Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts, Karen State: Internally displaced villagers cornered by 40 SPDC Battalions; Food shortages, disease, killings and life on the run

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Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts, Karen State: Internally displaced villagers cornered by 40 SPDC Battalions; Food shortages, disease, killings and life on the run

Published date:
Monday, April 9, 2001

This Information Update provides an overview of Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts, including abuses against villagers by SPDC forces including attacks on villages and villagers, killing, forced relocation, theft and looting, refugee movements and forced labour. Since the end of the rainy season in October 2000, the SPDC has intensified its campaign to destroy once again any villages which have been rebuilt and to hunt out the villagers in hiding. The columns look for villagers harvesting rice, open fire on them and landmine their fields or uproot their crops, and hunt out and destroy any hidden rice supplies. There are at present approximately 40 SPDC Battalions involved in this operation, making the food and security situation for the villagers in hiding extremely desperate. It is extremely difficult to place exact numbers on those internally displaced in these two districts, but the number could now be 50,000 or even more.

In the hills of northern Papun District and eastern Nyaunglebin District in northern Karen State, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta began a campaign in 1997 to eliminate resistance activity and gain control by wiping out the small Karen villages which dot the remote hills. Army columns of several hundred troops went from village to village, firing mortar shells into the villages without warning, then shelling the streambeds where they knew villagers would run, and entering the villages to loot and burn all the houses. In 1997/98 close to 200 villages were destroyed this way. The villagers fled into hiding in the hills, while SPDC columns came to hunt them, shoot them on sight and destroy their hidden food supplies and their fields [for details see "Wholesale Destruction" (KHRG, April 1998)]. Since then, many people have remained in hiding in the forests while others have managed to rebuild on the burned ruins of their villages, but they must always flee whenever SPDC troops come near.

Since the end of the rainy season in October 2000, the SPDC has intensified its campaign to destroy once again any villages which have been rebuilt and to hunt out the villagers in hiding. The columns look for villagers harvesting rice, open fire on them and landmine their fields or uproot their crops, and hunt out and destroy any hidden rice supplies. There are at present approximately 40 SPDC Battalions involved in this operation, making the food and security situation for the villagers in hiding extremely desperate. It is extremely difficult to place exact numbers on those internally displaced in these two districts, but the number could now be 50,000 or even more.

Nyaunglebin District

Since the beginning of January 2001, over 2,000 villagers have fled eastern Shwegyin township in Nyaunglebin Distict and crossed into Papun District near the Bilin River, where they now live in the hill fields in hiding. One large group consists of most of the villagers in the Loh Kee/Thay Ko Hser Der area, who fled in early January when a large column of SPDC troops from Light Infantry Battalion #369 came and stayed in their villages for a week, looting and destroying food supplies. According to a KHRG researcher and villagers in the area, the SPDC Battalions have been ordered to clear out all hill villages west of the Bilin River by any means necessary. Where possible, the villagers are to be forced to move to Army-controlled sites further west for use as forced labour building and maintaining more Army posts, but in most cases the villagers flee before the troops arrive and go into hiding in the hills, so the Army columns shoot them on sight instead. The Army appears to believe that if all villagers can be driven out of the hills, it will no longer be possible for any resistance to operate there. To this end, their military attacks are all aimed at villagers and the internally displaced rather than the Karen forces, and their landmines are planted around ricefields and the ruins of villages where they believe the villagers will return.

One villager from a village in Loh Kee village tract told a KHRG researcher a typical story of SPDC abuses leading to the flight of villagers. West of his village, SPDC activity has been increasing as troops step up their use of forced labour and violent harassment of the villagers. Then an army unit from Shwegyin came to the village during the harvest season at the end of 2000. All of the villagers fled before their arrival out of fear that the soldiers would arrest and torture them, force them to work or just kill them on sight. After staying in the villagers’ homes for a week, the soldiers walked off with whatever rice they could carry and destroyed the rest by dumping it on the ground, devastating the village’s already dwindling food supply. The villagers eventually fled into Papun District, to join 60 or more families who had fled the other villages in their area.

