Consolidation of Control: The SPDC and the DKBA in Pa'an District

Published date:
Saturday, September 7, 2002

The easternmost mountains of central Karen State's Pa'an District still see regular fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army and forces of the State Peace and Development Council or the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, but most of the district is under combined SPDC and DKBA control. Villagers there face demands for money and food from all three armies, forced labour for the SPDC and DKBA, and recruits for the DKBA. All three armies punish villagers for supporting their enemies, and are laying increasing numbers of landmines which continue to kill villagers randomly. As the SPDC and DKBA work to consolidate their control, some villagers are finding they can no longer survive the abuses and a steady stream of them flows to the refugee camps and illegal labour markets of neighbouring Thailand.

Since 1997 most of Pa'an District in central Karen State has been firmly controlled by forces of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), with the assistance of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Both groups are still fighting the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union) in the Dawna Range area, a strip in the far east of the district adjacent to the border with Thailand, but the remainder of the district sees little fighting, with the KNLA only able to mount small scale hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against SPDC and DKBA positions. In consolidating their control, both the SPDC and the DKBA have been increasingly restricting and exploiting the Karen villagers who make up almost the entire population of the district. Although most of the villagers remain in their villages under SPDC and DKBA control, their lives are difficult and they are becoming increasingly impoverished. The continued use of forced labour, the demands for money and food from the villagers, and the resulting poverty have driven many to flee to refugee camps or to join the illegal migrant labour market in Thailand . Landmines have also become a serious problem in the area, with villagers making up the majority of mine victims.

Pa'an District has been the power centre of the DKBA since its creation in late 1994. Though the DKBA no longer has clear political objectives or a strong command structure at the higher levels, local commanders are consolidating control over their respective areas. This is particularly true of the #999 Special Battalion's area around Ko Ko village (which the DKBA has renamed Shwe Ko Ko) on the Burma-Thai border just north of Myawaddy. The commander of this battalion, Lt. Col. Maung Chit Thu, has sponsored several cultural events and has offered to compensate villagers for damages caused by other DKBA officers and by the SPDC, in an apparent attempt to win the support of the local population. KHRG has obtained a publicly issued DKBA document which claims to be the minutes of a meeting held on February 18, 2002, during which Lt. Col. Maung Chit Thu responded to individual complaints voiced by various village heads by offering cash compensation for a house and rice supply which were burned by DKBA commander Moe Kyo, and for cattle, pigs and goods stolen by SPDC troops. In the same meeting he allegedly responded to pleas from village heads by offering money to build schools and clinics and to pay for the funeral of a village elder killed by a DKBA landmine. According to villagers in the area, many of these promises were not kept. Along with trying to win local support, it is possible that the DKBA is attempting to entice Karen refugees to return from camps in Thailand to the Ko Ko area in order to provide a stronger civilian support base for the DKBA in the area and to act as a source of recruits. Some Thai military officers and officials have been welcomed in Ko Ko by the DKBA, and have since promoted the idea of repatriating Karen refugees to the area, saying it is 'safe'.

KHRG researchers have noted an increase in strength of the DKBA in Pa'an District, and witnesses have testified that the DKBA is actively recruiting at present. In the minutes of the meeting mentioned above, #999 Special Battalion demanded a total of 44 new recruits from 19 villages, to be handed over within one month. Villagers in Lu Pleh township informed a KHRG researcher that the DKBA demands one recruit from each house, or a payment of 40,000 Thai Baht to be exempted. In T'Nay Hsah township each village is ordered to provide a certain number of recruits based on village size, and must pay 30,000 Thai Baht for each man short of the quota. Households with one family member who has previously served in the DKBA are exempt. If a family does not provide a recruit or pay, someone from the house is arrested. If they still do not provide a recruit, the family is accused of aiding the Karen National Union (KNU) and is ordered out of their house, which is then burned.

