In January 2002 KHRG released Information Update #2002-U2, in which we documented efforts by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta to consolidate its hold over Dooplaya district of southern Karen State by imposing new administrative structures, restricting the movement of villagers, and using them as forced labour to build new army camps and infrastructure. The Update reported that the SPDC appeared to feel that the area was already "pacified" enough to do these things. However, even as that Update was being released Light Infantry Division 88 was arriving in Dooplaya, soon to unleash a major military operation on the villages there which is still ongoing.
Most of the Division’s ten battalions arrived in the district in January 2002, with orders to begin Operation Than L’Yet - a traditional Burman four-edged dagger, a possible allusion to the Four Cuts policy of undermining resistance forces by attacking civilians. Divisional commander Brigadier General Ohn Myint established a Divisional Operations Command at Kyaikdon and two Tactical Command bases (#882 and 883) at Wah Lay and Azin, and his battalions were deployed throughout Kya In, Kawkareik, and Kru Tu (Kyone Doh) - three of the district’s four townships. [These are the Karen township names, not those assigned by the SPDC. The former Karen township of Kaw Ta Hgah has been amalgamated into Kya In and Kawkareik townships. Click here to see a map of Dooplaya.] While the battalions previously based in the district continued to control their garrison villages, the Division 88 troops began forcibly relocating all villages not near Army-controlled villages and roads.
On February 28th they burned K’Toh Hta village in Kawkareik township, and in early March they forced the villagers out of nearby Seh K’Weh village without telling them where to go. In March, all the villages in the Tee Po Than area of Kru Tu township were forced to move to the vehicle road at Tee Po Than village, where Infantry Battalion 77 (part of Division 88) now has a camp. They were forced to build a fence around the village and they are not allowed out without a pass. Also in March, the five villages of Tee Khu Thaw village tract in Kya In township were forced to move to Tee Khu Thaw village, where Division 88 troops confiscated several plantations and forced the local villagers to clear them and build an Army camp. All five relocated villages were then burned by the troops.
In mid-April 2002, with the outside world increasingly focused on the imminent release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, the SPDC took the opportunity to rapidly intensify Operation Than L’Yet. Between April 11th and 14th, Division 88 troops destroyed and forcibly relocated Na Tee Kloh, Thi Kweh, Noh Kweh Hta, and T’Ray Kee villages in Kya In township. From April 19th to May 12th, columns moved through the area south and west of their divisional base at Kyaikdon, forcibly relocating the villages of Kru See (a.k.a. Kyone Sein), Tee Tha Blu, Noh Kloh Dtay, Noh Maw Pu, Pa Klaw Kee, Lay T’Ray, Tee K’Pa, Khaw Kheh, Tee Kyaw Kay, Tee P’Nweh, Baw T’Roh Kee, Paw Ner Mu, Tee Khay, Tee Hsa Rah, K’Kya Po Kee, Tee Law Bler, Meh Naw Na, and Tee K’Mler Hta to Army-controlled sites. Other villages were ordered out without being told where to go. Tee Tha Blu, Lay T’Ray, Khaw Kheh, Paw Ner Mu, Tee P’Nweh, Noh Kloh Dtay, Baw T’Roh Kee, Tee Law Bler, Tee K’Pa, K’Toh Hta, Noh Maw Pu, Pa Klaw Kee, and Paw Wah Kloh were partially or completely burned down. Kwam Thi Hta was shelled with mortars and then looted, and Tee Law Bler was strafed with assault rifle fire. Rice storage barns were looted, burned, or had their contents emptied out and destroyed.
Troops from the Division’s Tactical Command #883 in Azin (a.k.a. Saw Hta) forcibly relocated several villages in that area, including Pa Klaw Kee and Toh T’Naw Kee, and in July villages near the Thai border at Ber Kler were forced to move to the vehicle road there. By the time these last forced relocations occurred in July the rainy season had begun, and KHRG researchers estimate that by then possibly as many as sixty villages throughout Kya In, Kawkareik and Kru Tu townships had been forcibly relocated, displacing at least ten thousand people. Kya In township has been the worst hit, with more than half of all villages being relocated and destroyed. Most of the villages still remaining are those positioned along SPDC-controlled vehicle roads or adjacent to Army camps. Even in these villages, residents have been forced to move their houses into a compressed area in the middle of the village where they can be fenced in and controlled by the Army; for example, Tee Po Than village in Kru Tu township has close to 200 families spread out in five sections, but most of them have now been forced to move into the one or two sections of the village closest to the vehicle road. As noted earlier, every other village in the area has also been forced to move to Tee Po Than, leading to serious overcrowding and shortage of land.
