I. Introduction and executive summary
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]
In 2012, forced labour continues to be the most common abuse reported by villagers living in KHRG's seven eastern Burma geographic research areas, which stretch across four of the country's 14 states and regions and incorporate all or part of Mon and Kayin states, as well as Bago and Tanitharyi regions.
As Border Guard battalions operate under 'the sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty, tutelage or authority' of the Tatmadaw and, as the two groups often participate in joint operations, demands on the civilian population issued by these groups since their August and September 2010 formal integration into the command structure of the Tatmadaw, as Border Guard battalions, should be understood as having been sanctioned by RUM military officials.
Since the beginning of January 2012, descriptions from villagers in all of KHRG's seven research areas have displayed a continuation of predictable and long-established patterns of forced labour and other exploitative demands. These are issued without alteration or interruption by Tatmadaw, Border Guard or non-state armed groups. Villagers described forced labour to produce building materials, perform infrastructure construction and agricultural work, transport military rations and provide them with food, as well as the large-scale confiscation of land for the construction of military camps, rubber plantations and dams.
Under the preliminary ceasefire agreement signed in January 2012, the RUM and the Karen National Union (KNU) agreed to end forced labour, arbitrary taxation and extorted villagers as a matter of principle. Two months later, in March 2012, the RUM committed itself to the complete elimination of forced labour by 2015, including forced labour imposed through land confiscation or resulting from the absence of necessary funding for authorities at the local level for infrastructure requirements, as well as forced labour associated with Public Works, construction or energy projects, and in the private sector. The RUM subsequently indicated that perpetrators who continued to issue forced labour demands would be prosecuted under the penal code, rather than within martial law.
Additionally, the ILO Governing Body has since confirmed that the "necessary legislative base had been put in place with a view to meeting the requirements of Convention No. 29", with the repeal of the Village Act and the Towns Act of 1907, and the adoption of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Act in 2012, which includes a specific definition of forced labour and provisions relating to its prohibition and mechanisms to punish perpetrators under the Penal Code.
The ILO Governing Body additionally noted that "there was a need for immediate action, and that the setting of a date limit of 2015 for the final elimination of all forms of forced labour could not be a pretext for delay. [...] Action should be taken to eliminate forced labour as soon as possible before that date." Two strategies were noted, specifically that the Joint Strategy endorsed by the government's cabinet "be widely publicized to ensure the broadest public awareness" and that "the exaction of forced labour [...] be punished pursuant to article 374 of the Penal Code."
This report serves to support the ILO's marked endeavours to eliminate forced labour in Burma, both by seeking accountability for commanding officers who continue to issue orders, and by urging the wider publication of the Joint Strategy to which the government's cabinet has agreed. The latter, in particular, could serve as a strong tool at the grassroots level for use by villagers seeking to negotiate or resist compliance with forced labour demands.
It is imperative that civilian and military government officials, as well as all non-state armed groups, take action in line with their commitments to end forced labour mentioned above. 2015 is three years away, and villagers continue to face exploitative demands in the meantime. Forced labour drastically cuts down the time available to villagers to pursue their own livelihoods. Moreover, it encourages whole communities to continue avoiding contact with armed actors and, in many cases, to continue to hide in non-state controlled spaces. It further instructs against the voluntary return of internally displaced villagers and refugees, even where armed hostilities have ceased. Finally, KHRG research areas include some of the most heavily landmine-contaminated places in the world. As a result, forced labour entails increased risk of landmine-related injury or death, by forcing villagers to work in areas likely to be mined, to work in proximity to armed troops, and also by requiring them to travel to and work in unfamiliar areas where they may not be aware of the locations of mines.
All actors interested in improving human rights conditions in eastern Burma and in creating more space for villagers to pursue their own livelihoods safely and effectively, including villagers previously living in hiding or seeking refuge outside of Burma, must press for an immediate cessation of forced labour demands. This must include the prosecution of perpetrators under the penal code, as no satisfactory level of progress can be made on forced labour until military officers, who are frequently the main agents of forced labour, are tried, convicted, stripped of their rank and imprisoned for demanding it.
Background on forced labour and written orders
The Tatmadaw's consistent reliance on the forced extraction of resources, labour and material support from the civilian population has been referred to variously as the 'self-reliance', 'self-sufficiency' or 'live off the land' policy, by KHRG as well as by respected historians of Burma's military. The military's widespread reliance on the civilian population for support has long been confirmed by the ILO: "Government officials, in particular the military, treat the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced labourers and servants at their disposal." In March 2012, Burma's government explicitly acknowledged, for the first time, that the forced extraction of resources, labour and material support from the civilian population to support troops was a pre-existing matter of policy, when it vowed to abolish "forced labour associated with the Ministry of Defence self-sufficiency policy" by 2015.
Andrew Selth dates the 'self-sufficiency' policy to 1997, when Burma's War Office reportedly issued an order instructing the country's Regional Commanders "to meet their basic logistical needs locally, rather than rely on the central supply system." Since troops are often unable to grow or purchase sufficient food and resources to subsidize their minimal rations, in practice this means that the Tatmadaw is logistically dependent on civilian labour to carry supplies and equipment, build army camps, maintain roads, and cultivate agricultural projects, as well as to provide material support, including the provision of rice, food, animals, and building materials. 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 abuses contribute significantly to poverty, livelihood vulnerability, food insecurity and displacement for large numbers of villagers across rural eastern Burma. To comply with demands, villagers must divert valuable time, labour, money and other resources away from their own livelihoods – reducing their capacities to meet their own household or community needs.
