The situation faced by the villagers of Toungoo District is worsening as more and more parts of the District are being brought under the control of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) through the increased militarization of the region. At any one time there are no fewer than a dozen battalions active in the area. Widespread forced labour and extortion continue unabated as in previous years, with all battalions in the District being party to such practices. The imposition of constant forced labour and the extortion of money and food are among the military's primary occupations in the area. The strategy of the military is not one of open confrontation with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) - the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) - but of targeting the civilian population as a means of cutting all lines of support and supply for the resistance movement. There has not been a major offensive in the District since the SPDC launched Operation Aung Tha Pyay in 1995-96; however since that time the Army has been restricting, harassing, and forcibly relocating hill villages to the point where people can no longer live in them. Many of the battalions launch sweeps through the hills in search of villagers hiding there in an effort to drive them out of the hills and into the areas controlled by the SPDC. Fortunately, the areas into which many of them have fled are both rugged and remote, making it difficult for the Army to find them. For those who are discovered, once relocated, they are then exploited as a ready source for portering and other forced labour.
KHRG has received reports from villagers that the SPDC is now not only demanding that the villagers in the Kler Lah relocation site go for forced labour and portering, but as of March 2002 they have also ordered some of the villages which have been relocated there to commit one villager from each household to report for enforced conscription into the local Pyitthu Sit (People's Army) militia force. A villager from Kaw So Ko in Tantabin Township has reported that he was also forced to join the Pyitthu Sit in his village in April 2002. KHRG has not yet been able to verify how widespread this conscription is within the District.
Construction on the Kler Lah to Mawchi car road has been progressing since 1998, with work commencing from either end with the intention of connecting the two halves somewhere near the border between Toungoo District and Karenni (Kayah) State. According to a KHRG field researcher, this has now been accomplished. However, it is at present still only an unsealed dry season road which becomes impassable during the wet season, needing to be repaired again after the rains cease. The implications that the completion of this road will have for the villagers are threefold: firstly, it will lead to an even greater military presence in the region due to both the increased access that the road will now provide and because it gives the SPDC yet another thing to defend, thus 'justifying' their presence there; secondly, there will be a rise in the amount of forced labour used both to maintain the road and to construct the new military camps which will doubtless be built along the road's length; and thirdly, that there will then likely be an increase in forced portering along the road to those military camps, particularly in rainy season when the road is impassable to vehicles. Based on the testimonies of escaped convict porters who were forced to carry supplies for the military in that area, there are no less than three steel bridges along the road's length. These bridges, according to a KHRG field researcher, are dismantled just prior to the commencement of the wet season when the soldiers withdraw back to Tha Aye Hta army camp, and are again rebuilt after the rains finish. This may be done so that KNLA forces can not blow up the undefended bridges.
The continued use of landmines is a very real problem for the civilians of Toungoo District. Villager porters continue to be forced to walk in front of SPDC soldiers down the Kler Lah-Bu Sah Kee road, and casualties from the landmines on this road are not infrequent. SPDC troops have been planting landmines on paths frequented by villagers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) on their usual routes to purchase food or to collect water. In some cases they have even been known to lay landmines in the villagers' plantations or in the villages themselves after the villagers have been relocated, with the apparent aim of killing IDPs still in the area and preventing relocated villagers from returning home. In an interview with a KHRG field researcher, a villager said that after planting landmines around the Kler Lah relocation site, the SPDC posted notices in front of the village, declaring that landmines had been laid in the area. The villager believed that this was carried out so as to legitimise their use.
Villagers in the area have been forced to sign binding documents stating that they will not have any contact with the KNU. Any contact with the KNU after the signing of the documents would probably result in the torture and possible execution of the villager and the possible burning of the village. These documents may be used to legitimise the Dam Byan Byaut Kya (Guerrilla Retaliation Unit) execution squads. The Guerrilla Retaliation Units' sole purpose has been to locate and execute any villager who has had any contact with the KNU, even if that contact was as tenuous as supplying a bowl of rice to, or portering a load for the KNLA a decade ago.
The Guerrilla Retaliation Units first appeared in Western Nyaunglebin District in September 1998; it wasn't until the beginning of the following year that they began to expand their operations northward into Tantabin (Taw Ta Tu) Township of Toungoo District. Operating in small units of five to ten men and often travelling by night, their ranks are filled with men handpicked from regular battalions who were noted for being particularly brutal. They move from village to village with a list of people suspected to have had contact with the KNU, who are to be taken from their homes and executed in the forest. Everything about the way that they operate is done to instill fear among the Karens. Their message is simple: they will kill anyone who aids the resistance.
KHRG has received disturbing new evidence of the emergence of previously unreported Guerrilla Retaliation Units; in particular, the Wei Za (Wisdom) Guerrilla Retaliation Unit which operates in and around Than Daung Gyi in Than Daung (Daw Pa Ko) Township, as well as the Ba La (Strength) Guerrilla Retaliation Unit which is active in the area around Play Hsa Loh in Tantabin Township. The handful of different Guerrilla Retaliation Units now known to be working in Toungoo District cover the areas in and around Klaw Mi Der village tract in Tantabin Township; in the Bu Sah Kee-Saw Mu Der region, also in Tantabin Township; around the Kler Lah relocation site; and throughout most of the villages to the west of the Day Loh River in Than Daung Township. These Guerrilla Retaliation Units had previously confined themselves to the plains areas in the western portion of the District. Their expansion far into the hills is a disturbing development because they may begin 'clearing' these villages of resistance supporters as they have done in the villages in the plains. The fear which villagers have of the Guerrilla Retaliation Units and their methods is enough for some villagers to flee into the surrounding hills.