In most cases the troops either go to the village or summon the village head to their camp, and order the villagers to move within one or two weeks. If a column visits the village, the villagers are forced to the church or the football ground and held there under guard while soldiers move house to house systematically looting or destroying their belongings and livestock. Closer to the deadline, a column goes again to the village. If some villagers still remain there, village elders are arrested and tortured, houses are burned, and the remaining villagers may be force-marched to a relocation site. Eventually the entire village is burned or dismantled.
On May 10th, Paw Ner Mu village in Kya In township was ordered to pay a bribe of 600,000 Kyat to Light Infantry Battalion 301 or move; when they told the soldiers that they could not pay, fifteen houses were burned and they were ordered to move to Meh T’Kreh within fifteen days. On May 5th, a column from Light Infantry Battalion 301 arrived at Tee P’Nweh village in Kya In township and told the villagers they had seven days to move to Meh T’Kreh by order of Brigadier General Ohn Myint. They burned three houses and a rice storage barn and robbed several villagers at gunpoint. When they left they took three villagers and two elders with them. Along the way one of the elders fled, but they took and detained the others at Meh T’Kreh. On May 7th they brought the elder back to Tee P’Nweh and told the villagers they must move by noon the next day. On May 8th they returned and burned the houses in the village. As they did so, Karen soldiers fired on them from outside the village. As punishment, they shot the village head in both thighs, tied him up and took him with them along the path to Meh T’Kreh. Along the way they sliced a tendon in his leg with a knife and left him on the path to die, but his younger brother was following and rescued him. At this point, those villagers who had not already moved to Meh T’Kreh either did so, or fled into hiding in the jungle.
Similar events occurred in several other villages. Many villagers were arrested, detained for extended periods and tortured, including women, adolescents, village heads and some Christian pastors. This occurred when troops first came to the villages and were looting them, or when they came back later and found that not all of the villagers had moved as ordered. On April 26th, Light Infantry Battalion 416 shot two villagers on sight in Tee P’Nweh village, killing 48 year old Saw Tin Htoo and seriously wounding 46 year old Kyaw Wah Pa. On April 28th, Infantry Battalion 77 fired mortar shells into Kwam Thi Hta village, then entered the village and made the villagers gather at the football ground. They forced everyone to their hands and knees and to bow their heads, including women and children, and then soldiers went along the line beating them brutally. Four villagers suffered broken arms, two had their heads cut open including a 60 year old man, one 50 year old man was beaten almost to death, and the face of one 48 year old woman was beaten until it was so swollen she could not eat. At the same time, other soldiers looted the village and burned three houses. The village was visited again on May 13th by Light Infantry Battalion 301, who forced the entire village into the meeting hall and detained them there with no food whatsoever until May 16th, when they were forced to move to Meh T’Kreh.
On April 21st, a combined column of Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 301, LIB 416 and Infantry Battalion (IB) 78 entered Tee Tha Blu, looted houses and burned some of them, beat villager Pa Haw Su brutally and gave him a cut in the neck with a knife. The villagers were locked in a group in the church for three days without food, except the children who were fed once a day. After three days they were taken out of the church and were forced to watch the soldiers steal the zinc roofing from the church and the meeting hall, then burn both buildings. The column beat and interrogated four villagers, including pastor Thra Si Pa T’Rer, 51, and a medic, then took them away. One villager escaped later, but the others have not been seen since. They also beat Ghay Nay Htoo Mo, a 49 year old woman, ordered her to give them a walkie talkie or 100,000 Kyat and detained her. On April 27th, the troops returned and burned the remainder of the village, told the villagers to get out but did not tell them where to go.