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; these are then dispatched to particular villages by a messenger, who is frequently a local villager forced to serve in this capacity uncompensated.
Over the last 20 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, the battalion from which an order is issued, or both. In some cases, Tatmadaw officers have referred to themselves only as 'Camp Commander' (Orders #13, #47) or 'administrator' (Orders #2, #16). The supplementary order notes, which are written by KHRG community members, may serve as additional evidence of ongoing abuse because such notes sometimes include direct testimony from villagers who, for example, may state that similar orders are received at least once per year (Orders #3, #4).
In addition to obscuring the origin of order letters, there has been a correspondent absence of specific written demands. Instead of receiving such details, village heads are frequently called to attend 'meetings' at which military or civilian authorities explain verbally what is required. Of the 44 order documents included in this report issued in 2011 and 2012, 19 (43%) contain requests for village heads to attend meetings; 13 (68%) of these contain a request only for a meeting without articulating any further demands in writing (Orders #2, #6, #21). 14 out of the 30 (47%) order documents sent by civilian government officials and 5 out of 10 (50%) sent by Tatmadaw officials contain, among other things, a request for a meeting.
Where possible, orders documents of this type are accompanied by explanations written by KHRG community members of what occurred in the meetings (Orders #9, #11). These notes support the argument that there is a reluctance to submit demands in writing. For example, in one order, the community members notes that the Tatmadaw no longer write letters with a specific order, but rather write letters requesting the person in charge write a letter using their own seal (Order #9). As such, of the 30 total RUM order letters, nine of them are signed by either the 'Village head', 'Village tract administrator' or the 'Village administrator'. In addition to the five order letters from the Tatmadaw requesting a meeting, nine of the 15 civilian order letters request villagers' attendance at a meeting with a specific Tatmadaw battalion (Order #29) or at a Tatmadaw army camp (Order #22), and five civilian order letters request villagers' attendance to discuss 'development of the region' (Order #25).
* Percentages reflect total number of orders contained within the 44 order documents.
Despite the prevalence of requests for meetings, explicit demands nonetheless continue to be issued in writing: out of 44 order letters issued in 2011 and 2012 included in this report, 14 (32%) contain an explicit demand for labour, money, food or other supplies. Specifically, 8 out of the 30 (27%) order letters sent by civilian government officials, 3 out of 10 (30%) order letters sent by the Tatmadaw, and 3 out of 4 (75%) letters sent by the Border Guard 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 were often certified by an official stamp. The order documents issued by military or civilian government authorities contained in this report include demands for attendance at meetings; to provide money (Orders #9, #54), including for government health workers' (Order #17); attend a ceremony (Order #7); provide agricultural labour or equipment (Order #12); implement a law or policy (Order #15); provide village information; receive medical treatment; provide female villagers for domestic vocational training; provide villagers as porters; and provide villagers for sentry duty.
While most civilian and military order letters written in 2011 and 2012 do not contain explicit threats or reprisal, one order several orders included in this report do state that villagers or village heads 'must come without absence' (Orders #2, #21, #23), and state that the consequences for non-compliance would be the "responsibility" of the village leaders or the entire community (Order #4) or could result in a fine (Order #54).
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 form of domestic labour, fieldwork, or the collection of raw materials and fabrication of building materials like thatch, fence posts or bamboo poles. Other military or civilian government orders presented below, that may not directly entail forced labour, include implementation of a law or policy (Orders #5, #15, #39, #57) and movement restrictions put in place to prevent accidents (Order #39).
The four letters from Border Guard battalions written in 2012 and 2011 included in this report, are orders to provide money, porters, attendance at a meetings or ceremony, and to write or sign documents correlating with the arbitrary enforcement of a law or policy (Orders #54 to #57). For a comprehensive list of the order documents contained in this report see the table in Section II, "List of order documents."
Although information received in 2012 has not provided as many examples of non-compliance and other village strategies similar to what has been quoted extensively in other KHRG reports, examples of village strategies can nonetheless be seen. In one order note, the KHRG community member describes a villager's request for the forced labour orders to be reported to the "international community" (Order #4), as well as a note indicating a trend towards orders being given verbally, sometimes over the phone after first establishing a relationship between the military or civilian officials and the village head (Order #11). There are examples of partial-compliance with an order, including not providing all money requested (Source Document: O) and avoidance of travel to decrease the likelihood of interaction with Tatmadaw soldiers (Source Document: W).
Table of Contents
|Notes on the Text||3|
|Map 1: Locally defined Karen State||5|
|Map 2: Burma||6|
|Introduction and executive summary||7|
|Background on forced labour and written orders||10|
|List of order documents||14|
|Republic of the Union of Myanmar (RUM) order documents||16|
|Tatmadaw Border Guard order documents||46|
|KHRG Source Documents: Forced labour during 2012||50|
|Order document examples||66|