This photo shows an original order letter sent to the head of O--- village on May 4th 2012 by Tatmadaw LIB #--- Battalion Commander from S--- Military Camp in Pa'an District. The letter instructs the village head to send five tractors to LIB #--- on May 6th 2012. The KHRG researcher who collected this order letter and spoke with the local village tract leader reported that villagers in the area are ordered annually to provide agricultural equipment and labour to cultivate rice fields belonging to Tatmadaw soldiers without compensation. A translated copy of this order is available as Order #3 in this report. [Photo: KHRG]
I. Introduction and executive summary
Forced labour continues to be the most common abuse reported by villagers living in rural areas of eastern Burma under effective administration of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (RUM) government and state armed forces, including former non-state armed groups that transformed into government-controlled Border Guard battalions in late 2010. As evidence of ongoing exploitative demands, this report comprises 207 translated order documents issued by RUM civilian officials and officers of the state army, the Tatmadaw, as well as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Karen Peace Force (KPF) and, since September 2010, by Tatmadaw Border Guards. These orders were issued between March 2008 and July 2011 in Papun, Toungoo, Nyaunglebin, Thaton, Pa'an and Dooplaya districts of eastern Burma; at least 176 were issued from January 2010 onwards. Out of 207 total documents, 172 were issued by RUM civilian or Tatmadaw authorities, 16 were issued by DKBA authorities, 17 were issued by Tatmadaw Border Guard battalions and two were issued by KPF officers. As DKBA and KPF armed groups operated under "the sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty, tutelage or authority" of the then-State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and as the two groups often participated in joint operations, demands on the civilian population issued by these groups, even prior to their formal integration into the command structure of the Tatmadaw in August and September 2010 as Border Guard battalions, should be understood as having been sanctioned by the then-SPDC.
The Tatmadaw and its local allies have worked to establish firm control of the civilian population in eastern Burma through an expanded and sustained military presence in the region. At the same time, the central Tatmadaw command has provided insufficient funding and logistical support for troops operating in the field, while not punishing officials that violate human rights. As a consequence, local Tatmadaw units and subordinate armed groups 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. As the military presence in eastern Burma has continued to expand, the burden placed on communities to support local army units has likewise increased.
Given the pervasive and persistent character of exploitative demands levied on rural communities, such abuse contributes significantly to poverty, livelihoods vulnerability, food insecurity and displacement for large numbers of villagers across rural eastern Burma. To comply with demands, villagers must divert time, labour, money and other resources away from their own livelihoods – 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 reduces time villagers can spend pursuing crucial livelihoods activities.
Despite the harmful consequences for civilians in eastern Burma, the Tatmadaw and subordinate armed groups have continued the practice of supporting units via extraction of labour and resources from the local population. 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 frequently a local villager forced to serve in this capacity without compensation.
Over the last 19 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 identify the camp location and/or the battalion from which an order is issued. Tatmadaw officers have in some cases, identified the letter's origin in vague terms as sa kan gone or 'hilltop camp' (see Order #16); or refrained from identifying themselves by name, rank or unit, instead referring to themselves only as 'Camp Commander' (Order #36, #38) 'Gate Commander' (Order #51, 53) or simply 'You know'(Order #204, 205).
In addition to obscuring the origin of order letters, there has been a corresponding reluctance on the part of officers to articulate specific demands in writing. Instead of receiving detailed demands in writing, village heads are frequently called to attend 'meetings' at which military or civilian authorities explain verbally what is required. Out of the 207 order documents included in this report, 116 (56%) contain requests for village heads to attend meetings; 95 (82%) of these contain a request only for a meeting without articulating any further demands in writing. Ninety-four out of 172 (55%) order documents sent by Tatmadaw and civilian government officials, 10 out of 16 (62%) order documents sent by the DKBA and 12 out of 17 (71%) order documents sent by Border Guard battalions contain, inter alia, a request for a meeting. Where possible order documents of this type are accompanied in this report by explanations written by KHRG field researchers of what occurred in the meetings, including in some cases direct testimony from a village leader who was ordered to attend the meeting in question (see Order #89, 91, 136).
