The Karen National Union (KNU) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) declared a verbal ceasefire in January 2004 as a first step towards future discussions. Consequently, both the KNU and the SPDC reportedly ordered their military units to cease offensive operations. Talks were again held in January and February, but no agreements were made regarding the delineation of territory, the return of villagers to their villages, a cessation of forced labour or the ending of any other human rights abuses. The SPDC has instead used the ceasefire as an opportunity to resupply its troops and to improve its road network without having to fear ambushes from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Local villagers have been conscripted to provide much of the labour needed to do this. SPDC military units have also continued to demand building materials, food and money from the villagers. Villages have been ordered relocated and villagers have been summarily executed by SPDC columns. Talks between the KNU and SPDC have not been held since the February talks were called off because the SPDC claims it has been too busy with its National Convention. This Information Update looks at the situation in Nyaunglebin and Papun Districts since the ceasefire began in January 2004.
KNLA soldiers in the district became increasingly frustrated during the first month of the ceasefire after having to stand by while SPDC military units continued to abuse local villagers. This frustration of KNLA soldiers came to a head on February 23 rd when a unit of the KNLA's 3 rd Brigade attacked the camp of LIB #589 at Dusayeik village in the plains of western Nyaunglebin District. The attack resulted in several SPDC soldiers killed and wounded and the KNLA made off with 39 weapons and some communications equipment before blowing up the camp's arsenal and withdrawing back into the mountains. At any other time, this attack would have been seen as a substantial victory for the KNLA. However, ceasefire negotiations taking place in Moulmein at the time were immediately called off and the SPDC made statements of outrage over the attack. Orders were reissued by the KNU following the attack to not attack SPDC units if they did not come to attack KNLA units. On March 28 th , KNU leaders went to Myawaddy and handed back the weapons seized in the attack.
While this attack and SPDC statements of outrage made some of the newspapers, the underlying reasons for the attack were overlooked. SPDC military columns were still moving through the hills of the district and abusing the villagers. While the KNLA stood by and obeyed orders, SPDC units were able to resupply their army camps at Mu Theh and K'Baw Tu in February in Ler Doh township, as well as at other places throughout the district, without fear of KNLA ambush. While some SPDC units in Ler Doh township have been using convicts brought in from various prisons in central Burma to carry the supplies to their camps, others were still using villagers to do the work. In Mu township to the north, SPDC troops frequently forced villagers to carry their rations to the Army camps. An example of this is the village of Maw Keh Tha Per Ko (Ma La Daw in Burmese) where the villagers have been repeatedly ordered by the SPDC Army camp at Ta Ler Day to carry rice to Tha Pyay Nyunt and other camps as well as to construct a warehouse to store the Army's rice. On January 14 th 2004, 8 women and 34 men were forced to carry rice, milk and beans to Ywa Kan Lan camp by order of the Ta Ler Day camp commander. On January 17 th , six villagers had to carry three sacks of rice to Tha Pyay Nyunt camp. On January 18 th , one female and nine male villagers again had to carry seven baskets of rice to Tha Pyay Nyunt camp. On January 22 nd , 16 villagers had to carry rice to the LIB #590 camp at Yeh Ohn Sein. On February 2 nd , Captain Sein Win Kyaw of LIB #439 ordered 32 men and 14 women from Ma La Daw to carry loads from Ta Ler Day to Tha Pyay Nyunt. On March 8 th , six villagers were ordered to build a warehouse to store rice at Ta Ler Day camp. On March 10 th , four male and 23 female villagers were forced to carry rice to Tha Pyay Nyunt camp. On March 15 th five female and eleven male villagers had to repair the Army's warehouse at Ta Ler Day camp.
