SPDC and DKBA order documents: January 2009 to June 2010

Published date:
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This report includes translated copies of 94 order documents issued by State Peace and Development Council Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army officers to village heads in Karen State between January 2009 and June 2010. These documents serve as supplementary evidence of ongoing exploitative local governance in rural Burma. The report thus supports the continuing testimonies of villagers regarding the regular demands for labour, money, food and other supplies to which their communities are subject by local military forces. The order documents collected here include demands for attendance at meetings; the provision of money and food; the production and delivery of thatch shingles and bamboo poles; forced labour as messengers and porters for the military; forced labour on bridge repair, the provision of information on individuals and households; and restrictions on trade. In almost all cases, such demands are uncompensated and backed by an implicit or explicit threat of violence or other punishment for non-compliance. Almost all demands articulated in the orders presented in this report involve some element of forced labour in their implementation.

I. Introduction and executive summary

Forced labour continues to be the most common abuse reported by villagers living in rural areas of Karen State controlled by Burma's 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, while not punishing perpetrators that violate human rights. As a consequence, local SPDC Army units often support themselves via forced extraction of labour, money, food and supplies from local villagers in order to sustain frontline troops and ongoing military operations.[1] As the military presence in Karen State has continued to expand, the burden on communities having to support local army units has likewise increased.

Given the pervasive and persistent character of exploitative demands levied on rural communities, such abuse significantly contributes to poverty, livelihoods vulnerability, food insecurity and displacement for large numbers of villagers across rural Karen State.[2] Villagers complying with demands must divert time, labour, money and other resources away from their own livelihoods to meet demands - reducing their capacities to meet their own household or community needs. For this reason, demands for the provision of material support such as roof thatching or collecting forest products should be recognised as forced labour. In the case of roof thatching, for example, villagers may have to work two or three days to collect materials, fabricate the thatching, and then deliver it to military authorities. Such labour is involuntary, often uncompensated and trades off with crucial livelihoods activities.

Despite the harmful consequences for civilian populations of rural Karen State, both SPDC and DKBA forces have continued the practice of supporting units via local extraction. Extractive demands are frequently 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).

Over the last 18 years, order documents have been important evidence of the continued use of forced labour in Burma. In response, there has been an increasing reluctance by military authorities to articulate specific demands in writing. In some cases officers also appear to have refrained from identifying themselves or their unit in orders. Village heads are instead called to attend 'meetings' at which SPDC and DKBA authorities explain verbally what is required. Out of the 94 order documents included in this report, 53 (roughly 56%) contain demands for village heads to attend meetings; 33 out of 61 (54%) order documents from the SPDC and 20 out of 33 (60%) documents from the DKBA are of this type. Many order documents of this type included in the report are accompanied by explanations of what transpired in the meetings. In some cases officers also appear to have refrained from identifying themselves or their unit in orders (see for example, Order #76, 80). 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 threatened with unspecified violence in writing (Order #14), and warned that soldiers would enter their village and that they would be "punished" if they failed to comply with an order (Order #73). Several orders included in this report state that the consequences for non-compliance would be the "responsibility" of the village leaders of the entire community. Some village heads were also informed in writing of fines for failure to fully comply with past or future orders (Order #1, 9, 10). 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 forcibly conscript villagers, or the village heads themselves (Order #71, 72). Several village heads, for example, told KHRG they were detained, made to do forced labour for an extended period, and threatened with conscription for attempting to negotiate a DKBA order to provide villagers as recruits (Order #71); this incident has been documented elsewhere by KHRG.[3] In the face of such implicit and, at times, explicit threats, village heads who receive 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 94 translated order documents issued by SPDC and DKBA authorities in Papun, Toungoo and Nyaunglebin Districts of Karen State between January 2009 and June 2010. Out of the total 94 documents, 61 were issued by SPDC authorities and 33 were issued by DKBA authorities. As the DKBA has operated 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.[4] 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 hand-written 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 food (for example, Order #25 and 58); the production and delivery of thatch shingles and bamboo poles (for example, Order #58 and 60) and firewood (Order #46); forced labour as messengers (for example, Order #33) and porters (Order #39); forced labour on bridge repair (Order #29); and the provision of village information (for example, Order #53 and 57). 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 or bamboo planks. Other SPDC orders presented below that may not directly involve forced labour include regulations regarding trade (Order #28) and fees for registering motorcycles (Order #44). The DKBA order documents contained in this report articulate demands for attendance at meetings, the provision of money (for example, Order #64, 78, 93), food (Order #75), thatch shingles (Order #86, 89) and recruits to the DKBA (Order #71, 72). For a comprehensive list of the order documents contained in this report see the table included below on pages 10-11.