The Wei Za Guerrilla Retaliation Unit has swept through many of the villages to the west of the Day Loh River – terrorising, exploiting, pillaging, and murdering many of the villagers who live there; as a result driving many of them to take flight into the jungles. The Wei Za unit is based in Bayinnaung Army Camp, close to Than Daung Gyi. It appears that they have formed as a special unit from within Infantry Battalion (IB) #124, also based in Bayinnaung army camp. According to reports received by KHRG, some of the regular Burmese Army battalions may now be forming their own guerrilla retaliation execution squads; a number of battalions in both Than Daung Township and in Tantabin Township appear to be doing this.
According to a KHRG researcher, an estimated 5,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are now believed to be living in hiding in the jungles in Tantabin Township alone. No longer able to cope with the constant demands for labour, money, and food, they have opted to flee from their homes to live a nomadic life of subsistence in the jungles, where they are relentlessly hunted by roving SPDC patrols, and where if discovered they are shot on sight. Such a decision is not one made lightly; the remoteness of Toungoo District dictates that very little assistance can be provided to these IDPs, forcing them to be self-sufficient in an environment which affords them very little. Flight into these jungles is therefore a move made only from extreme desperation. The hills into which many of these IDPs have fled possess very poor soils which are so low in nutrients that their harvests are affected drastically as a result. In some regions, for every basket of seed sown, only one or two baskets of paddy can be reaped. Most families are only able to harvest enough rice to feed themselves for one to eight months per year, depending on the area in which they live; at present many of them can only grow enough paddy for three months at best. To feed themselves for the remainder of the year, they must then rely on the money they make either by working as day labourers or by growing and selling cash crops. However, in order to find work or sell produce they must travel to the larger villages, where they run an increased risk of meeting with SPDC soldiers either on the paths or in the villages. Food security is therefore a serious problem for the IDPs living in the area. In order to stretch their meagre stores of rice as far as possible, many IDPs resort to eating thin rice gruel, which is so low in vitamins and nutrients that many of them suffer from malnutrition and become highly vulnerable to disease.
In April 2002 the SPDC attempted to burn back the scrub alongside the Kler Lah to Bu Sah Kee car road and a forest fire quickly developed as the fire burned out of control. The flames burned everything all the way to the banks of the Yaw Loh River , destroying the vast majority of plantations found there. In Kaw So Ko village alone, 250 viss (408 kgs. / 900 lbs.) of cardamom was burned. The entire cardamom harvest for the area would have generated an estimated 7,500,000 Kyat. The entire crop was lost, and the villagers estimate that it will take four years to regenerate their cardamom bushes in order to produce another harvest. These figures do not include the durian, dogfruit, and mangosteen plantations in the area which were also lost. The value of their harvests would have been far greater as they fetch higher prices in the markets. It will take at least three years before the trees will be able to bear fruit, leaving the villagers in this area without one of their main sources of cash to buy extra rice and pay forced labour fees and extortion demands.
The scarcity of food is not a dilemma faced only by the IDPs, but also by all villagers in the area – those who have been relocated and even those who are still allowed to stay in their own villages. KHRG researchers are reporting that villagers in the Kler Lah relocation site must obtain a special permit prior to being granted permission to buy rice. They must purchase their rice from deliveries arriving from the plains in the west of Toungoo District because they are not allowed to return to their own plantations and hill fields where they can grow their own. The permit system prevents villagers from outside the relocation site from buying rice, and also gives the SPDC a means of monitoring who is buying rice, and thus who may be supplying it to the KNLA. At times the SPDC blocks the incoming deliveries, leaving these villagers, who are now wholly dependent on the rice deliveries, without anything to eat, and furthermore with no way in which to get any food. Presumably this is done out of the fear that they will create a surplus of rice in the hills, which the villagers may then supply to the KNLA. In the SPDC's preoccupation with cutting all lines of supply to the KNLA, it is the villagers who are the worst affected. Many villagers living near Than Daung Gyi are faced with a similar situation; one such villager told KHRG that they are only permitted to buy four bowls (6.3 kgs. / 14 lbs.) of rice a week. They are ordered to hand this rice over to the local military camp for 'safekeeping', who then return it to the villagers in a ration of only two milk tins (390 grams / 13.8 ozs.) of rice per person per day. The villager said that this is only half of the amount of rice a person requires. The rest of their rice is eaten by the soldiers.
As the noose is slowly tightened around the necks of the civilians of Toungoo District, the villagers are faced with a very difficult decision: to remain in the SPDC controlled areas where they are exploited with the constant demands of extortion and forced labour, or to flee into hiding in the jungle, where the SPDC does not exert absolute control, to face hunger, disease, and the possibility of being hunted like animals by SPDC patrols. The alternative of fleeing to one of the refugee camps in Thailand is hardly an option at all. The two routes to the border are both long and extremely dangerous. The northern route requires several weeks' trek through the destroyed villages and free-fire zones of southern Karenni (Kayah) State, while the southern route is a one or two week trek through the free-fire zone of northern Papun (Mutraw) District, where thousands of IDPs are already hiding from SPDC patrols. Those who attempt either of these two routes need to quietly slip past the countless army camps en route also while trying to avoid any SPDC patrols which may be active anywhere along the way. Even if they make it to the Thai border, they face the very real possibility of being immediately forced back across the border at gunpoint by Thai troops.