PHOTO SET 2005-A: Food and Livelihoods

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PHOTO SET 2005-A: Food and Livelihoods

Published date:
Friday, May 27, 2005

Villages in the hills which are more difficult for the Army to control are ordered to move to the Army-controlled areas.  Columns are sent out to destroy their villages and food supplies, uproot their crops, destroy the fields, and shoot or capture those who try to evade forced relocation (see Sections 7.1 and 7.2 ).  Landmines are laid to prevent people farming the fields or remaining in their villages, and to block the movement of goods between SPDC-controlled areas and those 'in hiding' (see Section 7.4 ).  Those who move to SPDC-controlled areas become landless, and must try to survive as paid day labourers. This report includes destruction of Crops and Livelihoods, Abandoned Fields, Confiscation of Fields, Restrictions on Access to Food, Crop Quotas, Taxation and Extortion, Looting and the Work of Karen Relief Organisations.

In most Karen villages, livelihoods centre around farming.  Rice is the predominant crop, grown in irrigated flat fields or on hillsides.  Hill farmers do not use 'slash and burn' methods, but a system of rotating fields where fields are used for one or two years, lie fallow for several years and are then cleared for planting again.  In some areas cash crops such as betelnut, sugar cane, or cardamom are prevalent.  Families augment their primary crops with household vegetable gardens, small fruit plantations, fishing the rivers, and hunting and foraging in the forests.  Instead of or in addition to farming, some villagers trade in dry goods, cattle or other commodities, or earn money for transporting or hauling people, timber or goods using elephants, small trucks or bullock carts.  Most villages are self-sufficient in some food and goods, and trade through nearby markets for other goods.

 SPDC rule obstructs these livelihoods, and thus endangers food security, in many different ways.  In order to control the civilian population, the regime militarises the countryside.  The military sets up camps and checkpoints which demand forced labour, money, food and goods from local people, and restrict their movement between villages (see Sections 7.4 and 7.5 ).  Some of their land is destroyed to build roads, Army camps, and forced relocation sites (see Section 7.1 ), and some of it is confiscated to grow food for the Army, or for the Army's joint ventures with business corporations (see Section 7.3 ).  The Army expands and extends its control, further restricting the movements and activities of villagers, using them for forced labour, extorting taxes, fees and tolls, and robbing and looting their villages, all with complete impunity (see Sections 7.5 and 7.6 ).  People in the villages, starting with those who are poorest in land, money, and livestock, have to change livelihoods or leave the village because they cannot support the time required for forced labour, the money required for extortion, and the loss of their belongings.

Villages in the hills which are more difficult for the Army to control are ordered to move to the Army-controlled areas.  Columns are sent out to destroy their villages and food supplies, uproot their crops, destroy the fields, and shoot or capture those who try to evade forced relocation (see Sections 7.1 and 7.2 ).  Landmines are laid to prevent people farming the fields or remaining in their villages, and to block the movement of goods between SPDC-controlled areas and those 'in hiding' (see Section 7.4 ).  Those who move to SPDC-controlled areas become landless, and must try to survive as paid day labourers.  Many choose instead to remain in the hills, but must switch to smaller-scale cash crops or covert rice plantations in order to avoid detection (see Section 7.1 ).  They can only trade with SPDC-controlled villages by sneaking into these villages or by cooperating with people there to set up covert 'jungle markets' outside the SPDC-controlled areas (see Section 7.4 ).  Livelihoods become changeable and tenuous, food security is virtually nonexistent, and entire villages can be forced into flight by a passing SPDC patrol.  Some Karen relief organisations try to help with support for villagers' survival strategies, but this aid is under-resourced and sporadic and can only reach a small percentage of people (see Section 7.7 ).

All of these processes are illustrated in the photos below.  These are divided into sections on Destruction of Crops and Livelihoods (7.1); Abandoned Fields (7.2); Confiscation of Fields (7.3); Restrictions on Access to Food (7.4); Crop Quotas, Taxation and Extortion (7.5); Looting (7.6); and The Work of Karen Relief

7.1  Destruction of Crops and Livelihoods

In the process of asserting control over the civilian population, the SPDC Army destroys many of their crops and livelihoods.  This is partly done indirectly, by impoverishing people or driving them off their land through the abuses documented in other sections of this report, but it also occurs directly, as SPDC units deliberately destroy crops and food supplies, or destroy farmland in the process of making roads and army camps.

