Chapter 1: Militarisation
Foundation of Fear: 25 years of villagers’ voices from southeast Myanmar
Written and published by Karen Human Rights Group KHRG #2017-01, October 2017
“The small river was full of the blood of villagers…If we look at the village, it seems like a battlefield.”
Unnamed villager from F--- village in Nyaunglebin District/eastern Bago Region quoted in Field Report written by a KHRG researcher (published in April 2001)
1. Throughout KHRG’s 25 years of reporting, militarisation and abuse mainly by Tatmadaw and DKBA (Buddhist and Benevolent) has deliberately harmed and systematically targeted civilians through tactics including forced labour, forced recruitment, landmines and deliberate attacks on villages.
2. Continued militarisation and the presence of armed actors in communities in southeast Myanmar results in an environment where villagers fear the continuation of abuses including forced recruitment of adults, deliberate attacks on villages and landmine contamination.
3. A significant impact of militarisation and abuse is that villagers’ trust in Tatmadaw and, by association, the Myanmar government remains low. An additional impact over 25 years has been severe livelihood struggles for villagers.
4. Villagers have employed agency tactics including direct negotiation with perpetrators, deliberate avoidance of armed actors and strategic displacement to avoid abuse. Villagers have also sought recourse through local government authorities and the justice system, but state that significant barriers including fear of retaliation prevent them accessing justice in cases of abuse by armed actors.
- A. Militarisation and abuse
- B. Impacts of militarisation and abuse
Militarisation has characterised villagers’ lives in southeast Myanmar since before KHRG began 25 years ago, and continues to affect villagers today. Militarisation includes activities which are perceived to be both a preparation for and a normalisation of conflict for communities, and includes forced recruitment, forced labour, landmine planting and other military abuses which have been employed by Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups (EAGs) in southeast Myanmar. Although the burden of conflict and militarisation is borne by villagers, their experiences are often disregarded since they are not actively participating in the fighting as part of an armed group.
Thus, villagers’ voices are presented here. Villagers detail not only the nature of abuses they have faced over 25 years, but how the militarised context in which these abuses occur remains perceptibly unchanged, resulting in continued fear, insecurity and significant livelihood challenges for villagers in southeast Myanmar.
For structural purposes, the chapter has been organised into two subsections: Section A presents villagers’ experiences of militarisation including fighting and military abuses; forced recruitment of both adults and children; forced labour; and landmines. This section considers the extent of the same abuses experienced by villagers over KHRG’s 25 years reporting period. While some notable changes are evident, KHRG aims to stress throughout Section A that the militarised context in which severe abuses happen has not dramatically changed, and in the post-ceasefire period armed actors have at times reverted back to similar abuses which were common prior to the beginning of the current peace process in 2012. Section B covers impacts, agency and access to justice, emphasising how the impact of militarisation and abuse is an ingrained fear and lack of trust that villagers in southeast Myanmar now carry due to the history of abuses by Tatmadaw and, by association, the Myanmar government. Section B also considers the full extent of villagers’ agency over 25 years, including the risks posed for villagers who seek to claim their rights or access justice in a context of military impunity and ongoing insecurity.
Myanmar’s political commitments
The 2012 preliminary ceasefire was the first significant step in the peace process between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar government. More than three years later, in October 2015, both the KNU and the Myanmar government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), committing to, “Reacha negotiated settlement to end protracted armed conflict in the Republic of The Union of Myanmar, […] and establish a new political culture of resolving political conflicts through political dialogue instead of force of arms.” Whilst conflicts in southeast Myanmar have declined since this signing, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA splinter), Border Guard Forces (BGF), Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Tatmadaw have all resorted to “force of arms” on occasion, and the presence of military actors in and around communities remains substantial.
A. Militarisation and abuses Fighting and military abuses
Fighting in southeast Myanmar has been reported every single year from 1992 up to 2016 without exception in KHRG reports. Fighting by the Tatmadaw and its allies against EAGs such as the KNLA has included the deliberate and extensive targeting of civilians across southeast Myanmar. Throughout the past 25 years, civilians in southeast Myanmar have lived in the midst of multiple armed actors, and have been forced to respond to their countless and often overlapping abuses, suspicions and demands in a fraught, heavily militarised environment. During peak conflict periods, Tatmadaw utilised military tactics specifically intended to undermine support for Karen EAGs, by deliberately destroying and prohibiting anything that could be used by Karen civilians to support Karen EAGs. For instance, Tatmadaw frequently resorted to terrorising villagers by destroying their food supplies, restricting their movement, and forcibly relocating villages thought to be harbouring “Karen rebels” to areas under Tatmadaw surveillance.
