Truce or Transition? Trends in human rights abuse and local response in Southeast Myanmar since the 2012 ceasefire

Published date:
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Human rights conditions have been transformed on the ground in rural Southeast Myanmar since the signing of a preliminary ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union in January 2012. While some forms of human rights abuse documented by KHRG since 1992 remain of serious concern, others have almost disappeared. At the same time, new forms of abuse and local concerns are emerging in the evolving security environment. In this new context, there is speculation at the local level over whether the January 2012 agreement marks only a temporary truce, or a viable transition to peace and stability for local communities. Drawing on a dataset of 388 oral testimonies and pieces of documentation from a total of 1,404 collected over the past two years by villagers trained to monitor human rights conditions in their own communities, this report presents analysis of 16 categories of human rights abuse or related issues. This analysis places recent testimony in the context of 20 years of abusive practices, quantifies occurrence across KHRG’s seven research areas and identifies common perpetrators of abuse or related actors. Since the ceasefire, changes in the prevalence of human rights abuse and local responses to such abuse have not been systematically documented. Local perceptions of threats to the ceasefire process remain similarly unknown. This report therefore aims to provide an update from the ground in rural Karen areas of Southeast Myanmar that will allow local, national and international actors to base programming and policy decisions related to this post-conflict region more closely around the experiences of local people, and better support villagers by understanding their concerns and priorities.

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I. Introduction

“The situation is getting better. The leaders are trying to build relationships with each other. There is a change. Villagers can travel freely. Before the ceasefire, [Tatmadaw soldiers] were coming and going from the village, and the villagers were afraid. They did not dare to travel. For now, we can travel freely.”

Saw S--- (male, 46), Toungoo District, April 2012[1]

“[Some] villagers believe that the ceasefire is not a stable process for them because the Burmese army is rebuilding their camps and sending more rations during the ceasefire. The villagers are not satisfied. They always have to worry and also have to deal with land confiscation and extortion by the Burmese army after the ceasefire. Instead of removing their camps, the army has returned and rebuilt their camps in the mountains, close to the working areas of the villagers, who do not show themselves to the army.”

Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Hpapun District, January 2013[2]

In January 2012, the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement, bringing to a halt what is often referred to as the world’s longest-running civil war. This conflict engendered severe human rights abuse of civilians at the hands of a range of armed actors, primarily at those of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw). The ceasefire and other recent political developments in Myanmar have altered the ways in which human rights abuse is experienced by Karen people in the Southeast, and transformed the context within which these abuses can be addressed. This report aims to demonstrate how trends in human rights abuse have changed during the post-ceasefire period. 

KHRG has drawn on 388 pieces of documentation and 162 sets of images collected by KHRG researchers between January 2012 and November 2013 from across the seven locally-defined Karen districts, which spread across Kayin and Mon states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions (see Maps 1 and 2).

This report focuses on three main sets of trends that were identified from this data.[3] The first category, “Trends in human rights abuse and local response”, consists of nine human rights issues, namely, attacks on civilians and extrajudicial killing; arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and violent abuse; rape and sexual assault; forced labour; forced recruitment; anti-personnel and other mines; restrictions of freedom of movement; and arbitrary taxation and demands

The second category includes two emerging issues related to “Resource management”, namely, land confiscation; and negative consequences of infrastructure and commercial development. The third category includes five emerging issues related to “Security, peacebuilding and social cohesion”, namely, ongoing militarisation and resulting perceptions of insecurity; the impacts of peacebuilding efforts; access to health and education; religious and ethnic discrimination; and drug production, use and related social impacts.

Rationale for the report

Since 2011, the Myanmar government has undertaken a rapid liberalisation process. It has passed new laws that allow greater space for peaceful assembly, improved labour rights and broader political participation and made new commitments to international agencies to address a number of human rights related issues in rural ethnic areas. Meanwhile, the Government has pursued ceasefires with ethnic armed groups (EAGs) throughout the country. Ceasefires signed with Karen EAGs have transformed the security environment on the ground in Southeast Myanmar. As the Government becomes more open to discussion of human rights challenges, and a wide array of new external actors enter Southeast Myanmar, many local and international stakeholders have significant gaps in their knowledge of these challenges.

