Eastern Pa'an District: Forced Labour, Food Security and the Consolidation of Control

Published date:
Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The SPDC and DKBA continued to consolidate their control over Pa'an District in 2003, especially in the mountainous eastern part of the district. Fighting between the SPDC and the DKBA was ongoing up until the ceasefire talks began in December 2003, culminating in an offensive against the KNLA's 7th Brigade headquarters in October. In order to expand their influence DKBA units are actively recruiting in the area. Villagers must also face demands from both the SPDC and the DKBA for forced labour, building materials and extortion money. Fulfilling these demands have left the villagers with little time to work their fields. Many villagers are unable to get enough food to eat, making food security a serious issue in the area.

While the Karen National Union (KNU) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) discuss the terms for a continued ceasefire, conditions for villagers in eastern Pa'an District remain virtually unchanged.  The SPDC and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) are continuing in their attempts to consolidate their control over the area.  For the villagers in the area the efforts of the SPDC and DKBA have meant a continued reliance on forced labour and constant demands for building materials, food and money from the villagers.  Meeting the SPDC and DKBA's demands has left the villagers without enough time to work their own fields making food security an increasingly serious issue in the district.

The SPDC and DKBA have been steadily consolidating their control over Pa'an District since breaking the KNU's hold over the area following the 1994-95 offensives against Manerplaw and Kaw Moo Rah.  Control of the area has become complete enough that most villagers who previously lived as internally displaced persons have now built houses and are treated by the SPDC and DKBA as established villages.  There is a trade off for this 'stability' and that is that the villagers must comply with any demands by the SPDC or DKBA for forced labour, food, building materials and money.  Villages that do not comply risk being accused of supporting the KNU and having their villages burned down.  In Lu Pleh township, the SPDC has been using a 'carrot and stick' approach on the villagers.  An SPDC unit will come to the village and say to the villagers, "We are all the same people and you are all our civilians.  If you love us we won't fight against you, but if you don't love us we will fight against us.  If you come back and work together with us we will love you, but if you fight against us we will fight against you."  This unit then reports back whether they have been successful in pacifying the villagers, which means whether they can force the villagers to work for them and provide them with food and money or not.  If they are not successful, then about a month later another unit comes and punishes the villagers.  Many of the villagers in the eastern part of the district no longer build their houses out of wood but construct them out of bamboo and thatch because they still worry that their houses will be burned down again.  Villagers no longer have the money to rebuild their houses after having them burned down in the past. 

The SPDC believes that its control of Lu Pleh township is strong enough that it is making arrangements with Thai companies to improve the road from Meh Th'Waw on the Moei River to Hlaing Bwe town where it will link in with other roads leading to Pa'an and central Burma.  This plan is also rumoured to include the building of a second bridge across the Moei River at Meh Th'Waw.  The responsibility for the construction of the road is to be taken on by a Thai company.  Construction has not yet begun on this road, but it can be expected to begin soon, especially if the ceasefire between the SPDC and the KNU holds.  The road will make the existing trade in motorbikes, cars, tires, piping, monosodium glutamate and soft drinks much easier.  It will also give the SPDC an all-weather road that it can use to rapidly bring troops in if the ceasefire breaks down. 

The DKBA has been making efforts to expand its own influence in the district and to this end they have been conscripting villagers throughout the area.  DKBA leaders in Lu Pleh township have been demanding two to three people from each village tract per year.  The responsibility for this has been given to the village tract leaders who must then decide which villages in their tract can fulfil the quota.  In Ta Greh and T'Nay Hsah townships to the south, the Special Battalion of the DKBA's #999 Brigade has been pursuing its own conscription campaign.  Each village in Ta Greh township is required to provide one person each year.  If the village does not want to send anyone, they must pay 400,000 Kyat.  The DKBA have told the villagers, "If you can't give money, you have to give people.  If you can't give any of this, we will come to your village and we will force you to do whatever labour we want."  Villagers who do not have enough money and do not want to be soldiers are left with no other choice than to flee their villages.  In T'Nay Hsah township, 36 people were demanded from villages in nine village tracts.  Only Thi Wa Pu village tract did not send anyone because they were asked by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) 7 th Brigade to not obey the order.  This, however, resulted in some of the villagers having to flee their villages because the DKBA have said in this area also that if villages did not send people, they would be forced to work for the DKBA.  This included villagers from Thi Wa Pu, Wa K'Lu Pu, Po Thwee Mu and Htee Ka Pa villages.  In the past couple of years the Special Battalion seems to have been trying to place some standards on the type of recruit/conscript that it is willing to accept.  In orders issued by the Special Battalion in 2002, villagers were told to only provide people over the age of 18 and who had some kind of education.  The stated reason for this was that they did not want children and that better educated soldiers were less likely to make problems for the villagers.  Subsequent KHRG interviews with DKBA deserters indicate that in practice this seems to have not been strictly followed.  The Special Battalion appears to be the only DKBA unit that is setting some kind of standard, most units take whoever they can get. 