DKBA (splinter), DKBA (Benevolent), BGF, Tatmadaw and, at times, KNLA continue to clash and breakout into fighting in civilian areas, which has severe consequences for villagers. In a continuation of villagers’ experience prior to the beginning of the peace process in 2012, recent fighting among armed groups has at times coincided with Tatmadaw, BGF and EAGs deliberately targeting villagers through destroying their houses, firing weapons indiscriminately causing injuries, fear, and death and restricting villagers’ freedom of movement.
According to recent KHRG reports, fighting continues to place villagers at severe risk, compromising their safety and security, and contributes to villagers persisting fears. While the targeting of villagers has decreased in frequency in recent years, the Tatmadaw, BGF, and DKBA (splinter) have not only failed to protect but actively suspected and targeted villagers during fighting. For example, when speaking about fighting between BGF and DKBA (splinter) in February 2016, Saw A--- from B--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District, explain how, in addition to causing severe livelihood restrictions due to military activity, the BGF fired on his village without warning:
“We face food problems. We are not allowed to collect vegetable seven on our plain [flat land] farm; we have to find the monly in our garden. We would not complain about anything if they [BGF][only] fight against their enemy [DKBA] [but] they open fire in the village and shout at villagers. As you [they] are soldiers you [they] should fight against your [their] enemy not civilians. It is not the best way to act [when you fight against civilians] assoldiers. Asweare villagers we do not know anything about them. How can we know [to protect ourselves] if they do not tell us whether they will come here [toour village] or not? I want to talk openly.”
Saw A--- (male), B--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (interviewed in February 2016)
Similarly, in 2016 DKBA (splinter) group Na Ma Kya left a 16 years old female villager partially blind when fighting with the BGF in D--- village, Kawkareik Township. Her mother, Naw C---, explains how the ongoing militarisation and fighting has resulted not only in permanent disability but also inexorable fear even when she is in her own house:
“[W]e have to live in fear. Now, we already dug an under ground shelter [to hide in during the fighting] because I am afraid. Even though other people are not afraid I am afraid and I worry when I hear any sound. I am afraid even when I hear the sound of a dog barking. Because I never have faced [with fighting] like this before. The artillery fell down [exploded] very close to us when we were under the table, just at my house’s drain but we did [not] know that it had fallen down. [We just knew it had happened] when my daughter cried out and said, “Daddy, it hit me”. And then [her eye] was bleeding and her blood ran down non-stop. My husband said “Oh my youngest daughter has been hit [by shrapnel].”
Naw C--- (female, 45), D--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (interviewed in September 2016)
In other cases of recent fighting, villagers report that they were deliberately harmed or targeted by the Tatmadaw, BGF and EAGs. Between July 2015 and August 2016 six skirmishes between Tatmadaw, BGF, DKBA (Buddhist) and DKBA (splinter) in E--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District resulted in village devastation.One KHRG researcher described the abuse against the local community:
“BGF and Tatmadaw soldiers burned 9 houses and afterward they came back and burned the house again. There are more than 20 houses in this village. Only 4 houses which were not burned were left.”
Photo Note written by a KHRG researcher, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (received in March 2016)
The above cases are evidence that when fighting does erupt, villagers bear the violence. Tatmadaw, BGF and EAGs fight in civilian areas placing villagers in harm’s way, often without warning, and in some cases actively target villagers by repeatedly burning their villages.
Of concern, these cases show little change from military abuses in KHRG’s past reports. The suspecting and targeting of villagers by Tatmadaw underpinned much of the abuse villagers reported throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The systematic burning of villagers’ housing and crops was a deliberate strategy to destroy ‘Karen resistance’ through the strategy of ‘Four Cuts’, enacted officially in the 1960s through to the 1990s. Multiple KHRG reports testify to the systematic burning of villages, combined with the destruction of additional supplies that could support Karen ethnic armed groups, in southeast Myanmar. Supplies including medicine, food storage and money were used by villagers to sustain themselves but were specifically targeted under ‘Four Cuts’, with entire village tracts being labelled as “rebel” areas and subject to the following treatment:
“Yes,I was there in my village. They [Tatmadaw] came to the village and they burned all the houses. I was hiding in the bushes. I saw them burning the paddy in my rice barn, the paddy which I grew on my own hill farm. There were a lot of them. It was over 2 months ago, then they came again. They came and burned the houses 3 times, because the first and second times not all the houses were burned completely. After the third time all the houses were burnt. All 30 houses”.