Most villagers had little choice but to move to the relocation sites or other SPDC-controlled villages, but some fled into hiding in the jungle or tried to escape to the Thai border. After the village head of Tee Law Bler in Kya In township had been given orders to move all of his villagers to Lay Wah Kah, some people fled to other villages where they had relatives, while others decided to make a run for Thailand. Together with some families who had fled Noh Ta Sghu and Meh K’Taw villages further north in Kya In township, one group set out toward Thailand on April 28th and spent the night in a group of ricefield huts not far along the way, at K’Ray Dtay Kee. A column from Infantry Battalion 78 was nearby, discovered them sleeping in the huts, and without investigating who was inside the troops unleashed a barrage of fire into the huts. Ten people were shot dead, six of them children: Saw Toh Paw (age 56), his wife Naw Hsa Ghay (51), their granddaughters Naw K’Ree Htoo (12) and Naw Bleh Po (5), Ma Htwe Yi (50), Naw Mu Tha (40), Mu Bpaw Bpaw (7), Saw K’Pru Mu (14), Naw Plah (5), and Naw Dta Baw (2). All except Saw Toh Paw and Saw K’Pru Mu were women and girls. Nine others were wounded and left there by the troops. Naw Pee Lee, age 45 from Tee Law Bler village, was shot in the left breast. Eight or nine months pregnant, she stayed in the forest and her husband tried to care for her. After ten days, she gave birth but the baby died immediately. Three days later, on May 10th, Naw Pee Lee died. Two of her five children had been among those already killed in the first barrage.
For those who choose to flee into hiding, Dooplaya has fewer places to hide than some other Karen regions. Apart from the easternmost regions adjacent to the Thai border, the three townships affected by the operation are dominated by wide open ricefields separated by stretches of forest, with winding rivers and low hills. Even so, many villagers are still trying to hide near their fields or among the higher hills. The SPDC troops have not pursued them extensively thus far, because up until the beginning of the rains in June they were preoccupied with forcibly relocating and destroying villages, and since that time their mobility has been somewhat limited by the rains. The last forced relocations occurred in July, and since that time the operation has not been as intensive. KHRG researchers report that the most recent killings of civilians occurred in June, though in July SPDC troops shot and wounded two villagers in Meh Dta Kwih village of Kya In township. Army patrols have continued to comb the villages throughout the rainy season, and people hiding near their villages have frequently had to run to avoid them, but those hiding in the more remote areas have thus far escaped discovery. All of them are certain that if seen they will be shot on sight. At present they are surviving on whatever food they were able to salvage from their villages, and are trying to tend a rice crop in their former fields or in small fields they have cleared at more remote sites. They forage for roots and jungle vegetables, and some return to their villages occasionally to harvest coconuts and other fruit from their trees, or to tap rubber which they hope to sell.
However, after the rains end in October the Army will almost certainly send out columns to hunt these people, and it may be difficult for them to escape. One KHRG researcher from the area believes that the Army will send out columns at rice harvest time in November-December, when displaced villagers are easier to shoot or capture because they are visible in the fields. By forcing the villagers to flee during the harvest, the troops also hope to undermine the resistance forces by preventing the villagers from producing any food. If this happens, many of those presently in hiding will probably attempt to escape to Thailand. The SPDC has anticipated this, however, and has established a heavy military presence right along the Thai border and landmined some of the pathways there. Since the operation began, over 1,300 villagers have escaped across the border into Thailand and arrived at Noh Po refugee camp; in June, Thai military authorities along the border with Dooplaya estimated that 4,700 more were hiding in areas not far from the border, hoping to cross if they can evade SPDC troops. Many of them are still there, hiding in small family groups numbering up to fifty people.
