp. The motivation to flee life in the SPDC Army is well expressed by this young Karen from the Irrawaddy Delta who was forced into the SPDC Army when he was 17 by a recruiter who got him drunk, kidnapped him and told him he would go to prison as a ‘spy’ if he tried to refuse:
"Aung Gyi gave very strong orders. He said, ‘Don’t pity them, look after them, think of them as your siblings or love the villagers. You are a soldier and you have to force them like a soldier.’ Because of this, I ordered and forced the villagers to work. … The other group led by Aung Gyi was almost finished harvesting, but my group still had a lot to do. That is why he didn’t talk to me when we ate lunch in the afternoon. One day when we arrived back in the evening and stood in line [for evening roll-call], the big Thra [‘Teacher’] Aung Gyi called me out of line. He didn’t call my name. He called me ‘Kayin’ [the word for Karen in Burmese, but here used derogatorily to single him out from the ethnic Burmans]. He said, ‘Kayin! Come out in front.’ Then he punched me two times and asked me, ‘Do you know your mistake?’ I said I didn’t know. He said, ‘You go. We asked you to lead the civilians at work, however, you go and stay with them like they are your parents and siblings, so the civilians are staying happily.’ I said, ‘Big Thra, when we ask them to work, we only have to ask them a little. I am a soldier, but they are human the same as me. I pity them.’ He screwed up his face at me and shouted, ‘Nga loh ma Kayin!’ [‘I fuck the mothers of Karens!’]. Since then, whenever he scolded me, he said, ‘Nga loh ma Kayin!’ or ‘Nga loh ma Kayin a’myo!’ [‘I fuck the mothers of the Karen nationality!’] That is why I hate him. If I am not good, then call my name and revile me. I am a soldier. I am a Burmese soldier. When he scolded the Burman soldiers, he called their names and scolded them. But for me, he called my nationality and reviled my people. I began thinking that when I was staying in my village, I was staying with Karen, with Pwo Karen. I couldn’t tolerate it when the Burmese tormented the Karen. I don’t have any belongings or education. I get knowledge from other people by watching them. That is why when I arrived in the Karen area I behaved as a Burmese soldier. Then I was the one who was bad. When Aung Gyi spoke to me, it was as though to the whole Karen nationality, including my parents, my friends and siblings. I was thinking to myself, I am working for this and one day when the fighting is finished, there will be no name for me. If they achieve victory and call the country a name, they will call it Burmese country, and there will be no name for me [everyone will be ‘Burmese’ and he will no longer be able to call himself Karen]. That is why I decided that if I have to stay far from my parents I can. I will leave and find my people. It was decided. Later, one of the Burmans wanted to follow me. He said, ‘Brother-in-law, I will follow you. If you go, call me also.’" - KHRG interview with a young deserter, to be published in upcoming reports on Papun District and SPDC deserters [upcoming KHRG report]
His experience is far from unique, and the SPDC Army is suffering from a rapid increase in desertion among rank and file soldiers. Rather than trying to deal with this problem by treating its soldiers better and improving their morale, the Army is simply showering them with threats - that they will be executed if caught, that their families will be arrested, that the Karen resistance will tear them to pieces. The Army is also threatening village leaders that any village suspected of harbouring deserters will be severely punished, as is made clear in the following excerpt from an order document sent to village elders in Pa’an District in March 2000 from the SPDC’s Light Infantry Battalion #xxx:
"If one or two of our Army people run away from the Column Company and arrive at the village, reassure them and coax them nicely, then when they aren’t looking beat them until they lose consciousness. Then give their weapons to the nearest Column. When you are doing this, if the soldier dies, we won’t take action and we will even give you a reward. … If you do not follow and carry out as specified above, we will designate the village as being in contact with rebels and take serious action under articles of the law. Moreover, we will take action up to and including the destruction and relocation of the village. Letting you know and informing you." - Order document issued to villages in Pa’an District in March 2000 ["SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B" (KHRG #2000-04, 12/10/00), Order #10]
"After that the soldiers captured the deserters in xxxx village. The villagers from xxxx came and told us that after the soldiers captured the two deserters they beat, kicked and tortured them until they bled and their faces became swollen until they couldn’t see, then the soldiers killed them." - field report from KHRG field researcher, August 2000 ("Peace Villages and Hiding Villages" (KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00)]
The order document quoted above is one of 257 such orders published in "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B" (KHRG #2000-04, 12/10/00), almost all of them dated within the past 6 months. Combined with those published by KHRG in February as "Set 2000-A", this brings to well over 500 the number of SPDC order documents which we have published this year - yet even these are only a tiny sample of all of those sent to village elders each week. They include demands for forced labour as porters, camp and road sentries, messengers, Army camp servants, and building and maintaining roads, as well as demands for money, food, building materials and crop quotas, and threats to shell villages or shoot village heads for failure to comply.