Saw G--- (male, 46), H--- village, Mergui-Tavoy District/southern Tanintharyi Region (interviewed in February, 1997)
Villages were burnt with the intention of eliminating potential hiding places for Karen EAGs and preventing villagers from staying or returning. Additionally the above testimony demonstrates not only the deliberate burning of villagers’ houses, but also the mass destruction of rice paddy supplies. Tatmadaw during this time also destroyed villagers’ cooking pots, killed their farm animals and looted any food supplies that they had. In a stark reminder that the deliberate abuses of the past continue to be repeated, prior to fighting between DKBA (splinter) and BGF in September 2016, DKBA (splinter) looted villagers’ rice supplies, cooking some and pouring additional supplies to waste on the ground, in Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District. This action is intentionally offensive and abusive. This abuse in 2016, as in the past, combined with other abuse by armed actors to trigger displacement, strategically planned by villagers to avoid further abuse. In areas where villagers did not strategically displace in previous years, forced relocation to areas under Tatmadaw surveillance was an additional strategy used by Tatmadaw to break up Karen communities:
“[Villagers] were told that they will be allowed to move to a designated Army-controlled relocation site or to any garrison town where they may have relatives, but that if they stay in their home area you will be targets for our guns.” Information Update written by a KHRG researcher, Hpa-an District/ central Kayin State (published in September 1998)
Many villages have since been rebuilt after their original destruction, whilst others, including the bustling small town and former KNLA headquarters Manerplaw, Hpa-an District, which was destroyed in 1995, have never fully recovered from these attacks. Villagers remain displaced and continue to harbour the memories and fear that fighting and deliberate attacks has instilled within them.
Militarisation and forced recruitment
Villagers have further been targeted by Tatmadaw and EAGs throughout KHRG’s 25 years through the practice of forced recruitment. All armed groups active in southeast Myanmar have utilised forced recruitment of civilians as a common military strategy to varying frequency. Forced recruitment of male villagers, both adults and underage boys, was often done in combination with other abuses such as detention, arrest, threats, and demands. All signatories of the 2012 preliminary ceasefire and the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) agreed to cease the practice of forced recruitment immediately. However, whilst the military strategy of forcibly recruiting male villagers on a large scale has declined along with other violent abuses and threats associated with forced recruitment, KHRG reports during the peace process evidence cases of forced, coerced and underage recruitment in areas of southeast Myanmar for the continued purpose of strengthening military capacity. Additionally, the demand for large sums of money to be paid to armed groups as “replacement fees” if villagers do not supply recruits remains. These cases of forced recruitment, mainly of adult men, reinforce the militarised context in southeast Myanmar which infringes on villagers’ daily lives and their level of security.
Most recently, in June 2016, in twelve villages from M--- to N--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District, KNLA Battalion #18 issued a “request” to recruit two villagers from each village to serve as soldiers, with each village being told that they should send at least one villager to serve. The villagers were not threatened or forced but were told that if they did not provide soldiers they faced paying large “replacement fees” instead. As a result, twelve male adult villagers were recruited as soldiers in one village alone, RR--- village. The requirements on each villager recruited are that they must serve in the KNLA for three years and work an additional six months for the Karen National Union (KNU). The villagers, in addition to being made to send individuals to serve, also are made to face the financial burden of supporting the families of the recruited soldiers with 20,000 kyat (US$14.65) showing the financial impact that recruitment continues to have.
Another case of forced recruitment of adults occurred in Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District by DKBA (Benevolent), led by Battalion Commander Saw Pa Nya in 2014. In this instance, when villagers refused to provide recruits for the DKBA they were forced to initially pay an extortive fine of 300,000 kyats (US$259.06) which the village head negotiated down to 280,000 kyats (US $241.79) for the village, collecting a share from each household. Additionally, the Tatmadaw anti-insurgent group Tha Ka Hsa Hpa forcibly recruited adult male villagers in Hpa-an Township, Thaton District.