In the past three years there have been reports of DKBA involvement in the drug trade, particularly the production and trafficking to Thailand of methamphetamines. The lack of a strong command structure has left local and regional DKBA commanders to find their own ways to finance their troops and make personal profits, so some units have become involved in the methamphetamine trade while others have not. Some DKBA commanders have prohibited the use or traffic of narcotics in their areas, while others are directly involved or at least allow it to happen. KHRG has obtained a DKBA order document issued by a commander in T'Nay Hsah township of southeastern Pa'an district which prohibits the sale of methamphetamines in the area. It also stipulates punishments for involvement in the trade: for the possession of one tablet, a 10,000 Kyat fine in cash; for more than five tablets, thirty strokes of a stick; and for more than ten tablets, prison or death. For DKBA commanders who choose to participate in the traffic, however, there are no indications that the SPDC authorities or army units in the area are taking any action to discourage them.

Though SPDC and DKBA troops still work closely together in Pa'an district, former soldiers with both forces have told KHRG that there is no trust between the two. Hostility between DKBA and SPDC soldiers has sometimes resulted in fistfights and even the occasional shootout. SPDC soldiers are reportedly under orders not to provoke the DKBA, most likely because the DKBA is still useful to the SPDC as a proxy force against the KNLA and as cover for the SPDC Army's intrusions into Thailand and attacks on the Thai Army. Within Pa'an district, SPDC columns frequently take DKBA units on patrol with them and arrange events so that it is the DKBA troops who abuse and punish the villagers. One such example occurred in October 2001, when DKBA #999 Brigade soldiers under commander Moe Kyo burned down straw piles and huts belonging to villagers in southeastern Pa'an District, while SPDC troops who were a part of the column did nothing. In addition, the DKBA is often made to supervise villagers doing forced labour on SPDC projects, and to issue the written orders demanding this forced labour. As a result, some villagers refer to the DKBA and the SPDC jointly as 'the Burmese'. Certain DKBA commanders have become noted for their brutality, such as the above mentioned Moe Kyo. Some villagers have even told KHRG researchers that they would be happier with the SPDC controlling their village rather than the DKBA. Combined with the DKBA's lack of political direction, this makes it unlikely that the DKBA can increase its civilian support base to the extent desired by its commanders, but the SPDC will likely continue supporting the DKBA in order to keep the Karen people divided and fighting among themselves.

Most of the district west of the Dawna Range is made up of open ricelands, crop fields, and villages ranging in size from a few dozen to several hundred households. In this open landscape with a network of rudimentary roads, most villages are under some form of SPDC and DKBA control. There are few internally displaced villagers in the district because there are few places west of the Dawna Range where they can hide and produce food for any length of time. When people flee their villages it is usually to larger villages or towns where they may be able to escape the worst abuses, or to Thailand to seek asylum in refugee camps or as illegal migrant workers. The KNU has no control over the district, although they still operate throughout it. Villagers often find themselves in the position of having to answer to the demands of the KNU, the DKBA and the SPDC. All three demand money, food, and people. The KNU still recruits in the area as does the DKBA, and both the DKBA and SPDC make extensive use of forced labour. The villagers are caught in the middle, forced to support all three forces and then accused by each side of collaborating with the other. Revenge attacks are common as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA, the armed wing of the KNU) and the DKBA shell or attack villages which they accuse of supporting the other side. The SPDC Army frequently arrests, tortures and sometimes kills suspected KNU sympathisers and destroys villages it believes to be supporting the KNU in any way. This has created a situation in which villagers slip further and further into poverty and are forced to give their money, crops and time to one or all of the groups. When the situation becomes too desperate many villagers try to flee to one of the refugee camps on the Thai side of the Burma-Thai border. A steady trickle of refugees arrives at the camps each month. Many families who stay behind have taken the option of sending one or more children to attend school in the camps or to work in Thailand. Although they are paid little and are constantly at risk of arrest and deportation by the Thai police, this is sometimes the only way families can pay the fees and extortion money, buy enough crop to meet the quotas imposed by the SPDC, and remain in their villages.