In areas which they are trying to bring under control, SPDC forces deliberately and systematically destroy villagers' food supplies and livelihoods in order to force them to move into Army-controlled areas.  Army patrols seek out and destroy ricefields, food storage barns and farming implements, and kill any livestock they find (photos 1-20 to 1-21 , 1-33 to 1-40 , 1-41 to 1-43 , 7-17 , 7-24 to 7-25 , and 7-27 to 7-29 ).  Prior to growing season they prematurely burn off the undried scrub in the ricefields to make it impossible to plant a full crop ( photos 7-20 to 7-23 ).  During the growing season, they uproot and trample rice plants in the fields (photos 7-32 and 7-33 to 7-34 ).  During the harvest, they shoot exposed villagers working in the fields (photos 5-23 to 5-25 and 5-33 to 5-40 ).  They hunt out and destroy the hiding sites and food supplies of internally displaced villagers (photos 7-35 to 7-36 and 2-31 to 2-36 ), destroy their betelnut and cardamom plantations (photos 7-4 and 7-18 ), and shoot them on sight when they try to carry their produce to market (photos 5-31 to 5-32 and 5-58 to 5-60 ).

The livelihoods of villagers living under SPDC control are almost as tenuous as those of the IDPs, due to the impunity that accompanies military power.  Villagers are never consulted on road-building or other infrastructure projects or compensated for the damage.  Photo 7-15 shows a villager's ricefield destroyed in March 2004 when SPDC troops ploughed a bulldozer right through it to make a road.  Ten villagers in Thaton district had their long-standing loh tree plantations cut down for a road in January 2004, and were also forced to build the road themselves ( photo 6-134 ).  Soldiers digging earth and stone for road repairs in Papun district destroyed the ricefield dikes and irrigation systems of villagers on two occasions, when they could easily have obtained the materials elsewhere (see photos 7-1 to 7-2 and 7-26 ), and left behind piles of rock in another field that took the farmer a week's work to remove ( photo 7-16 ).   Livelihoods can be lost to any whim of a military officer.  In July 2003, SPDC Army commanders in Dooplaya District decided that trading boats could be used to supply resistance forces, and set out to destroy all boats on the Atayan River ( photo 7-19 ), while in Thaton District a KNLA officer destroyed the bamboo and cane rafts essential to the livelihood of a family because they had failed to obey one of his orders ( photos 7-30 to 7-31 ).  In March 2004, villagers in two areas of Dooplaya District had their fields and irrigation systems destroyed by fires started by SPDC troops to clear scrub from the roadsides, yet they could not dare request compensation (photos 7-5 to 7-8 and 7-9 to 7-14 ).  Livestock is frequently lost to landmines, with no compensation ever paid ( photo 11-53 ).  Many villagers find themselves forced to switch to livelihoods less vulnerable to the destruction of their land, like paid labour or gathering and selling forest products ( photo 7-3 ), neither of which yield more than hand-to-mouth survival – or as the saying goes in Sgaw Karen, 'work in the morning, eat in the evening.'

7.2  Abandoned Fields

Even if the SPDC or other military forces fail to destroy productive farmland by design or whim (as discussed above), villagers are often forced to abandon their land due to other factors.  For villagers in hill areas, the establishment of an SPDC Army camp or an increase in the frequency of military patrols within a short distance of their field creates a risk that whenever working the field they could suddenly be caught unawares by a patrol and shot or taken as a porter.  Rather than face this risk they abandon the land, sometimes even if it has already been planted (see photos 7-37 , 7-39 , 7-43 , and 7-49 ).  The establishment of new roads near their fields, which according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Rangoon should cause villagers to rejoice, also forces them to abandon their fields because roads mean Army camps, forced labour, extortion and Army patrols (see photos 7-40 to 7-41 , 7-47 to 7-48 , and 10-22 ).  In Karen hill areas, villagers can only dare work their fields if they can feel confident that SPDC forces are unlikely to enter the area (see photo 7-38 ).  In many areas this is unrealistic, so many villagers switch from rice to cash crops like cardamom which can be grown in smaller quantities without detection (see photo 7-44 ).

Photo 7-42 shows fields abandoned by villagers who fled their village after SPDC and KNLA forces had a firefight nearby, because they knew the SPDC would attack or relocate their village as punishment.  When forced relocation orders are given, people also have no choice but to leave their fields, whether it is to go to the relocation site or into hiding in the hills (seephotos 7-45 to 7-46 ).  The longer the villagers are away from their fields the more they degenerate; hill fields are reclaimed by the forest, and the dikes and irrigation systems in flat fields erode, silt up and are destroyed, requiring months or years of gradual work to rebuild.