"Money remaining to pay for donation to the Battalion for 2/2000 = 3,300 K [Kyat] and for 3/2000 = 8,325 K, the total is 11,625 K. The month has ended, so arrange it within one week, you are informed." - written order demanding routine monthly extortion from a village head in Dooplaya District, April 2000 [Order #134, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"[S]end (28) ironwood posts to arrive at the Township Peace and Development Council office on 10-6-2000 (without fail), you are informed." - written order to a village head in Dooplaya District, June 2000; each post had to be 3-5 metres long [Order #134, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"Why did the ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labourers] not come this morning? Ma xxxx should bring 6 ‘loh ah pay’ people per village. Also bring mattocks and machetes, village head." - written order to a village headwoman in Pa’an District, September 2000 [Order #83, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"As soon as you receive this letter, Chairperson yourself must come to yyyy Army Camp. If not, [we] will fire a big weapon into the village." - order document from an Army Camp Commander to a village elder in Toungoo District, early September 2000 [Order #234, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
Taken as a whole, these sets of orders show how impossible it is for villagers to live under direct SPDC control, even in areas where there is no fighting going on. Each village faces demands from several different Army camps and the village tract, township and state-level authorities all at once. Even if a village head wants to comply with all of them, it is impossible - and that is when the threats come into effect, often giving people little choice but to flee the village. The orders in Set 2000-B relating to rice quotas may not be the most dramatic in the set, but they give an example of the type of economic extortion which is ripping apart farming villages in Burma, roughly what the SPDC’s Brigadier-General Zaw Tun (shortly before he was purged for saying it) recently referred to as "killing me softly with the system". Under this system, farmers are forced to hand over 12-15 baskets of paddy rice per acre, regardless of how much acreage they were able to plant or what their yield was. They are supposed to be paid about half of market price for this paddy, but the SPDC’s paddy collection officials steal up to 80% of that. If they have a bad crop the quota can amount to more than their whole yield, but no exemptions are given: if they fail to pay the full quota for any reason, they have to pay the balance out of the next crop, plus 17% per annum interest. There have been droughts and floods for the past 3 years in large parts of Burma, so this system has left thousands of farmers little choice but to sell their livestock and belongings to buy rice to pay the quota, or to go into a spiral of debt at 17% per annum from which most of them never recover without losing their land. They and their children survive on rice gruel, while the SPDC feeds its Army and exports the rest of their rice, using rice exports as proof to the international community that the economy is "on the right track".
"In accordance with the agreement, the seller will sell paddy according to the quality specifications fixed by the buyer. … If the seller completely or partially fails to sell any of the paddy quota due to unpreventable natural disasters, it is agreed as follows: … For the matter of complete failure to sell the paddy, the seller will sell the amount of paddy agreed in this agreement from the upcoming dry season paddy. If the dry season paddy cannot fulfil the quota, then it will be fulfilled by the upcoming rainy season paddy. … [T]here will be an interest rate of 17 Kyat per 100 Kyat [17%] per annum, counted from the last date mentioned in Paragraph 6, and the amount will be deducted from the paddy sold to the buyer. The interest will be calculated in paddy…" - quote from SPDC ‘paddy purchasing’ (quota) agreement; [Order #159, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
Set 2000-B contains over 80 orders with direct demands for many different forms of forced labour at Army camps, on roads and around villages. They date from July 1999 to late September 2000, the vast majority of them having been issued in the latter half of this period. Every one of them was issued well after May 14th 1999, which is when the SPDC claims to have issued ‘Order 1/99’ to all of their military and administrative units to halt conscription of forced labour under the Village Act and the Towns Act, colonial-era laws which allow authorities to press-gang labour under certain circumstances. In practice, these Acts are never even referred to when SPDC units conscript forced labour, and there has been no abatement whatsoever in the flow of orders to villages demanding all forms of forced labour. The SPDC claimed that ‘Order 1/99’ specified punishments for officers who continued to demand forced labour, but in the early months of 2000 even they admitted that not one officer or official had been charged.