Forced labour continues to be widely used in the district by both the SPDC and the DKBA. SPDC military units and local authorities issue demands constantly for forced labour from every village within their reach. DKBA units issue similar demands, some for their own purposes and some on behalf of the SPDC for SPDC projects. Much of the labour consists of carrying water, cutting firewood, clearing the brush from alongside roads and general work around SPDC Army or DKBA camps. Since the mid-1990s forced labour on roads has been a feature of life in the district, as the SPDC builds a network of rudimentary military supply roads throughout the plains. Maintenance of these roads by forced labour continues to occur every dry season from November to May. In addition, a KHRG researcher reported in April 2002 that SPDC Light Infantry Battalions #548 and 549 are constructing a large canal in T'Nay Hsah township using the labour of nearby villages. The canal is about seven feet (2 metres) deep and about 15-20 feet (5-6 metres) wide. Men, women and children as young as 13 years old are being forced to work on the project. As on some of the road projects, the SPDC often uses the DKBA to issue forced labour orders for the canal in the DKBA's name even though the project is actually for the SPDC. This has the dual benefit of making the villagers believe they are doing forced labour for the DKBA while also creating the illusion that the use of forced labour in the area by the SPDC is decreasing. To further support this illusion, SPDC military units and local authorities have also reduced the number of written documents sent to villages to demand forced labour, because these documents have been used internationally as evidence of the practice. Instead, village heads are summoned to Army camps and village tract or township offices where they receive the orders for forced labour orally. Village heads in T'Nay Hsah township have on occasion been forced to sign certificates saying that the labour of their villagers was contributed voluntarily. In one case, the abbot of Meh Pa Leh monastery in T'Nay Hsah township was ordered by the SPDC to obtain and supervise the forced labour of villagers to build a bridge, apparently with the idea of making the villagers blame the monks or the DKBA for the forced labour. After the bridge was constructed, local SPDC authorities posted a signboard at one end stating, "This bridge belongs to the civilians, therefore it is the responsibility of the civilians." To the villagers, this sign means that they will be forced to maintain the bridge and their villages will be punished if it is sabotaged.

The main purpose of these deceptions is most likely to eradicate the evidence of forced labour, so that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) will believe that the SPDC is honouring its promise to eradicate forced labour. Villagers in some parts of the district have reported to KHRG that they were informed of the SPDC's November 2000 order banning all use of forced labour just prior to the September 2001 visit of the ILO high level team to Burma. However, the same villagers reported that when they tried to refuse to work by citing the SPDC's November 2000 order, they were told that the order does not apply in Pa'an district and that they should perform the forced labour or face stiff punishments.

Landmines are becoming an increasingly serious problem in the district. The SPDC, DKBA and the KNLA all use landmines. In Lu Pleh township, DKBA and SPDC soldiers commonly lay landmines in deserted villages. They are laid at the foot of coconut and fruit trees, under houses and on pathways, clearly targeting villagers who have fled their homes to hide in the bush. Much of the landmine use is in the mountains of the Dawna Range along the eastern edge of the district, but mines can be found throughout the district. In southeastern T'Nay Hsah township, SPDC and DKBA troops have used landmines to keep villagers in their villages by mining the paths between them. This has also resulted in the villagers being unable to work their fields. A KHRG researcher from the area reported that many people have been killed or maimed by the mines while going to do forced labour, foraging in the forest or taking their cattle to pasture. The KNLA primarily uses landmines to protect camps and supply lines. Though they are the only force which attempts to notify local villagers which areas are mined, villagers frequently fall victim to KNLA mines as well. None of the three armies map the location of their mines or remove mines when they are no longer militarily useful. KNLA soldiers frequently remove SPDC and DKBA mines if they find them or are notified of them by the villagers, but overall landmine use is increasing in the district and villagers and their livestock step on them every month. A KHRG researcher in Lu Pleh township stated that most of the landmine victims are villagers rather than soldiers.