Since late 2009, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) has strengthened its presence in southwestern Dweh Loh Township, Papun District, increasing troop levels and camps, commencing gold mining operations on the Bilin River, and enforcing movement restrictions on the civilian population. Residents of the village tracts near the Bilin River and along the Bilin to Papun road, which follows the eastern bank of the Bilin River north through the centre of Dweh Loh Township, have told KHRG field researchers that they have faced heavy demands for forced labour to support the increased DKBA presence, detracting from the time they can spend on livelihoods activities. Communities with a DKBA camp nearby have had livelihoods further curtailed, as DKBA soldiers have enforced strict curfews and other movement restrictions that have prevented villagers from spending sufficient time in their fields.
Units from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Army, meanwhile, remain deployed in southwestern Papun, and villagers living near active SPDC Army camps report that they continue to face exploitative demands and irregular violent abuses from SPDC troops. According to KHRG's most recent information, as of March 2010 DKBA soldiers from Battalions #333 and #999 were occupying more than 28 camps in Wa Muh, Meh Choh, Ma Lay Ler, and Meh Way village tracts in western Dweh Loh Township; SPDC soldiers from Infantry Battalion (IB) #96 and Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #704, under Military Operations Command (MOC) #4 Tactical Operations Command (TOC) #1, were also active in the same area. While there does not appear to have been a formal transfer of authority from SPDC to DKBA Battalions in these areas, reports from local villagers suggest that they now face greater exploitative demands and human rights threats from increased DKBA military control in southwestern Papun District. Troops from Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) 5th Brigade are also active in southwestern Papun, chiefly placing landmines and making sporadic 'guerrilla' style attacks on the SPDC and DKBA.
Abuses by the SPDC Army
Locals and village leaders who spoke with KHRG field researchers said that in 2009 and 2010 they continued to face exploitative demands issued by SPDC soldiers active near their homes. Several interviewees noted that SPDC exploitative demands and other abuses had decreased in comparison to previous years. The apparent decline in SPDC abuse, however, has been overshadowed by increased DKBA activity and abuses, particularly by Battalions #333 and #999, in village tracts along the Bilin River in southern Dweh Loh. Further, in at least one incident two villagers suffered violent abuse at the hands of an SPDC commander after two SPDC soldiers were injured and a DKBA soldier was killed by a landmine detonated while the soldiers were transporting rations between P--- village and the SPDC Army camp and Meh Way. Even though four residents of P--- village were accompanying the column as porters when the mine exploded, IB #96 Battalion Commander Kyaw That Tun accused the villagers of planting and detonating the mine themselves, or of cooperating with Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers. In the following quotes, two villagers describe the incidents:
"On January 10th 2010 IB #96 was occupying Meh Way. Their battalion commander is Kyaw That Tun. His third company commander was ambushed and then he tortured one of our villagers named Saw H---. He asked [Saw H---] to push up and asked him to carry 1,000 bullets and a gun starting at Ht--- [village] to Gk--- [village]. Moreover, he slapped his face and grabbed his hair and [made him] sit up… [Kyaw That Tun] tortured him because he mistakenly thought that this villager contacted the enemy [the KNLA]. We've seen that they didn't do a good thing or follow the law, because Saw H--- is our simple villager. He asked [Saw H---] to push up starting at H--- [village] to Gk--- [village]. It takes 30 minutes to walk. It's very hard for a person to push up like this… Saw Ky---, the same age and from the same village as Saw H---, was asked to go and take out mine wires at upper P--- village. He didn't dare to go so he was slapped and grabbed. Later he did it because he was afraid."Saw G--- (male, 37) C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"After they heard the sound of explosion, they gathered all the men in the village and asked us to go to the place [where the explosion occurred]. Two were injured and one of the DKBA soldiers had died. When we arrived at that place, one of the officers said that the people who detonated the mine were not KNU; they were the villagers. Then he called one of my villager named Ky--- and asked him to pull out the mine wires that they found. He slapped Ky---'s face before asking him. Ky--- did as they asked and pulled all the mine wires they could see, but he didn't dare to go to the place that the wires were coming from. He was afraid that some mines were planted there. Later he cut the wires… Then they asked us to bury the DKBA soldier who had died in the mine explosion. They didn't continue going back to Mae Way, but they went down to Gk--- village with their two injured soldiers. When we were going down to Gk--- and arrived at N---, which is near our village, we rested for a moment. Another one of my villagers, named Sh--- [H---] looked up at the SPDC company commander's face. Then the commander asked him 'Do you think I'm your step father?' Then Sh--- stopped looking at him but he came over to my villager and started beating him until he fell over. And then he forced Sh--- to carry 1,000 bullets from N--- to P---, which is near Gk--- village. He forced him to jump like a frog with 1,000 bullets. He wasn't allowed to walk the same as us. He jumped until he arrived at H--- then was forced to stand up and sit down 100 times."Saw B--- (male, 40), P--- village, Dweh Loh Township (March 2010)
