I. Introduction and executive summary
In 2013, forced labour continues to be reported by villagers living in KHRG’s seven geographic research areas in southeastern Burma/Myanmar, which incorporate all or part of Kayin and Mon states, as well as Bago and Tanintharyi regions.
As evidence of ongoing exploitative demands, this report comprises 25 translated order documents issued by Republic of the Union of Myanmar (RUM) government officials and officers of the State army, referred to as the Tatmadaw, and its integrated Border Guard Forces (BGFs).
These orders were issued in Hpapun, Hpa-an and Toungoo districts, which are three of the seven locally-defined Karen districts of southeastern Myanmar. They were issued between November 2009 and July 2013; six of the orders contained in this report were issued since January 2013. Out of the 25 total documents, nine were issued by Myanmar government or Tatmadaw officials, seven were issued by Tatmadaw BGF battalions, six were issued by the then Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and three were issued by a BGF-backed religious leader.
BGF battalions of the Tatmadaw were established in 2010, composed mostly of soldiers from former ethnic armed groups. Pursuant to its obligations under the ILO Forced Labour Convention, the RUM is obligated to apply the ban on forced labour ‘to the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty, tutelage or authority’. Thus, demands on the civilian population issued by Tatmadaw or BGF battalions should be understood as having been sanctioned by RUM officials. Despite the formal integration into the Tatmadaw, BGF battalions remain subject to semi-autonomous hierarchies that may impact how soldiers behave on the ground. Senior Tatmadaw BGF Commander Maung Chit Thu highlighted this in a recent speech: “We are under the control of the Defense Minister, but we do not follow any of his words effectively. We look at the mother organization [Karen National Union]. If the mother organization builds sustainable unity, we will start one step toward it already”.
To provide additional context for forced labour incidents documented by KHRG community members during 2013, original excerpts from 15 pieces of KHRG field information are also included (See Appendix 1: Forced labour during 2013).
Throughout 2012, descriptions from villagers in all of KHRG’s seven geographic research areas displayed a continuation of predictable and long-established patterns of forced labour and other demands. Since the beginning of 2013, however, field documentation received by KHRG has shown a marked decrease in forced labour demands by Tatmadaw forces throughout the seven locally-defined Karen districts.
KHRG continued to receive reports of demands for forced labour for military camp maintenance by Tatmadaw soldiers in the Lay Kay area in Bilin Township, Thaton District throughout the first half of 2012. However, in April 2013, KHRG received information that forced labour in Lay Kay had ceased altogether since September 2012. In Than Daung and Tantabin townships, Toungoo District, where villagers had previously been subject to regular demands for labour, villagers described the regular patrolling of Tatmadaw troops, but without demands for forced labour at the end of 2012. KHRG has not documented any incidents of forced labour in Mergui-Tavoy and Dooplaya districts in 2013.
Alongside the improvements in some areas, KHRG continues to receive reports from Hpapun, Hpa-an and Nyaunglebin districts describing ongoing forced labour demands, some of which follow predictable patterns of Tatmadaw reliance on nearby civilian populations. In 2013, villagers continue to describe being forced to transport supplies, build infrastructure, serve as messengers, provide thatch shingles and cut bamboo poles for army camps, porter rations to military camps and conduct agricultural forced labor. Specifically, these incidents include:
- Tatmadaw Infantry Battalion (IB) #96 demanded portering and messenger service from villagers in Dwe Lo Township, Hpapun District throughout January and February 2013.
- In Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District, BGF Battalion #1014 and #1013 soldiers have demanded forced labour for military camp building and maintenance regularly since 2011, with the most recent demands being made in February 2013.
- Further south, in T’Nay Hsah Township, Hpa-an District, Tatmadaw Light Infantry Battalions (LIBs) #547, #548 and #549 have continued a previously established pattern of ordering agricultural forced labour from villagers, with ongoing demands reported as recently as May 2013.
- In Nyaunglebin District, Tatmadaw LIBs #349, #590 and IB #30 were documented ordering portering of rations and labour for military camp maintenance in Mone Township in February 2013.
As members of the local community explain, the decrease in forced labour demands in some areas may be attributed to the joint activities of human rights documentation organizations and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to pressure Government officials and area commanders to end forced labour, or it may simply reflect the impact of the ceasefire agreement between the RUM and the KNU.
