Without Respite: Renewed Attacks on Villages and Internal Displacement in Toungoo District

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Published date:
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

With the annual monsoon rains now falling over Karen State, the SPDC's military offensive against civilian villagers in northern Karen State would normally be drawing to a close. However, quite the opposite is happening. The resumption of SPDC Army attacks on villages and the increased patrols in Toungoo District shows that the offensive is far from over. Thousands more landmines have been reportedly deployed across Toungoo District to isolate certain parts of the district and restrict villagers' movements. An analysis of SPDC Army troop movements and tactics suggests that the offensive is now set to expand eastward across the Day Loh River where it can be expected that SPDC units will soon commence shelling and destroying villages. In addition to this, the situation in the southeast of the district has become dire as the villagers are now caught between two advancing columns and have nowhere left to flee. It is likely that dozens more villages will be destroyed and thousands more villagers will be displaced in the coming months.

Civilian villagers living in Toungoo District (Taw Oo in Karen), the northernmost of the seven Karen districts in eastern Burma, have been under attack since November last year. In its latest military offensive against the civilian population, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta has been targeting Karen villagers living in the hills of northern Karen State in the ongoing attempt to consolidate its control and bring the whole of the population under its rule. Over the past six months, thousands of villagers have been displaced and dozens of villages have been abandoned and/or destroyed. The wet season has now commenced, but the attacks show no sign of slowing down. Unlike in previous years, when offensive activities would cease with the onset of the rains, the SPDC has actually recently intensified its activities against Karen civilians in Toungoo District. The situation for the villagers is now growing increasingly desperate as more and more troops flood into the district to inflict wholesale human rights violations.

The Scope of Displacement

It is important to note that internal displacement in Karen State is not a new phenomenon that has just arisen from this offensive. In September 2004, KHRG released the comprehensive report Enduring Hunger and Repression; Food Scarcity, Internal Displacement, and the Continued Use of Forced Labour in Toungoo District, [1] which quoted a Karen relief worker from Toungoo District who estimated there to be approximately 10,000-12,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) hiding in Toungoo District alone. Following this, in October 2005, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) produced the report Internal Displacement and Protection in Eastern Burma, [2] in which they estimated that in 2005 there were 111,200 IDPs living in hiding in Karen State and eastern Pegu Division, with over 14,000 of these in Toungoo District. [3] Recent reports by the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) [4] now estimate there to be approximately 15,000 newly displaced villagers who have taken to the forest since the beginning of the offensive in response to the current attacks. At its highest, the total number of displaced villagers reached 18,000 in May, but fluctuates when SPDC columns return to base to resupply and people briefly return to their villages. Approximately 5,000 of these newly displaced villagers are hiding in Toungoo District, bringing the total number of displaced villagers in Toungoo District to something in the range of 10,000 to 15,000.

"We were very afraid of the SPDC. When they came into the village, they took whatever they wanted from the villagers. They would do whatever they wanted to do to the villagers or village. The first time that they came here they destroyed the village, and later they burned our village again. If they could catch anybody, whether it was a man or woman, they would hurt them, so whenever the villagers heard that the SPDC were coming to the village they would get up and run away immediately."

Saw A--- (Male, 65), southeastern Tantabin township (February 2006)

"We were displaced by the movement of the SPDC. They burned our villages and our houses so we abandoned our village and fled away to another place. Now we settle in a place called T---, but we know that this is not a safe place for us. We are not the only village that was displaced. We know we can't stay in the forest for very long so we hope to flee to a refugee camp."

Naw B--- (Female), southeastern Tantabin township (February 2006)

"We have always faced problems. The SPDC soldiers would arrive in our village sometimes. Whenever they came into our village they ate all of the villagers' livestock. They would eat whatever they saw. They did not pay anything for the cost. When they came to our village they tortured our villagers and sometimes they sexually abused the women. When they came they usually stayed one or two days and then left. A few days ago we heard that SPDC soldiers had killed a Play Hsa Loh villager. They cut off his legs and arms, and then they left that person beside the road [to bleed to death] because an SPDC soldier had been wounded by a landmine. ... There are about 1,000 SPDC soldiers staying there and making operations."

Saw C--- (M, 45), southeastern Tantabin township (March 2006)

"Our villagers have always had to face problems. SPDC soldiers have come to our village many times. Over 300 soldiers would come to our village. The distance from the SPDC [camp] to our place only takes two hours to walk. We cannot stay in our village because the SPDC soldiers come and harass us. ... I am faced with many very serious problems now so I think that I will go to a refugee camp for a while. If our country gets peace I will come back to my homeland."

