Field Report: Toungoo District (#02u1)

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Published date:
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) seemed content in 2001 to consolidate its hold over the parts of Toungoo District which it already controls. There was little change in relative control of territory between the SPDC and the Karen National Union (KNU). The ten to fifteen SPDC battalions currently based in the district spend much of their time demanding forced labour, extracting money from the villagers and mounting routine sweeps of the surrounding countryside to flush out the villagers hiding in the mountains. This is in direct contrast to the ongoing offensives by the SPDC taking place in Nyaunglebin, Papun and Thaton Districts to the south.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) seemed content in 2001 to consolidate its hold over the parts of Toungoo District which it already controls. There was little change in relative control of territory between the SPDC and the Karen National Union (KNU). The ten to fifteen SPDC battalions currently based in the district spend much of their time demanding forced labour, extracting money from the villagers and mounting routine sweeps of the surrounding countryside to flush out the villagers hiding in the mountains. This is in direct contrast to the ongoing offensives by the SPDC taking place in Nyaunglebin, Papun and Thaton Districts to the south.

One aspect of the SPDC's campaign to secure control that has potentially serious consequences is the expansion of Sa Thon Lon operations into the mountains of Toungoo District. The Sa Thon Lon, or Dam Byan Byaut Kya ['Guerrilla Retaliation'], execution squads were created in 1998 under Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt's Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI) and operate as small 8-10 man specially trained units tasked with finding and executing villagers who are suspected of having current or past contact with opposition groups. The villagers call them the Baw Bi Doh ('Short Pants'), a reference to their mixture of civilian and Army clothing, and are terrified of them because their execution methods are particularly brutal and they execute people for 'crimes' as minor as supplying rice to Karen soldiers or carrying loads for them, even if it happened long in the past. Almost every villager has had some form of 'contact' with the opposition so everyone lives in fear of execution in the presence of the Baw Bi Doh, especially current and former village heads (for more background see Death Squads and Displacement: Systematic Executions, Village Destruction and the Flight of Villagers in Nyaunglebin District, KHRG #99-04, 24/5/99). Previously, the Dam Byan Byaut Kya operated almost exclusively in the plains along the Sittaung River in Toungoo and Nyaunglebin Districts, but KHRG received reports from its researchers in 2000 and 2001 that the Dam Byan Byaut Kya have expanded eastward into the hills and are now operating around Kheh Der village and as far east as Pway Baw Der village in Taw Ta Tu township. They were also reported as operating in the hills around Than Daung Gyi town and Ker Weh village in Daw Pa Ko township during the same time period. The Dam Byan Byaut Kya usually avoid direct confrontation with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), so the SPDC must feel that these areas are now secure enough to bring in the Dam Byan Byaut Kya. These squads are known for their brutality - cutting the throats of their victims or beheading them, severely beating villagers for no reason, and raping women - and their presence in the mountains could signal a new wave of executions as they are now operating among villages which they have never been to before, and which they have yet to 'clear' of suspects. So far, however, the only killings reported to KHRG as being directly attributable to the Dam Byan Byaut Kya were five villagers from Yeh Loh village killed at the end of October 2000. Many of the Dam Byan Byaut Kya's activities in the hills thus far have centred around intimidating and beating villagers, extorting money and demanding food and other goods from the villagers. Some regular Army battalions have also been reported by a KHRG field researcher to have set up their own "guerrilla" units along the same lines as the Dam Byan Byaut Kya . Any expansion in the number of "guerrilla" units will certainly result in an increase in the abuses for which these units are known.

Forced labour continued throughout the district in 2001. Although it is unclear how widely the SPDC's November 2000 order prohibiting the use of forced labour was disseminated, it is certain that SPDC soldiers and civilian officials in Toungoo District are ignoring it. KHRG has obtained close to 70 order documents issued in the region since November 2000 directly demanding forced labour. These order documents and interviews conducted by KHRG demonstrate that forced labour in this district, especially portering, continued right through the September-October 2001 visit by the High Level Team sent by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to assess the implementation of the ban on forced labour (the Team did not visit Toungoo District). An exception to this is in Toungoo town itself, where the population did hear about the order and forced labour has been reduced. Forced labour in the towns, however, has never been as heavy as in the rural areas.

In an attempt to avoid criticism for using forced labour many of the written orders currently sent out to village heads simply summon them to meetings, where SPDC officers then dictate their demands for forced labour and materials such as bamboo and thatch. Other orders are dictated by the military to village tract leaders, who must then issue their own orders to the villages under their control to send forced labour, money or materials; this creates the false appearance that forced labour is being demanded by local village authorities and not by the Army. Another technique that has become common throughout Karen areas is the renaming of portering as 'loh ah pay '. Loh ah pay is traditionally a form of labour donated to the local monastery or done for the community as a form of merit making, and thus, as some SPDC officers have told villagers, it sounds nicer. To the villagers, loh ah pay means short term forced labour at Army camps or doing errands for the Army, so they are extremely upset when they arrive with a day's supply of food for light forced labour and are suddenly forced to go for a week of heavy work portering munitions and supplies. A KHRG field researcher from the district reported in October 2001 that forced labour seems to have decreased slightly over the past year if the district is looked at as a whole. It is too early to tell if this will continue, but recent information from other districts indicates that since the departure of the ILO High Level Team the use of forced labour is on the rise once again.