The most frequently reported SPDC exploitative demands were for forced porters, for the fabrication and delivery of building materials, and set tha and other labour in SPDC camps. Many villagers indicated that they were ordered to provide building materials in large volumes just a few times each year, and that demands for forced porters were issued more regularly; January and February 2010 saw particularly high demands for forced porters as new SPDC battalions rotated in to camps in the Bilin River area of southwestern Dweh Loh Township, and rations were delivered to the new units. On February 12th 2010, for example, SPDC LIB #704 commanded by Tha Tun Win ordered residents of villages near Wa Muh to carry rations from the SPDC Army camp at Wa Muh to another camp at Mae Bree Kee. W--- and M--- villages were each given responsibility for portering 100 large packs of rations, while P--- and M--- villages were ordered to transport 200 and 300 packs respectively. In the following quotes, villagers from the Bilin River area describe their recent experiences with SPDC forced labour demands.
"In 2009 and 2010, sometimes they ordered people to cut bamboo and work in Gkay Gkaw camp… They change every six months and anytime they change they call the village heads [to a meeting] and order villagers to cut bamboo for them… For demands, in Gkay Gkaw military camp, they cut people's thatch and ask villagers to cut [thatch for them] without paying. They even cut all the villagers' plants. Villagers had to cut bamboo too far away, so they planted more bamboo but the SPDC cut their bamboo and they couldn't do anything… Moreover they forced P--- villagers to go and carry two injured soldiers to Kwih T'Ma… They didn't ask the village head. They arrested them all. They had to go and it took one day, they didn't change the people until they arrived in Kwih T'Ma."Saw G--- (male, 37) C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"In 2010, they demanded that we cut trees and bamboo once. They demanded 300 bamboo poles and 300 thatch shingles; we went and gave them. We couldn't refuse them. I don't remember the date, but I think it was in January 2010… They [the SPDC] are still in Ku Thu Hta. We went and cut them half way to their camp, 30 minutes' walk away. We carried the bamboo ourselves, because there was no way to carry it with carts. I saw that time, they didn't pay us. They said they'd make a fence for their camp. There are always demands, like [portering] their rations… Sometimes they sleep [in our village], sometimes they don't. Before they took villagers' property but in 2009-2010 that hasn't happened. They don't arrest and force people to porter in the village but they do that outside of the village. Sometimes they abuse [villagers], sometimes they don't. They shout and tie us up sometimes when they see us on the way to our hill fields or farms. And all villages have to face demands."Saw P--- (male, 37), W--- village, Dweh Lo Township (February 2010)
"In 2009-2010, we just had to cut bamboo and thatch and porter. They are in Ku Thu Hta camp; the military unit is LIB #704. The camp commander who makes demands is Thein Zaw Aung. He's still occupying the camp. I had to carry rations for two days on February 24th and 25th 2010. They demanded 46 people for two days. On the first day 22 people and the next day 24 people went... We started carrying from where they keep the rations at Koh Gaw Kleh, beside Bu Lo river, to their camp. It takes maybe one and a half hours. The rations come from Kwih T'Ma and Wa Muh, from towns. They transported them by truck, then asked us to carry them. We had to carry rice, milk, sugar, and chili and fish paste, all of their rations. It was very heavy for younger ages, because it was about 40 or 50 viss (65 - 82 kg. / 144 - 180 lb.). They didn't shout and beat people. They let older people carry the heavy ones and young people the less heavy ones. They fed us, we didn't bring [food] from home. We had enough to eat. They fed us like their soldiers when went and worked."Saw Th--- (male, 43), Bp--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"I went and portered for the Burmese [the SPDC] two days ago. Ten men and six women, including me, went and portered… [Of the female porters] the oldest was 52 and the youngest was 14 years old. I was the oldest woman. For men, the oldest was 48 and the youngest was 16 years old… We portered rice, canned fish, canned milk, salt, fish paste and sugar. This wasn't the villagers' food; it was all for the SPDC. We started from the other side of the Bu Lo River to the SPDC military camp. It took maybe 30 minutes' walk. It was heavy, perhaps five or six viss (8.2 - 9.8 kg. / 18 - 21.6 lb.). Not everyone could carry so we had to share and help each other. But for the rice, we couldn't share