The difficulty of finding places to hide has led most of the villagers to move to the relocation sites as ordered. These are generally within or adjacent to SPDC-controlled villages, usually along a vehicle road or major oxcart track and close to an Army camp. Thus far KHRG is aware of sites at Kya In ‘New Town’ (Myothit), Meh T’Kreh, P’Ya Ngote Doh, Wah Mi Gone, Lay Wah Kah, Ka Lay Kee, Noh Taw Plah, Meh Ta Lah, Lay Taw Hta, Paw Wah Kee, Bee T’Ka, Nga Pyaw Taw and Kyaw Kay Ko in Kya In township; Kyaikdon and Saw Hta (Azin) in Kawkareik township; and Tee Po Than in Kru Tu township. At many of these sites villagers have been forced to build fences around themselves, and their movements are tightly restricted. They cannot go out without a pass, and even with a pass are only allowed out from dawn to dusk. To prevent families from fleeing into hiding, whenever someone goes out some of his or her family members must remain behind at the site. Villagers are not allowed to return home to farm their own fields because the SPDC believes that they would then supply food to the Karen Army. Instead, most of them look for unused land near the relocation site which they can clear for a hill rice field. The SPDC provides nothing whatsoever to the relocated villagers, so most of them do not have enough food and many are presently surviving on thin rice gruel made from the remnants of the rice they could carry when forced out of the village, or on klih dtee, a root which must be very well boiled before eating or it causes stomach problems. As noted below, villagers in the relocation sites are used for various forms of forced labour by the local Army units. Despite the movement restrictions, some villagers have managed to escape the relocation sites and have fled into the forest or toward the Thai border.
Forced Labour, Portering and 'Development'
There are only a few roads traversing Dooplaya district, and none of these are all-season roads. Every year after the rainy season, villagers throughout the district are forced to work repairing and rebuilding all of these roads, totalling hundreds of kilometres in length. Until May, villagers throughout the district were forced to work on roads from Kya In to Kyone Doh, Kya In to Ko Kwa via Dta Ghay, Yeh Theh to Kyaikdon via Ko Kwa, Kyaikdon to Azin, Kyaikdon to Win Lone, and others. The SPDC wishes to convert the road from Kya In to the divisional operations command base at Kyaikdon to an all-season road, so villagers have been forced to break rocks along the route without pay, under the supervision of the SPDC-controlled Karen Peace Army. This road crosses the Han Thayaw river into Kyaikdon over a new bridge which Kyaikdon villagers were forced to build between February and April this year (see below). SPDC authorities have also ordered the construction of new roads to improve military access through the area. Between February and April 2002, villagers in Kya In township were forced to work on a new road being constructed from Kya In southward to Dta Day, where it will join the Thanbyuzayat-Three Pagodas Pass road. When work was stopped in April because of the coming rainy season, the road had only reached the halfway point at Shwe Po Ha village. Villagers who have worked on the road say that it is certain to be destroyed by the rains, and after rainy season they will have to rebuild what they have already done and also continue the road southward. During the same period, villagers were forced to work on converting an oxcart track into a vehicle road from Dta Ghay to Bee T’Ka, where there is a relocation site. After Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) forces ambushed SPDC troops along the road route in March and April, villagers doing the forced labour were forced to clear all trees and scrub within 300 to 1,000 feet along both sides of the route, even though this meant chopping down thousands of their betelnut and other plantation trees. On April 6th the Bee T’Ka villagers and those who had been forced to move there were forced to move again, this time to Ko Kwa, while villagers at Dta Ghay were all forced to move into the centre of their village.
Villagers are also forced to maintain and build bridges, usually with their own materials and tools. Beginning in February, villagers in the Kyaikdon area were forced to build a new bridge across the Han Thayaw river so that the Divisional Operations Command in Kyaikdon would have direct road access to Kya In Seik Gyi. Each family had to donate 3,000 Kyat toward the bridge as well as their labour, and the Division Commander insisted that the work must be done by April 13th for the Water Festival. It was completed and officially opened by the Commander, who now has plans for two more bridges; however, villagers who worked on the bridge told KHRG that the bridge is weak due to the rushed construction and shoddy engineering, and they expect it to be destroyed when the river rises. In March 2002, Infantry Battalion 32 and the Kya In Seik Gyi Township Peace and Development Council issued a written order for the people of seven villages to rebuild six bridges which had been "destroyed by terrorist insurgents" along the road north from Kya In to Kyone Doh. The order went on to state that the villagers must clear all trees and scrub within one mile of each bridge, and provide three sentries for each bridge, day and night, indefinitely.
