Forced labour continues to be the abuse most commonly reported by villagers living in rural areas of Karen State controlled by Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and its locally ally, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The SPDC has worked to establish a secure hold on the civilian population in Karen State through an expanded military presence. At the same time, the central military command has provided insufficient funding and logistical support for troops operating in the field. As a consequence, local Burma Army units have become reliant on the forced appropriation of labour, money, food and supplies from local villagers. As the military presence in Karen State has continue to expand, the burden on communities having to support local army units has likewise increased.
Given the pervasive and persistent character of exploitative demands enforced on rural communities, such abuse has significantly contributed to poverty, livelihoods vulnerability and food insecurity for large numbers of villagers across rural Karen State. Villagers engaged in forced labour must take time away from their own livelihoods to meet demands. The appropriation of food and supplies reduces villagers' capacities to meet their own household needs. Furthermore, demands are almost always uncompensated.
Despite the harmful consequences of exploitative local governance, both SPDC and DKBA forces have continued to regularly impose extortionate demands on the civilian population of rural Karen State. Often these demands are issued in the form of written order documents. Such documents are written by the officers themselves or otherwise dictated by an officer and written down or typed by a scribe, before being dispatched to particular villages by a messenger (who is typically a local villager forced to serve in this capacity without compensation). Given the important role of order documents as evidence in advocacy around forced labour in Burma, there has been an increasing reluctance by military authorities to set down in writing specific demands. Village heads are instead called to attend "meetings" at which SPDC and DKBA authorities elaborate on what is required. Out of the 75 order documents included in this report, 44 (roughly 59%) contained demands for village heads to attend meetings; for the SPDC the figure was 33 out of 58 orders (57%) and for the DKBA it was 11 out of 17 orders (65%). Nonetheless, explicit demands for labour, money, food and other supplies continue to be issued by both by SPDC and DKBA authorities. Many such orders are included in the present report.
Written orders are often backed by implicit, and occasionally explicit, threats against non-compliance. Village heads have been warned in writing that their "villagers' lives depend on the chairperson doing [his] duty" (Order #33) or that the consequences for non-compliance will be "their own responsibility." Regarding some of the order letters included in this report, village heads explained to KHRG that, had they not complied, the SPDC or DKBA authorities who issued the order would simply have sent soldiers to detain villagers to serve as porters (#2, 3 and 38) or demand livestock in compensation for non-compliance (#7 and 47). One village head said that he feared he would be "threatened" in various ways if he failed to comply (#7), another stated that he had been already threatened with imprisonment (#12), another said that he worried DKBA soldiers would burn down houses in his village if the villagers did not comply with the stated demand (#71), while yet another explained that he was threatened with "severe punishment" (#69). In the face of such implicit and, at times, explicit threats, village heads who receive an order documents stipulating particular demands, or who are called to a meeting where they are given a demand in person, must arrange for the residents of their respective villages to comply. Alternatively, where possible, village heads may attempt to respond in a manner that allows them to reduce or otherwise completely avoid the stated requirements.
As evidence of ongoing demands, the present report comprises a collection of 75 translated order documents issued by SPDC and DKBA authorities in Papun, Pa'an and Thaton Districts of Karen State between August 2008 and June 2009. Out of the total 75 documents, 58 were issued by SPDC authorities and 17 were issued by DKBA authorities. As the DKBA operates with the sanction of the SPDC and as the two groups often participates in joint operations, demands on the civilian population issued by this group should be understood as having been sanctioned by the SPDC. The eradication of DKBA-demanded forced labour is thus part of the SPDC's wider obligation to end this practice in Burma.
Order documents from both groups included here were either handwritten or typed. Both SPDC and DKBA officers issuing the orders often certified the letters with an official stamp. The order documents issued by SPDC authorities contained in this report include demands for attendance at meetings; the provision of money and alcohol (for example, #17 and 38); the production and delivery of thatch shingles and bamboo poles (for example, #17 and 19); forced labour as messengers (for example, #1 and 57) and porters (#39); forced labour on road repair (#56); the provision of village information (for example, #5 and 7); and registration of villagers in State-controlled 'NGOs' (#13). Compliance with these demands requires forced labour in the delivery of the stated items to specified army camps and bases, or simply travelling to these locations to meet with authorities and/or provide information. Further forced labour is also required in the collection of raw materials for, and in the fabrication of, building materials like thatch shingles. Other SPDC orders presented below that may not directly involve forced labour include restrictions on travel and the use of muskets (#21 and 22). The DKBA order documents contained in this report articulate demands for attendance at meetings, the provision of money (#59, 62 and 71), provision of thatch shingles (#61, 66 and 67) and forced labour on the construction of a Buddhist pagoda (#64). For a comprehensive list of the order documents contained in this report see the table included below on page 9.
While the orders included here illustrate the persistent threat of military predation to the livelihoods of villagers in rural Karen State, they also reveal the determined opposition of villagers to such exploitation. In order document #32, for example, the local SPDC officer complains in writing to the head of T--- village that, despite previously ordering him to attend a meeting, the village head never came. The officer then repeats the order for the village head to immediately come for a meeting. However, the village head apparently did not comply with the repeated order either, because the next day the SPDC officer sent yet another letter (#37) in which he complained that "Even though [you] were repeatedly invited to attend a meeting at Am--- camp only the other villages arrived. Ap--- village did not arrive."
Aside from such cases of non-compliance, villagers' testimonies, as quoted extensively in other KHRG reports and appended to supplement some of the orders in this report, indicate that where villagers do comply, such compliance is frequently only partial in character. Regarding order #59, for example, the relevant village head explained to KHRG that he was able to get away with only providing a portion (just over half) of the total amount of money demanded by local DKBA authorities. While such resistance to abuse, in the form of delayed or partial compliance, may seem slight at first glance, it is important to recognise that villagers employ such tactics in large numbers across rural Karen State (and presumably across much of rural Burma). While not formally organised, these daily acts of resistance go a long way in undermining the authority, and limiting the usable resources, of local military units. Of course, this does not mean that villagers have been able to eliminate abuse and the considerable harm that it brings to the lives and livelihoods of themselves, their families and communities. Villagers remain in a disadvantaged position relative to military personnel and such relations of power continue to undermine their abilities to address local human rights issues. In this context, external support for local-level efforts to resist abuse could strengthen villagers' capacities to resist abuse and address the intertwined human rights and humanitarian issues they face.
What becomes clear from an examination of the order documents presented below, and those collected and published by KHRG in previous years, is that both SPDC and DKBA units operating in the field are dependant on the uncompensated extraction of labour, money, food and supplies from rural communities across Karen State. The appropriation of these resources is widespread and systematic and plays a large role in undermining livelihoods, exacerbating poverty and worsening the region's humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, as villagers are themselves fully aware of the harmful consequences of these demands, they have sought, through everyday forms of resistance, to reduce or, where possible, wholly mitigate the demands imposed upon them.