In one case showing not only forced recruitment but an abuse of child rights, in October 2014, two underage boys, aged between 16 and 17 years old were recruited without their or their guardians’ free, informed consent by KNLA Battalion #102 in Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District. The parents of the children, Saw I--- and Saw J---, did not give their permission for recruitment and were not informed that the recruitment had happened. The father of one of the underage recruits stated:
“Isee that it is not appropriate [to recruit an under age boy] that is why I have tried to follow up [with the KNLA]. But if it [recruitment] is through a request from the village tract leader then I’ll agree to grant [permission] if [my son is] complete in age [eighteen years old]. But now my son is not complete in age and secondly he is the older sibling therefore we need to have him to help us so I can’t give [permission to] them [KNLA] and he still has three brothers then if one is free from being recruited one [other brother] will be available [for recruitment] and if [my] sons do not go then father [I] will go.”
Saw K--- (male, 41), L--- village, Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District/northeastern Kayin State (interviewed in October 2014)
The recent cases above evidence how both adult and underage males continue to be viewed by armed groups as potential recruits, and how this practice of recruitment exposes villagers to further abuses and hardships including extortion, livelihood insecurity, and contributes to the militarisation of communities in southeast Myanmar. The practice of forced recruitment strengthens the man- power of armed groups suggesting that groups are preparing for conflict regardless of the signed NCA and, thus contributes to villagers’ fears and feelings of insecurity.
The practice of forced recruitment is a continuation of military strategies prevalent prior to the Myanmar government’s transition from military to quasi-democratic and the signing of the NCA. According to KHRG reports most notably between 1992 and 2012, armed groups relied extensively on the practice of forced recruitment of both adult men and underage boys in southeast Myanmar to strengthen troop numbers, which was always necessary to replace soldiers who had been injured, killed or who had deserted. All armed groups including Tatmadaw, DKBA (Buddhist) and KNLA forcibly recruited civilians to be soldiers, entrapping villagers often for years at a time. Young males were the most common targets for forced recruitment, therefore they were often the first to hide or flee when armed groups entered villages.
When Tatmadaw and EAGs forcibly recruited villagers, they put them in grave dangers where it was likely they would not survive. KHRG reports indicate villagers who had been forcibly recruited not only encountered risk from facing front-line fighting, but risk from lack of training:
“The SLORC  also forces 10 or 20 people from every village to be in their militia.The soldiers don’t give the many training, just give them a gun, take them along on patrol and order them to fight the Karen Army. The SLORC makes every family in the villages give 3 baskets of rice every month to support this militia.”
Saw O--- (male, 40), around Hpa-an Town quoted in Report written by a KHRG researcher, Hpa-an District / central Kayin State (published in May 1993)
The extortion of Tatmadaw demanding 3 baskets of rice from each village to support their recruits not only harmed villagers but also did not result in improved conditions for forced recruits who rarely had an equal share in basic food rations, resulting in severe weakness and malnutrition. Many villagers who had been forcibly recruited chose to risk their life when they saw the opportunity to desert, fleeing the army whilst on active duty. Deserters if recaptured were killed. Ko M--- was forcibly recruited as a child by Tatmadaw:
“Ifled from LIB [Light Infantry Battalion] #341.My personnel number is ###. I have only completed one grade of my education. …At the time [when he was recruited to become a soldier in December 2002], my uncle was working in Rangoon and I was arrested while I was going to visit him. A police officer named U Kyaw Gyi said to me “You don’t have an identification card so you’ll have to go to prison. If you don’t want to be imprisoned, you must become a soldier.” At that time, I was still young and I couldn’t understand very well about what they were talking about. But I didn’t want to go to prison so I chose to become a soldier. At that time, I was 16 or 17 and I had no desire to become a soldier. I have been a soldier for six years. […] First, they taught us about military parade marching and then they taught us how to assemble and disassemble rifles. Then we had to do target shooting. We had to learn about how to detonate mines.” Tatmadaw deserter Ko M--- (male, 23) from Irrawaddy Region, interviewed by a KHRG researcher in Hpapun District / northeastern Kyain State (published in May 2008)
KHRG reports also testify to the combined nature of abuses accompanying forced recruitment, including the recruitment of children, some as young as 12. Multiple KHRG testimonies bear witness to the abuses committed against children, for example:
“They [DKBA] know how the Kaw Thoo Lei [KNLA] used to do it, so they do it the same way. Maung Chit Thu tries to organise it. When Kaw Thoo Lei asked for soldiers they always said “over 17 years of age”, they didn’t want very young people. But now many people say that the DKBA don’t care about the age, and that very young children like 15, 16, and 13 years old are with them.”