Slightly further north in Kyauk Kyi township of Nyaunglebin District, many villagers are always on the move. Villagers leave their homes for periods of time ranging from hours to months, waiting for troops to leave the area. One villager from eastern Kyauk Kyi township described to a KHRG researcher the cat and mouse game they must play whenever SPDC columns come into the region, fleeing from one hiding place to the next in the forested hills carrying whatever they can and living off of hidden food caches. Flight is not without risk, however. On December 1st 2000, Column #1 of SPDC Light Infantry Battalion #362 entered L--- village in Kyauk Kyi township and sprayed the village with gunfire. People were caught off guard and fled in various directions. Amid the confusion, the SPDC gunfire wounded a pair of fleeing villagers, a six year old girl and a 20 year old man. Three months after that incident, the 10 families from the village had yet to return and were living in the jungle at the foot of a nearby mountain. One family left to try to get to a refugee camp in Thailand. After their attack, the SPDC soldiers looted and destroyed the homes and belongings. Some of the villagers’ rice was stored in paddy storage barns which escaped the attack, and they have occasionally been able to sneak back into the village to get some rice; however, those interviewed by KHRG say that when this supply runs out, they may try to make it to the border with Thailand to stay in one of the refugee camps. Their story is typical of people hiding throughout the region. The villagers are aware of, and have even received messages about, the SPDC’s plans to clear out all the villages west of the Bilin River. Such a plan makes it unlikely that villagers like them will be able to return to their homes anytime soon.

Meanwhile, in the western plains of Nyaunglebin District the official SPDC relocation sites are expanding and multiplying, and many villages have been forced to move to these places, particularly villages on the eastern edge of the plains or those which are any great distance from the nearest SPDC Army camp. In these areas, the Army orders people to move to a relocation area within a specified timeframe. Villagers face severe consequences if they do not comply. Once the villages are emptied, the areas become shoot-to-kill zones and landmines are often laid on village land or in rice fields. Villagers then must choose whether to hide in the jungle, flee to another area or adhere to SPDC orders. For those who risk moving to relocation areas, they live under tight Army control and are forced to provide free labour for the army carrying supplies, acting as Army servants, and building security fences and traps at Army camps and around their own relocation sites. The new areas are often without access to rice fields, making the acquisition of food supplies very difficult, and the Army provides nothing. From north to south in Nyaunglebin District, KHRG has already documented the existence of forced relocation sites at Mone, Weh Gyi, Thit Cha Seik and Yan Myo Aung in Mone township; and Yan Gyi Aung and Kaw Tha Say in Kyauk Kyi township [see "Death Squads and Displacement" (KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99)]. KHRG researchers recently reconfirmed the continued existence of these sites, and added that in Kyauk Kyi township the 40 households of Dtone Dta Dta village have been forced to move to Shwe Dan on the Kyauk Kyi-Shwegyin motor road (where there is a camp of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, DKBA), and Leh Gkaw Wah village has been forced to move to Lay Bin Weh on the bank of the Sittaung River. In addition, independent sources report that there are also relocation sites in western Nyaunglebin District right now at Kyaut Na Ga with five villages and 1,000 people; Kwin Seit with eight villages and 1,500 people; May Po Hta with five villages and 500 people; and Win Maung with 10 villages and 2,000 people.

In western Nyaunglebin District near the Sittaung River, KHRG has previously documented the activities of the Sa Thon Lon "Guerrilla Retaliation" SPDC execution squads, a specially trained unit which has been roaming villages since 1998 and executing anyone suspected of present or past ties to the Karen resistance [see "Death Squads and Displacement" (KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99)]. KHRG researchers report that this unit continues to exist and to execute villagers on a regular basis using brutal methods, but that they are not executing as many people as when they first began operations and they are not doing it quite as openly; they now reportedly take people off into the forest never to be seen again, whereas before they sometimes went so far as to impale villagers’ heads on stakes as a warning to others. The decrease in the number of people they are killing may not be due to any change in their mission, it may simply result from the fact that they have already killed most of the people they could identify, while many others have already fled in fear even if they never had any real ties to the Karen resistance. Villagers now avoid the Sa Thon Lon members at all cost, so it may also be getting more difficult for the unit to get good intelligence from those who are left.