it so the men had to carry it. It took just one day. We started carrying at 8 am and they let us go back at 4 pm. It was already dark when we came back. They provided food for us, some gourd, and three small pieces of dried fish… Maybe, there have been [demands] two or three times this month. We have to do set tha, carry thatch, cut bamboo. Two months ago, they demanded people to go and cut bamboo for them. They demanded 300 bamboo poles from each village. One person had to cut 30 bamboo poles, each 20 cubits long. We cut them at upper Ku Thu Hta. It was very far from the military camp… They paid us nothing. It happens perhaps three to four times in a year."Ma My--- (female, 52), W--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"We had to carry rice and bullets. We have to porter once a week. Sometimes, they [the SPDC] demand two people and sometimes five people or ten people. We sometimes have to carry things from Kwih T'Ma to Mu Bpray Kee and sometimes to Kwih T'Ma and Meh Way. They demand porters from the village heads… If they can't get porters, they'll fine the village head, sometimes with pigs or chickens. It happens just like this. There's always portering service. Now, [demands for] portering service has become a little less since between 2007 and 2009."Saw Gk--- (male, 50), W--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"Sometimes, villagers run away when the SPDC army comes to the village and sometimes we stay in the village. It's not under SPDC control. Sometimes, we have to go and meet with them… The villagers flee when they call for porters."Saw Hs--- (male, 42), K--- village, Dweh Loh township (December 2009)
"They [the SPDC] live in a camp where they're based at Wa Muh. We sometimes go when they demandloh ah pay and set tha but they don't enter in and out [of our village]… [Wa Muh is] six or seven miles and about two hours walk… In 2009-2010 they demanded bamboo and we had to go and cut it for them once in the last two months. At that time there were 18 households so 18 of us went. We went and cut 50 pieces of bamboo for them. We cut the bamboo near Wa Muh village and we carried it to them. We slept there one night and we came back after working two days for them… They pay us nothing because they force us, not because we want to do [the work]… We had to bring our own food from home but they boiled water for tea. We brought our own rice and cooked… Sometimes, [they demand labour] twice a month or once in two months. They ask when they need it… If we look, the SPDC still orders and demands things, like thatch and bamboo, but it's become less. In 2008, it was too much. But now, the DKBA has come and there are more demands from the DKBA."Saw Ch--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
Abuses related to DKBA gold mining operations
In October and November 2009 DKBA troops from Battalions #333 and #999 in Meh Choh, Wa Muh and Ma Lay Ler village tracts began gold mining operations along sections of the Bilin River and its tributaries. These business activities were accompanied by an increased DKBA presence in those areas and tighter movement restrictions on residents, to secure control over the mine sites. These measures have in turn made it more difficult for villagers to avoid exploitative abuses, while actually increasing the demands for forced labour and material support as locals have been made to support a larger contingent of DKBA soldiers as well as forced to work on the mining operations.
"There are 15 [DKBA] bases. They're based in Ma Lay Ler, Kho Lu, Mae Toe Hta, Mae Toe Ner Kee, Thay Bay Lu, Wah Baw Kyo, Htaw Row Lu, Pway Pwya Bu, Thay Kyo, Doh Koh Wah, Tee Gkay Hta, Pway Pwya, Chaw Me Hta, Mae Kleh Hta, Mae Gho Hta, Dayh Htaw K'Law Lu. That's just in Ma Lay Lerh village tract… On November 19th 2009, Battalion #333 led by Bo lwe came to Ma Lay Ler village tract and also in other village tracts as far as I know: Wa Muh, Meh Choh, Ma Lay Ler and Meh Way village tracts… There are 700 soldiers that have become active. They're from Kaung Daung, Bilin, Nan Gyi and Shwe Gkoh Gko… They came here for panning gold on the Meh Gkleh, Meh Toe and Meh Way rivers."Saw G--- (male, 37) C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
Villagers have been told that the DKBA is preparing to mine gold for at least ten years on branches of the Bilin River near Meh Gkleh, Meh Toe and Meh Way, although operations have reportedly only begun in earnest on the Gkleh Law River near Meh Kleh, in Wa Muh village tract, while preparations are underway to commence mining in Ma Lay Ler village tract. The DKBA officers carrying out the mining at Meh Gkleh employ machines to excavate large parts of the river bank, and transport excavated sand by vehicle to Meh Lah in Bilin Township, Thaton District, where it the sand is sifted for gold. A road has been build between Meh Lah and the river for this purpose, which has resulted in the destruction of irrigation canals vital to villagers' farms and plantations in Wa Muh village tract. Locals estimate that nearly 1,000 acres of agricultural land has been rendered useless by the construction of the road, with no compensation offered by DKBA authorities. In addition to the destruction of agricultural land, locals in Ny--- village in Wa Muh village tract have reported that since January 2010, the water has become too polluted to drink or bathe in due to the mining.