Saw P---, (male, 37), Myawaddy Township, southern Kayin State quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher (published in May 1997)
Tatmadaw and EAGs’ forced recruitment of civilians into armed groups throughout KHRG’s 25 years further shows how militarisation across communities in southeast Myanmar has caused abuse in almost every aspect of villagers’ lives, including child abuse through forced recruitment, exposure of civilians to grave danger, extortion, livelihood insecurity, displacement and separation of families as many young males fled. Forced recruitment demands, particularly on underage boys but also on adult males, and its associated abuses may have lessened since the 2012 preliminary ceasefire, but it is evident that the risk for villagers in militarised areas remains.
Militarisation and forced labour demands
The 2012 preliminary ceasefire, signed in January of that year, saw both the Myanmar government and KNU commit to, “Immediately stop forced labour, arbitrary taxation and
extortion of villagers”. KHRG’s definition of forced labour is based on villagers’ commonly reported experiences, such as Naw S---’s description of Tatmadaw demands in 1994:
“We have to do 5 types of labour for them: guarding the road, porters, slave labour, standing sentry between their soldiers’ positions, and couriers. Every day we have to send 44 people altogether: 26 for guarding the road, 5 porters, 6 for slave labour, 5 sentries, and 2 couriers. When guarding the road, we have to clear the bushes alongside the road [to eliminate cover and step on any mines], sweep the road [for mines], carry away all the dust, collect firewood, make fires, and guard the road. We have to sleep in groups of 2 – one has to guard while the other sleeps and keeps the fire. […] For slave labour we have to start work at 6 am, carrying rocks and laying them so it’s level. […] The porters have to carry ammunition and supplies. They never get food, they have to bring it from home. We have to replace them every 5 days, so every porter has to take food for 5 days – otherwise no one will feed them. The 2 couriers have to go every morning to report any news of Karen soldiers. Then if the SLORC has any orders to send they make the couriers deliver them. They come back home in the evening, but they have to go every day. The soldiers never give money to the villagers for labour – they just make us work like cattle or buffalos. It’s very hard for us.”
Naw S--- (female, 47), quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Hpa-an Township, Thaton District (published in May 1994)
While most predominantly forced on villagers by Tatmadaw, all armed groups have demanded villagers for forced labour and portering as a specific strategy for oppression or military strengthening. This abuse has often been accompanied by torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, severe mistreatment, threats, extortion and rape. Furthermore, forced labour demands have severely limited the time villagers have to spend working on their own livelihoods.
Forced labour and portering has been utilised by Tatmadaw since 1992, DKBA since 1994, and KNLA, BGF and Karen Peace Council (KPC) sporadically in more recent years. Armed actors implicated in forced labour during the peace process are BGF, Tatmadaw and DKBA (splinter), with villagers reporting forced labour demands or requests in Hpapun, Thaton, Hpa-an and Dooplaya Districts in southeast Myanmar. Whilst villager reports on forced labour have dramatically declined, KHRG has documented cases of forced labour in the 5 years since the signing of the preliminary ceasefire, suggesting that some military actors still revert to the tactic of demanding villagers’ labour when in need of military materials or camp repairs. Due to the habitual nature of Tatmadaw’s and EAG’s demands of forced labour in KHRG reports throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and the detrimental impacts it had on their livelihoods, villagers remain particularly fearful that armed actors near their communities will demand forced labour from them again.
Since the beginning of the peace process, demands for forced labour have most commonly come from rogue commanders feared by villagers, and it no longer appears to be an orchestrated form of oppression by armed groups against Karen civilians. However, armed groups have still reverted to forced labour when they need porters during fighting. In September 2016, during the outbreak of fighting in Meh Th’Waw area, Hpa-an District between BGF-Tatmadaw and DKBA (splinter), villagers were forced to transport rice and carry woven baskets filled with landmines for the DKBA to plant. Following this abuse the villagers fled to a temporary IDP camp.