“(1) Forced labour stopped after we [KHRG] submitted the forced labour incident to the ILO; (2) forced labour stopped after the Karen National Union and Myanmar government signed the ceasefire agreement; or (3) forced labour stopped for the reason that Burmese soldiers [Tatmadaw] now dare to go and cut down trees and bamboo from the forest by themselves."
The ceasefire has also led to some negative trends for villagers. In some cases, Tatmadaw soldiers continue to issue forced labour demands, but do so in a less aggressive manner. It has also allowed Tatmadaw soldiers to travel more freely, as they are no longer concerned about possible Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) ambushes. At the same time, ongoing militarisation and the presence of Tatmadaw soldiers continues to threaten the local community.
“Because of the ceasefire, they [Tatmadaw] do not demand forced labour and other things like before. They inform the villagers in a polite way and sometimes they send villagers some food. When they do ask the villagers to do things, they instruct the villagers to do it for only for a short time. However, if the work is not finished, they ask again and again.”
“Recently, the Burma army did not force villagers [to porter their rations] anymore when they sent food, and they did it by themselves. However, the villagers don’t want the Burma army to come and stay in their area; they want all of the Burmese forces to withdraw back to their own places. Even if we gain rights, we don’t want to stay with them because they are not our people, so we don’t want them to stay in our area.”
Forced labour developments since the ceasefire
Under the preliminary ceasefire agreement signed in January 2012, the RUM and the KNU agreed to “immediately end forced labour, arbitrary taxation and extorted villagers (sic)” as a matter of principle. One month later in February, the Government adopted the Ward or Village Tract Administration Act, repealing the Village and the Towns Act of 1907 and providing for the punishment of individuals who exact forced labour as a civilian penal offence, rather than under martial law.
In March that year, the Government committed itself to a joint strategy with the International Labour Organization (ILO) towards 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.
Orders by the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services were also issued that month advising all military personnel that “strict and stern military disciplinary actions would be taken against perpetrators of military under-age recruitment,” and then in April 2012 rendering the new law prohibiting forced labour applicable to the military with perpetrators being prosecuted under Section 374 of the Penal Code. Additional commitments to end forced labour came out of the third round of RUM-KNU ceasefire negotiations on September 2nd 2012. In the resulting draft Code of Conduct, ‘ceasefire’ is defined as including “a cessation of … relocation and the use of forced labour or similar provisions of requesting labour against the will of the person/people.”
In recognition of this progress, delegates at the June 2013 International Labour Conference (ILC) adopted a resolution to lift all remaining ILO sanctions on Myanmar. The Conference initially imposed restrictions on Myanmar in 1999 and 2000 to pressure the Government to bring its legislation on forced labour in line with ILO Forced Labour Convention No. 29; end forced or compulsory labour imposed by authorities, particularly the military; and to enforce adjudication and prosecution of perpetrators. The resolution adopted by the Conference calls on ILO member states to provide financial support for the elimination of forced labour and invites the ILO’s Governing Body to review the situation in Myanmar on issues relating to ILO activities, including freedom of association and the impact of foreign investment on decent working conditions in the country. It also requests the ILO and the RUM to continue their commitments outlined in the 2007 Supplementary Understanding, the 2012 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and associated action plans for the elimination of all forms of forced labour by 2015. The ILO Director-General will submit a report to the ILO Governing Body sessions in March of each year until forced labour is perceived eliminated from the country.
This report serves to support the RUM and ILO’s marked endeavours to eliminate forced labour in Myanmar, both by seeking accountability for commanding officers who have continued to issue orders in 2012 and 2013 and by advocating for greater awareness-raising activities and the dissemination of materials that can be used at the grassroots level by villagers seeking to negotiate or resist compliance with forced labour demands. In particular, KHRG advocates for further translation of the ILO’s complaints mechanism brochure into local languages; the wider dissemination of the Joint Action Plan and strategy for eliminating forced labour agreed to by the Government; and further awareness-raising activities for civilian and military authorities.
It is imperative that government and military officials, as well as all ethnic armed groups, take action in line with their commitments to end forced labour as mentioned above. With 2015 just 15 months away, villagers continue to face exploitative demands. 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 Government officials and, in many cases, to continue to hide in spaces outside of state authority. It further obstructs 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 southeastern Myanmar 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 Myanmar, must press for an immediate cessation of forced labour demands.