Other forms of forced labour also continue to be demanded from the villagers. In the plains in the western part of the district, villagers from the eight villages in Ko Nee and T'Kaw Pwa village tracts of Mu township were ordered to stand sentry along the Ler Doh to Mu road in early 2004. The SPDC ordered that two people had to stand sentry at each sentry hut along the road. Villagers from these same villages were also ordered to repair the road during early 2004. On March 15 th 2004, LIB's #590 and #599 ordered 11 villages from several village tracts in Mu township to construct a 20 foot wide road from the LIB #590 headquarters to pass through Mone Na Tha and Htone Daw villages to the LIB #599 headquarters. The villagers were ordered to bring their own food and tools while working on the road. The work began on March 20 th and had to be completed by March 22 nd . On April 1 st , Operations Commander Khin Maung Oo and the battalion commanders of IB #60 and LIB #351 ordered 170 people from Plaw La Hay village and 180 people from Taung Gyi village to repair the road from Thaung Bo to Ler Doh. Villagers who did not want to go had to pay 3,000 Kyat.
SPDC Army units have continued to arrest and summarily execute villagers despite the ceasefire. Without a more permanent agreement with the KNU, the soldiers who have been ordered not to shoot at the KNLA are able to kill villagers with impunity. On February 27 th 2004, soldiers of IB #264 arrested two villagers from Shan Kyaung village, Mu township, killed them and stole their belongings. The next day, IB #264 arrested two more villagers from Panga Gone village, Mu township. These villagers were also killed and their belongings stolen. When inquiries were made about the deaths of these four villagers, the Southern Command Deputy Commander, Brigadier General Maung Ni, ordered that any villagers found in the Ywa Sa Kaw and Tu Ko Kho areas of Mu township would be shot on sight. This showed complete disregard for the ceasefire by making it permissible to shoot villagers while presumably still impermissible to shoot KNLA soldiers. The killings continued. On February 29 th , troops of LIB #382 opened fire on villagers from Thaw Ngeh Doh and Naw Loh Kloh villages in Ler Doh township. Saw Bay Lah and Naw Meh Shay of Naw Loh Kloh village were killed. On March 3 rd , soldiers from IB #264 again killed villagers in Mu township. This time they killed six male villagers from Kho Pu village tract. The villagers had been arrested on February 26 th while carrying betelnut leaves. On April 6 th , soldiers of IB #264 and IB #60 opened fire on Kho Pu village, Mu township and wounded one of the villagers. In these incidents alone, 12 villagers were killed and one injured in a little over a month and a half. Many other incidents have occurred during this period and continue up to the writing of this report. On June 25 th , a village teacher, Saw Ner Mu from Sgheh Day village in Mu township was shot dead by SPDC troops of LIB #439. Soldiers of LIB #264 saw six villagers climbing dogfruit trees on July 16 th in the Htee Thoh Kee area of Mu township and immediately began chasing them. They eventually caught the villagers between Hsaw Wah Day and Htee Thaw Kee villages and shot all six of them dead.
Relocations of villages were also ordered during this period although this aspect of the SPDC's counter-insurgency strategy would appear to be unnecessary due to the ceasefire. On January 16 th 2004, Ko Nee village was ordered by Operations Commander Tin Maung Oo to relocate to Noh Nya Lah village by February 2 nd 2004. The Operations Commander said the villagers would be allowed to dismantle their houses and take them to the other village. The Ko Nee villagers had already been forced to relocate three times previously and the villagers did not want to move again. They pleaded with the Operations Commander to stay in their village but he refused to listen. Instead, he announced that after the deadline, he would come back and check. If any houses were still there, he would burn them all. In the end, the villagers were told that any villagers who wanted to stay had to put their name on a list and send it to the office of LIB #590 and pay 200,000 Kyat. Only Ko Nee village was relocated at that time. In Ler Doh township to the south, another SPDC Operations Commander ordered the relocation of ten villages on March 3 rd in the village tracts of Weh La Daw, Toh Wa Seik, Noh Ghaw, Thu K'Bee, Kamonaing, Kyauk Sayeik, Patala and Hinthaweh. The villages all had to move by March 7 th The SPDC authorities initially ignored any appeals by the villagers, but on March 22 nd , two weeks after the deadline for the relocation of the villages had expired, the Operations Commander issued a new order that it was no longer necessary for these villages to relocate. Instead, each village tract would have to pay 100,000 Kyat, making the relocation little more than another way of extorting money from the villagers.
