Shouldering the Burden of Militarisation: SPDC, DKBA and KPF order documents since September 2006

Published date:
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Forced labour continues to be among the most pervasive of human rights abuses in Burma and a leading cause of displacement, both internally and as refugees into neighbouring countries. Villagers living in Karen State have expressly condemned the regular, and in many cases daily, demands for forced labour imposed upon them. According to these individuals forced labour has lead to collapsing livelihoods, increased poverty and severe difficulties in addressing health, education and other community needs; leading them to respond with varied strategies including flight and displacement. Such views have been consistent in thousands of KHRG interviews with local villagers conducted over the past 15 years. Despite these testimonies the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime currently ruling Burma, continues to deny the practice of forced labour. However, order documents explicitly demanding forced labour and signed by SPDC officers are regularly collected by KHRG field researchers working throughout Karen State. These documents provide tangible evidence of the continued large-scale perpetration of forced labour in Karen State by military officers and civilian officials of the SPDC, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Karen Peace Force. This report has been written to provide contextual details on the widespread and systematic perpetration of forced labour as background to a compendium of 145 order documents sent to villages in Karen State since September 2006, translations of which are included in the appendices below. These order documents have been compiled for submission to the International Labour Organisation's Committee of Experts meeting in September 2007.

I. Introduction and executive summary

"Tatmadaw[1] men are doing everything in accordance with laws and rules. Transportation of materials and construction of buildings are made through tender system [sic] by paying charges. Forced labour is never used."

- Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, SPDC Minister for Information (June 2006)[2]

"The length of Mother's [the village head's] section of the vehicle road that has been designated must be finished rebuilding today and then a set tha[3] must report to K--- Camp. This is to inform you."

- Text from an SPDC forced labour order document (November 2006)[4]

Forced labour continues to be among the most pervasive of human rights abuses in Burma and a leading cause of displacement and the movement of refugees into neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime currently ruling Burma, continues to deny that the practice exists. In the face of official statements to the contrary, villagers throughout Karen State speak of ongoing coerced and uncompensated labour so prevalent that it undermines their very lives and livelihoods. By consuming their time and resources, forced labour exacerbates poverty and aggravates the overall humanitarian crisis in Karen State. These adverse consequences compound with the physical exertion, threats and abuse of individual incidents of forced labour to create a pervasive climate of insecurity. This situation is not solely prevalent in areas under direct or partial SPDC control. Villagers living in ceasefire areas controlled by the SPDC-allied military groups, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Force (KPF; also known in Burmese as Nyein Chan Yay), report similar demands for forced labour. Villagers' testimonies about forced labour are supported by order documents issued by these groups which KHRG field researchers have collected in large numbers (see Appendices).

A deeper understanding of the role of coerced uncompensated civilian labour requires that it be seen within the broader context of military rule. As a widespread and systematic abuse, forced labour is crucial to the ongoing militarisation of Karen State and other, especially rural, areas of the country. The SPDC has sought to rapidly expand its military presence in Karen State beyond what can be supported by the resources allocated. Following a practice where outlying military units must "live off the land"[5] it has become necessary for the Army to access alternative means of support in order to feed troops and maintain operations. This requirement has led to a heavy dependence on local civilian forced labour alongside the regular extortion of money, food and other supplies. Local-level military corruption leads to further demands for civilian forced labour as entrepreneurial officers, fully aware of the climate of impunity within which they operate, exploit such labour for personal aggrandisement.

Awareness of the essential role of coerced uncompensated civilian labour in the ongoing occupation and militarisation of Karen State sheds light on the reasons behind the SPDC's consistent denials of this practice and lack of political will in taking appropriate measures, such as legal action against military perpetrators, to eliminate it. Were efforts to eradicate forced labour successful and the abuse to stop in Burma, many SPDC military units, especially those active in rural non-Burman majority upland areas, would be forced to cut back their operations, if not withdraw completely.