While the orders included here illustrate the persistent forced extraction of labour and resources by military units in rural Karen State, they also reveal that local communities do not passively comply with every exploitative demand. In order documents #14, 63, and 73, for example, the issuing SPDC or DKBA officers express varying levels of frustration that village leaders had failed to comply with previous orders. In the case described above of the village heads in Papun who had failed to comply with the DKBA orders to provide villagers as recruits, one village head reportedly avoided reporting to a meeting with local DKBA officers until almost a month after the deadline, despite established threats of detention, punitive forced labour, and threats that either he or members of his community would be arrested and forcibly conscripted if the demand was not met (Order #73).

Aside from such cases of non-compliance, villagers' testimonies, as quoted extensively in other KHRG reports, as well as order letters included in this report, indicate that where villagers do comply, such compliance is frequently only partial in character. In orders #9 and 10, for example, local SPDC units in Toungoo District imposed fines on two villages for only partially meeting previous demands for the provision of materials. While such efforts to avoid or limit exploitative abuse via delayed or partial compliance with demands 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). Steps taken by communities to protect themselves from abusive demands by the SDPC and DKBA appear to be the product of careful assessment of local power relationships and other factors supporting or constraining certain protection responses; as such circumstances may vary widely across rural Burma, responses to abuse vary from community to community according to the context within which they occur.[5] 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 protect communities and livelihoods from abuse could strengthen villagers' capacities for self-protection from the intertwined human rights and humanitarian issues they face.

The full report is only available in PDF format.

Table of Contents

  Abstract 1
  Contents 2
  Notes on the Text 3
  Map 1: Locally defined Karen State 5
Map 2: Burma 6
Introduction and executive summary 7


List of order documents




SPDC order documents




DKBA order documents



[1] The SPDC Army's consistent reliance on forced extraction of resources, labour and material support from the civilian population has been referred to as the 'live off the land' or 'self-reliance' policy by KHRG as well as respected scholars of Burma's military history. Andrew Selth, for example, dates the policy to 1997, when Burma's War Office reportedly issued an order instructing the country's Regional Commanders that troops "were to meet their basic logistical needs locally, rather than rely on the central supply system." See, Andrew Selth, Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory, Norwalk: Eastbridge, 2002 p. 136. See also, Mary Callahan, "Of kyay-zu and kyet-zu: the military in 2006," pp. 36-53 in Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson (eds.), Myanmar: The State, Community and the Environment, Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2007 p. 46.

[2] For more on the relationship between abuses such as forced labour and food insecurity, see Food crisis: The cumulative impact of abuse in rural Burma, KHRG, April 2009. For more on the relationship between abuses such as forced labour and displacement, see Abuse, Poverty and Migration: Investigating migrants' motivations to leave home in Burma, KHRG, June 2009. See also, "Central Papun District: Village-level decision making and strategic displacement," KHRG, August 2010.

[3] See also, "Central Papun District: Abuse and the maintenance of military control," KHRG, August 2010.

[4] While SPDC and DKBA units have for years operated together, this operational hierarchy became formalised with the DKBA's transformation into a 'Border Guard Force' under control of the SPDC and containing a fixed number quota of SPDC officers. This transformation dates to at least May 2009, when commanding officers stated in high-level meeting of DKBA officers that the DKBA would transform itself into a 'Border Guard Force.' Leaked minutes from the May 2009 meeting are retained by KHRG on file. Ceremonies attended by SPDC commanders officially announced the transformation of large portions of the DKBA into a Border Guard Force in September 2010. See, "Border Guard Force formed at Atwinkwinkalay region, Myawady Township, Kayin State," New Light of Myanmar, September 2010.

[5] For a discussion of the ways in which local communities respond to abuse such as forced labour, see: "Supporting local responses to extractive abuse: Commentary on the ND-Burma report Hidden Impact," KHRG, September 2010.