Papun District

While displaced people from Nyaunglebin District flee eastward into northern Papun District, the situation in Papun District also continues to worsen. In areas along the Bilin River west of Papun, some villagers have managed to return and stay in and around their villages, but they must live in constant fear of the approach of SPDC columns and flee into the hills whenever they hear of troops coming near. In late 2000 many of them managed to secure a small rice harvest, but they are having to share some of this with several thousand people who have fled into the area from Nyaunglebin District to the west (see above). The new arrivals from Nyaunglebin District are still living on the ground in small lean-to’s, and many of them have nothing so the local villagers are giving them what food they can.

Slightly further down the Bilin River, SPDC Light Infantry Division #66 has been active since 1999 so most people in the area from Meh Gha Law to Ker Kaw Law have fled their villages and have not been able to return, heading further up the Bilin River out of the reach of Division 66 instead. Over the past 3 years many villages have been forced to move to the SPDC garrison village of Meh Way, where the population is heavily used for forced labour at the Army camp and as porters for the columns heading out into the hills to destroy villages.

Northwest of Papun in northern Lu Thaw township, the Army has fortified its new vehicle road from Kyauk Kyi (at the Sittaung River in Pegu Division) to Saw Hta (on the Salween River at the Thai border) with at least 7 army camps, fences protecting the road, and landmines laid along the roadsides. The road itself is impassable to vehicles for much of the year, so the SPDC columns still use large numbers of forced labour porters to carry supplies to the camps along the route. One internally displaced person reported seeing hundreds of porters carrying supplies for the army down the Kyauk Kyi - Saw Hta road on January 31st 2001. All of the villages along the road route were destroyed 3 to 4 years ago and no one dares live there anymore. Meanwhile, the military activity along the road and the mines around it have essentially cut off escape routes and supply lines for the people living to the north, in northern Lu Thaw township and in Toungoo District. It is now extremely difficult to send supplies to the thousands of displaced people in these areas, and it is equally difficult for them to flee to the Thai border. Some have managed to reach Thailand by making an extremely difficult and dangerous trip eastward into Karenni (Kayah) State and then southward to the Thai border. Some have managed to break across the road and join the internally displaced in the Yeh Mu Plaw area of central Lu Thaw township, though conditions there are also extremely difficult. But for most, they are now not only displaced and hunted, but more isolated from the outside than ever before. They are presently suffering from food shortages, mortality from diseases ranging from diarrhoea to malaria with no access to medicines, and the need to regularly flee SPDC columns.

The SPDC uses the camps along the new road to launch military operations to secure the Salween River and the entire region. Along the 100-150 kilometre stretch of the Salween River which acts as the border with Thailand there are now over 10 SPDC Army camps dotted at regular intervals, including Saw Hta, Thee Mu Hta, Kyauk Nyat, Oo Da Hta, Meh Ka Hta, Oo Thu Hta, Thaw Leh Hta, Meh Paw Mu Hta, and Thu Mweh Hta. The troops at these camps attempt to shut down Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) supply lines, block the escape of refugees, and hunt down people in hiding. The SPDC is now sending food and other supplies along the new road to the Salween River for distribution to Army camps. Hundreds of rice sacks line the Salween River next to SPDC strongholds along this stretch of the Burma-Thai border.

Most of the hill villagers in Lu Thaw township are presently living in hiding. They are determined not to leave their land if they can possibly stay, but present conditions are forcing many of them to consider fleeing to Thailand. However, this is not at all easy because of the landmines and the proliferation of SPDC Army camps and patrols. Even if they can make it to Thailand, if they encounter Thai Army troops or Border Patrol Police units before making it to a refugee camp, they are routinely forced back across the border at gunpoint.