"They said they'll do gold mining for ten years. They came to do mining with machines and carry the sand back with cars to other places in order to pan for gold. They carry the sand back immediately after they dig the gold. They carry it back to Meh Lah in Bilin Township, Thaton District… If they mined gold only in the river, it wouldn't destroy villagers' plantations. But now they're mining gold on the river bank, it'll destroy some plantations near the river… They built a vehicle road in Wa Muh to the river, where there are villagers' workplaces such as fields and [irrigation] canals. The canals were destroyed. I'm not sure if they can submit the case to get back payment for the canals or not."Saw M--- (male, 56), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
"They've already started mining gold in Meh Gkleh. They mine gold with machines and carry sand out with cars. They carry it back for panning in Meh Lah. It's very hard to do. They always oppress the villagers. They don't hire the villagers who do mining… All the workplaces such as plantations and fields along the vehicle road in the Wa Muh area were destroyed… The villagers don't dare to tell them not to do mining because they are soldiers. It's so difficult for villagers who lost their farms because they can't do their livelihoods to support themselves… They plan to do gold mining for ten years."Saw Hs--- (male, 42), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
"They started constructing a road from Bilin [Township] to the Gkleh Law River. They're constructing the road for mining gold… They've come and are active mostly in Wa Muh village tract, the place where they're mining gold. Of course farms, betel leaf plantations and [irrigation] canals that Poe Kheh Hta and Wa Muh villagers used [were damaged]. Villagers are in trouble. More than 1,000 acres were destroyed. The DKBA didn't give them payment [compensation]."Saw Gh--- (male, 37), C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"As I heard, they've come not only for gold but also for logging. They set up a large table saw at Nyat Sha Del. They cut wood there and send it to the city. All the trees are gone around there… I went to Wa Muh and one villager asked me, 'Uncle, were your lands destroyed when they constructed the road?' And I told him, 'Yes, my palm tree plantation and farm were destroyed.' And I asked him, 'How about you? Were lands destroyed in Wa Muh?' [He said], 'Of course. The canal where we take water for farming was destroyed. 1,000 acres of farms were destroyed and villagers' dog fruit plantations and palm tree plantations were destroyed. What can we do? We can't make a living for next year because won't get water.' … If we look at Wa Muh, Mae Kleh Hta, Yuu A, the villages which are near [the mine], they mined gold and the water has become dirty, people and not even cows and buffalos can drink it. Sand and mud flow and the whole river has become dirty. It's far to get water for drinking."Saw Ch--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
Forced labour demands
Villagers living near the Bilin River in southern Dweh Loh Township also report that DKBA soldiers impose heavy demands for forced labour, especially for porters carrying military supplies and rations, and for messengers set tha and sentries in their camps. When villagers are unwilling or unable to meet forced labour demands, typically because they need to tend to their fields and plantations or because they are afraid of landmines, they must hire someone to serve in their place. A replacement porter typically costs 5,000 kyat (US $5.08) per day, while a replacement messenger or sentry costs 3,000 kyat (US $3.05) per day: prohibitive amounts for subsistence farmers or day labourers who may be asked to serve several times in a month. Locals have also reported being ordered to fabricate and deliver building materials such as bamboo and thatch to support local DKBA units.