"To rebuild the bridge along the Yay Dta Gone-Paleh Wah road, Chairperson (or) Secretary must bring 10 ‘loh ah pay’ persons and report to yyyy Army Camp on 3-9-2000 (Sunday) at 0600 hours without fail, you are informed." - SPDC Army order sent to a village head in Toungoo District in September 2000; ‘loh ah pay’ means voluntary labour on community projects, but is used by the SPDC to refer to forced labour [Order #82, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"[T]he Gentlemen’s villages were assigned to irrigation ditches and stone production duties, but until today [you] haven’t been working, so you are informed again to send one ‘loh ah pay’ person from each family, bringing machetes / mattocks / pickaxes / shovels / baskets and food and supplies for 5 days to the LIB xxx [camp] on 10-8-2000 at 9 o’clock in the morning without fail. … If [you] fail, it will be the village leaders’ responsibility." - SPDC Army order document sent to a village head in Pa’an District in August 2000 [Order #73, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"[We] Have already informed [you] to send ‘loh ah pay’ to yyyy camp to arrive on 14-7-00, but [we] saw that [you] didn’t send them. … The Chairperson/Secretary yourself must go to report the information to yyyy camp about why [you] didn’t send them, and bring with you 20 people for ‘loh ah pay’ as was specified, to arrive on 17-7-00 at 8 o’clock in the morning. … If [you] fail again, serious action will be taken. … 20 people for ‘loh ah pay’, with rations for 3 days…" - SPDC order sent to a village head in Dooplaya District, July 2000 [Order #68, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
"Dear Secretary, you are informed to send 40 ‘loh ah pay’ people from the village tomorrow (24th). The Secretary is also informed to come together [with the workers] to #xxx [Light Infantry Battalion]." - SPDC order sent to a village head in Pa’an District in late September 2000 [Order #90, "SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2000-B"]
The SPDC’s systematic use of millions of civilians for forced labour while denying that it even exists has drawn increasing condemnation and pressure from the international community, led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which has given the SPDC until November 2000 to take concrete steps against forced labour or face ILO sanctions and systematic pressure. The SPDC has responded with vitriol, attacking the ILO and anyone they can think of who provides evidence of forced labour, including KHRG. When a resolution on human rights in Burma was drafted at the latest session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the SPDC representatives reacted most violently not to the charges of murder, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, village destruction or harassment of the democratic opposition, but to the words mentioning the ILO’s efforts to stop forced labour. Some people have asked why this issue seems to anger the SPDC more than any other, and why the SPDC doesn’t simply do something about forced labour in order to gain international acceptance. The answer, as explained below, is that unlike many other forms of abuse, forced labour is one of the main foundations of the junta’s rule.