SPDC officers also continued to enrich themselves through other more formal requests for extortion money during the early part of 2004. On April 2 nd , IB #60 and LIB #351 were ordered by higher officers to collect money from the villagers in their area to provide funds for the frontline soldiers and camps. Each unit was ordered to collect 100,000 Kyat. From this money, 80,000 Kyat was to be sent to the battalion headquarters, while the other 20,000 Kyat was for the soldiers at the local camp to use. SPDC soldiers from LIB #590 and a Guerrilla Retaliation Unit [small SPDC units which function like execution squads] operating in Mu township demanded 70,000 Kyat a month from Mee Daing Taw village tract from January 1 st to April 1 st 2004. This total included 22,000 Kyat per month for porter and sentry fees instead of villagers, 12,000 Kyat per month as a traveling allowance for the village tract chairman to go to the township office in Ler Doh, and 30,000 if the villagers did not want to send a bullock cart every day to the Army camp. Villagers must also pay to work their own fields. Villagers in the plains of Ler Doh township must pay 3,000 Kyat every month to stay in their field huts while working in their fields. In Mu township the fee is 500 Kyat per month. In March 2004, SPDC military officers met with women in Mu township and forced them to join a women's welfare organization. The women were unable to refuse joining the organization. They then demanded 300 Kyat from each of the women for membership fees and sent the money to the township office in Ler Doh town.
At the same time as the second round of ceasefire negotiations began in January, IB #3, LIB #18 and LIB #518 of Light Infantry Division (LID) #55 came and began operating around Naw Yoh Hta and Kaw Lu Der village tracts of northern Lu Thaw township for almost a month. These units were in support of an SPDC relocation campaign and offensive in adjacent southern Karenni State. Frequent engagements between KNLA and SPDC troops occurred in northern Lu Thaw township during this time. Villagers from nineteen villages in the area were forced to flee the SPDC columns that were moving through the area. The villagers tried to hide from the soldiers in the forest in the hope that they would eventually leave. The Karen displaced villagers were joined by about 1,000 Karenni villagers who had fled their villages in southern Karenni State. In February 2004, the SPDC troops had withdrawn from the area, and by early June most of the Karen and Karenni villagers had returned to their villages. Their earlier displacement, however, meant that they had little time to prepare their fields before the rainy season. Many of the villagers will not have been able to plant large enough fields, if any fields at all. Their past displacement has left them with little food for the rest of this year, and has virtually assured that they will not have enough for the next year as well.
Fighting in the district has deceased in Papun District since the SPDC halted its operations in northern Lu Thaw township in February 2004. SPDC units appear to be content to stay in their Army camps and have not been patrolling through the area as often. In many cases, SPDC columns notify the villagers beforehand when they want to enter a village so that if there are any KNU in the village, they can avoid the SPDC. The KNU also lets the villagers know before they enter a village. KNLA commanders have been ordered to not attack SPDC units or camps unless the SPDC comes to attack the KNLA. For the moment, the SPDC units are spending much of their time consolidating their positions and preparing for a possible break in the ceasefire. Occasional skirmishes, however, still break out and, as in Nyaunglebin District, many KNLA soldiers are dissatisfied with having to sit by while the SPDC improves its roads, resupplies its troops and generally mistreats the villagers.
Forced labour continues to be demanded from the villagers, although the SPDC has changed somewhat the terms in which the labour is demanded. Where the SPDC previously would force the villagers to work for several days, villagers are now only forced to work one day at a time. The effect has been that the villagers perceive that they are now doing less forced labour than before. In reality, the amount of forced labour is about the same, the villagers simply do not have to go as long for it as they used to. By not having to go as long, the villagers arrive back less exhausted and in better health than when they had to go for longer periods. However, the time used in doing the forced labour is the same and still limits the amount of time that the villagers have to work in their fields. This will result in corresponding smaller harvests and a lack of food in the coming year.