Since the ceasefire, local perceptions of threats to the ceasefire process have not been systematically documented. Local priorities for change and locally preferred solutions remain similarly unknown. As new actors become active in the peace process, greater awareness of the perspectives of conflict-affected communities will become critical to achieving a lasting solution. Further, there are a number of under-reported negative consequences of the ceasefire process, which represent significant obstacles to a lasting peace.

This report therefore aims to address these gaps by providing an update from the ground in rural Karen areas of Southeast Myanmar that will allow national and international actors to base policy decisions related to the post-conflict region more closely around the experiences of local people, and better support villagers by understanding their concerns and priorities.

Key findings

According to KHRG documentation of human rights trends since January 2012:

  • The ability to travel more freely was the most frequently reported change to villagers’ lives and livelihoods. 
  • The construction or fortification of army bases as well as increases in rations transportations, have caused villagers to feel that their personal security is threatened, and to doubt that the ceasefire is sustainable.
  • There have been no large-scale, coordinated military attacks targeting civilian settlements.
  • Civilians accused of supporting EAGs continue to be arbitrarily arrested, detained, violently abused, tortured and targeted in isolated armed attacks by Tatmadaw and BGFs.
  • An overall decrease in Tatmadaw demands for forced labour was reported. In some areas Tatmadaw and BGF battalions continue to demand forced labour on a regular basis.
  • An increase in the production and sale of narcotics by BGF commanders was reported, which is likely due to the relative ease of travel.
  • Profit-making activities of armed actors have led to various forms of human rights abuse. Broadly speaking, these relate to the BGF’s drug production and levying of taxes for soldiers’ salaries, the Tatmadaw’s involvement in the expropriation of land, and various forms of arbitrary taxation, imposed by all armed actors, including the KNLA and DKBA.
  • Villagers described an increased sense of freedom to report cases of land confiscation to local authorities in the ceasefire period and responded collectively to such abuses.
  • Following communal violence in Rakhine State, distribution of rules restricting interaction between Muslim and Buddhist communities in two research areas was carried out by religious leaders and BGF personnel, increasing tension in those communities.
  • Armed actors have largely stopped planting new anti-personnel and other mines in most areas. Residual mine contamination continues to cause death and injury and restrict freedom of movement and livelihoods, despite persistent requests for their removal by some communities.