"For ‘loh ah pay’ [forced labour] they demand villagers as they need them, but always 10 people have to go to work at the camp daily [there is a daily rotation as well as periodic calls for extra labourers]. When they go, they [the SPDC soldiers] order them to fix everything that’s broken in the camp and force them to dig trenches and bunkers. If they don’t have any other work that needs doing, they order them to carry water and break firewood for them. When the women go to work for them, they order them to pound paddy and cook for them. They don’t feed us rice…" - villager from Dooplaya District ["Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)]
This makes forced labour fundamental to the SPDC’s rule, and it also makes forced labour one of their Achilles’ heels - which is why it is so important for the world to keep pressing them on it. It is almost certain that before the end of November 2000 the SPDC will pretend to issue another ‘Order 1/99’ or make some other move to derail the ILO pressure, but it is equally certain that it will not be a sincere step forward. They won’t easily do much about forced labour, but pressure on issues like these, if it’s strong enough and maintained, could be what leads to an end in the political deadlock. In the meantime, Brigadier-General Abel will continue to say "there is no problem" and Foreign Minister Win Aung will continue to delude himself about Burma’s "happy people", while the people become more and more desperate until they have nothing left to lose…
"We are not evil persons as portrayed by some. We are loving, caring and kind-hearted human beings. … Peace prevails throughout the length and breadth of the country like never before. … What we have is a happy people." - SPDC foreign minister Win Aung speaking in July 2000 at a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); quoted from Reuters, 27/7/2000
"We can’t do anything with this stupid government. They are holding guns, so we have to stay quietly. … Groups of the SPDC are not making things easy for us. They are finding our faults, and if we have faults they call us and demand things." - villager from Toungoo District ["Peace Villages and Hiding Villages"]
"There is no plan to get peace. The enemy has a plan, though. It is that when they come we have to flee and escape. If we do not escape, we must die. That is the only plan." - 70 year old villager interviewed in hiding in the forest in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
Many villagers find that they can no longer survive life under the demands of the SPDC or life in hiding in the forests, and they create a steady stream of refugees across the border to Thailand. For the past few years, the unwritten rule of the game has been that those who can make it to a refugee camp are admitted, but those who encounter the Thai Army first are forced back across the border at gunpoint and those who encounter the Thai Police first are arrested, detained in Immigration Detention prisons, robbed and then deported. As the stream of refugees grows in size, however, Thai authorities have created means to force back even those refugees who make it to refugee camps. First they created crowded and unpleasant ‘holding centres’ for new arrivals, then ‘provincial admission boards’ to rule on the cases of those in the holding centres. The board members are drawn from the military, border police, National Security Council and local administration, none of whom know anything whatsoever about refugees or the situation in Burma nor have any training in refugee law. In most cases, the boards reject at least 80% of new arrivals out of hand, and they do not consider any cases individually; decisions are made based more on orders from Bangkok than on the reasons for flight of the refugees.
"The meaning of ‘have to go to a refugee camp’ is like this; if you ask people to go to a refugee camp, they don’t want to go. When we look at the movements of the enemy, they shoot at us and lay landmines, so we dare not travel. But some people think that even if we stay here like this, one time a person will die, and another time a person will lose a leg. It is not easy for people to stay here either, so we heard that they will go." - 40 year old internally displaced villager in Nyaunglebin District [upcoming KHRG report]
Until recently, no action was taken to repatriate the new refugees rejected by the boards, but now this has changed. In the worst example to date, a group of 152 Karen refugees comprising 29 families were forced to leave Noh Po refugee camp and begin marching toward the border on August 17th 2000. All of them had fled forced relocations, arbitrary killings of villagers and the confiscation of their entire rice crop by the Army in Dooplaya District [see "Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00)], but this was not taken into account by the provincial admission board. Despite active protests by foreign embassies and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Thai soldiers marched the whole group out of the camp. Going was very slow because August is mid-rainy season, rain was falling, and the paths over the hills were slippery and dangerous mudholes. Most of the group were women and small children, and people were carrying whatever they could. It took the soldiers 5 days to march them to a place where they could be forced across the border, a place where there was no way for them to build proper houses because of the ongoing rains. By late September some of the refugees had fled back into Thailand again, saying that some of the children had already died. Yet there is no sign that there are any plans to change the policy of provincial admission boards or forced repatriations, nor any sign of an international call for the authorities to be held responsible for these actions. Instead, the Thai National Security Council has begun agitating very strongly for the forced repatriation of all Karen refugees within the next 2-3 years.
"I dared not stay in the village because I fear them and I couldn’t meet their demands. I went to the jungle to hide, but with the Burmese patrolling a lot, I couldn’t stand it. I heard that they met a villager in Toh Kee and killed him. They saw him in a hut and demanded, ‘If you are a good person come back here, don’t run away.’ The villager came near them and they ordered him to open his mouth. He opened his mouth and they put their pistol in it, then fired it to kill him." - villager from the same part of Dooplaya District as the 152 refugees who were forcibly repatriated in August 2000 ["Starving Them Out" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00])
Printed copies of all of the above reports are availably by request upon approval from KHRG, providing the costs of production and mailing are covered.