Introduction and context of ongoing fighting
In December 2016, KHRG reported on how fighting between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA splinter group) and joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Force (BGF) in Hpa-an District led to the displacement of more than six thousand villagers from Meh Th’Waw area to Myaing Gyi Ngu town and Htee Thay Khee village. During the period in which fighting broke out in September and October 2016, some villagers and some of their buffalo stepped on landmines planted by the DKBA splinter group. In one case, Naw T---, 45 years old, reported that she did not believe that she would be able to escape the fighting as there were many landmines planted besides her home. Finally, she risked her life and was luckily able to avoid stepping on any landmines and escape. Displaced villagers in a temporary camp in Myaing Gyi Ngu face many challenges, including food shortages, a lack of healthcare services and a lack of humanitarian support. Nevertheless, displaced villagers who remain in Myaing Gyi Ngu Town and Htee Thay Khee village do not feel safe to return.
KHRG community members report that fighting has regularly broken out since the second week of October 2017 in A---, P---, Q---, R--- villages and Kaw La Wah Hill. According to their most recent update, the October and November skirmishes can be attributed to the BGF’s goal of clearing the DKBA (splinter group) from the area. Due to the threat of violence, some villagers from the aforementioned villages as well as nearby villages felt unsafe and were unwilling to remain in their villages. These villagers chose to displace from their homes to Myaing Gyi Ngu and Ya Ma Hta place, Htee Th’Daw Hta village tract, Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District.
Displacement, forced recruitment and child soldiers
More than six thousand villagers around Meh Th’Waw area who displaced from their homes during the initial outbreak of fighting in the area in September and October 2016 do not feel that it would be safe to permanently return because of ongoing fighting, landmines and other additional obstacles. On November 3rd 2017, KHRG community members reported that although many villagers have temporarily settled down in Myaing Gyi Ngu Town, some villagers briefly returned to their former villages during the rainy season between May and June in order to secure their belongings, (such as their livestock and plantation), and also to see whether or not the situation had improved.
An unnamed male villager is one of the villagers who briefly returned to A--- village. He is the oldest son in his family, is around 13 years old and briefly returned to A--- village between May and June 2017 because his family perceived the situation to have stabilised. However, the DKBA splinter group, led by Tactical Commander General, Bo San Aung and Second Commander-in-Chief, Bo Bee, unexpectedly attempted to forcibly arrest many of the villagers who had temporarily returned to their own villages. Although some of these villagers were able to escape, the 13 year old unnamed male villagercould not and he was forcibly arrested. After he was arrested, the DKBA forced the unnamed villager to serve as a child soldier against his will for several months.
After further reinforcement of DKBA troops, fighting broke out between DKBA (splinter group) and the joint forces of Tatmadaw and BGF in Meh Proo village tract, Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District in the second week of October 2017. During one of these skirmishes, the unnamed villager was arrested by the BGF on the battlefield while he was serving as a DKBA splinter group soldier. The BGF confiscated all his belongings including his gun and then immediately released him after the arrest. On November 21st 2017, a KHRG community member reported that the unnamed young villager had returned to Myaing Gyi Ngu temporary camp and is now reunited with his family.
KHRG community members in Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District reported that the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the BGF have demanded that villagers act as their porters and guards ever since fighting resumed in the second week of October 2017. On November 24th 2017, KHRG community members confirmed that the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the BGF demanded porters and guards from October to November 2017. According to the Karen National Union (KNU) Hlaingbwe Township administrator and affected villagers, BGF Battalion #1013 and #1014 demanded porters from Kwee Law Ploh, Meh Th’Moo, Kler Day, Yaw Poh, and Kloo Htaw village tracts. The villagers from B---, C---, D---, E---, F---, H---, I---, J--- and other nearby villages in the aforementioned village tracts were forced to porter food, ammunition and other BGF soldiers’ belongings. According to villagers who served as BGF porters, some villagers had to transport BGF soldiers from K--- area to L--- and M--- which are located at the front line of BGF’s temporary camps in Htee Maw Hkee place and took them one and a half hours to travel by foot. The villagers from affected areas reported to KHRG that villagers who refused to serve as porters had to pay 15,000 kyat (US $11.01). Ordinary villagers who could not afford to pay were compelled to follow BGF demands despite the high risk to their lives.