Detailed findings

  • KHRG researchers and villagers throughout the seven Karen districts in Southeast Myanmar have described the ability to travel and work more freely as the single most positive trend resulting from the ceasefire. This change is due to an end to armed conflict and the accompanying decrease in movement restrictions and harassment by Tatmadaw troops. Villagers have, however, reported restrictions on their freedom of movement in some areas due to the actions of the Tatmadaw and EAGs, including arbitrary taxation at checkpoints, arbitrary curfews, requirements that villagers present travel permission letters or government-issued identification and mine contamination.  
  • New Tatmadaw bases have been built and existing bases have been strengthened in KHRG’s research areas throughout 2012 and 2013. Ongoing militarisation has led communities of internally displaced people to remain in temporary settlements, unwilling to return to their former villages until Tatmadaw camps have been closed. The continuation of high levels of militarisation, as well as sporadic skirmishes between Tatmadaw and EAGs, have caused villagers to feel that their personal security is threatened, and to doubt that the ceasefire is sustainable.
  • Since January 2012, KHRG has not documented any large-scale, systematic military operations targeted at civilians. Three separate deliberate attacks on civilians by Tatmadaw troops targeting individuals perceived to support EAGs were reported to KHRG. KHRG has documented attacks on civilians based on this rationale throughout the past two decades. KHRG also received reports that the Tatmadaw and EAG troops, when engaged in armed conflict, fired weapons indiscriminately into areas with civilian resident populations.
  • Civilians were arbitrarily arrested, detained, violently abused, tortured and/or killed in all seven Karen districts since January 2012. When such abuse was perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, it was most often based on the suspicion that the civilian in question had associated with an EAG in some capacity, while both Tatmadaw and KNLA soldiers also perpetrated such abuses for other reasons.
  • Villagers have reported an increase in the production and sale of methamphetamines by BGF soldiers in Hpapun and Hpa-an districts, and have increasingly complained of the negative consequences of drug production, sale and use, as well as related killings and sexual violence, and the negative impacts of its availability on youth and social cohesion. This increase in drug related issues has occurred in part because of the relative ease of travel for armed actors and civilians since the ceasefire.
  • Villagers reported an overall decrease in demands for forced labour by Tatmadaw forces. This decrease is attributable to the ceasefire agreement and the ability of Tatmadaw soldiers to travel freely and perform their own labour in the new security environment, as well as efforts by international and local monitors throughout the past decade to end forced labour. Some violations continue nonetheless, and Tatmadaw and BGF commanders and soldiers in some areas have continued to demand that villagers perform forced labour on a regular basis during the ceasefire, forcing them to serve as porters, guides, messengers, produce materials for army camp maintenance, perform agricultural labour and construct infrastructure without pay.  
  • Since January 2012, villagers were forced to join or remain in BGFs and village militias set up by both the Tatmadaw and BGFs. BGF commanders have attempted to forcibly re-enlist former soldiers of the DKBA, including two boys originally recruited under the age of 18, who had already completed their service period or deserted during the DKBA’s transformation into BGFs. To avoid recruitment, villagers pay money, leave their villages during recruitment periods or become monks.
  • KHRG documented a decrease in the planting of new mines by armed actors since January 2012, though the KNLA and BGFs continued to plant mines in some areas. Ongoing landmine contamination was reported across six out of the seven districts and has led to dozens of deaths and injuries, and the severe restriction of villagers’ movement and livelihoods. Tatmadaw and EAGs have begun removing mines, but such efforts have ended prematurely due to accidents, lack of technical skills and coordination issues. Villagers continue to develop protective mechanisms, such as requesting that soldiers remove mines, choosing alternative routes and working with armed actors to mark the location of mines.
  • Villagers reported the temporary or permanent confiscation of their land for army camps, dam construction, large-scale agriculture and mining projects since January 2012. Land confiscated by the Tatmadaw in the past had not yet been returned, with profoundly negative continuing effects on villagers. Villagers reported that land is confiscated through the use of Government laws classifying the land as uncultivated or state-owned, with little or no consultation of affected communities. Villagers have reported attempts to forestall confiscation of their land by registering it with local government authorities, KNU or both, but have reported difficulties in doing so because of loss of titles during the conflict period, disputes between multiple authorities in mixed control areas, disputes between local villagers, and lack of coordination regarding the demarcation of land for returning refugees.
  • Villagers faced environmental destruction and hindrances to their ability to sustain livelihoods due to development projects. These development projects included rubber plantations and mines, and were most often initiated by Myanmar nationals with connections to powerful government, military or EAG actors. These difficulties have in turn led some villagers to migrate to find work. Clashes between armed actors have also been related to development projects.
  • Villagers throughout the seven Karen districts faced regular demands for arbitrary taxes by Tatmadaw, BGFs, Myanmar government officials, police, KNU, KNLA, DKBA and the KPF. Taxes were demanded from travelers as they crossed military and police checkpoints, as well as of plantation owners, gold miners, loggers and cardamom and livestock traders. Villagers living in mixed control areas may be taxed by multiple authorities citing social services or religious purposes. Villagers are also required pay fees to support local military activities and soldiers’ salaries.
  • Villagers reported efforts by the Tatmadaw and EAGs, sometimes in collaboration with local CBOs, to improve awareness of the ceasefire process among the local community. BGF and KNLA soldiers have engaged in trust-building activities with local religious leaders. Government-KNU liaison offices have provided a space for communication between the two authorities and for villagers to report problems.
  • Villagers receive healthcare at Government, KNU, local NGO and INGO clinics or hospitals, but healthcare is often not accessible because of the absence of a clinic in their area and a lack of funds to travel to a one in a larger town. Access is also restricted by insufficient numbers of healthcare workers and unaffordable fees. The quality of healthcare is low due to unqualified staff and lack of supplies. Some villagers have built clinics without external assistance, while others are afraid to do so due to ongoing militarisation. Education is not available in some villages because of insufficient support for schools, including a lack of supplies and/or teachers. There is positive trend toward free education in Government primary schools.
  • Villagers reported instances of religious and ethnic discrimination perpetrated by Myanmar government officials, BGF soldiers and Buddhist religious leaders. Villagers described a deterioration in relations between Buddhist and Muslim villagers in Hpa-an and Hpapun districts after a Buddhist monastery released a document restricting social and economic interaction between the two communities One villager also described how government officials categorised him as ‘Buddhist’ on his identity card, even though the villager identifies as animist.