In Dweh Loh township south and southwest of Papun, the SPDC is already more strongly in control. Most of the villagers there have little choice but to stay in their villages, particularly if they are strongly attached to their land and livestock. Those who stay, however, face constant and heavy demands for forced labour, money, food, and materials from the SPDC Army units and authorities in the area. A KHRG researcher from southwestern Dweh Loh township reports that villagers there are constantly forced to cut bamboo for the Army camps, go with the Columns as porters, provide thatch roofing for barracks, and pay extortion money. The people of one village in the area were all forced to go to the forest to cut giant bamboo, then take it and sell it in Bilin and hand all of the money over to Light Infantry Battalion #366. The SPDC officers have stated to the village elders, "If you cannot pay the money, you cannot stay in the village", so many villagers have sold off their livestock to pay the extortion. Some have fled into the hills, but the Army has sent patrols out to hunt them down and shoots at people on sight in the hills. Villages such as Kwih Dta Ma have to send anywhere from 50 to 80 people at a time, men and women, for forced portering of supplies to outlying Army camps, and smaller villages have to send 25 to 30 people at a time. Children as young as 12 and 13 have to go for the labour so that their parents can try to make a living for the family. Beginning in November 2000, everyone from the villages of Wah Mu, Po Kheh Hta, Nya Cha Gaw Hta, Kwih Dta Ma, Ma Lay Ler and Gkay Gkaw was forced to work building fences around their entire villages, leaving only one to three gates into their village which could be guarded, and the villagers’ movements to and from their fields are now strictly controlled. They were then forced to cut and clear the roadsides, build road bridges, and build 3 rings of fencing around Wah Mu Army camp of Light Infantry Battalion #366. Anyone who failed to go for this labour had to pay 500 Kyat per day, and they must also pay up to 100 Kyat per piece of bamboo which they fail to send. The KHRG researcher in this area estimates that the villagers are only left an average of 10 days in each month to work for their own livelihood, and must work the other 20 days without pay for the SPDC.

Life, Death, and Strategy

Since September 1998, KHRG has indexed the killings of over 200 villagers caused directly by SPDC attacks, torture, or landmines in Papun and Nyaunglebin districts [this list will be presented in an upcoming report]. Given the difficulty of obtaining complete information from many areas, this figure is far from complete. It also does not include indirect deaths caused by SPDC policy and actions. The numbers killed by starvation, disease and accidents while fleeing from troops is a figure that would dwarf the outright killings of villagers.

Most villagers can tell of an experience where a relative, acquaintance or fellow villager was killed by SPDC soldiers. Military assaults, torture, overwork, landmines, beatings, sniper fire - there are myriad methods leading to the deaths of so many. For example, Karen villagers told KHRG researchers about one village attack that resulted in the deaths of two villagers and the wounding of six others. On March 14th 2000, villagers in T’Kaw Thee Hta in Nyaunglebin District were working building houses when SPDC Light Infantry Battalion #351 attacked the village. The battalion, led by Tha Wah, shelled the village and shot at villagers with their assault rifles. There were no opposition forces in or around the village. The unprovoked attack killed two elderly men, Htoo Saw Pa, aged 71 and Hser Mu Lah Pu, 70. Six others suffered wounds to the head and body from grenade shrapnel. One victim, a six year old girl named Po Naw Htoo, was wounded in the head. She lay alone and unconscious in the village, covered in her own blood, for four hours before it was safe enough for her family to come and find her. Villagers didn’t dare return to their homes and remained hiding in the jungle. As one villager said, "The small river was full of the blood of villagers… If we look at the village, it seems like a battlefield." Some of their injuries were very serious but medical assistance is unavailable in the village. Villagers are at a loss to explain such attacks. They do not see the overall SPDC strategy of gaining total control over their villages and their lives - they only see Burmese troops senselessly destroying their rice, firing into their undefended villages and killing their children for no apparent reason. If anything, the strategy has only turned the civilians even more against the SPDC and has led more of them to help or join the resistance if they can - thereby supporting the villagers’ view that it is truly senseless.

More information on the situation in Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts based on close to 200 KHRG interviews, several hundred SPDC order documents, and other documentary and photographic evidence gathered from the region over the past 2 years, will be available in an upcoming KHRG report. For additional background and photos, see "Wholesale Destruction: The SLORC/SPDC Campaign to Obliterate all Hill Villages in Papun and Eastern Nyaunglebin Districts" (KHRG #98-01, 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 99-A (March 1999), KHRG Photo Set 99-B (August 1999), and KHRG Photo Set 97B (September 1997).

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.

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.