Escalating abuses by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in northeastern Pa’an district, Karen State have forced a stream of families over the border into Thailand. In mid-January of this year, at least 13 families from Hlaing Bwe township fled their village and walked a day and a half across the mountains to cross into Thailand. Currently over 70 Karen villagers are gathered near a Thai Karen village and they have told KHRG that many more may soon arrive.
The new refugees come from the village of Meh Kreh located among the Dawna Mountains in eastern Hlaing Bwe township of central Karen State, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the town of Myawaddy and the Thai town of Mae Sot. Those interviewed by KHRG say they fled their village on January 15th and arrived in Thailand on the 16th. The villagers cited many motives for fleeing villages in the area, the most salient being the increasing use of forced labour by the SPDC. All villages in the area are compelled to send people for forced labour, the only variation being the degrees of severity and frequency. The conscripted workers are part of an SPDC effort to establish control over this contested area by constructing army camps and roads in the area. SPDC troops have frequently been demanding unpaid porters from villages, forcing them to carry rations, ammunition or other supplies up and down mountains. The porters are used to set up and supply the new and existing army camps and support troop movement. They are forced to carry loads weighing as much as 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and are often denied adequate food and drinking water. In the Shan Ywathit to Klay Mo Kee area, battalions from SPDC Light Infantry Division #22 ordered 10 villagers from every village to carry ammunition and supplies from Shan Ywathit and Ku Lu Hta to Kha Leh Dee, a 30 kilometre (20 mile) journey. This project continued from October to December 2000, and porters were recruited from each village about four times per month. The Meh Kreh villagers complained that SPDC troops forced them to work carrying rice to their army camp on the top of a nearby mountain. Each household was responsible for sacks of rice weighing 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds, and had to continue carrying until all the rice was delivered to the camp. In addition, an SPDC unit demanded the transport of 3,000 sacks of rice to their Kler Day army camp near the Moei River, which forms the border with Thailand.
Many villages also face forced recruitment of porters by the SPDC-allied DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) operating in their region. DKBA brigades #555 and 999 recently demanded 70 porters from villages in the Kwih Law Ploh area.
The painful burden of carrying immense loads is exacerbated by the villagers’ fears of landmines. Some porters are forced to walk in front of the military columns in order to clear mines, which are laid heavily in the area by all sides in the conflict: the SPDC, DKBA, and KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). At the end of November 2000, a Tee Ler Doh villager had his leg blown off while carrying supplies for the SPDC. In the high mountains between Shan Ywathit and Kha Leh Dee the SPDC and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have both planted many mines in an attempt to control each other’s movements. In December 2000 two soldiers from SPDC Light Infantry Battalion 201 were injured by mines. Consequently, at the beginning of January 2001, Major Win Naing, Column 2 commander of SPDC Light Infantry Battalion 201, summoned the village heads from Kwih Law Ploh, Dta Kreh Kee, Deik Kya, Meh Tha Po Kee, Kha Leh Dee, Day Law Ploh, Tha Wih Hta, Kleh Ka, Haw Tee Po, Tee Ler Doh, Meh Pu Hta, and Meh Kreh villages and ordered them to clear parts of the mountain of landmines. The village heads were threatened with forced relocation to Ywa Po Hta, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) to their southwest, if they failed to carry out these orders. Villagers were understandably distressed over the ultimatum and many decided to flee to Thailand. Back in Hlaing Bwe township, the village heads have been attempting to exempt their villages from the order by offering large sums of money to LIB 201.
Unable to bear the danger and hardship of working as porters, some villagers have fled into the jungle. If caught, the porter can face harsh punishment or even death. A villager from the neighbouring township of T’Nay Hsah told KHRG that an older porter who tried to flee from the SPDC was recaptured and tortured. SPDC soldiers bound his hands behind his back, force-fed him massive amounts of salt and rice and forced water down his throat. Then they beat him with a gun, released him and fined him chicken and rice. The fact that people risk recapture, retribution and a flight through a jungle rife with land mines attests to the desperation of the situation for porters.
In addition to their conscription as porters, villagers in Hlaing Bwe township are enduring an increasing burden of additional forced labour duties including constructing army camps, building and maintaining roads, cutting and transporting wood and bamboo, farming for the Army, making and delivering thatch roofing shingles, and acting as unarmed sentries along the roads.
Since December 2000, LIB 201 has forced villagers to work around their army camp at Kha Leh Dee. Villagers have to clear the ground, build fences, dig bunkers and cut down and haul trees and bamboo and then use the materials to construct buildings. By mid-January two buildings were complete and a third had been started. The buildings will likely be used as storage warehouses and are very large in scale, measuring about 70 by 25 metres. At least 80 villagers are there constructing the buildings every day. Each village sends 5 to 10 villagers for three day rotating shifts. Female villagers are also involved, with every family sending someone three times a month for three day shifts to make thatch shingles to roof the buildings.
To facilitate the delivery of supplies to the army camps being established in the area, the SPDC is pushing the construction of a road from Shan Ywathit to Kha Leh Dee and on to Klay Mo Kee. Since October 2000, construction has involved the use of 10 to 20 villagers from each village near the road site. Workers included children as young as 13 or 14 years old. As is the usual case, villagers have to bring their own tools, materials and food. Work days last for about 9 hours and, of course, are unpaid. The work is made more treacherous for villagers who are sent ahead of the bulldozer in order to clear the route of landmines. The SPDC brought in the bulldozer to help with the road work but apparently values the safety of the machine more than the lives of the villagers. The villagers’ fears over the prospect of working as minesweepers also means more money for the SPDC officers, as they collect fees in lieu of work from those who don’t dare to go. Another notable forced labour project in the township is bridge construction at Meh Kheh Kloh and Tee Hsaw Meh.
For the villagers, forced labour bears the risks of being beaten or killed by soldiers as well as enduring severe health problems from overexertion and exposure to disease. But on an even greater scale, it takes them away from their farm work. Overtaxed villagers face severe difficulties feeding themselves due the increasing demands placed on them by the military. This problem is compounded by the actions of SPDC and DKBA troops when they arrive in villages. Soldiers relentlessly loot food and belongings from villagers who can no longer afford to resupply themselves. They have taxed, fined and robbed the villagers into severe poverty. Making things worse, the villagers from Meh Kreh say they had heard that a well-known DKBA commander named Moe Kyo (meaning ‘Lightning’ in Burmese) is to come to their area. Moe Kyo is infamous for ordering the burning of houses and the execution of villagers in other areas on the slightest suspicion of any contact between any village and the KNLA.
The SPDC have made it very clear that they will stop at nothing short of complete control of the villages. Their continued attempts to strengthen their hold on the area means an increase in the use of forced labour, looting, extortion, landmines and brutality. As the situation in the Dawna mountains of eastern Hlaing Bwe township stands, villagers face a choice between starvation, violence and utter desperation or an unpredictable and dangerous flight to the Thai border. And at present, it still remains unclear whether Thai authorities will grant asylum to these refugees or not.
The information above is drawn from interviews conducted by KHRG, with significant additional information provided by the field researchers of the Federated Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB). For background on the situation in Meh Kreh and the surrounding villages, see "Uncertainty, Fear and Flight: The Current Human Rights Situation in Eastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98). Additional information on the situation in the larger region can be found in "Beyond All Endurance: The Breakup of Karen Villages in Southeastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #99-08, 20/12/99). Photos from the area can be seen in KHRG Photo Set 99-B (August 1999) under ‘Pa’an District’.