"My village is small; since they became active in this area, they demanded 15 to 20 porters one time. All of us weren't free to go. Five people went but they didn't accept that, [they wanted] at least ten people. The village head organized ten people. We have to go one or two days each time to go and carry rations from Mae Kleh Hta to a place where they store the rations... They start carrying rations from the place where I live to Doh Koh Wah, which is also called Ah La Kyo, and upper villages. They pay nothing. Now, we can't do our own work, we only work for them. [We] don't dare to cultivate our lands or go anywhere."Saw Ch--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"Since November 25th 2009, DKBA Battalion #333 came to our village and demanded porters and forced labour such as messenger duty. They demanded five to six people per day for messengers. They also demanded 15 to 20 porters per day… They have to carry basket with bullets, rice, etc. Even though we couldn't carry them [the baskets were too heavy], they forced us to carry them. I had to go to porter three times. They asked me to carry machine gun bullets, four bowls of rice, three cauldrons, dishes and bowls...We had to sleep two nights on the way. There were 12 people went to be porters the first time and 15 people the second time. Recently, there were 20 people who went as porters the third time. All of them were only from K--- village. DKBA Battalion #333 commander Gkoh Bpee demanded the porters. There are 30 to 40 soldiers in this unit… The villagers who have to go for messengers are forced to serve as guides and have to show the way to the places they want to go. They often demand people for messengers… As the DKBA often demands porters, some villagers can't go porters because their wives and children are sick. But, they are forced to go without fail and they also don't have money to hire another person to replace them, so they have to sell what they own and become poor. Some villagers don't even have food to eat, but are forced to go as porters. Those who hire people to replace them have to give 5,000 kyat (US $5.08) per day, and a person has to porter for three days. So, it'll be 15,000 kyat (US $15.23) for three days… The DKBA unit operating in our village eats [our] coconuts and betel nuts. They climb coconut and betelnut trees themselves and eat [what they pick from the trees]. The villagers don't dare to tell them anything because they're afraid that if they say something to the DKBA soldiers, they'll do something bad to them… They don't consider [the impact on] villagers when they order the villagers to do forced labour. Some villagers have their own work to do and although they aren't free to go, they must go. So, their workplaces [fields and plantations] are destroyed because cows and buffalos go and eat everything in the workplaces when the owners can't look after them."Saw Hs--- (male, 27), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
"They order the villagers to do sentry duty every day. Five people have to go for sentry duty per day. They issued an order to the village head and the village head informed the villagers. Me, I'm not free to go so I hire another person to replace me and I have to pay 3,000 kyat (US $3.05) per day… I've had to hire another person four times since this battalion came to operate in our village… I've had to hire another person to replace me to be a porter for three days. I've had to hire someone twice. My wife went to work with her young sibling and borrowed some money and paid it back with paddy later. Actually, she didn't get a lot of paddy. If we can't hire another person, we have to go ourselves. They'll often demand porters as long as they operate in the area. One of the villagers went to tell them to reduce their demands for porters and a DKBA soldier slapped him."Saw Pa--- (male, 44), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
"In our village, C---, they always demand labour. They demand porters to Gkay Gkaw or places where they live like Ku Thu Hta directly. We don't have time to do our own work. Moreover, one group [of soldiers] has just gone but another group has come. Every day, seven to ten villagers have to do forced labour for the DKBA. They can't work for themselves… They demand a lot. They demand people to make fences and stay with them set tha. Even if people go and stay with them, they have to go to porter too… Three days or four times in a week, we always have to go… Even when they ask the village head, sometimes they said they'd ask them to make a fence, but actually they asked them to porter. They ask people to go and make a ticket [a travel permission document] and then ask people to porter for them on the way back. All villagers have to porter… Just portering, making fences, and staying with them. We always have to go, without fail. Sometimes, they order people to buy pigs and chickens for them."Saw G--- (male, 37), C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"On February 8th 2010 DKBA soldiers from Gkay Gkaw came into our village and asked for ten villagers to go with them to the Pah Ah Htah DKBA camp, ten minutes' walk away. They took ten villagers with them for two days. They left four villagers in the camp and took another six villagers with them to another place. Some DKBA soldiers were based in Meh Gkeh Htah and some were in Meh Khoh Htah. After two or three days, the six villagers were released and came back to us with a DKBA order to find four new people to replace the four others who were left in the DKBA camp. In the evening I found four new people and go to the DKBA camp to replace them. The DKBA battalion commander is K'Baw Yoo. He's under control of Brigade #777. His deputy commander is Kyaw Win. We replaced people like that every two days nearly for one month. The situation caused a huge difficulty for people in our village, and some aren't in good health. Now, there are many people who have no time to work on their own farms and hill fields. Another thing is that our village has a very small population. The DKBA came and based there for more than one month then they moved back to Gkay Gkaw. They asked 12 of my villagers to send them back to Gkay Gkaw and to Mah Lee Ler… Before I left my village, on March 8th, the DKBA ordered people from P--- village to go and cut bamboo. The DKBA and SPDC are based at the same place there. They asked for 700 bamboo poles. So, the villagers had to cut bamboo on March 8th and on March 9th they had to transport it to Gkay Gkaw camp. And they asked the villagers again to build storage for their rations and a fence. They'd never do it by themselves."Saw B--- (male, 40), P--- village, Dweh Loh Township (March 2010)
