Supporting local responses to extractive abuse: Commentary on the ND-Burma report Hidden Impact


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Supporting local responses to extractive abuse: Commentary on the ND-Burma report Hidden Impact

Published date:
Monday, September 6, 2010

Eighteen years of KHRG field research indicates that regular extractive abuses by the SPDC Army and NSAGs threaten local livelihoods and are a fundamental human rights concern for villagers throughout eastern Burma. These abuses appear to be the product of the established SPDC Army and NSAG practice of supporting military units via extraction of significant material and labour resources from the local civilian population, enforced by implicit or explicit threats of violence. These findings were recently affirmed by ND-Burma, which last week released a report documenting the prevalence and impact of arbitrary taxation for communities across Burma. This commentary is designed to support ND-Burma's report, by offering additional recommendations based upon evidence that civilians have developed and employed a range of strategies for protecting themselves from extractive abuse or its consequences. These responses vary between contexts, and have been formulated based on first-hand awareness of the local dynamics of abuse and potential space for safe response. Seeking to understand, and then support, these local protection efforts should be the starting point for any external actors interested in improving human rights conditions in eastern Burma in both the short and long term.


[1] The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), formed in 1994 after splitting from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The DKBA has operated in cooperation with the SPDC Army, and parts of the organisation formally came under the SPDC as a 'Border Guard Force' in August 2010.

[2] 'We have to give them so much that our stomachs are empty of food:' The Hidden Impact of Burma's Corrupt and Arbitrary Taxation System (hereinafter Hidden Impact), Network for Human Rights Documentation - Burma (hereinafter ND-Burma), September 2010.

[3] KHRG conducts research in an area sometimes locally referred to as 'Karen State.' According to designations used by the SPDC, this includes all or portions of Kayin, Kayah and Mon states and significant parts of Bago and Tanintharyi Divisions. For a small sample of recent KHRG reports detailing the widespread use of forced labour, taxation and other extractive abuses levied against the civilian population by the SPDC Army and NSAGs, and impacts on community livelihoods, see: "Shouldering the Burden of Militarisation: SDPC, DKBA and KPF order documents since September 2006," KHRG, August 2007; "SPDC and DKBA order documents: October 2007 to March 2008," KHRG, August 2008; "Food Crisis: The cumulative impact of abuse in Rural Burma," KHRG, April 2009; Abuse, Poverty and Migration: Investigating migrants' motivations to leave home in Burma, KHRG, June 2009; "SPDC and DKBA order documents: August 2008 to June 2009," KHRG, August 2009.

[4] An overview of extractive practices confronted by villagers is available in Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008, pp.40-76. This overview also describes additional forms of forced labour not listed above, such as mandatory attendance at meetings. See also: "Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review: Human rights concerns in KHRG research areas," KHRG, July 2010.

[5] 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.

[6] See for example: "Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review KHRG, July 2010, Section 3.

[7] For examples of KHRG reports detailing local attempts to protect communities from extractive abuses and/or its harmful effects, see: Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008; "Ongoing accounts of village-level resistance," KHRG, July 2009; "Southern Papun District: Abuse and the expansion of military control," KHRG, August 2010.

[8] KHRG has also referred to some types of local responses as 'resistance strategies,' a term which emphasises the political character of strategies which function as implicit statements about the legitimacy of local power relationships that facilitate resource extraction and extractive abuse across Karen State. See, Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008. This report will refer to these practices as 'local protection' or 'self-protection' strategies, however, in an effort to emphasise the degree to which they are in line with traditionally understood humanitarian protection objectives. For the most commonly accepted definition of 'humanitarian protection,' seeStrengthening Protection in War: A Search for Professional Standards, International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), 2001, pp.28-37. The ICRC defines protection as "all activities, aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. human rights, humanitarian and refugee law)."

[9] These facts provide an important reminder that outside actors should be careful not to encourage or pressure villagers to engage in self-protection activities that may place them in danger.

[10] The importance of supporting local strategies for human rights protection has been noted by, for example, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the European Community Humanitarian Office and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. For discussion of these and other examples of the way local self-protection strategies cohere with international humanitarian protection objectives, see Self-protection under strain: Targeting of civilians and local responses in northern Karen State, KHRG, August 2010 pp.50-52. See also, Casey A. Barrs, Preparedness Support: Helping Brace Beneficiaries, Local Staff and Partners for Violence, research paper released under the auspices of the Cuny Center, May 2010 pp.1-2.

[11] BBC and VOA; Foreign Burmese-language news radio stations which broadcast into Burma.

[12] Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed group which has, in various forms, been in conflict with Burma's central government since 1948.