Since the forced relocations began, both local villagers and those who have been relocated have been forced to work on these road and bridge projects, and to provide road sentries on rotating shifts. These sentries must build shelters at intervals along the road and are supposed to send a signal up the line to the nearest Army camp if there is any suspicious activity on the road. If any ambushes occur or landmines are found along the road, the village providing the sentries is held responsible and punished, usually by being burned or forced to relocate, or by having its elders detained under torture.
Villagers who have been forced into relocation sites usually build huts, whether by choice or by order, side by side with others from their village; thus, relocation sites tend to consist of a section for each village which has been moved there, as well as sections inhabited by the original occupants of the SPDC-controlled village. In demanding forced labour, the Army and SPDC authorities still treat each as a separate village, even though they have been forced together at one site with no land to farm. Each such ‘village’ is forced to send several people at a time on rotating shifts to do forced labour maintaining nearby Army camps, acting as servants for the soldiers, unarmed camp sentries and messengers, and doing other unpaid work. Several battalions have established rice fields on confiscated land and are forcing the relocated villagers and the original inhabitants to farm these fields for them. In addition, Division 88 is presently obtaining almost all of the porters for its mobile columns by demanding them from local villages and relocation sites; once on the move, the columns also capture any farmers they see in the fields along their way and force them to porter supplies. On average a village, whether it has been relocated or is still in place, has to provide two or three people per day as messengers, two or three for camp labour, one or two as camp sentries, ten or more as road sentries, three or four as porters, and a few more for whatever other ad hoc labour may be required. When roads or bridges are being built or repaired, one person per family is usually demanded every day until the work is completed.
The local SPDC authorities have announced plans to expand the large village of Kyaikdon, where Division 88 is based, into a town. To do this, Division 88 has been subdividing land into small plots, forcing the villagers to cut down the extensive betelnut plantations that surround the village, and selling off the plots at a price. A plot of 20 yards by 40 yards reportedly sells for 25,000 to 50,000 Kyat. The Karen villagers who have always owned the land must pay to buy back their own plots or lose them. Many of the plots are reportedly being bought by wealthy Burmans from Kya In Seik Gyi and other towns to the west. Division 88 is operating a commercial brick kiln just outside Kyaikdon, and all local villagers are forced to supply it with firewood. In addition, villagers in Kyaikdon report that they are being forced to clear and work ricefields in the surrounding area for the Division 88 troops.
Throughout the district, all villagers must still pay extortion fees and other taxes, as well as heavy crop quotas, to the local authorities. Crop quotas, especially on rice, increase almost every year and no exemptions are granted in cases of flood, drought, crop destruction or land confiscation. Corrupt quota officials force farmers to hand over double or triple their quota by claiming that the rice is ‘low grade’ or ‘full of sticks and rocks’, then pocket the profit. Many farmers have problems paying these quotas. To force them to pay, in December 2001 the Kya In Seik Gyi township authorities issued a written decree that farmers would not be allowed to mill their rice until their quota is fully paid, and that any rice mill owner caught milling the rice of an ‘undutiful’ farmer would have his rice mill confiscated.
The Military Presence
Light Infantry Division 88 is headquartered in Magwe Division of northern Burma and has ten battalions. Since January 2002 these battalions have been rotating around the Army camps in Dooplaya district for shifts of three to four months at a time. After approximately six months, a battalion rotates back to Magwe for a rest and is replaced by one of the others, so at any given time there are seven or eight Division 88 battalions in Dooplaya. At present these are Infantry Battalions #10, 77, 78, and 83, and Light Infantry Battalions #103, 301, and 317. Light Infantry Battalions #415 and 416 recently returned to Magwe on rotation. They were part of Tactical Command #881; the other two Tactical Commands are still in the district, #882 at Wah Lay and #883 at Azin (Saw Hta). There are also other garrison battalions which were in the district before the current operation began; these are not directly part of Operation Than L’Yet and do not take part in the mobile columns being sent out to destroy the villages, but they often follow orders from Division 88. In Kya In township these include Infantry Battalions #32, 233, 283, and Artillery Battalion 284; and in Waw Raw township, Infantry Battalions #20 and 34 and Light Infantry Battalions #344, 354, 538 and 588. Several of the battalions in Waw Raw township are from the Western Regional Command (Na Pa Ka) headquartered in Sittwe, Rakhine State.
