Enduring Hunger and Repression: Food Scarcity, Internal Displacement, and the Continued Use of Forced Labour in Toungoo District

Published date:
Sunday, October 10, 2004

The SPDC's continued efforts to remove all traces of resistance from the hills of Toungoo District have resulted in a wide range of human rights abuses. In order to gain complete control over the region, the SPDC is continuing with its road construction projects, increasing its military presence and establishing more Army camps across the district. There are now few areas which SPDC Army columns cannot reach. Villagers living under SPDC control are constantly called upon to construct and maintain these roads and to porter supplies and munitions along them to outlying SPDC Army camps. The relentless demands for forced labour, materials, food, and money have resulted in severe food shortages. Many villagers in the district have chosen to live internally displaced hiding in the forest rather than live under the SPDC. Several thousand villagers are now living in hiding. Large numbers of landmines continue to be sown throughout the district, posing a very real threat which will remain in place for years to come.


This report describes the current situation faced by rural Karen villagers in Toungoo District (known as Taw Oo in Karen). Toungoo District is the northernmost district of Karen State, sharing borders with Karenni (Kayah) State to the east, Pegu (Bago) Division to the west, and Shan State to the north. To the south Toungoo District shares borders with the Karen districts of Nyaunglebin (Kler Lweh Htoo) and Papun (Mutraw). The westernmost portion of the district bordering Pegu Division consists of the plains of the Sittaung River, which are heavily controlled by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta which presently rules Burma. The rest of the district to the east is covered by steep and forested hills that are home to Karen villagers who live in small villages strewn across the hills. For years, the SPDC has endeavoured to extend its control through the hills, but their efforts thus far have been hampered by the continued armed resistance of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Within the areas that are strongly controlled by the SPDC, the villagers must live with constant demands for forced labour, food, and money from the SPDC battalions that are based in the area. Villages that do not comply with SPDC demands risk being relocated and burned. Many villages have been burned and their inhabitants forcibly relocated to sites where the SPDC may more easily control and exploit them. Those villagers who do not move to the relocation sites flee into the jungles where they live as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Several thousand villagers now live internally displaced in the mountains of Toungoo District. These villagers live in almost constant fear of SPDC Army units, and must run for their lives if they receive word that a column of soldiers is approaching. SPDC Army columns routinely shoot displaced villagers on sight. The villagers here continue to suffer severe human rights violations at the hands of the SPDC Army soldiers, including, but not limited to summary arrest, torture, forced labour, extortion, extrajudicial execution, and the systematic destruction of crops and food supplies.

Although a verbal ceasefire is in place between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the SPDC, not much has changed for the villagers in the district. KNLA and SPDC military units still occasionally clash. The SPDC has taken advantage of the ceasefire to move more troops into the area and to build new camps. These new camps and troops have meant that the villagers now have to do forced labour building the new camps and portering supplies up to the camps. There are also more troops and camps to demand food and money from the villagers. The many new camps have made it more difficult for internally displaced villagers work their fields or to go to find food.

This report is based on numerous field reports and a total of 329 separate interviews gathered between October 2000 and July 2004, of which 197 have been directly quoted throughout this report. The direct testimony of villagers living within Toungoo District has been supplemented in the report by interviews with Karen relief workers who have first-hand knowledge of the region. KHRG field researchers conducted interviews with villagers living within the SPDC-controlled areas, relocation sites, hill villages, and also with IDPs living in hiding in the jungles. These testimonies are supported by additional evidence in the form of photographs and SPDC order documents issued to villages, incident reports, maps, and field reports compiled by KHRG field researchers. Over 1,500 pages of testimony were recorded and reviewed for this analysis of the present situation in Toungoo District.

This report has been divided into several parts for ease of reading and clarification; it begins with this Preface and is then followed by an Introduction and Executive Summary . The analysis is then broken down into topics under the main sections of The Military Situation 'Nyein Chan Yay' Villages 'Ywa Bone' Villages Landmines Food Security , and the Future of the Area . Within these sections the villagers tell much of the story through direct quotes from their testimonies. At the end of the report are several appendices: a list of the 197 interviewees whose testimonies are quoted throughout this report, a list of SPDC Army units operating in Toungoo District from 2000 to 2004, additional English-language translations of SPDC order documents issued to villages in Toungoo District not included in the body of the report, and finally censored copies of the original Burmese-language SPDC order documents that have been reproduced throughout this report. The full text of the interviews and field reports, upon which this report is based is available as a separately published Annex which is available from KHRG upon approved request.

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