Nyaunglebin / Toungoo Districts: Re-emergence of Irregular SPDC Army Soldiers and Karen Splinter Groups in Northern Karen State

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Published date:
Monday, October 24, 2005

The SPDC's hand-picked Dam Byan Byaut Kya ('Guerrilla Retaliation') units first began executing villagers in Nyaunglebin District in late 1998, but in recent years their activities declined and it appeared that the ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who allegedly controlled them, may have ended their existence. Since July, however, villagers have reported their re-emergence in northern Nyaunglebin District under a new name - the Pyaung Shin ('to clear all'). Just to the north in Toungoo District a marginal Karen splinter group, calling itself the Nyein Chan Yay A'Pwet ('Peace Group') because it acts as a proxy army for the SPDC, has suddenly moved troops into a former SPDC army camp southeast of Toungoo, apparently under SPDC orders. Both of these moves threaten the security of villagers in northern Nyaunglebin and southern Toungoo Districts, and could be a reflection of more aggressive military strategies being developed by the SPDC since Khin Nyunt's ouster. Among villagers in the region, these developments are sparking fears of increased repression and a possible resumption of SPDC military offensives despite the junta's 'informal ceasefire' with the Karen National Union.

The SPDC's hand-picked Dam Byan Byaut Kya ('Guerrilla Retaliation') units first began executing villagers in Nyaunglebin District in late 1998, but in recent years their activities declined and it appeared that the ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who allegedly controlled them, may have ended their existence. Since July, however, villagers have reported their re-emergence in northern Nyaunglebin District under a new name - the Pyaung Shin ('to clear all'). Just to the north in Toungoo District a marginal Karen splinter group, calling itself the Nyein Chan Yay A'Pwet ('Peace Group') because it acts as a proxy army for the SPDC, has suddenly moved troops into a former SPDC army camp southeast of Toungoo, apparently under SPDC orders. Both of these moves threaten the security of villagers in northern Nyaunglebin and southern Toungoo Districts, and could be a reflection of more aggressive military strategies being developed by the SPDC since Khin Nyunt's ouster. Among villagers in the region, these developments are sparking fears of increased repression and a possible resumption of SPDC military offensives despite the junta's 'informal ceasefire' with the Karen National Union.

The situation observed in Nyaunglebin and Toungoo Districts (see Map 1 and Map 2 respectively) of northern Karen State has for many years been highly volatile.  Even now, with the existence of the verbal ceasefire between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the Karen National Union (KNU), forced labour and extortion is rife and thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) live in hiding in the forests.  The ceasefire has done little to help the lot of the villagers living in these areas.  The SPDC has taken advantage of their relative freedoms of movement and activity under the ceasefire agreement, leading to recent developments in these two districts which threaten to make life for the villagers living there even harder.

Since its formation in September 1998, the Dam Byan Byaut Kya ('Guerrilla Retaliation Units') have terrorised the villagers of first Nyaunglebin and later also Toungoo District, seeking out and punishing any villagers suspected of having contact with the resistance.  In the years following its creation, the Dam Byan Byaut Kya were very active in the plains of Nyaunglebin and Toungoo Districts and KHRG has identified as many as ten distinct units operating in the two districts [see "Enduring Hunger and Repression; Food Scarcity, Internal Displacement, and the Continued Use of Forced Labour in Toungoo District" (KHRG#2004-01, 27/9/04), and "Death Squads and Displacement" (KHRG #99-04, May 1999)].  They move in small sections of five to ten men typically by night, travelling from village to village brutally executing any villagers accused of supporting the KNU/KNLA.  Many of the villagers were horribly tortured prior to being killed, and their bodies mutilated or decapitated after.  The past few years have seen a decrease in the number of executions being committed by the Dam Byan Byaut Kya .  In this time, their activities have come to resemble those of regular SPDC Army battalions, in that they appear more interested in exacting forced labour and extorting money from the villagers.  In Toungoo District, KHRG field researchers have been reporting that the Dam Byan Byaut Kya are no longer active and have largely been amalgamated back into the regular SPDC Army battalions from which they were originally selected. 