Villagers at the relocation sites at Kler Lah and Kaw Thay Der continue to be forced two to four times a month to carry supplies down the Kler Lah-Bu Sah Kee car road to SPDC Army camps. During the dry season vehicle owners are forced to haul supplies down this road without compensation, and villagers are also forced to carry supplies on their backs. In the rainy season the road is impassable and all supplies are carried to the outlying Army camps on the backs of forced labour porters. In the rainy season each such trip takes a week under terrible conditions, carrying heavy loads through almost constant rain, following muddy and slippery paths over the steep hills. SPDC soldiers commonly force the villager porters to walk in front of the soldiers as human minesweepers and many villagers have died or lost legs as a result. The villagers in the Ker Weh-Than Daung Gyi area in Daw Pa Ko township and in the Klaw Mi Der area of Taw Ta Tu township also face heavy demands for porters. Many of the villages in the area pay porter fees of over 4,000 Kyat per porter demanded, as much as 100,000 Kyat per month from some villages, to avoid having to send villagers as porters. Village tract officials use the money to hire itinerant workers from central Burma to go in their place.

A new Army camp at Than Daung Gyi, named Bayinnaung Army Camp, has been under construction for at least a year using the labour of civilians from the surrounding villages. This camp is to be a military training centre for SPDC officers. Than Daung Gyi town has been designated by the SPDC as a tourist destination for foreigners and work has begun on various projects for this. The benefits of Than Daung Gyi as a 'hill station' tourist destination have been mentioned in the Burmese media and it can be found highlighted on tourist maps bought in Burma . Roads are being rebuilt and an amusement park is planned for later in the dry season. Much of the work is being done with forced labour. A hotel for foreign tourists was constructed in the town in 2000, but it is unclear yet whether forced labour was used on the project (for more background on the development of Than Daung Gyi see Peace Villages and Hiding Villages: Roads, Relocations, and the Campaign for Control in Toungoo District, KHRG #2000-05, 15/10/00).

The SPDC has been working on constructing a road from Kler Lah (Bawgali Gyi) in Toungoo District to Mawchi, over 100 kilometres to the east in southern Karenni State , since 1998. Army camps have been constructed along the route and work continued through 2000 and 2001. Bulldozers have been used on the project but much of the work has been done with forced labour from villagers relocated to Kler Lah and convicts from central Burma . Several villages along the road route have been abandoned due to forced relocation or the flight of villagers to avoid forced labour on the road. Work is proceeding from both ends of the road. Although work has been reported on the Mawchi end of the road, including during the visit of the ILO High Level Team, less work was done on the Kler Lah end of the road in 2001 than in previous years. KHRG has, however, obtained an SPDC order document demanding villagers as forced labour to clear part of the road route near Kler Lah in April 2001. There is still significant activity by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karenni Army (KA) along some parts of the road route not yet completed, and the SPDC may be waiting to mount an offensive to secure the area before completing the road. A second road is being built from Ma La Daw in northern Nyaunglebin District to Bu Sah Kee in southeastern Taw Ta Tu township. Work has been very slow on this road and it has only just begun entering the mountains northeast of Ma La Daw. Although the SPDC is using bulldozers on this road as well, villagers are still forced to do most of the work on it by hand. Villagers are also forced to walk in front of and behind the bulldozers and to sit on top of them as a deterrent to ambush and as a 'punishment' should there be any landmines on the road; they are also occasionally forced to drive their own vehicles along completed sections of the roads to detonate any landmines which may be there. Villages in the area of this road have been forced to relocate to villages along the road route in order to work on the road. Work on a third road which has been planned from Bu Sah Kee southward into Papun District to Ler Mu Plaw has not yet begun.

The villages in the area between the Day Loh and Tha Aye Loh Rivers and the Toungoo-Kler Lah road were once again relocated to Kler Lah in July 2001. These villages have been relocated no less than five times between 1999 and 2001. The relocation site at Kler Lah is used by the SPDC as a ready pool of labour to send as porters for its troops, to work on the roads, and to do whatever other labour is needed.

The forced relocations and heavy demands for forced labour and porter fees have caused many villagers to flee into the forests of the district. Villagers in the area between the Kler Lah-Bu Sah Kee road and the Kler Lah-Mawchi road are in an especially difficult situation as they live in the narrow triangle formed by these two roads, both of which are lined with SPDC Army camps. While there was no military offensive in the area during 2001, SPDC columns continued to criss-cross the area burning the villagers' hidden caches of paddy, destroying hill fields and shooting villagers on sight. On July 14 th 2001, two villagers from Wa Tho Ko village, Saw Ah Po Loh and Saw Htoo Maw, were shot and killed near Kaw Thay Der while on the way to visit relatives. The SPDC's targeting of the villagers' food supplies has left most of the villagers in the area with very little food. Many of the internally displaced villagers are living on rice porridge and starvation is a real possibility. The area is too remote for large amounts of aid to reach the villagers and the refugee camps in Thailand are too far for many people to walk. The trip to the Thai border is very dangerous with SPDC camps and patrols all along the way; those who try to flee must either cross the heavily patrolled Kyauk Kyi - Saw Hta road in northern Papun District, or make a longer journey through the heavily militarised free-fire zones of southern Karenni (Kayah) State. Villagers living outside SPDC control are increasingly faced with two options: going down to the SPDC-controlled villages and relocation sites and enduring the constant demands for forced labour, or staying in the hills where they are hunted by the Army and facing the real danger of starvation as the food supplies dwindle.