Saw D--- (M, 23), southeastern Tantabin township (March 2006)

KHRG has identified at least 21 different SPDC Army battalions who have been militarily active in Toungoo District since the beginning of the offensive last November. Toungoo District typically falls within the area of operations of the SPDC Southern Regional Military Command (SC), although some battalions subordinate to Western Regional Military Command (WC) also have a presence here. At any one time there are ordinarily a dozen SPDC Army battalions active within the district. To supplement the battalions already stationed in Toungoo District, many more battalions under Light Infantry Division (LID) #66 and Military Operations Command (MOC) #16 have also been brought in for offensive operations. [5] The marked increase in the number of soldiers flooding into the district has brought with it a commensurate increase in human rights violations, leading to significant forced displacement. Since November 2005 the SPDC has stepped up its efforts to depopulate all areas it cannot directly control – primarily the hills away from vehicle roads – and force the population down to roadside SPDC-controlled villages where they can serve their proper functions as civilians: supporting the Army with forced labour, money, and materials.

Internal displacement in Karen State is fluid; people try not to go far, staying in their field huts or nearby forests to retain access to their fields and hidden food caches, return to stay in the village when they can and then flee again when another SPDC column comes near. A brief lull in attacks on villages and IDP communities over the past weeks as SPDC units received new orders and have been busy focusing on resupplying has led many villagers to chance returning to their villages, somewhat reducing the overall number of displaced villagers who are still hiding in the forest. This number, however, seems set to rise again. SPDC Army activities against civilians have recently been stepped up again throughout the offensive area and with this will come an increase in the number of villagers fleeing into the forests as they attempt to evade the SPDC Army patrols.

"The place where we settle now is called B---. All of the villagers in our village moved here. Our villagers do flat fields and hill fields, but when we heard that the SPDC were patrolling or coming we had to run away or hide, so we didn't have much time to look after our crops and we couldn't get enough rice. We always have to be alert for the SPDC. Other villages that surround our village also had to flee along with us. They also have to stay in the forest and run away when the SPDC troops were patrolling near the places where we settled. If they [SPDC] continue to do the same as this in the future, our only choice will be to choose to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand."

Saw E--- (M, 28), southeastern Tantabin township (February 2006)

As has been detailed in several recent KHRG reports, the recent arrival of fresh troops and orders for existing forces to remain in position suggest that the monsoon rains will not put a stop to the attacks as in previous years. Many villagers are of the opinion that the SPDC Army soldiers will keep coming after them throughout the wet season. In the words of one Karen township chairman, "I think this time the rains will not stop them, they will come slowly and keep coming". SPDC Army units are not returning to base, but rather are remaining in their small satellite camps throughout the eastern hills of Toungoo District. Many of these camps are already stocked with several months of supplies, while forced labour orders continue to be issued to SPDC-controlled villages like Kler Lah and Klay Soe Kee to porter more supplies along the roads to many of these camps. A recent report by FBR notes that "[o]n 22 May 2006, the supplies for the Burma Army were stored under the primary school in Kaw They Der and the villagers were forced to build a floor and walls for the supplies. According to local Karen leaders, this is an unusual rainy season re-supply for the Burma Army because the Burma Army already has its supplies for the rainy season and these are in addition to those supplies". [6] It would appear that this offensive is far from over.

In the last few days of May SPDC Army patrols and attacks on villages resumed anew, with SPDC Army columns in southeastern Tantabin township coordinating their attacks with those in northern Papun District. Two recent KHRG reports detailed how a column of SPDC Army soldiers from Military Operations Command (MOC) #10 are presently slowly advancing northwards out of Ler Mu Plaw in Papun District towards Toungoo District, shelling and burning all villages, field huts and food supplies in their path and shooting villagers on sight. [7] On May 25th, the three battalions of Tactical Operations Command (TOC) #3 of Light Infantry Division (LID) #66 at Kler Lah in Toungoo District formed a column and are presently moving southeast down the road to Bu Sah Kee, apparently planning to continue down into northern Papun District and meet up with the MOC #10 column near Kay Pu. A KHRG field researcher reports that this LID #66 column rounded up hundreds of men and women in Kler Lah (a.k.a. Bawgali Gyi), Kaw Thay Der (Yay Tho Gyi) and Klay Soe Kee (Yay Tho Lay) villages and are using them to porter ammunition and supplies down the road. Many of the men in these SPDC-controlled villages ran away as a result, so LID #66 troops remaining behind have detained the other villagers, mainly women, children and the elderly, in local schools and churches and plan to use them as porters if more are needed. According to a KHRG field researcher, the LID #66 column has already advanced as far as Dta Kwih Soe (Ta Kwee Soe), nearing the end of the road at Bu Sah Kee, and is expected to continue its push southwards towards Kay Pu in Papun District. Thus far the column has only moved along the vehicle road, but once it passes the end of the road and enters the high hills separating Papun and Toungoo Districts it will probably begin destroying villages and fields. By sending out two columns to move against the villagers from both the north and the south, the SPDC may hope to encircle the villagers and cut off all means for their escape. In the process, it can be expected that many will be killed and thousands more villagers will become displaced. Fleeing from one column will deliver them directly into the hands of the other, in which case they will either be killed or captured and used as operations porters. Making matters worse, "[t]here is also an unconfirmed report that another column from Mawchi in southern Karenni (Kayah) State might be heading into the area from the east, to cut off any possible escape in that direction. If this is true, it could become virtually impossible for any more villagers from Toungoo District or far northern Papun District to reach the Thai border." [8] With no media presence in the offensive region, the SPDC knows that much of the media coverage of its abuses has been based on the testimonies of displaced villagers who have reached the border, so it may be trying to block any more villagers from escaping.

