In an effort to drive a wedge between the villagers in northeastern Thaton district and the resistance forces of the KNU/KNLA (Karen National Union / Karen National Liberation Army), the SPDC continues to intimidate villagers with violence, threats and military retaliation. Information sent by KHRG field researchers indicates that in Bilin township, east of the Bilin River spanning the border of Mon and Karen States, soldiers are using innocent villagers in a campaign to gain complete control over the villages and defeat KNLA opposition forces. They are capturing and torturing civilians, forcing them to work for the army and committing many kinds of abuses. Interviews by KHRG have documented stories of exploitation and violence in Bilin township, fuelled by ongoing SPDC attempts to gain both military and financial advantage.
One SPDC strategy is to terrorise the villagers over any allegation of ties to the opposition army, no matter how spurious. A KHRG field researcher reports that in November 2000, SPDC troops abducted and tortured several villagers accused of having ties to the KNLA. The Light Infantry Battalion #1 soldiers entered Lah Soe Ko village in the nighttime, tied each of the accused villagers to a partner and brought them to Kyu Kee. The SPDC was acting on information given to them by the DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army - a Karen splinter group aligned with the SPDC] about which villagers were working with the KNU. Two men, Pa G--- and Pa K---, were tortured by the soldiers in an attempt to coerce them into revealing the whereabouts of Pa G---’s father, a health worker with the KNU. Battalion Commander Myint Lwin pressed the blade of his knife to their skin, nearly drawing blood, and pounded their stomachs with a large pestle. At first the men were able to prevail in their attempts to protect Pa G---’s father, but the Commander’s efforts soon proved unbearable and the villagers led the soldiers to the man’s house. On arrival in Pa G---’s father’s village, the soldiers found only a one-legged villager, whom they captured and brought back to Dta Meh Kee village. The SPDC troops then burned down three village huts, destroying the belongings of three families. They also confiscated medical supplies and equipment.
In another incident in November 2000, SPDC soldiers coerced three villagers into revealing the locations of KNLA personnel. They suspected that the three men, who had been captured to work as porters for the army, had information about KNLA operations and whereabouts. The SPDC tortured the villagers Pa M---, A--- and Saw L---. The Battalion #1 soldiers bound the men’s heads, beat them and poured gallons of water down their throats. The villagers were then forced to lead the troops through the jungle to a KNLA camp, where the SPDC shot at the KNLA soldiers.
In their ongoing efforts to cut ties between the Bilin township villagers and the KNLA, the SPDC uses threats and extortion to achieve their goals. One example documented by KHRG was in Noh K’Neh village. Light Infantry Battalion #1 demanded large sums of money from the villagers because they claimed a KNLA officer is married to one of the village women. The village had to pay 50,000 Kyat the first time and 40,000 Kyat in a subsequent visit. If the villagers cannot come up with the money, the SPDC officers threaten to relocate their village to an area closer to an SPDC army camp. The Noh K’Neh villagers call the battalion officer "Pa Set Daw", meaning "one who stabs people with his knife", because he is known to torture villagers by pressing his sharp knife blade against their skin to convince them to give him information. Such extortion is not just for strategic reasons; it appears that financial gain for the officers is an equally compelling motive on their part, because during torture money is frequently extorted from the villagers.
The township is also home to many seemingly random acts of violence perpetrated by SPDC soldiers, including rape. One 18-year-old village girl named Naw B--- was raped in her home by the SPDC during the June-October 2000 rainy season. While commonly committed, villagers don’t dare report incidents like this to officials due to their fears of retaliation.
The SPDC use the Karen villagers in the region as tactical pawns in their war against the KNLA. With every SPDC casualty or setback, a price is exacted on the civilians. If a soldier steps on a landmine, the villagers pay. If there is fighting with the KNU, homes may be ransacked and burned. If any of the troops are wounded in battle, the village might be fined, threatened or even destroyed. One less violent example occurred recently in Htoh Kloh Hta village. After a DKBA soldier was wounded in the area, SPDC and DKBA troops visited the village and demanded 200,000 Kyat, a very large sum by villagers’ standards. Although the villagers have scarcely the resources to feed their own families, they paid out of fear of the consequences if they refused.