Given the military's heavy dependence on forced labour, incidents of this abuse are not primarily the isolated acts of low-level renegade officials. Rather, they form an integral component to the nation-wide system of militarisation. This dependency, furthermore, points to the reasons behind much of the forced relocation of dispersed rural villagers into consolidated population centres more firmly under the authority of the SPDC Army. Where civilians are not under military control, the possibilities for forced labour and general exploitation are severely limited as villagers retain greater options and avenues to evade such abuse. In contrast, the confinement of civilians to military-controlled villages and relocation sites located near to SPDC bases creates a ready pool of exploitable labour; one with fewer options for avoiding such work.

In response to ubiquitous forced labour demands, local people have employed, often successfully, varied resistance strategies aimed at minimising this work or even avoiding it altogether. The extent to which local villagers strive to circumvent this abuse is suggestive of how pervasive and damaging forced labour is to local communities. As forced labour is a regular, in some cases daily, abuse village-level resistance is crucial to maintaining livelihoods, protecting individual, family and community welfare and upholding personal dignity. Resistance strategies which villagers in Karen State have employed include, among others, understating village populations to garner reduced worker quotas, appealing to local officers or paying small bribes for a reduction in demands, foot-dragging and shoddy workmanship on forced labour projects and flight and displacement to evade forced labour altogether. As such resistance reduces forced labour it undermines the strength of the Army and thus the SPDC's capacity to support its expanding militarisation over the entirety of Karen State. Those who evade or attempt to evade forced labour are thus perceived as a threat to the military system, deemed enemies of the State, targeted as such and hunted down.

The insidiousness of forced labour can be difficult to grasp for those unfamiliar with the situation and brought up in more prosperous and less oppressive settings. The abuse lacks the sensational ring of rape, torture and mass killings yet the implications on the lives of tens of millions of people across Burma are nonetheless atrocious. As a form of intermittent slavery, forced labour involves harassment, threats and physical abuse; undermines the livelihoods of whole communities leading to complete collapses of village economies; creates large-scale displacement and refugee flows; and functions to support the structures of military power which continue to violently persecute, imprison, torture and kill the civilian population of Burma. This report attempts to shed light on the context of forced labour in Burma and sketch some of the implications of this abuse for the lives and livelihoods of the civilians upon whom it is enforced.

The report has been written as background to a set of 145 order documents which SPDC, DKBA and KPF personnel have sent to villages in Karen State since September 2006. English language translations of the documents are included in full in the appendices below. These orders give a firsthand glimpse of the daily pressure of military demands for labour and supplies enforced on villages throughout Karen State. The documents have been compiled for submission to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee of Experts in time for its annual meeting in Geneva in September 2007 where it attempts to address the Burmese military regime's non-compliance with its obligations under the 1930 Forced Labour Convention. The order documents included in this report have been limited to those composed since September 2006, when ILO Committee of Experts last met, in order to illustrate the immediacy of this abuse. However, the information included here is overwhelmingly consistent with what villagers have been saying in interviews with KHRG for the past 15 years.

Out of the total 145 order documents included in this report SPDC officials wrote 97; the DKBA another 41 and the KPF 3. This leaves 4 documents for which the sender is not clear, although their place of origin suggests that they are SPDC orders. These 145 orders have their source in Papun, Pa'an, Thaton and Dooplaya Districts. As an illustration of life in Karen State under military rule, 20 of the SPDC order documents included below as well as another from the DKBA were sent to a single village in Thaton District over a period of only three and a half months from September 13th 2006 to January 7th 2007 (see Appendix 1).