"They also demand people to send rations for them. These are different demands, demands for porters and for carrying rations. For those who send and carry rations for them, they have to do it every day. They told us that they'd pay 10,000 kyat (US $10.15) for those sending rations, but they didn't pay anyone. They don't demand only from our village, but also three people from M--- [village] and more people from W--- [village]. From K--- village, they demand 10 to 20 villagers… They provide us food to eat but their rice isn't good. It has a lot of paddy grain."Saw Hs--- (male, 42), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
"They demanded forced labour immediately after they came to our village… They're based in a monastery in our village, on the other side of the river and in upper areas of M---… They ask us to porter things to Lah Gkyoh Mountain and the Ma Lay Ler area. They're also based at Lah Gkyoh Mountain. We have to porter rice and other food such as chilli and salt. For carrying rice, we don't have to carry it every day. We have to carry it whenever the rice is sent. Sometimes, they demand 30 people. Also, people have to go and stay in the army camp for three days [set tha] and then rotate with others. Now, there are three people waiting to rotate with others. These three people have stayed in the army camp for many days, but people usually rotate after three days. These three people have to carry things and always stay in the camp. They also have to find vegetables, cook, etc.… They don't pay us any money for carrying rice and they also don't pay for these three people who go to work inside the camp. We have to go whenever they issue an order. If villagers can't go, they have to hire another villager to replace them. They have to hire them for 15,000 kyat (US $15.23) for three days… When villagers are forced to leave their work and don't have time to do their livelihoods, their wives and children have to go and look after [their fields and plantations]. So, they don't have enough food to eat. To have enough food for everyone, they have to struggle."Saw M--- (male, 56), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
In areas in which DKBA soldiers fear landmines have been placed, either by KNLA soldiers or by previous DKBA units that have rotated out, villagers forced to serve as porters may be required to walk ahead of soldiers as human minesweepers. This practice adds a physical security risk to the standard threat to livelihoods posed by regular forced portering. Villagers maimed or killed by such 'atrocity demining', as well as their families, can face long-term livelihoods difficulties as a result of their injuries or deaths. In the following quote, a villager from Meh Choh village tract described the verbal and physical abuse to which he was subjected when he refused to endanger himself by portering through mined areas.
"The DKBA army often asked me to go away because they didn't like me. They ordered me to go among landmines and sometimes, I didn't dare to go and I always refused to go. So, they told me that I was useless and they wanted to hit my head with a stone… This DKBA battalion is led by Doh Lweh. I had to porter for them in the lower part of Ma Lay Ler. They ran and dragged me among the landmines and told me that I was useless for everything… As there were landmines planted there, we didn't dare to go; they forced us to. We knew there were landmines and they knew, too. People from this side [the KNLA] plant landmines, but they [the DKBA] also plant landmines. I couldn't think of why they dragged me among the landmines. They don't consider us. I came [here] to meet with village tract leader, then I'll go back to my village. I don't want to stay here anymore.… They scolded me and told me that I was useless and that they'd hit me with a stone. They also told me that they'd kick me if I didn't work well. Then, they kicked me... I'm not useless. If people asked you to go among landmines, you wouldn't dare to go either."Saw Hs--- (male, 42), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
DKBA movement restrictions and landmines
Villagers in DKBA-controlled village tracts along the Bilin River have also reported having access to their fields and plantations heavily restricted by local authorities. Curfews have been imposed in many areas preventing locals from staying outside of their villages at night. Such measures exacerbate the damage to livelihoods caused by exploitative demands such as involuntary labour, as villagers are forced to spend even more time away from tending their lands, increasing the risks that their crops will be damaged by the elements or eaten by animals. At key points in the agricultural cycle, rural villagers in Karen State furthermore traditionally sleep in field huts near their farms or plantations, which can be several kilometres from their homes, to maximise labour time and agricultural production. Individuals caught outside during restricted times risk being accused of contacting the KNLA, detained, physically mistreated and summarily punished, or simply being shot at indiscriminately. Since January 2010, DKBA authorities have begun requiring all adult male residents of Wa Muh, Meh Choh and Ma Lay Ler village tracts to purchase travel permission documents called leh mah in order to guarantee their identity when travelling outside their home villages. These documents do not, however, supersede the regular curfews and other movement restrictions imposed on villages. Leh mah must be applied for and purchased for 500 kyat (US $0.51); locals report that DKBA commanders threatened that male villagers caught without leh mah would be treated as though they were members of the KNLA. In the following quotes, several villagers summarise the movement restrictions they face, and how these restrictions affect their lives.