In some recent cases, these demands have become more subtle with armed groups using fear and false promises to coerce villagers to do labour for them. From 2014 onwards, villagers in KHRG research areas report that Tatmadaw have made no explicit forced labour demands but now request “voluntary labour” from villagers, in some cases reimbursing village heads for supplies that they ask them to provide. However, villagers report that they do not feel confident to say “no” to Tatmadaw’s requests due to their ingrained fear of retaliation and abuse by Tatmadaw, and additionally that despite promises Tatmadaw sometimes do not reimburse the villagers for the materials that the village provide. For example in July 2015, Dooplaya District:
“A group of SPDC  [Tatmadaw] from Light Infantry Battalion#559, [under] the Active Battalion Commander named Nay Win Aung based in Q---village, Kaw T’Ree [Kawkareik] Township,
Dooplaya District, asked local villagers to transport rice from R---village to Q---village and said that they will pay for the cost but when the villager brought them [Tatmadaw] the rice they did not pay anything and they do not even pay for the gas [of the vehicle].”
Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (received in August 2015)
Additional cases of forced labour during the peace process include BGF #1013 and #1014 in Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District in 2013, 2014 and 2015 demanding villagers cook at their camp, collect and carry firewood, and provide thatch shingles for camp repair. In one incident, BGF Battalion #1014 Company Commander Saw Htee Kyoo, also known as Tin Win, met with 3 local village heads and ordered them to provide 10 villagers per village to labour each day between October and December 2014.
Forced labour abuses were some of the most common abuses faced by villager according to KHRG reports, and reports throughout the peace process document that armed groups have not entirely ceased this practice, which fuels villagers’ fears and insecurity. Demands on villagers throughout the 1990s and 2000s to supply labourers, particularly to Tatmadaw for military tasks and construction projects, were so frequent that many villagers were forced to labour multiple times and many chose to flee to avoid further demands, such as Saw V---:
“2 days ago [I arrived in the refugee camp]. I came to find work here because we couldn’t live there. There were too many hardships. They [Tatmadaw] demanded that we do forced labour working for them. We had to construct roads, work in their barracks and do portering, carrying things. I had to go all the time, when I was in Bee T’Ka I had to go 2 times a month for 5 days each time carrying things and building the road. Sometimes we had to go for 10 days constructing the road, and we had to bring our own food. It is a new road, from Daw Lan to Hpa-an.”
Saw V--- (male, 37), W--- village, quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Paingkyon Township, Hpa-an District/northeastern Kayin State (published in August 1997)
Villagers reported additional abuses whilst being forced to labour, including violent abuse. Forced labourers ranging from teenage girls to elderly men were forced to carry heavy loads and were beaten and kicked if they were slow, with their weaker friends being left for dead along the trail. These reports clearly evidence how most notably Tatmadaw and to a lesser degree EAGs have used forced labour as a tool not only to strengthen military capacity, but also to inflict deliberate, life-threatening abuses on villagers in southeast Myanmar. One typical testimony from 2001 describes these physical and mental abuses inflicted on labourers and porters by Tatmadaw:
“As porters we only got 1 meal a day, one small plate of plain rice that was weighed out on a scale. They made me carry more than 20 viss [32 kilograms] of ammunition and rations. If I couldn’t carry my load I was beaten. I didn’t see any porters die but many of my friends’ saw a lot die because of exhaustion, weakness, and malaria. I saw child porters as young as 15 and men as old as 60. There were also women, including some who were pregnant and some who were carrying infants along with their loads.
The women had to carry the same loads as men, and some of them were raped. Some porters escaped and some were let go– I escaped twice and was let go the other 3 times.”
Forced labour demands and the extensive abuses that villagers faced also included the abuse of extortion. When villagers could not send the demanded number of labourers, Tatmadaw and EAGs forced villagers to repeatedly pay “replacement fees” or “porter fees”, which villagers stated to be detrimental to their financial and livelihood security:
“We are very poor already, but to make it worse we must pay porter fees many times. Sometimes there’s no money to pay with. I had to sell my daughter’s new sarong just to get money to pay porter fees.”
Maung AA--- (male, 42), quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District (published in March 1994)
Tatmadaw and EAGs’ use of porter fees created serious financial hardships, which led many families to fall into debt, and struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis. When villagers could not afford to pay and could not gather the amount from the support of their neighbours, villagers faced beatings and additional abuse. Thus, Tatmadaw and EAGs’ systematic and constant demand of porter fees in addition to the repeated forced labour demands which deprived villagers of time to work for their own survival on their land, were strong push factors for many families in making the difficult decision to strategically displace themselves from their communities to internally displaced person (IDP) or refugee sites.