The SPDC order documents included in this report cover a range of demands, almost all of which entail some amount of uncompensated forced labour (as will be explained below). These demands include (with examples in brackets) forced purchases of seeds, calendars, rice and hand tractors (Orders #51 and #57); participation in regular and impromptu meetings with SPDC personnel (#73 - #104); requirements to organise dance teams and other entertainment for festivals (#31); extortion of money, food and supplies (#59); manufacture and delivery of thatch shingles and bamboo poles (#48); work as "set tha" [messenger duty] (#14); "loh ah pay" [general forced labour] on roads and other construction (#12); provision of information (#64); registration of village leaders and submission of their biographies (#65); documentation of all 'illegal emigrants' (#62); restrictions on movement (#66); forced donations to monks and monasteries (#52); the clearing of brush from around villages (#26); construction of homes for members of ceasefire group, the Karen National Union / Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU-KNLA PC), at Toh Kaw Ko (#36); recruitment into the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) (#69); work on agriculture projects (#37) and various duties imposed as part of the local Village Peace and Development Council (VPDC) administration (#39). Orders from DKBA personnel included below cover demands for villagers to attend meetings (#132-#142); to prepare and send thatch (#116-118), bamboo (#115), rice (#125) and betelnut (#122; #123); to engage in loh ah pay (#111); to pay arbitrary 'taxes' (#124); to work on agricultural projects (#109); to purchase calendars (#126); to serve as 'military staff' (#129-#131), to participate in football tournaments (#22; #23); and to make donations to monks and monasteries (#30). Other DKBA order documents decree restrictions on trade (#128) and the operation of saw mills (#127). Documents from the KPF include orders to attend meetings, labour on agricultural projects, and give hand tractors to KPF personnel (#143 - #145). In many of these order documents the demand for forced labour is direct, as for example when ordering villagers to build roads, fences or buildings. In other documents, however, the demand for forced labour is indirect, as when ordering items which must be fabricated or money, information and supplies which must be delivered. Overall the variety of demands evident in the sample of orders included here - which represent but a fraction of all those disseminated annually across Karen State - illustrate the systematic character of forced labour as an integral component to the ongoing militarisation of the region.

Prior to presenting the translations of the order documents themselves, the body of this report elaborates on the context in which military forces dispatch such written demands. Following the introduction and executive summary, this report contains two sections addressing the evolving manner in which the military regime requisitions forced labour; specifically through the increasing regimentation of village life and the shift in language use within the order documents themselves. The report then describes common types of forced labour, treatment of civilians during this work, the implications of forced labour on livelihoods, health and general welfare for the affected population and the strategies which civilians employ to resist this abuse. Following this, the report briefly surveys Burma's relationship with the ILO on the issue of forced labour and the legal framework applicable to the perpetration of this abuse by SPDC personnel.

Given the central role of forced labour within the SPDC's overall efforts at militarisation, the eradication of this practice requires that a clear signal be sent that military status will provide no immunity from punishment. The superficial measures which the regime has so far implemented are grossly insufficient for severing the root causes of this abuse. In order to end forced labour, military officers - the main perpetrators of this abuse - must be tried, convicted, stripped of their rank and imprisoned for demanding it. So far the SPDC has been unwilling to do this; restricting the small number of permitted legal cases to those brought against civilian officials while furthermore using such local-level civilian officials as scapegoats for the larger system of military forced labour. The reasons for this are quite clear when seen in the light of the military's extensive reliance on this abuse in its ongoing efforts to extend militarisation and subjugate the civilian population.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction and Executive Summary 3
  Notes on the Text 7
  Terms and Abbreviations 8
  Map 1: Karen Districts 9
  Map 2: Burma 10
II. Streamlining forced labour 11
III. Evolution of forced labour order documents 15
IV. Types of forced labour 18
V. Treatment during forced labour 21
VI. Implications of forced labour on civilian livelihoods 23
VII. Civilian resistance to forced labour 25
VIII. Burma's relations with the ILO 27
IX. Legal Framework 31
X. Conclusion 38
XI. Appendices 40
  Appendix 1: (SPDC and DKBA orders) Set to a village I: Thaton (#1-21) 42
  Appendix 2: (SPDC and DKBA orders) Set to a village II: Dooplaya (#22-35) 50
  Appendix 3: SPDC orders (#36-108) 57
  Appendix 4: DKBA orders (#109-142) 93
  Appendix 5: KPF orders 110





[1] Tatmadaw is a Burmese language term which the SPDC, and most civilians, apply in reference to the official State Army.

[2] "Government has always been opening the door for peace talks Not only people, even its party members do not believe in NLD any longer and resign as membership of their own volition," New Light of Myanmar, June 11th 2006. Accessed at on June 18th 2007.

[3] A Burmese term for forced labour typically as a messenger to and from army camps.

[4] The translated text of this order document is included below as Order #11 in Appendix #1.

[5] "Burmese Troops 'Live off the Land,'" Far Eastern Economic Review, May 18, 2000. Accessed at on July 3rd 2007.