"Villagers aren't allowed to travel at night time while they're based close to our village. We aren't even allowed to use flashlights. People have to arrive home before six o'clock in the evening and can go out after six o'clock in the morning… It really affects the villagers' livelihoods. When people have difficulty to travel, food problems also follow. We can't go to our working fields as early as before, when they weren't here. Before, we could go to our working fields earlier and come back late at night. Work that we could finish in an hour before, we can't finish in one day now. And villagers don't dare to go anywhere because if something happens outside they always blame the villagers… When we don't have time to look after them, animals such as buffalos come into our hill fields or plantations and eat them until they're all damaged. Many of our plantations have been damaged this year. We never had a situation like this before because we could work full-time in our fields. This year, people can't even do tobacco plantations due to the travelling problems [restrictions]."Saw B--- (male, 40), P--- village, Dweh Loh Township (March 2010)
"In K--- they've ordered all of us to go and make leh mah. They said if they see someone who doesn't have this leh mah they'll accuse him of belonging to the KNU/KNLA and they'll give him trouble. If you have a leh mah, they'll regard you as a good person. If not, you're the enemy. Men between 18 and 60 have to make leh mah… We have to pay 500 kyat (US $0.51) for one leh mah… On February 4th 2010 I went and got a leh mah in a monastery at K--- village... All of Meh Choh village tract has to make leh mah."Saw P--- (male, 37), W--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"They [villagers] can go if the DKBA gives them permission. Now, there is a problem for our villagers to travel. The DKBA has sanctioned male villagers who are between 15 and 60 in our village… Every single villager has to go and get permission… They have to pay 500 kyat (US $0.51) each. They won't give them [permission] if they don't pay the 500 kyat. If a villager doesn't have this paper, they will see this villager as a bad man or belonging to the KNU. They won't see him as a normal villager. The DKBA allows villagers to go outside of the village after 7 am and [they have to] come back at 6 pm."Saw G--- (male, 37), C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"They [the DKBA] deny many things to the villagers, like they can't travel after 9 pm and they can't go to the places where they work now. They don't allow villagers to go. If you go, they question you about many things, like if you're a spy. They don't allow free travel. We have to take their leh mah; you can't travel without a leh mah, or they'll arrest you. It's not free; we have to pay 500 kyat (US $0.51)."Saw Gk--- (male, 50), W--- village, Dweh Loh Township (January 2010)
"Now they've released an order for guarantee papers. Every man between 15 and 60 years old has to go and get this paper. It isn't easy, if someone doesn't go [get a paper]. They [the DKBA] said 'Every one of you has to take my paper. If I see someone who doesn't have my paper, I'll accuse him of being in the KNLA. I'll fine him, put him in prison or kill him. I'll do what I want.' Now villagers have to be afraid and they have to go and take the paper to travel. They ask 500 kyat (US $0.51) per paper. All the villagers in three village tracts, a large population, have to go and take the papers… Then they released an order that everyone has to stay in the village after 6 pm and can go outside to bathe at 6 am. They plant landmines [outside the village] after 6 pm and they take them out at 6 am."Saw Ch--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
As suggested in the preceding quote, the DKBA units active around the Bilin River in Dweh Loh Township frequently use landmines to restrict the movement of villagers under their control. Landmines are also deployed to protect DKBA positions, and especially gold mining or logging operations, from KNLA attacks. In some cases, the deployment of mines entails permanently denying villagers' access to areas traditionally used for farming and plantation agriculture. This can result both in the loss of land and crops under active cultivation, with immediate and severe economic and food security consequences for affected communities; as well as the loss of potentially cultivable land, which can constrain the rotational hillside agriculture practiced in many upland parts of rural eastern Burma, degrading the soil quality of available land and undermining agricultural yields in the long-term.
The deployment of landmines by any state or non-state armed group in Karen State furthermore creates a long-term physical security threat for villagers, since groups neither adequately map mined areas nor possess the capacity to safely and comprehensively de-mine polluted areas. On the contrary, when DKBA units have rotated out of a given area they do not always pass on information about hazardous areas to incoming soldiers. In the following quotes, villagers from Ma Lay Ler village tract describe how mines recently deployed by the DKBA and other armed actors have constrained their livelihoods.