Many villagers were forced to risk their lives for the BGF as porters. Villagers’ risk was heightened due to the large number of planted landmines. Moreover, villagers’ lives were not protected because of the risk that the DKBA splinter could attack the BGF group, including villagers serving as porters, at any time without prior warning. One porter reported that the villagers only walk on each other’s footprints because of their fear of stepping on landmines.
According to affected community members, the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the BGF compelled three to four villagers each to porter in three-day shifts. KHRG community members from Hlaingbwe Township also reported that villagers with money hired other people to replace them as porters for around 2,000 to 15,000 kyat (US $1.47 to US $11.01). Most ‘replacement porters’ are vulnerable villagers who are destitute and otherwise cannot support their livelihood needs. Therefore, those villagers risk their lives even though they are aware of the risks of being porters.
In addition to compelling villagers to porter, KHRG community members also reported that the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the BGF compelled villagers to serve as navigators that would be able to guide and direct the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and the BGF. For example, Saw N---, who lives in O--- village, was forced to be a BGF navigator by BGF Officers Maung Na and Neh Wah. Since he was forced to be a BGF navigator, he did not feel safe traveling alone. Therefore, the O--- village head was assigned to accompany him. Since the second week of October 2017, the BGF demanded four villagers to act as guards, including Saw N--- and the O--- village head. They were forced to walk ahead of other BGF soldiers because there were landmines along the route they were taking. Furthermore, according to KHRG community members, a rumour spread amongst the guards that the DKBA had ordered their soldiers to shoot the BGF guards first if they encountered the BGF. After he heard this rumour, Saw N--- tried to reduce his risk by confronting the BGF and telling them,
“If I die, who will take the responsibility to take care my wife and children? My wife is currently very sick and no one is taking care of her. I also cannot provide for them because I am very poor and I have run out of rice to feed my family! Why are you treating me like this?”
After he spoke to the BGF soldiers Saw N--- was given permission to not walk in front of the BGF but he was nonetheless not freed from being a BGF guide. When he was interviewed by a KHRG community member on November 22nd 2017, Saw N--- emphasised that he did not have any time to secure his livelihood because he was not paid for the time when he was compelled to serve as a BGF guard. In addition, Saw N--- had to rush his testimony and quickly leave his interview with the KHRG community member because he had been called upon to serve the BGF again and was afraid that the BGF solders would abuse to him if he were to arrive late.
Even though the two-year anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has already passed between the KNU and the Burma/Myanmar government, fighting between the joint forces of BGF and the Tatmadaw against the DKBA splinter group (which has not signed the NCA) has not ceased. Only eight armed groups have signed the NCA; therefore, this peace process currently only includes the BGF and the Tatmadaw but not the DKBA splinter group. Nonetheless, if the armed groups who signed the NCA strictly followed and respected the NCA code of conduct, human rights abuses including causing risk to civilians, forced recruitment, and child recruitment should not have happened.
As was the case before the NCA was signed, ongoing fighting between armed groups is the root cause of many human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar. Due to the ongoing fighting, the local civilians in Hlaingbwe Township continue to displace from their homes and leave behind their livestock and their land. Furthermore, many villagers’ lives are continuously at risk due to landmines and the arbitrary demand of porters and guards from local villages by the joint forces of the Tatmadaw and BGF. Yet even in these difficult situations, villagers continue to use different agency strategies to protect themselves such as negotiating with the BGF for better porter conditions, and monitoring the situation to choose for themselves the safest time to return. Nevertheless, peace, the cessation of fighting and the clearance or clear marking of contaminated landmine sites are necessary in order to improve the human rights situation for villagers in Burma/Myanmar.