Background on forced labour and written orders
The Tatmadaw's ‘self-reliance’, ‘self-sufficiency’ or 'live off the land' policy, which provides that local battalions rely on the forced extraction of resources, labour and material support from the civilian population rather than top-down or centralised support, has been well documented by KHRG as well as by respected historians of Myanmar's military. The military’s widespread dependence on the civilian population has long been confirmed by the ILO, which notes “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, Myanmar’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 Myanmar'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 or unwilling to grow or purchase sufficient food and resources to subsidise 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 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.
Given the pervasive and persistent character of exploitative demands levied on rural communities, such abuses contribute significantly to poverty, livelihood vulnerability, food insecurity and risk of displacement for large numbers of villagers across rural eastern Myanmar. 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 household or community needs.
Order documents in this report
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 Myanmar. In response, military authorities have been increasingly reluctant to identify the camp location or the battalion from which an order is issued (See Orders #4, #10). Order letters are also written in such a way that it may be difficult to identify the author of the letter. For example, civilian and military officials may refer to themselves only as ‘Chairman’ (Orders #2, #6) or ‘Officer’ (Order #14). In other instances, officers have written ‘behalf’ next to their title and signature despite being the author of the order letter, in order to obscure the source of authority for the letter (Orders #5, #10, #23). As one KHRG community member explains in a supplementary order note, “The order letter was written by the Operations Commander, but he wrote ‘behalf’” next to his title(Order #5). Another tactic is to have Government officials issue order letters for civilians to attend meetings with Tatmadaw officers, instead of the order letter being issued by a military authority (Orders #2, #3).
In addition to obscuring the origin of order letters, Myanmar civilian and military officials have increasingly produced order letters that do not contain specific written demands for labour. 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 17 order documents included in this report issued in 2012 and 2013, six contain requests for village heads or other representatives to attend meetings (Orders #2, #5, #7, #10, #11, #14), and none of them articulate any further demands in writing.
When possible, order documents are accompanied by explanations written by KHRG community members of what occurred in the meetings (‘order notes’), which may serve as evidence of forced labour. These order notes also demonstrate that Myanmar military and civilian officials are reluctant to submit demands in writing. For example, notes corresponding to three of the order letters explain that demands for the provision of thatch and bamboo for military officers were made during the subsequent meetings (Orders #10, #11, #14). A different order letter requests a meeting to discuss the construction of a vehicle road, while the supplementary note explains that, in the meeting, villagers were ordered to work on its construction (Order #3).
Order letters from all groups included here were either hand-written or typed, and were often certified by an official stamp. As well as the order letters issued for meeting attendance, this report also contains order letters issued by military or civilian government authorities demanding that villagers provide bamboo or thatch for military camp maintenance (Order #4); perform labour for infrastructure development (Orders #3, #23, #24, #25); complete the registration and distribution of land use permits (Order #1); attend a meeting about village development or security (Order #5); and pay an arbitrary tax (Order #6, #12, #13, #15).
KHRG has received a decreasing number of order letters each year, with 207 received in 2011, 58 received in 2012 and 25 received this year. Despite this decrease, demands for forced labour strongly resembling those related to the self-sufficiency policy continue to be present in the written order letters and other KHRG documentation. In one instance, a Tatmadaw officer explicitly stated a reliance on villagers for the production of thatch (Order #4) while, in a different case, villagers living near a road were ordered to repair it after rain damage prevented the transport of Tatmadaw rations (Order #3). In a notable case in January and February 2013, 184 villagers from 30 villagers were ordered to provide ‘voluntary’ labour for a religious leader for the construction of a bridge, with security provided for by a BGF battalion. One villager explained that villagers felt they were unable to decline the request and therefore the labour was not voluntary (Orders #23, #24, #25).
In addition to demands for labour, order documents in this report include other exploitative demands for the provision of money. Common examples include arbitrary taxes that villagers must pay in order to travel (Order #6) or transport goods or livestock past road checkpoints (Orders #12, #13, #15), as well as an order to process land registration documents that may affect villagers’ ownership rights (Order #1).
While most order letters written in 2012 and 2013 do not contain explicit threats of reprisal, some orders included in this report do state that villagers or village heads must attend meetings ‘without fail’ (Orders #7, #14) or ‘without absence’ (Orders #2, #10, #23). Such orders carry an implicit threat when written by authorities with a history of perpetrating abuse.
Compliance with these demands constitutes forced labour 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. Further, 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, represent clear examples. For a comprehensive list of the order documents contained in this report see the table in Section II, “Table of order documents.”