7.3  Confiscation of Fields

Under Burmese law all land officially belongs to the state, and this is implemented quite literally by Army and civil authorities confiscating any land they want for any purpose without compensation.  The photos in this section show land which has been confiscated by Army units for an Army camp ( photo 6-194 ), for the establishment of a forced relocation site ( photos 3-10 to 3-12 ), and for Army farms (photos 7-53 and 7-54 ).  With Army units in the field now expected to produce some of their own food, many are now confiscating villagers' farms and forcing the same villagers to work the fields for them, without pay and without compensation, as shown in photo 7-53 .  The rice fields in photo 7-54 were seized by forcing the entire village to relocate in order to make their fields available for use by an Army camp. 

Photos 7-50 to 7-52 show a much larger project, where the Army has confiscated a massive area of land without compensation to support a military-corporate joint venture with a Rangoon-based company called 'Max Myanmar'.  Five thousand acres of land is to be confiscated and planted with rubber by 2007 ( "Lt-Gen Maung Bo inspects development undertakings in Mon, Kayin States", New Light of Myanmar , May 9 th 2005).  All of this land is to be devoted to the profit of the company and the senior military officers involved.  The villagers, meanwhile, lose their land and their livelihoods, are paid no compensation, and will probably even be used as forced or bonded labour on the plantation.

7.4  Restrictions on Access to Food

Throughout Karen areas, people live in clustered villages but farm fields and plantations that may be scattered up to several kilometres away, and supplement this by fishing, hunting and foraging in the surrounding forests.  They travel to larger villages to sell cash crops and buy necessities like medicines, clothing, and dry goods.  By establishing more roads dotted with military posts and checkpoints to control the movement of people and goods, the SPDC is restricting all of these activities.  At every military checkpoint and every time they encounter a mobile patrol, villagers face the risk of interrogation, detention, recruitment for forced labour, and extortion of their money and goods.  Some villagers find the restrictions and risks too much, and try to move further away from the SPDC presence (see photo 10-24 ). 

For internally displaced villagers the risks are particularly high.  People establish cash crop plantations in hidden locations, or harvest rice quickly and covertly ( photos 7-61 to 7-62 ), sometimes by night or with KNLA guards, to avoid being shot in the fields by SPDC patrols (see Section 5, Shootings and Killings ).  IDPs travelling to central villages to buy things must risk capture by SPDC patrols, and if caught in the village they are accused as rebels.  Photo 7-63 shows a group returning to the forest with rice they bought in a village, moving covertly and walking along streambeds to avoid leaving tracks that could lead SPDC patrols to the place where they live.  SPDC authorities deliberately block medicines and goods from the plains and SPDC-controlled villages from entering the hills, in order to make life untenable for people living outside their control and to prevent supplies reaching resistance forces. Resistance forces have access to other supply lines, however, so the main effect is on villagers.  To evade these restrictions, villagers and traders from the plains and SPDC-controlled villages in some areas have cooperated with IDP populations to organise covert and temporary 'jungle markets', sometimes with the protection of resistance forces.  A well-hidden site is determined, word spread around, and on that day people from SPDC-controlled areas bring goods to trade with IDPs who bring their cash crops and other belongings in exchange.  Photos 7-55 to 7-57 show a 'jungle market' in operation.  In some areas these have become a lifeline for IDPs.

To prevent them having contact with IDP populations, people living in SPDC-controlled areas are restricted from going into the hills, often using the threat of landmines.  Paths into areas not fully controlled by the SPDC are landmined, and sometimes signs are posted to prevent people using them (see photo 11-2 ).  This is also done to prevent people in forced relocation sites from returning to farm their fields near their home village.  In Thaton District, DKBA forces have prohibited relocated villagers from returning to their home fields and have landmined the paths to enforce this, but even so some villagers take the risk and evade the troops and mines to grow rice (see photo 7-58 ).  In many cases, however, the fields lie abandoned and fall into disrepair, as shown by photos 7-59 to 7-60 , so even if people eventually return home extensive work will be required to make the fields workable again.

7.5  Crop Quotas, Taxation and Extortion

While forced labour and other demands keep people away from their crops and livelihoods, they must still produce enough not only for themselves but also to pay various forms of quotas and extortion.  The SPDC claims to have abolished its nationwide system of demanding crop quotas from every farmer (see photo 7-75), but it remains unconfirmed whether this claim is actually being implemented.  Over and above the official quotas, everyone is forced to pay unofficial crop quotas and 'taxes' to support the SPDC and its Army in many ways.