"When they [villagers] are going to cultivate, they have to be afraid of enemy landmines. The DKBA told them, 'In this and that place we've already planted landmines, you can't go and cultivate there.' Moreover, Bo Zaw Wah said 'I planted landmines there, don't go and cultivate there. If I hear any sound (like cutting bamboo), I'll shell there.' So it's very difficult for villagers… In Ch--- [village], Pe---'s dog was injured, then U T--- (aka. Saw Pi---) from Ca--- [was injured]. He's 47 years old. He went and visited his brother at Th--- [village] and when he came back, the DKBA had planted landmines, but he didn't know that and was injured… It injured his legs. It happened between W--- and some betelnut plantations, on January 31st 2010… In Ma Lay Ler village tract, they plant landmines on the hills and valleys and they inform the villagers that they've planted them. So the areas where villagers want to make plantations, they can't. They have to make plantations where it's less fertile because the DKBA planted landmines."Saw Gh--- (male, 37), C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"They planted landmines in places which are for cultivation. Because of landmines villagers don't dare to go anywhere, like one of my friends named Sh---. His barn is in his hill field. He was going to take his grain but he was told [by a DKBA soldier] 'I planted landmines there and also at two other barns.' Lowland people like us who do hill fields, we keep our grain at our hill fields because we can't carry [all of it]. We go and take some when we need it, and we eat it. How can we do that now? We don't dare to go and take it. We have to be afraid of landmines. We don't know yet what we're going to eat for next year... They aim to protect themselves for digging gold. And to injure KNLA soldiers when they come and fight them. They plant many kinds of landmines. L---, Ny---, W---, C---, D--- and Th--- [villages] are like my village. They don't dare to go out of their villages. Sometimes when villagers go out to find vegetables and when they [DKBA] hear sounds, they shoot and it nearly hits us. What can we do? We don't dare to go out. [We might be] hurt with guns and when they see flashlights, they shell mortars. What then can we do? How can we live?"Saw C--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"It's very difficult to travel because we have to be afraid of landmines… We have to be afraid because most of the landmines are planted along the ways to our working places and around the village. All the landmines were planted by the DKBA, the SPDC and the KNLA. So, it isn't easy for the village people to travel as before… For the KNLA, they inform the villagers in advance and let villagers know their landmine areas, too. But the DKBA and the SPDC don't do that."Saw B--- (male, 40), P--- village, Dweh Loh Township (March 2010)
"Several households in P--- left because of too much forced labour by [DKBA officer] Bo Pa Beeh who stays in P--- village… Now they stay in another village, because there's less [forced] labour there. If they work too much for the DKBA, they have no time to do their own jobs."Saw Gh--- (male, 37), C--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"Now in M--- village, some have already fled. Only three to four households are still left among 18 households. They went and lived in first brigade [Thaton District], in K--- and in M--- [villages]."Saw C--- (male, 43), M--- village, Dweh Loh Township (February 2010)
"The thing that I want to say is they force us to do things too much. For us, we don't have food to eat and they force us to go even though we don't want to and don't dare to go. So, we don't want to stay in our village anymore and we [want to] flee from our village. Some villagers have taken all their property and run away. Some want to flee, but they don't know where to go and they also don't dare to go, so they have to be patient and stay in the village like this."Saw Hs--- (male, 27), K--- village, Dweh Loh Township (December 2009)
The increase in exploitative human rights abuses and movement restrictions since the DKBA increased its presence in the village tracts around the Bilin River in southern Dweh Loh Township has severely threatened the livelihoods of local villagers. In response, some households - or, in at least one case, an entire village - have opted to flee to other villages or upland areas. According to a KHRG field researcher on January 17th 2010, for example, residents of K--- village abandoned their homes and lands to flee further from DKBA control and associated human rights violations and livelihoods constraints; 113 villagers in total fled. This displacement should be understood as strategic, rather than panicked; villagers weighed human rights and security concerns, and in some cases decided that displacement was their best available means of protection. Villagers who choose to hide face serious potential physical and food insecurity, including being shot on sight and having one's homes or fields shelled or mined by SPDC and DKBA soldiers. That many individuals and communities continue to determine that confronting such threats is preferable to regular exploitative abuse under SPDC or DKBA control illustrates the extent to which forced labour and other demands can undermine rural livelihoods and ultimately survival. The expanded DKBA activities in southwestern Papun District appear to have intensified the pressure on local livelihoods; villagers are likely to have to continue to confront this pressure for as long as DKBA forces maintain their presence and current military and administrative practices in the area.