Although the demands may only be for one day's work, the villagers are still ordered to do the same work as before. Village heads must send villagers to be sentries, repair the soldiers' barracks, cut firewood, carry water, repair roads, cut the brush alongside the roads, fence the Army camps and clear the brush around the camps. Orders are also still sent out demanding building materials such as bamboo, wood and thatch for the soldiers' camps. In early 2004, Bler Per, Poh Leh, Poh Khay, Htaw Meh Hta, Tee Tha Blu Hta, Baw Tho Hta, Hsa Law Deh, K'Pee Kee, Noh Ghaw, Htee Law Thay Hta and Htee Pa Doh Kee villages were ordered to make thatch shingles for Major Aye Kyaw of IB #10 at Twee Thee Oo army camp in Dweh Loh township. The bigger villages had to give 3,500 shingles and the smaller villages had to give 3,000 shingles. Some of the villages were still making the shingles in April 2004 even though the SPDC had ordered that all the shingles should have arrived at the camp by February 25 th 2004. On June 3 rd 2004, IB #19 demanded 100 shingles of thatch from Klaw Pa village in Bu Tho township to roof the buildings in their camp. On June 7 th , they demanded another 100 shingles from Baw Hta village. Nothing was paid for the shingles to either village. Villagers are still occasionally ordered to work for the SPDC for several days at a time. For example, on March 2 nd , LIB #350 rounded up 245 villagers from 13 villages in the Meh Way area of Dweh Loh township and forced them to carry supplies for four days.
The SPDC has used the ceasefire as an opportunity to repair the roads in the district and build some new ones. A new road in Bu Tho township from Kaw Boke to Paw Hta was being constructed in March 2004. Units from LID #66 confiscated the flat fields of villagers along the route and then forced the villagers to dig up the fields, knock down the dikes separating them and dig ditches along the new road. The villagers were also forced to build bridges for the road and to cut and clear the brush from along the sides of it. Some of these fields had already been ploughed in anticipating of planting. At least 13 fields were confiscated and destroyed in Ta Ku Der village and another 12 fields in Oh Kee village. The SPDC paid nothing for the value of the villagers' land and did not repair what was left of the fields which they had partially destroyed.
In May 2004, more fields were confiscated by the SPDC under the orders of Operations Commander Khin Maung Win. The Operations Commander ordered one of his battalions to construct a new camp near the already existing camp of LIB #340. The battalion confiscated six flat fields from Meh Ta Roh and Bweh Kla villages in Bu Tho township to build the camp. The soldiers came, planted flags to mark their camp, and declared that it was their land. The villagers were then ordered to sign papers handing over the ownership of the land. They were told, "We must have your fields whether you sign or not." The villagers were afraid, so signed without complaint. Nothing was paid for the land.
Despite the ceasefire, not much has changed for the villagers in Nyaunglebin and Papun Districts. Nothing has been decided in the talks and most villagers are very distrustful of the SPDC's intentions. Villagers under SPDC control are still forced to work for the Army, provide food for the Army and to hand over extortion money. They are also still subject to arbitrary arrest and summary execution. Displaced villagers hiding in the mountains do not yet feel safe enough to return to their villages. The continued human rights abuses combined with the improvements in the roads and the stockpiling of supplies has left many people in the two districts feeling that the SPDC is not acting in good faith. Some see it as preparation for a possible new offensive to be unleashed as soon as the ceasefire breaks down. A new round of talks between the KNU and the SPDC are scheduled to take place in September, but years of oppression, fighting and broken promises have made many villagers hopeful for a permanent end to the fighting, but also cynical about the possibility of this really happening.