Every village is forced to pay many kinds of extortion 'fees' to each SPDC Army unit in the area.  These go under names like 'porter fees', 'security fees', 'development fees', etc., but most of them simply go into the pockets of local and higher-level commanders (see photos 6-40 to 6-41).  In addition, villages face constant demands from SPDC officers for meat, fruit, alcohol, cheroots, rice, and other goods, for which they are almost never paid (see photos 7-66 to 7-67 and 6-99).  Demands are specified in written orders sent to village heads ( photo 6-102), or dictated in meetings which village leaders are forced to attend ( photo 6-103).  Military officers and civil authorities also pursue personal money-making ventures, and often force villagers to be their customers: for example, photos 6-190 to 6-191 show a brickmaking venture where an SPDC officer used villagers and his soldiers as free labour, then forced the villagers to buy the bricks.  The DKBA uses similar tricks to make money, forcing villagers to buy its calendars and posters at extortionate prices and then fining them even more if they fail to do so ( photo 7-68).  The DKBA also demands quotas of conscripts from each village, then demands high bribes from people who want to avoid conscription.  The man in photo 12-14 had to sell his cow to get enough money to avoid conscription, even though he is already 49 years old.

In addition, every SPDC and DKBA unit based near a road sets up its own checkpoints along the road to extort money from everyone who passes.  Villagers and traders moving along the roads run into these checkpoints as often as once every two or three kilometres, and at each one they are forced to pay arbitrary 'taxes' before they and their goods are allowed to pass (see photos 6-192, 7-69 to 7-71, and 7-72).  This results in reduced trade and extortionately high prices for goods by the time they reach rural areas.

7.6  Looting

SPDC Army units are free to loot anything in rural areas with complete impunity.  Villages in Karen areas have become accustomed to having their food supplies and belongings looted and their livestock stolen by every SPDC patrol that passes by (see photos 7-78 , 10-77 , 7-80 , and 7-81 ).  This does not mean they accept it without protest, and sometimes they succeed in shaming the soldiers and driving them away; SPDC deserters have told KHRG in interviews that they are often stealing to survive because their officers steal their rations, and they are actually ashamed of what they are doing (seeAbuse Under Orders: The SPDC and DKBA Armies Through the Eyes of their Soldiers [KHRG #2001-01, March 2001]).  But challenging them is risky, because they sometimes respond by beating villagers ( photo 7-81 ) or threatening them at gunpoint.  If villagers flee before the troops arrive, the looting is more intensive, sometimes continuing for days if the troops remain in the village (see photos 7-79 and 7-82 to 7-84 ).  In photo 2-14 , the troops even stole the roofs of villagers' houses to use the thatch at their camp.

It is also normal for SPDC patrols to rob civilians they meet along their way of any cash and valuables.  The villager in photo 7-77 was beaten and robbed of his watch when he met an SPDC column, and photos 5-3 to 5-5 show the shallow graves of four men who were robbed of 100,000 Kyat in cash and then beaten to death.

7.7  The Work of Karen Relief Organisations

All of the abuses and restrictions documented above severely threaten the food security of displaced and non-displaced villagers throughout Karen areas.  In most cases they must find their own ways to survive because no aid is available.  For some IDPs, however, small amounts of sporadic aid have become available from local Karen organisations.  This has saved the lives and livelihoods of many people, and is constructive and empowering because it attempts to support and respond to the survival strategies they have developed themselves, in contrast with international aid which attempts to impose inappropriate 'solutions' to their problems or demands that they renounce all resistance to the state before being considered deserving 'victims'.  Unfortunately, however, the work of Karen relief organisations is grossly under-resourced and can only reach a small percentage of Karen IDPs, partly because most international relief organisations refuse to support programmes in areas not controlled by the Burmese state.  The attitude of organisations which claim that humanitarian aid in Burma can be apolitical, that villagers can be assisted if they work with the state but not if they resist it, or that working through the state but refusing to work in areas not controlled by the state still satisfies 'humanitarian neutrality', is hypocrisy that deserves to be exposed and condemned.  For the near future, however, it appears that such hypocritical international organisations will remain well-funded while grassroots Karen relief organisations will remain under-resourced.

Another source of relief is medical aid, which comes from KNLA medics and mobile medical teams sent by various IDP relief groups.  A few photos related to this are included here, but more can be found in Sections 5 ( Shootings and Killings ), 8.4 (Women/Health ), 9.5 ( Children/Health ), 10.3 ( Flight and Displacement/Health ), and 11.2 ( Landmines/The Victims ).