The legacy of the associated abuses entwined in forced labour throughout KHRG’s 25 years of reporting continues to affect villagers’ sense of security in the post-ceasefire period. The Tatmadaw, BGF and some EAGs such as DKBA (splinter) still demand villagers as forced labour, and even when they request for voluntary labour instead, villagers feel threatened and unable to refuse. Moreover, the impact of these demands in the post-ceasefire period combined with the forced labour abuses throughout the 1990s and 2000s that many community members have first- hand experience of is that civilians continue to lack trust in Tatmadaw and its allies, as well as some EAGs, and feel that they are in significant danger if their army camps or battalions are located near villages.
Militarisation and landmine
Throughout the last 25 years Tatmadaw, KNLA, DKBA (Buddhist, Benevolent and splinter) and BGF have planted landmines as an offensive and defensive strategy against their enemies and as a strategy to terrorise villagers and prevent them from aiding their opponents. As a result, southeast Myanmar is substantially contaminated with landmines, which augments and reinforces villagers’ ongoing security concerns and the militarised environment in which they live. The NCA states that all signatories to the 2015 agreement will end the use of landmines, and cooperate towards clearing all landmines. However, KHRG reports indicate that this promise is not being upheld and that landmines are a persistent threat to villagers in the region. Villagers report the following concerns to KHRG: the danger of disability and mortality from old mines which have not been cleared; the laying of new landmines and the increased risk of mortality from contamination in civilian areas; and livelihood insecurity due to lack of access to farm and forest land and the injury and death of farm animals because of both old and new landmine contamination. Furthermore, KHRG has also documented cases in which Tatmadaw and EAGs have directly abused villagers in previous years by forcing villagers to walk as minesweepers and to porter in heavily mined areas in civilian areas.
Given that landmines are often undetectable, they continue to kill and injure villagers. In one 2016 interview, 53 years old village head U A---, from Kyaukkyi Township, Nyaunglebin District described how 16 villagers in his village alone had been injured by old landmines since the ‘four cuts’ era. In another case, at least one village head was killed and one villager was injured between September and October 2016 when they stepped on DKBA (splinter) landmines in two separate incidents in Meh Th’Waw area, Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District. In 2016 there were additional reports of one villager being injured in Nyaunglebin and one villager being injured in Hpapun District by landmines, in March and April 2016 respectively; both mines were suspected to be un-cleared KNLA landmines. These cases, as with other abuses detailed above, show how militarisation continues to risk and harm innocent civilians’ physical and livelihood security in their home communities.
Whereas KHRG reports during conflict document Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups using landmines as an offensive and defensive strategy, report that armed actors are now planting landmines not only to defend themselves but also to ‘protect’ key income generating industries of which armed groups control. One such use has been for the sake of ‘protection’ and to deter loggers from entering community forest. For example, in 2016 the KNLA reported to villagers in Nyaunglebin District that they had planted landmines in community forest in order to deter loggers, and that the villagers should therefore not enter the forest. Some villagers however continued to use the forest because their livelihoods depended on using and selling the logs. As a result, the landmines detonated and injured at least one bullock and damaged villagers’ property, including Maung A---’s bullock cart, which rode over the KNLA landmine. According to Maung A---, who had gone into the forest to collect firewood:
“The incident happened because people went to steal the logs from there so they planted the landmines, but for me, I did not steal the logs.”
Maung A--- (male), quoted in a Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Mone Township, Nyaunglebin District (published August 2016)
Likewise, landmines have also been used to deter villagers from working and carrying out their livelihood activities near development sites. On January 1st 2016, Saw B---, 27 years old, was hit by a landmine which had been placed around a former gold mining site in Ka Law Myaung area, Kyaukkyi Township, Nyaunglebin District. Saw B--- was hunting wild animals; the area was known amongst villagers as a place to search for food at times when they faced livelihood challenges and could not grow enough food to sustain themselves.