In August 2003, the Special Battalion of the DKBA's #999 Brigade moved into the Meh Pleh Wah Kee area of northern T'Nay Hsah township as a prelude to its attack on the KNLA 7 th Brigade headquarters, and set up two camps in the area at Po Thwee Kyo and Wah May Kyo.  Villagers from the area have told KHRG that since these camps were established they have had to routinely go to perform forced labour at these camps.  Four people from each village had to go each day to build bunkers and make fences around the camps.  Villagers who owned elephants were ordered to use their elephants to haul logs to cover the bunkers.  The demands for forced labour at these two camps combined with the DKBA's conscription campaign in the area forced some villagers to flee their villages.  Other villagers joined them when the SPDC and DKBA began their offensive from these camps against the 7 th Brigade headquarters in October 2003.  Most of the villagers came from the villages of Meh Pleh Wah Kee, Po Thwee Kee, Nya Mu Pu, Htee Mwah Klay and Wah K'Lu Pu.  The villagers initially tried to stay in hiding in the area hoping that the SPDC and DKBA would leave and they could return to their villages.  They did not want to flee to nearby Mae La refugee camp because they were aware that the camp is closed to new arrivals and they would be unable to receive food.  In the end, many were forced to cross the Moei River into Thailand when SPDC and DKBA troops got too close to their hiding places.  Others were trapped inside the area when these troops laid landmines across their escape routes. 

The joint DKBA-SPDC attack on the KNLA 7 th Brigade headquarters was initiated by the DKBA's Special Battalion so that it could take the area in order to conduct logging and mine the gem deposits there.  Taking this area would also cut off the headquarters from some of its frontline units farther inside Burma.  The DKBA requested assistance from the SPDC to take the area and the SPDC complied by sending Light Infantry Battalions (LIB) 701, 702, 703, 704, 705, 706, 707, 708, 709 of Sa Ka Ka #4 [Military Operations Command] and Infantry Battalions (IB) 97 and 339 of the Southeast Regional Command into the area to support the attack.  It appears that most of the ground attacks were conducted by DKBA soldiers from three DKBA battalions with SPDC units providing artillery support from positions behind them.  The attack was ultimately successful and the KNLA was forced to withdraw from their headquarters.  The heavy use of landmines in the area, however, also meant that neither the SPDC nor the DKBA were actually able to occupy the camp itself.  The KNLA lost as many as fifteen soldiers, with ten of these from stepping on their own landmines.  One villager was killed and two were wounded by landmines laid by SPDC and DKBA troops when they came up for the attack.  SPDC and DKBA losses were much heavier.  Together they suffered around 300 casualties in the assaults, most of them from landmines.  Villagers and KNLA soldiers told KHRG researchers that the heavy casualties, at least among the DKBA, were in part because the soldiers had taken amphetamines before their assaults.  KNLA soldiers reported that during assaults the DKBA soldiers charged headlong and did not seem to care about the gunfire or the landmines.  They commented to KHRG researchers that it was "easy to shoot them", meaning that the DKBA soldiers did not take cover as soldiers normally would.  KNLA soldiers also claim that when they searched the bodies after the attacks, they found amphetamines in some of the soldiers' bags. 

A constant element of the both the SPDC and the DKBA's efforts to control the region is the use of villagers for forced labour.  Villagers throughout the district told KHRG researchers that they are still forced to build fences, cut and carry bamboo, carry rice to outlying camps, stand sentry along roads and at Army camps, carry messages between camps and villages, repair roads and canals, build huts, guide columns of soldiers, work in the fields of SPDC Army units, and make and send thatch.  Villages interviewed by KHRG have indicated that there has been a decline in the amount of forced labour demanded by SPDC units.  This apparent decline is in part because SPDC units have become more adept at demanding the labour indirectly, such as through the DKBA, or the abbot of the village monastery, or verbally at meetings.  Despite this decrease, villagers continue to complain that after performing all this forced labour they do not have enough time to work their fields. 