The final section in each chapter includes issue-specific recommendations developed in November 2013 by 22 KHRG field researchers from Thaton, Toungoo, Nyaunglebin, Hpapun, Hpa-an and Mergui-Tavoy districts. These recommendations form the basis for the more general recommendations listed in this section.

  • The Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups (EAGs) in Southeast Myanmar should work to make the ceasefire sustainable, as it has contributed to decreases in most types of human rights abuse. This means the ceasefire process should lead to a final peace agreement as quickly as possible, given the need for agreement by multiple actors, whether as part of a nationwide ceasefire or an agreement which is signed by the Government and KNU authorities throughout the seven Karen districts.
  • All armies should begin to demilitarise former conflict areas, particularly positions close to villages. This means reducing troops, army bases, checkpoints and weapons inventories to signify the transition to peace. The Tatmadaw and EAGs should finalise a joint Code of Conduct as quickly as possible, which clearly defines limited operation areas for their forces and appropriate behaviour of soldiers towards civilians. This document should be made public in order to support the efforts of organisations and villagers to monitor the ceasefire. KHRG researchers report that existing KNU-Government liaison offices have helped improve communication at the local level. Both sides should ensure that these offices are staffed with competent personnel.
  • The Myanmar government is obligated to ensure that all armed forces under its control observe their responsibilities under domestic and international humanitarian and human rights law. Tatmadaw Border Guard Forces (BGFs) have been complicit in torture, killing, forced labour and have been involved in the production of narcotics during the ceasefire period. The Myanmar government must develop and implement adequate human rights standards for its BGF soldiers and ensure that any BGF soldier or commander who violates the rights of any person is held accountable.
  • Local civilian and military authorities should implement transparent and accessible mechanisms to receive complaints from villagers regarding violations of their rights, ensure follow-up and provide protection for individuals or groups who file complaints from retribution. Township, State and union-level authorities should likewise ensure that adequate complaint mechanisms are in place for villagers who have been abused by local authorities or who are not comfortable reporting incidents locally. To complement these Government mechanisms and provide support for villagers who remain suspicious of government-affiliated actors, NGOs, CBOs, and international agencies should strengthen their existing mechanisms for villagers to complain of abuse.
  • The Government should work toward the official recognition of local education, health, and other social service structures. Government and non-state service providers should continue efforts towards coordination and collaboration, and compliment each other’s service delivery where possible. The Government should be willing to undertake such collaboration even where service providers are institutionally or personally affiliated with EAGs. International actors working to improve access to these services should back such collaboration efforts and prioritise support to providers considered most legitimate locally.
  • INGOs and inter-governmental organisations working in areas of ongoing human rights abuse should do so in collaboration with local CBOs who have long-established relationships with local communities. Interventions should be predicated on comprehensive conflict analysis, be carried out in line with conflict-sensitivity standards, and prioritise the needs of local communities.
  • Local people have a right to be included in the decision-making process for any policy decision that affects their lives. The Government and private actors should involve local communities early in the decision-making and planning stages of commercial developments, land and resource management, infrastructure development and other changes that impact their lives and livelihoods. More broadly, related policies should be informed and guided by local needs to ensure that economic planning and the benefits of development are fully inclusive and does not risk driving conflict grievances.
  • Taxes, whether levied by the Myanmar government or EAGs, should be determined in advance and tax schedules should be disseminated to villagers. Authorities should refrain from arbitrary taxation. To discourage arbitrary taxation, the Myanmar government and EAGs should make sure that their local representatives are provided with the funds and materials they need carry out their professional responsibilities, and are paid adequate salaries.
  • All armed actors should agree to and enforce a comprehensive ban on the new use of mines. Before such a ban is agreed to, commanders should take responsibility for prohibiting the planting of new mines in civilians’ farmlands and pathways and must consistently inform the local community about the location of existing and new mines. Local and international mine actors should conduct inclusive and fully participatory consultations and assessments to determine villagers’ opinions and perspectives on mine action and removal. In communities where villagers have determined that mines should be removed, fully trained and equipped national and international actors should begin mine removal.


[1] See Source #22.

[2] See Source #275.

[3] For a full description of the methods used to write all aspects of this report, see Methodology in the report.