However, reports that KHRG is now receiving claim that the Dam Byan Byaut Kya have recently resumed activity in the plains of Nyaunglebin District, particularly in Mone (Mu) township to the north.  According to a KHRG field researcher from the region, they re-emerged in July 2005, leaving behind the name of Dam Byan Byaut Kya and adopting the new moniker of Pyaung Shin ('to clear all').  The name change may be to distance them from deposed former Prime Minister Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, who was believed to exercise direct control over the Dam Byan Byaut Kya .  In the days following his arrest in October 2004, the SPDC dismantled the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) that he had commanded, arrested all of the officers deemed loyal to him, and tore down all images of him on public display in an apparent attempt to not only purge him from his position but also his memory from the record books.  It remains unclear whether the renamed Pyaung Shin units are to operate under the newly reorganised Intelligence services or under the Army.

This somewhat disturbing development must be watched closely as it may signify a resurgence of Dam Byan Byaut Kya , albeit now under the name of Pyaung Shin .  A member of the KNLA told KHRG that he expects the Pyaung Shinto be used as additional security for regular SPDC Army soldiers whenever they are out on operation, rather than acting as the counter-insurgency force that they once were.  The evidence at hand however is not yet sufficient to make a statement either way.  In any case, the re-emergence of a counter-insurgency force specifically targetted at civilians under the prevailing ceasefire, however fragile it may be, strengthens the argument that the SPDC sees its strongest enemy as the civilian population and intends to use the ceasefire as cover to step up its attacks on civilians.  The resumption of military activity by the Pyaung Shin makes it clear that the SPDC has no commitment to the terms of the ceasefire or to seeking lasting peace in Karen State.  Instead, it appears that the regime is primarily concerned with retaining power by abusing authority and continuing to terrorise and repress the civilian population. 

A second worrying development also took place in July 2005; this time further north in Toungoo District.  On July 25 th 2005, commander Kyaw Thu lead thirty of his soldiers from the Nyein Chan Yay A'Pwet ('Peace Group'), a small marginalised Karen splinter group which surrendered to the SPDC in 1997, into the Tha Pyay Nyunt Army camp in Tantabin (Taw Ta Tu) township with the intention of establishing themselves there.  Tha Pyay Nyunt has been the site of an SPDC Army camp for many years, although it is not an area in which the Peace Group has ever operated before.  It is just north of Mone (Mu) township in Nyaunglebin District, which is where the Pyaung Shin have re-emerged.   The Group has largely been restricted to the areas in and around Pya Sakan and Leit Tho where they have been permitted to operate various businesses, most of which are involved in the logging trade.  This effort marks the first time that they have ever ventured so far south.  The only other time that they have ever entered the hills in force was shortly following their defection in 1997, when they burned a number of villages in Than Daung township that were not under SPDC control [for more information, refer to the previously published KHRG reports,"Enduring Hunger and Repression; Food Scarcity, Internal Displacement, and the Continued Use of Forced Labour in Toungoo District" (KHRG#2004-01, 27/9/04), and "Peace Villages and Hiding Villages; Roads, Relocations and the Campaign for Control in Toungoo District" (KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00)] .  Since that time, the Peace Group has not been militarily active.  The fact that they are now establishing camps in areas where they have never operated before, and where the KNLA remains quite active, is both unexpected and cause for concern.  This move would not be possible without SPDC approval and backing.  It may indicate that though few in number and militarily ill-equipped, they are soon to become militarily active again - either on their own, which is highly improbable, or as a proxy army to control the local civilians on behalf of the SPDC, or to assist the SPDC in an impending offensive.  Similar moves by splinter groups in the past have been followed by forced recruitment drives to beef up their numbers so that they can 'control' an area for the SPDC, which usually means extorting forced labour, money and materials out of the civilian population to fill the needs of the SPDC military and carrying out reprisals against civilians when ordered to do so by SPDC officers.  Whether this will occur in this case bears further observation.  This latest move by the Nyein Chan Yay A'Pwet could be part of the same strategic reshuffle which has seen the re-emergence of the Pyaung Shin force mentioned above.

Though no definite evidence exists as yet, the feeling among the Karen population, the KNU, and various independent observers is that a large scale offensive may well be imminent during the dry season which is now beginning.  Since the beginning of the ceasefire, the SPDC has taken full advantage of the lack of fighting to build many new camps, move in new units, resupply the existing ones, and build a wider network of roads linking them.  All of this work has been carried out through the use of forced labour.  The board is now set with the soldiers in place, their camps stocked, and the roads built to facilitate their rapid mobilisation.  Should the SPDC launch a large scale offensive, it would shatter the tenuous balance which has been established in some areas between internally displaced villagers, various opposing Karen forces, and the SPDC military, and would likely force tens of thousands of villagers to flee further into the forests or to attempt to cross into Thailand as refugees.