ABUSE UNDER ORDERS: The SPDC and DKBA Armies Through the Eyes of their Soldiers

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ABUSE UNDER ORDERS: The SPDC and DKBA Armies Through the Eyes of their Soldiers

Published date:
Tuesday, March 27, 2001

This report looks at the armies of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta ruling Burma and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen group allied with the SPDC, through the eyes of their own soldiers who have fled: the recruitment, the training, life in the battalions, relations with villagers and other groups, and their views on Burma’s present and future situation. What we find, particularly in the SPDC’s ‘Tatmadaw’ (Army), is conscription and coercion of children, systematic physical and psychological abuse by the officers, endemic corruption, and the rank and file of an entire Army forced into a system of brutality toward civilians. According to Tatmadaw deserters, one third or more of SPDC soldiers are children, morale among the rank and file is almost nonexistent, and half or more of the Army would desert if they thought they could survive the attempt. The Tatmadaw has expanded rapidly since repression of the democracy movement and the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, former name of the SPDC) in 1988. The Armed Forces as a whole have expanded from an estimated strength of 180,000 to over 400,000, making it the second-largest military in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Military camps and soldiers are now common all over Burma, especially in the non-Burman ethnic states and divisions. With this increased military presence has come a rise in the scale of abuses and corruption committed by the Army. To achieve this military expansion, children as young as nine or ten are taken into the Army, trained and sent to frontline battalions. Of the six SPDC deserters interviewed for this report, five were under the age of 17 when they joined the Tatmadaw.

This report looks at the armies of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta ruling Burma and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen group allied with the SPDC, through the eyes of their own soldiers who have fled: the recruitment, the training, life in the battalions, relations with villagers and other groups, and their views on Burma’s present and future situation. What we find, particularly in the SPDC’s ‘Tatmadaw’ (Army), is conscription and coercion of children, systematic physical and psychological abuse by the officers, endemic corruption, and the rank and file of an entire Army forced into a system of brutality toward civilians. According to Tatmadaw deserters, one third or more of SPDC soldiers are children, morale among the rank and file is almost nonexistent, and half or more of the Army would desert if they thought they could survive the attempt. The Tatmadaw has expanded rapidly since repression of the democracy movement and the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, former name of the SPDC) in 1988. The Armed Forces as a whole have expanded from an estimated strength of 180,000 to over 400,000, making it the second-largest military in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Military camps and soldiers are now common all over Burma, especially in the non-Burman ethnic states and divisions. With this increased military presence has come a rise in the scale of abuses and corruption committed by the Army. To achieve this military expansion, children as young as nine or ten are taken into the Army, trained and sent to frontline battalions. Of the six SPDC deserters interviewed for this report, five were under the age of 17 when they joined the Tatmadaw.

The Tatmadaw, despite its size, does very little fighting against opposition forces; instead, it targets its military operations against villagers in order to undermine the resistance and establish control. Its officers would rather spend most of their time using villagers and their own soldiers on money-making enterprises, or simply extorting money from the villagers. The soldiers of the Tatmadaw are often portrayed as mindless thugs and killers, but this over-simplifies the issue. Many of the common soldiers in the Tatmadaw are not willing volunteers, they must fight a war in which they have no interest, and they are forced by their officers and non-commissioned officers to abuse villagers. Throughout the time they are in the Army, they have their pay and equipment stolen by the officers and must watch as the officers get rich while the soldiers rarely have enough to eat. Any dissent, whether against this corruption or against the abuse of villagers, is met with verbal and physical abuse from the officers. A climate of fear is pervasive among the privates, which results in their committing acts which they might not otherwise do. Some units are worse than others, and in the particularly bad units, the soldiers are so brutalised that they take out their frustration on the nearest villagers. The officers are often content to let the soldiers do what they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with the officers’ lives or their profits. Most rank and file soldiers hate their situation but can see no way to escape it. Seeing no way out, some commit suicide. The desertion rate in the Army is soaring, but the penalty can be harsh if caught; often it is death.

The current situation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) is also covered in this report. A Karen splinter group formed in late 1994 with the support of the SLORC, it has acted as an arm of the SLORC/SPDC Army in subjugating villages in Karen areas, but also runs its own operations.

In order to produce this report, KHRG human rights researchers interviewed SPDC and DKBA deserters who fled from units in Pa’an and Papun Districts of Karen State. These testimonies are augmented by quotes from previous interviews with SPDC deserters and villagers. To see more reports concerning SPDC deserters, readers should see the KHRG reports "Interviews with SLORC Army Deserters" (KHRG #96-19, 18/5/96), "Testimony of SLORC Army Defectors" (7/8/94), "Comments by SLORC Army Defectors" (20/6/94) and "SLORC Abuses in Chin State" (KHRG #97-03, 15/3/97). Further background and information about the DKBA can be found in many KHRG reports, including "Inside the DKBA" (KHRG #96-14, 31/3/96), "Beyond All Endurance: The Breakup of Karen Villages in Southeastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #99-08, 20/12/99), "Uncertainty, Fear and Flight" (KHRG #98-08, 18/11/98), "Caught in the Middle: The Suffering of Karen Villagers in Thaton District" (KHRG #99-07, 15/9/99), and "Attacks on Karen Refugee Camps: 1998" (KHRG #98-04, 29/5/98). These reports are available on the KHRG web site (http://www.khrg.org/).

This report consists of several parts: this preface, an introduction and executive summary, a detailed description of the situation including quotes from interviews, and an index of interviews. An Appendix is also included giving a breakdown of units within the SPDC Army, the Tatmadaw. The full text of all interviews used in compiling this report is available as a separately published Annex, and can be obtained from KHRG upon approved request.