Despite the prevalence of requests for meetings, explicit demands nonetheless continue to be issued in writing: out of 207 order letters included in the present report, 108 (52%) contain an explicit demand for labour, money, food or other supplies. Specifically, 89 of the 172 (52%) order letters sent by Tatmadaw or civilian government officials, eight out of the 16 (50%) order letters sent by DKBA officers, nine out of the 17 (52%) order letters sent by Tatmadaw Border Guard officers and two out of two (100%) letters sent by the KPF contain explicit demands for a service, materials or the payment of fees or taxes.
Order documents from all groups included here were either hand-written or typed, and often certified with an official stamp. The order documents issued by Tatmadaw or Burma government civilian authorities contained in this report include demands for attendance at meetings; provision of money (Order #66); provision of food and other commodities, such as rice, chicken, pork and turmeric (Order #152, #51, #115, #22); production and delivery of thatch shingles, bamboo poles, wooden fence posts, and baskets (Orders #78, #79, #120, 48); forced labour as messengers (Order #67), porters (Order #62), on bridge construction or repair (Order #121, #123) and on agricultural projects (Order #95); provision of agricultural equipment (Order #11) and ad hoc repair services and materials (Orders #17, #171); and provision of village information (Order #60) including about villagers' land and belongings (Order #45). 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 provide information. Further forced labour is also required in the collection of raw materials and fabrication of building materials like thatch, fence posts or bamboo poles. Other Tatmadaw or civilian orders presented below that may not directly entail forced labour include regulations restricting travel (Order #147) and fees for registering boats (Order #85). DKBA order documents included in this report articulate demands for attendance at meetings (Order #174); and provision of money (Order #189), food (Order #187), thatch (Order #178) porters (Order #180) and recruits to the DKBA (Order #183). Tatmadaw Border Guard order documents below include demands for meetings (Order #190, #200); and provision of money (Order #195), bamboo poles (Order #194), supplies and commodities (Order #204) and porters (Order #192). Both KPF order documents contained in this report include demands for money and food (Orders #206, 207). For a comprehensive list of the order documents contained in this report see the table included below on pages 11 through 15.
Written orders are often backed by implicit, and occasionally explicit, threats against non-compliance. Village heads have been warned strongly to avoid angering the author of the letter (Order #158, 168), and threatened that soldiers would "have to come to the village" (Order #192) or would recognise villagers as "enemies" and "punish [them] as a result" (Order #123) if they failed to comply with an order. Several orders included in this report state that the consequences for non-compliance would be the "responsibility" of the village leaders or the entire community (Order #96 and #119) or result in "serious punishment" (Order #201, 202). Village heads explained to KHRG that, when they attended meetings as specified in written orders contained in this report, they were threatened that their land would be confiscated if they failed to comply with orders to pay for travel permission documents (Order #148); that they would be killed if residents of their village assisted Tatamdaw Border Guard soldiers to desert from their units (see Order #188); or that soldiers would be sent to forcibly recruit villagers if villages failed to provide recruits as ordered (Order #175). One village head told KHRG that, as a result of non-compliance with an order to repair a bridge, residents of his village had to travel covertly and avoid using that bridge to access their agricultural land (Order #123); approximately six weeks later the village head was told by a Tatmadaw commander that villagers seen walking on the road would be shot on sight (Order #140).
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 meetings where verbal demands are issued, 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. For example, village heads told KHRG researchers that they did not comply (Order #35, 48, 137, 199), delayed complying (Order #91, 197, 198) or only partially complied (Order #178, 196) with orders; lied to avoid complying with a standing order (Order #101) or to explain previous non-compliance (Order #136); argued with Tatmadaw officers that an order was unfair (Order #80); negotiated to make a less-burdensome payment rather than provide materials or villagers (Order #89, #180); and decided ahead of time what strategy to adopt if soldiers came to their village as a result of non-compliance (Order #175).
While the orders included here illustrate the persistent forced extraction of labour and resources by military units in rural eastern Burma, they also reveal that local communities do not passively comply with every exploitative demand. In Order #48 and #158, for example, the issuing Tatmadaw or DKBA officers express varying levels of frustration that village leaders had failed to comply with previous orders. Similarly, despite a threat in writing that villagers would be treated as "enemies" if they failed to comply with an order (Order #123), two village heads in Papun District actively chose not to comply with the terms of the order and subsequently warned their villagers to avoid meeting Tatmadaw troops operating in their local area (Order #122 and 123).
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 (Order #178, #196). 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 across rural eastern Burma – and presumably in much of rural Burma. Steps taken by communities to protect themselves from abusive demands by the Tatmadaw and other authorities 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.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.