"When the SPDC reached the village, they destroyed everything that they could see. They killed our animals; they burned our church and houses; they ruined the rice and food that we kept for ourselves. All of the houses in the village were burned, except for one. They burned one of the neighbouring villages also. ... Most of the villagers don't have enough food. We couldn't do our planting well and we are always harassed and interrupted by the SPDC. We couldn't grow enough food, so we had to go to K--- to buy our rice. We don't have any income and almost all of the villagers have no money. The main problems that we have to face at present are the lack of food, that we don't have enough medicine when we got sick, and that there is no school and no education for the children. I have decided to move to a refugee camp in Thailand because of the shortage of food and all of the other problems that we must face, but someday I will return to my homeland when there is peace and freedom in our state."

Saw F--- (M, 56), southeastern Tantabin township (March 2006)

The first need stated by many villagers is physical security, and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) forces try to help through harassing attacks and landmines to slow the advance of SPDC columns, providing villagers with warning of SPDC movements and escorting villagers out of dangerous areas or back to their villages to salvage their food supplies. In effect, the KNLA forces in the region have transformed from a 'rebel' force to a protection force, and the only combat presently occurring is when they try to slow the SPDC columns advancing on villages.

Next to physical security, the most urgent need of the internally displaced is food. Many are without enough food to adequately feed their families and, though sharing whatever they can, starvation is always a threat. Once they have fled into the forest, many villagers are able to successfully evade SPDC Army patrols, particularly if they have access to KNLA help and intelligence. Many of their possessions and food supplies, however, are left behind in the rush to flee from an advancing SPDC Army column. Each time villagers have to flee they lose some of what few possessions and/or food supplies they still have. In preparation for the inevitability that they will need to flee again, the majority of villagers hide a supply of rice or paddy (unhusked rice) in small paddy barns in the forest. Once they have escaped from the SPDC and their families (for the time being at least) are made safe, the villagers can then surreptitiously return to collect their rice from their secret caches. In response to this, SPDC Army patrols deliberately seek out and destroy any and all food supplies of Karen civilians. Whenever a paddy barn is discovered in the forest, the soldiers destroy whatever they cannot eat or carry away with them. The rice is typically dumped out onto the ground, where it will either be eaten by wild pigs or take seed, while the barn itself and some of the rice are usually torched. Many of the villagers who are now hiding in the forest are without food, particularly in the southeast of the district where the attacks have thus far been the most concentrated. Many of their food supplies and belongings have been destroyed during attacks earlier in the offensive and they are now fleeing into the forest without food, shelter from the rains, or the medicines to treat those who will undoubtedly fall ill in the absence of adequate food and shelter (see "Implications for Health and Education" below).

"We don't have enough rice because the soil is not good and we couldn't look after our crops because we have had to run away from the SPDC regularly. We have always been harassed by the SPDC. We used to go to K--- to buy food, but now the SPDC has prohibited the selling of rice and food so now we can't buy enough. Sometimes people there sold rice and other food secretly without letting the SPDC know about it."

Saw D--- (M, 23), southeastern Tantabin township (February 2006)

"I only have a small amount of food left. Our friends who fled with us also don't have enough food. All of us will be faced with the lack of food. We haven't been able to look after our farms very well because we always have to be alert from SPDC. Even though we only have a small amount left, we don't have enough money to buy any more food. We are running out of food so we know we can't stay in this place any longer. We have decided to abandon our own homes and homeland and move to a refugee camp in Thailand. This is not because we are willing to move, but because we are suffering and the lack [of food]."

Saw E--- (M, 28), southeastern Tantabin township (February 2006)

"We had 37 households in our village, with over 280 people. [Our villagers] were doing hill fields. Our enemies [SPDC] have been harassing us so we have not been able to get enough food. We normally bought our food in K---, but recently the SPDC soldiers arrived to our village. Our villagers are faced with many problems. The SPDC soldiers stayed in our village for about one month. During that time the SPDC were burning our houses so we fled and stayed in the forest. Our villagers do not dare to meet the SPDC soldiers. The distance between the SPDC Army camp and us is only about a one-and-a-half or two hours walk. We did not have any security there any more. We were living with fearful hearts so we prepared our things [and kept them] in baskets so we could take them with us when we had to run away. We have no food, no security, no medicines, and no school."

Saw F--- (M, 56), southeastern Tantabin township (March 2006)