Self-protection under strain: Targeting of civilians and local responses in northern Karen State


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Self-protection under strain: Targeting of civilians and local responses in northern Karen State

Published date:
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The SPDC Army continues to attack civilians and civilian livelihoods nearly two years after the end of the 2005-2008 SPDC Offensive in northern Karen State. In response, civilians have developed and employed various self-protection strategies that have enabled tens of thousands of villagers to survive with dignity and remain close to their homes despite the humanitarian consequences of SPDC Army practices. These protection strategies, however, have become strained, even insufficient, as humanitarian conditions worsen under sustained pressure from the SPDC Army, prompting some individual villagers and entire communities to re-assess local priorities and concerns, and respond with alternative strategies - including uses of weapons or landmines. While this complicates discussions of legal and humanitarian protections for at-risk civilians, uses of weapons by civilians occur amidst increasing constraints on alternative self-protection measures. External actors wishing to promote human rights in conflict areas of eastern Burma should therefore seek a detailed understanding of local priorities and dynamics of abuse, and use this understanding to inform activities that broaden civilians' range of feasible options for self-protection, including beyond uses of arms.

Introduction and executive summary


"My hope is that village people have the chance to live in their own villages and [on their] land, with everything in its place, and to have the chance to work smoothly and freely without SPDC disturbance and attacks. We don't want to flee like this anymore."

- Naw Xe--- (female, 56), Ja--- village, Lu Thaw Township (December 2009)


Villagers residing in upland northern Karen State continue to be targeted by Burma's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Army. SPDC Army attacks are carried out against both civilians and their livelihoods, and severely undermine humanitarian conditions for local communities. These attacks are occurring nearly two years after the termination of a three-year-long military campaign intended to bring the populations of difficult-to-control upland areas of northern Karen State under firmer SPDC authority. Drawing on more than 212 interviews with affected villagers and 85 field documents from KHRG researchers, this report is a detailed examination of the humanitarian consequences of these attacks for the civilian population in one affected area, and the strategies villagers have developed to survive and maintain their dignity in the face of abuse.

While these protection strategies have enabled tens of thousands of villagers to survive and remain close to their homes while evading abuse or forced relocation, these local responses have also become strained, even insufficient, as humanitarian conditions worsen under sustained pressure from the SPDC Army. Such circumstances have prompted some individual villagers and entire communities to re-assess local priorities and concerns, and respond with alternative strategies - including uses of arms and landmines. Local responses to abuse, and the decision-making processes that inform these responses, offer insight into local protection needs, as well as effective means of strengthening civilian protection in conflict areas of eastern Burma.


"The SPDC military camp at Se--- was the closest one to us. While we fled the SPDC destroyed all our plantations that they could see. But when we got the message that the SPDC were coming we started preparing our food and the things that we needed, and then we fled into the jungle."

- Saw B--- (male, 38), Y--- village, Lu Thaw Township (May 2009)


The main argument of Self-protection under strain, therefore, is that external actors wishing to promote human rights in conflict areas of eastern Burma should provide practical support for civilian self-protection strategies based on a detailed understanding of the local dynamics of abuse. KHRG has made this argument before. However, as this report documents, self-protection strategies in conflict areas of Karen State are now under increasing strain and some civilians have chosen to employ alternative strategies, including methods involving uses of arms, to address their protection concerns. Uses of weapons such as landmines by civilians as a protection strategy complicate discussions of support for civilian protection efforts, particularly by humanitarian agencies. However, uses of weapons by civilians occur amidst increasing constraints on alternative self-protection measures. This fact only emphasises the need for increased practical support for self-protection efforts in order to broaden the range of feasible options for civilians caught in situations of abuse and military attack, including away from strategies involving uses of weapons.


"We've had to flee more than ten times already... If they came to beat you to death, interrogate you, hit you, ask you to be a porter would you accept it?... When people were farming, they came and shot and killed them. They see us as their enemies."

- Saw E--- (male, 46), O--- village, Lu Thaw Township (December 2009)


This report focuses on Lu Thaw Township, an upland area in northern Karen State's Papun District, and home to more than 27,000 displaced villagers who are actively seeking to evade attack by the SPDC Army. Focus on Lu Thaw is not meant to marginalise the impact of attacks on villagers elsewhere in Papun or in adjacent Nyaunglebin and Toungoo districts, nor imply that the ongoing targeting of civilian lives and livelihoods in Lu Thaw is unique from SPDC Army practices in other upland areas. On the contrary, KHRG continues to document repeated and ongoing abuses in upland non-state spaces across eastern Burma. However, the report's focus on Lu Thaw Township serves to provide a detailed picture of the dynamics of abuse in this area that also indicates potential entry points for practical external support for local self-protection strategies across conflict areas in eastern Burma.

After a brief introduction in Section I, Section II of this report is designed to emphasise that SPDC Army practices in Lu Thaw Township are part of a widely documented pattern that dates back to the 1950s. It focuses on an overview of the SPDC's 2005-2008 Offensive to provide recent historical context to SPDC military practices in Lu Thaw Township. Section III further explains these practices and details the ways in which villagers residing in non-state spaces of northern Lu Thaw Township, and their livelihoods, continue to be targeted by SPDC practices even since the end of the 2005-2008 Offensive. While the SPDC Army has reduced the overall frequency and intensity of its operations, villagers remain at constant risk of death or injury from periodic attacks, patrols and remote shelling, and SPDC forces have continued to launch sporadic attacks targeting the food resources of communities beyond state control. Additional measures such as movement restrictions and the obstruction of external humanitarian assistance have further targeted the food security and health of civilians. SPDC Army practices that target civilians and undermine villagers' survival in upland areas include:

  • Shelling of villages and farm fields, both with knowledge of civilian presence and without attempts to distinguish civilians from military targets

  • Deliberate and/or indiscriminate killing of civilians

  • Burning and mining of civilian settlements, including destruction of homes, schools, medical facilities and churches

  • Destruction and mining of agricultural projects

  • Looting or destruction of civilian property, including food supplies, livestock, cooking and agricultural equipment and food and water storage containers

  • Administrative and military measures obstructing civilian access to humanitarian assistance, including food, medicines and health services

Section IV describes how SPDC practices have acutely undermined food security, health and education in non-state spaces of Lu Thaw Township. Villagers confronting such humanitarian challenges have not, however, been passive or powerless; they have employed a number of established and effective local strategies to survive with dignity beyond SPDC control for prolonged periods of time. Such locally designed responses have been recognised as consistent with the humanitarian protection objectives of all actors interested in improving human rights conditions in eastern Burma. Section IV goes on to describe, however, the ways that sustained pressure exerted on civilians and humanitarian conditions in non-state spaces by SPDC Army practices is challenging the resilience of local communities' proven strategies, prompting some communities to re-evaluate and revise their protection methods according to new or more immediate concerns.

Section V outlines local protection methods involving uses of weapons that some civilians are employing in response to the deterioration of humanitarian conditions and physical security in certain areas of northern Lu Thaw Township. This section details civilian activities that use arms to address local protection concerns independent of the military objectives of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), as well as civilian activities that support general or specific KNLA military objectives. Section V also considers villagers' reasons for engaging in particular activities, their perspectives on potential positive and negative consequences, and the perceived necessity of such methods for meeting the protection needs of communities that continue to face the threat of attack. Local points of view on protection, and the calculations that precede the use of specific strategies, are diverse and offer insight into what villagers in non-state spaces see as their most immediate needs and protection threats. Villagers are extensively quoted throughout this report in order to reflect this diversity, and it is recommended that readers refer to these quotes to best understand protection concerns and priorities articulated from villagers' perspectives.


"Now some of the free villagers have to take up weapons and take security for the villagers whose workplaces are near the SPDC camp. We defend ourselves and our workplaces. Even though we're holding guns, we aren't soldiers. We're just villagers who defend our workplaces and villages."

- Saw Vo--- (male, 30), Di--- village, Lu Thaw Township (September 2007)


Direct or indirect participation in hostilities by some civilians in Lu Thaw raises questions about the potential legality of SPDC Army practices that indiscriminately target the civilian population in Lu Thaw. In an attempt to inform related discussions of civilian armed protection strategies, Section VI first sets forth relevant provisions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and then analyses these activities in light of established legal norms. This analysis makes clear that even direct participation in hostilities by some civilians in Lu Thaw does not relax the SPDC's obligations under the most fundamental provisions of IHL: without exception, the SPDC Army must refrain from attacking, and otherwise pursue protection of, the broader civilian population. In situations where some civilians directly participate in hostilities to effectuate such protection, their actions may result in them losing immunity from attack, but can never provide legal grounds on which to justify SPDC practices that harm the broader civilian population in violation of IHL. Section VII then explains why outside actors looking to improve the humanitarian situation in Lu Thaw Township should consider directly or indirectly supporting proven local protection strategies, and suggests practical ways to offer such support without undermining existing protection methods and local protection objectives.

Key recommendations

  • External actors wishing to promote human rights in conflict areas of eastern Burma should provide practical support for civilian self-protection activities based on a detailed understanding of local dynamics of abuse

  • Locally driven civilian protection measures should be incorporated into humanitarian programming and extreme care should be taken to ensure that no humanitarian activities undermine local self-protection activities

  • Governments, funding bodies and NGOs should increase assistance to actors that can consistently access at risk populations, including actors operating 'cross-border'

  • Armed self-protection activities emphasise, rather than obviate, the need for practical support that broadens civilians' range of feasible options for self-protection beyond strategies involving uses of weapons

  • Advocacy and engagement towards the SPDC should focus on villagers' own protection priorities and be designed to support civilian self-protection activities

Table of Contents

  Preface 1
  Contents 2
  Methodology and scope of research 4
  Terms and abbreviations 7
      Map 1: Papun District 8
      Map 2: Locally Defined Karen State 9
      Map 3: Burma 10
Introduction and executive summary 11
Targeting of civilians in Lu Thaw: Recent and historical antecedents 15
SPDC Army practices: Targeting civilian lives and livelihoods 22
      A. Attacks on civilians 22
          1. Attacks on civilians and civilian settlements 32
          2. Attacks on civilian livelihoods and denial of access to humanitarian support 40
Self protection under strain: Local priorities and local responses 47
      A. Balancing protection concerns 47
      B. Humanitarian conditions and evolving responses 50
          1. Food Security 52
          2. Health 64
          3. Education 73
Armed self-protection strategies: Causes and consequences 82
      A. Armed self-protection strategies 82
          1. The KNLA, KNDO and civilian support 83
          2. Gher der home guard groups 88
          3. Related civilian activities 95
      B. Positive and negative consequences 95
          1. Villagers' rationales for armed self-protection 96
          2. Human rights and physical security consequences for displaced civilians 98
Legal implications: Direct participation and international humanitarian law 101
      A. Understanding relevant international humanitarian law 101
          1. The principle of distinction 102
          2. Distinguishing fighters and civilians 105
          3. Direct participation in hostilities 107
      B. Evaluation of civilian armed self-protection strategies in Lu Thaw Township 108
          1. Civilian support for the KNLA and KNDO 109
          2. Gher der activities 113
Conclusions: Increasing protection for civilians in Lu Thaw and beyond 116
      A. Direct support 116
      B. Indirect support 124
      C. Implications for peace building 126