Reports continue to surface from the area about an SPDC conscripted militia group composed of local villagers. Tha Gka Hsa Pa ("Anti-insurgency Group") units operate in Pa’an, Kyaikto and Thaton townships. According to Karen sources, this group may have begun with KNU/KNLA members who defected to the other side in the 1970s or 1980s. Many of its members are unarmed and function primarily to point out KNU sympathisers to SPDC and DKBA forces. They are meant to divide the Karen community as much as to protect the SPDC army and its interests. A villager interviewed by KHRG says that each village has to have four or five members in this militia. Karen villagers are lured onto this "security force" by SPDC offers that their families will be exempted from portering and other forms of forced labour, and the possibility of being issued a weapon (though most are not given weapons until they have been with the force for several years). The soldiers can then work on their fields in the day and perform their security duties at night. In July 2000, KNLA forces captured three Tha Gka Hsa Pa soldiers and took them to their camp. After having their weapons confiscated they were released, only to be jailed by the SPDC on their return. Over the years KHRG has also received reports from Thaton District and other parts of Karen State about an SPDC-run militia group called Pyitthu Sit ("People’s Army"), but it is unclear what if any relationship exists between the Pyitthu Sit and the Tha Gka Hsa Pa. Pyitthu Sit recruits are taken from villages and are given rudimentary military training, outfitted with basic weapons and ordered to guard the village. The village usually has to meet training expenses and supply food to the soldiers. Their only real military use seems to be serving as occasional cannon fodder in attacks on the KNLA. The use of these militia forces serves as another strategy to turn Karen against Karen, and is reminiscent of the Nazi use of Jews to police themselves during wartime Germany and similar divisive tactics used by dictatorships worldwide.
Villagers in Bilin township face great difficulties providing their families with enough food because of the actions of the SPDC army. They continue to grow their hillside rice crops, but whenever SPDC patrols come close, they flee into the jungle. The combination of working under this cloud of fear and being kept away from their work by forced labour projects allows them little time to properly maintain their crops. The amount and severity of forced labour tends to depend on each village’s distance from an SPDC army camp. But all villages have to send people on a regular basis to be unpaid army porters, workers or messengers and are forced to work making thatch roofing shingles, constructing camps or maintaining roads. This leaves them little time to work on their crops. Consequently the villagers, particularly the men, have to flee when troops visit the area. They live in fear of being captured and forced to work for the army. Many families have fled their villages entirely, seeking refuge in the surrounding jungle. Around 15 to 20 households have already done so from each of the villages of Baw Naw Po Kee, Ther Khaw Doh Kee, Ther Gkee Pu and Pleh Po Hta. Many villagers prefer this unpredictable life away from their villages and food sources to the constant threat posed by visits by the SPDC and DKBA troops.
In order to minimise the use of villages as KNLA resources, the SPDC have sporadically used forced village relocation to consolidate the Karen in selected SPDC strongholds. This also provides the army with a large, easily accessible pool of forced labourers. This can be accomplished first by oral or written demands, and later by burning and destroying the villages, driving some villagers to relocation sites and others to escape into the jungle. In recent years, they have destroyed the villages of Htee Mu Kee, Nya Po Kee, Kwih Lay Pu, Wah Tho Klah, Ther Rer Kee and many others.
For more background on the situation for villagers in Thaton District see "Caught in the Middle: The Suffering of Karen Villagers in Thaton District" (KHRG #99-07, 15/9/99). Photos from the area can be seen in KHRG Photo Set 2000A (June 2000) and in KHRG Photo Set 99-B (August 1999) under ‘Thaton District’. All of these are available on the Karen Human Rights Group website (www.khrg.org). Further details on the current situation in the region and interviews with some of the affected villagers will be presented in a future KHRG report.