Cycles of Displacement: Forced relocation and civilian responses in Nyaunglebin District


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Cycles of Displacement: Forced relocation and civilian responses in Nyaunglebin District

Published date:
Monday, January 12, 2009

Over the past three years, the Burma Army has conducted an extensive forced relocation campaign in Nyaunglebin District. As part of the wider offensive in northern Karen State, the forced relocations in Nyaunglebin District have aimed to bring the region's entire civilian population into more easily controllable settlements in the plains, along vehicle roads and alongside army camps and bases. Local villagers, however, have resisted these efforts in numerous ways. Villagers' resistance strategies include: fleeing into hiding to evade forced relocation; negotiating with local SPDC commanders to avoid relocation or garner increased freedom of movement at relocation sites; and covertly leaving relocation sites to temporarily or permanently return to their former homes and lands. The Burma Army's attacks against civilian communities in hiding, combined with forced relocation efforts and civilian evasion in Nyaunglebin District, have created ongoing cycles of displacement.

Introduction and executive summary


"I came here [to a refugee camp in Thailand] with my brother S--- because I had to do forced labour and, instead of getting wages, we had to pay set amounts to the SPDC and the villagers had to move all the time. They [SPDC soldiers] burnt down my village and forced the villagers to relocate to Mu Theh relocation site. Sometimes the children had to do forced labour when their parents weren't free."

- Saw D--- (male, 17), A--- village, Mone township (May 2008)


In conjunction with the ongoing expansion of Burma Army operations in Nyaunglebin District, SPDC personnel have been forcibly relocating disparate communities from the forested mountains to sites which are closer to military-controlled vehicle roads and army camps in the plains. This forced relocation campaign has been a central facet of the offensive during the past three years. Through forced relocation, the Burma Army has aimed to depopulate the hills of Nyaunglebin District and bring all villagers under SPDC control. However, many villagers have been unwilling to comply with forced relocation orders. The Burma Army, in turn, has deemed those who resist relocation to be legitimate military targets.Situated in north-western Karen State, Nyaunglebin District is comprised mostly of forested mountains in the east which descend into low-lying plains along its western flank (abutting Pegu Division).[1] Villagers across Nyaunglebin District (Kler Lwee Htoo in Karen) have long been subject to a variety of abuses by army personnel. Nyaunglebin District consists of three townships - Mone, Kyauk Kyi and Shwegyin (Mu, Ler Doh and Hsaw Tee in Karen). Though the district has had a heavy Burma Army presence for many years, sustained military occupation has mostly been limited to areas alongside vehicle roads and in the plains. However, over the past three years the SPDC has been increasing its military presence in Nyaunglebin District as part of its broader northern Karen State offensive against the civilian population. Major components of this offensive have been the deployment of more troops and the establishment of new bases throughout the district.

The SPDC has used tactics of intimidation and violence to enforce compliance with relocation orders. These tactics include: attacks on villages, with widespread destruction of homes, farm fields and plantations; the confiscation of food and livestock; a shoot-on-sight policy targeting civilians and opposition soldiers alike; restrictions on movement out of and within non-SPDC-controlled areas; and the deployment of landmines in civilian areas. While many villagers have been able to flee into the forests in an attempt to evade military attacks and relocation orders, others have chosen to accept relocation, often hoping to be able to return to their homes at a later date. Figures from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC)'s annual surveys on internal displacement in eastern Burma (indicated in the table below), show a marked increase in the number of civilians residing in both SPDC-controlled relocation sites and non-SPDC-controlled hiding sites in Kyauk Kyi and Shwegyin townships since 2004.[2] While population totals have increased over this period as a whole, yearly figures by township show that numbers have on some occasions decreased in some areas. These occasional decreases in civilian populations likely reflect the fact that many of these individuals have fled from relocation sites to hiding sites, refugee camps or elsewhere; negotiated with local SPDC authorities for permission to return to their former villages; were forced out of hiding and into relocation sites or other SPDC-controlled settlements; or left hiding sites in Nyaunglebin District to reach hiding sites elsewhere in Karen State or refugee camps in Thailand.

Displaced civilians in Nyaunglebin District (2004-2008)







Relocation sites

Kyauk Kyi


















Hiding sites

Kyauk Kyi


















Although the SPDC's relocation campaign has re-intensified over the past three years, it began much earlier than the current offensive. Relocation sites have, therefore, had to expand as new communities are forced to join those who were previously relocated. This has meant that the available housing plots and arable land - both already extremely limited - have diminished further, leaving the newest residents even worse off. Facilities are typically inadequate, especially when villagers first arrive at the relocation sites. Imposing stringent movement restrictions, local SPDC forces have been more easily able to exploit the residents of these sites as a source of labour, food, funds and other supplies. Relocated villagers are subject to a variety of exploitative abuses, including forced labour, arbitrary taxation, extortion and looting, as well as arbitrary arrest, detention and violent abuses often employed as a means to enforce compliance with demands. These combined abuses cut into villagers' limited financial savings, food supplies and labour time, leading to livelihoods vulnerability, increased poverty, malnutrition and ill health.

Facing persistent exploitative demands and their deleterious consequences, relocated villagers have employed a variety of strategies to resist abuse. In some cases, such resistance has involved flight into displacement at hiding sites within Nyaunglebin District or elsewhere in Karen State, urban areas inside Burma, refugee camps in Thailand or migrant worker communities abroad. In other cases, relocated villagers have been able to negotiate with the local SPDC commander for permission to return to their former villages. In negotiation efforts, villagers have cited the dire humanitarian conditions and lack of arable land at relocation sites as reasons for needing to return to former homes. Often, however, such negotiation is not possible or not effective. In these cases, those who nevertheless choose to return to their former villages or fields risk being shot on sight by patrolling troops. Those who flee to hiding sites face an ongoing threat of attack as the Burma Army continues its efforts to depopulate the hills and force all civilians to relocate into military-controlled areas. Repeated military attacks and forced relocation efforts, in combination with villagers' flight and evasion (whether during a military attack or post-relocation), have developed into continuous cycles of displacement.

The full report is only available in PDF format. 

Table of Contents

Terms and abbreviations 3
  Notes on the Text 4
Introduction and executive summary 5
SPDC military operations in Nyaunglebin District 8
Forced relocation 10
Conditions at SPDC-controlled relocation sites 17
Life in non-SPDC-controlled areas 30
Conclusion 30
Maps 39
Map 1: Nyaunglebin District 41
Map 2: Karen districts 42
Map 3: Burma 43


[1] The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) demarcates large areas of Nyaunglebin District as part of Pegu Division within its official maps of the region.

[2] Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) (following official State maps) includes Kyauk Kyi and Shwegyin townships within Pegu Division.  This area corresponds roughly to all three townships of Nyaunglebin District as defined in KHRG maps and this report.  Population data included here are taken from TBBC's annual reports on internal displacement in eastern Burma, available on their website.