Some villages in Kya In township have been ordered to provide recruits for the Pyitthu Sit (‘People’s Army’) SPDC militia. The demand varies, but it is frequently twenty recruits per village. Militia members are trained by the Army and the villagers are then ordered to give them material support. Those recruited recently in Dooplaya have also been forced to pay 60,000 to 70,000 Kyat each for a gun. The Pyitthu Sit is ordered by the Army to guard villages against resistance forces, and mobile columns often take Pyitthu Sit members along on patrol, often sending them in front to trigger ambushes or detonate landmines. Some villagers in Dooplaya have reportedly been joining the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) to escape forced conscription into the Pyitthu Sit.
KHRG researchers estimate that the DKBA has approximately 400 soldiers in Dooplaya, far fewer than in Pa’an district to the north. Most of these are based at Kyaikdon, Wah Lay, Three Pagodas Pass, and near Dta Gone Dtaing, and the DKBA is also powerful in northwestern Kru Tu township where there is very little KNLA activity. The DKBA has been actively recruiting in the region this year, and has benefited from people volunteering to escape forced recruitment to the Pyitthu Sit militia. DKBA units in the region sometimes fight the KNLA but devote much of their time to supervising forced labour building pagodas and to their own local business ventures.
The role of the DKBA has been limited by the SPDC’s use of the Nyein Chan Yay A’Pweh (‘Peace Group’), or Karen Peace Army (KPA). This small army is headed by former KNLA officer Bo Thu Mu Heh, who defected to the SLORC/SPDC in 1997. Initially the SPDC formally gave control of much of Dooplaya to the KPA, but the group has been unable to attract many recruits and has been somewhat marginalised. At present the KPA only numbers about 200 soldiers. The KPA has largely kept the DKBA out of Kya In township, where it supervises forced labour for the SPDC, guides SPDC columns and helps them in fighting the KNLA. KPA officers also force villagers to build houses, camps, fences and roads for them. In Bee T’Ka, Meh K’Taw, T’Ku Kee and Da Li villages of Kya In township, a village elder must report intelligence to the KPA every day, and in Noh Ta Sghu village three villagers must go every night to stand sentry at the KPA camp. The KPA is also reportedly trying to impose recruit quotas on some of the villages under its control.
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) is active in small guerrilla groups throughout most of the district, except the westernmost regions. They regularly ambush and harass SPDC columns and small outposts, and occasionally fight DKBA or KPA units. Early in 2002 the KNLA destroyed several bridges along the road north from Kya In to Kyone Doh and Kawkareik. Since March the SPDC has forced villagers in the villages and relocation sites along this road to rebuild these bridges, but SPDC Army vehicles are still reportedly not using the road because KNLA units are still active in the area.
At present Waw Raw (Win Yaw) township, which covers southwestern Dooplaya, has a smaller SPDC military presence and is not part of Operation Than L’Yet. Several battalions brought in from Western Command in Rakhine State are presently controlling the region and imposing various forms of forced labour, portering and other abuses on the villagers. There is KNLA activity in the township so it is unclear why it has been left out of Operation Than L’Yet, but KHRG researchers in Dooplaya believe that forced relocations may begin in Waw Raw township after the rainy season ends in October 2002. It is also likely that after the rains end, Division 88 mobile columns will be sent out to burn whatever remains of the relocated villages and hunt down villagers who are still trying to hide in the forest. KHRG researchers fear that these columns will be sent out particularly during rice harvest time in November-December, to ensure that the crop is destroyed so that the displaced villagers will have no food. At a meeting in Kyaikdon, Division 88 commander Brigadier General Ohn Myint instructed that villagers who have relatives in the refugee camps in Thailand should tell them to come back. He is also reported to have decreed that for every one of his soldiers killed by resistance forces, two villagers will be executed.
Throughout the year KHRG has interviewed over 100 villagers in the four townships of Dooplaya, supported by photographic evidence, order documents from the SPDC, DKBA and KPA, and detailed reports written by our field researchers in the district. The findings will be presented in full detail in an upcoming KHRG report. KHRG would additionally like to thank the local office of the Federation of Trade Unions - Burma for providing some of the details used in this update.