Most village tract heads and many of the village heads in the eastern part of Pa'an District now have copies of SPDC Order 1/99 which is supposed to ban the use of some types of forced labour, but it is commonly disregarded by SPDC officers when it is shown to them.  Village heads who have gone to SPDC officers to complain after they were ordered to provide forced labourers have been told, "Don't show us this.  We don't understand about this, so you have to go and show it to our superior leaders."  The villagers do not dare to show it to higher SPDC officers who are often in towns far away and cannot protect them from reprisals from local units. This leaves the villagers with no choice but to provide the labour.  There appears to be some need by lower ranking officers at the battalion level to cover up their use of forced labour from higher ranking officers.  KHRG researchers have been told by villagers of instances wherein SPDC officers stop using forced labour when SPDC leaders or higher ranking officers come for a visit, and then begin demanding the labour again as soon as they go back.  Villagers near T'Nay Hsah Army camp are frequently ordered to work the surrounding fields by the Army, but when the officers hear that a higher ranking officer is coming for a visit, another order is sent telling the villagers not to come.  This suggests that either there have been threats of punishment for the use of forced labour, or that the officers are simply covering it up so their superiors are not embarrassed by having to be confronted by it. 

The use of convicts from prisons in central Burma for labour at frontline Army camps and as porters for Army columns decreased somewhat in the past year in Pa'an District.  This is, however, probably due more to changes in operating procedures than to any real policy change on the part of the SPDC to reduce their use.  The roads which villagers built for the SPDC throughout the district in the late 1990's are being used more to carry the Army's heavy weapons and ammunition rather than porters.  The Army has not been conducting large-scale offensives and it has not been moving its heavy weapons around as it did in the past.  When columns of SPDC soldiers currently go out on patrols they carry their personal weapons and a pack and only need enough porters to carry their food and any spare small arms ammunition.  For these patrols the soldiers don't often need the big groups of porters necessary to carry mortars, mortar rounds, large amounts of ammunition or rations.  Villagers have told KHRG researchers that they are still taken when there are not enough convicts to carry the loads for these patrols.  They say that if the portering is only to last for 2 days to a week, then villagers are ordered to do it, but if the portering is to last longer than 10 days or a month, then convicts are brought in for the work.  The SPDC's offensive against the KNLA 7 th Brigade headquarters clearly showed, however, that it is still willing to use large numbers of convicts as porters for large operations.  Estimates of between 300 and 1,000 convicts were brought to the frontline and used as porters during this offensive.  This included around 40 each from Maubin, Henzeda and Thaton prisons as well as others from various prisons in central Burma.  These porters were forced to carry loads of as much as 50 kgs. / 100 lbs. on their backs.  Convicts who escaped from the SPDC columns reported that they were often beaten for walking too slowly and many said they ran away because they felt as though they were already dead.  One of the most appalling abuses they were subject too was being forced to detect and clear landmines with nothing more than sticks and their bare hands.  Convict porters interviewed by KHRG said that at least three convicts were killed while being forced to do this. 

Although the weather was good this past year and the rains came on time ensuring that there should have been a good harvest, many villagers in the district told KHRG researchers that they did not have enough food.  Stronger SPDC and DKBA control over the district has resulted in villagers having to give more of their time for forced labour and has reduced the amount of time available to work in their fields.  Demands for money in the form of 'taxes', forced labour fees and outright extortion make it necessary for many villagers to find some sort of work to get enough money to pay them, further limiting the amount of time they have to work in their fields.  This is compounded by demands from SPDC and DKBA units for pigs and chickens for their curry pots, or the outright stealing of these animals.  Many villagers have said that they do not have enough rice to see them through to the next harvest and they will have to eat boiled rice porridge to stretch the rice supply. 

In order to get money to buy rice villagers who have cows or buffaloes take them to Thailand and try to sell them there.  Heavy taxes levied by DKBA and SPDC checkpoints along the way mean that villagers do not get much money from this trade, but it does get them enough money to buy some rice and other foodstuffs.  Other villagers take betel nut, betel nut leaves and poultry to sell.  These are also taxed, but not as heavily.  Villagers too poor to have anything to sell often try to borrow rice from neighbours and relatives and pay it back after the next harvest.  Many people fall into heavy debt because of this and find it very difficult to pay it back.  Some people work fields for other villagers to get food in kind or money with which they can buy food.  Another option is to go to Thailand and try to find work as an illegal migrant worker to get money with which to pay the various fees and to buy food for the family.