Adding to the complexity of recent landmine usage, the use of landmines has become so pervasive that even villagers and village security guards have resorted to planting homemade landmines around their village as an ‘early warning system’ for protection against attack from armed groups, such as in IDP areas. As one villager in CC--- village, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District, May 2016 explained:
“The elders who are responsible for protecting the civilians [use landmines], and the soldiers also use them. […] [They use landmines because] We are not in a satisfactory [stable peace] situation yet and we are still in a difficult [unsafe] situation. With landmines we have to be careful with protecting ourselves. We do not have many soldiers [militia]. We use landmines in order to help villagers conduct their livelihood activities [safe from soldiers].”
Saw DD--- (male, 35), EE--- village, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District (ireceived in May 2016)
The continued use of landmines for any purpose limits villagers’ access to livelihood security and places them in grave danger of injury or death.
Between 1992 and 2012, landmine survivors, widowed and orphaned family members, and villagers displaced by landmine contamination testified that landmines were primarily used to deter armed groups from attacking certain areas or by armed groups to prevent the opposition from encroaching further into their territory. During the 1990s villagers encountered additional abuses when Tatmadaw forced villagers to sweep for landmines by walking in front of soldiers while portering their military supplies:
“One porter died when they went to clear landmines because he went infront of them [Tatmadaw] and the other one went behind [the porter served as a human minesweeper while the soldier followed him]. When they came near the landmine, he detonated the landmine and the porter flew up. He [the soldier] did not get hurt… they made them go like that [in front of the soldiers]. They made some go ahead and some behind and some between them.”
Saw FF--- (male, 15) GG--- village, quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Kyainseikgyi Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (published in March 2002)
Additionally, KHRG has recorded multiple traumatic cases in which Tatmadaw and its allies intentionally planted landmines to harm or kill Karen civilians and in retaliation to attacks that they faced from Karen EAGs, resulting in Karen villagers being continually targeted within and around their own communities. For instance, Tatmadaw deliberately planted landmines around the bodies of villagers who had been killed in Hpa-an District, 1998, so that community members could not bury them. In the same year, Tatmadaw LIB #707 planted a landmine outside a village elders’ house, killing him, in Htantabin Township, Toungoo District. Tatmadaw also booby-trapped villagers’ rice baskets to explode when villagers in hiding returned to pick them up in June 2000, Toungoo District, killing two men and injuring one woman. Tatmadaw deliberately planted landmines around the entrances of villagers’ houses who fled, posing grave danger for them if they chose to return. Furthermore, Tatmadaw and EAGs have also deliberately planted landmines along common forest paths to prevent the movement of opposition groups, meaning that villagers who chose to flee for safety to IDP or refugee camps had to risk their life to do so and many IDPs and refugees to this day still fear returning to their original communities due to unknown levels of landmine contamination in unmarked area. These cases show that Tatmadaw has used landmines to directly abuse civilians in southeast Myanmar and prevent them from living safely in their villages.
KHRG reports indicate that Tatmadaw and EAGs are not doing enough to clear landmines. Since the signing of the NCA requiring armed groups to clear landmines to increase public safety, KHRG has documented only two cases of armed groups undertaking small-scale mine clearance, and it was to improve military access to those areas rather than for humanitarian purposes. Where they are allowed, CBOs have been active in raising awareness of the risks of mines among villagers. However, many unmarked landmines remain, causing severe risk of injury and livelihood restrictions to civilians in southeast Myanmar and leading many villagers to express that little has improved in terms of their daily safety and security over 25 years.
B. Impacts, agency and access to justice
Militarisation over the last 25 years has had immense and devastating impacts on the lives of villagers in southeast Myanmar. Though some abuses directly linked to militarisation have decreased, many communities are still affected by militarisation and the abuse of armed actors, and harbour the consequences in the perception that little has changed over 25 years. Villagers continue to face security concerns, directly tied to the enduring presence of armed actors, most notably Tatmadaw, BGF and in some parts DKBA, in local areas, compounded by the abuses committed against civilians documented by KHRG over the past 25 years. Although the impacts of living under a state of oppression, abuse and militarisation cannot be quantified, KHRG’s analysis documents several common tribulations experienced by villagers. In particular, villagers report that militarisation has contributed toward their distrust in the Tatmadaw, worsening health, restricted movement, and dramatic livelihood insecurity.
Lack of trust in Tatmadaw
According to KHRG’s testimonies, a significant consequence of Tatmadaw and EAGs’ militarisation has been its ability to generate substantial fear in communities in southeast Myanmar. Villagers still have the expectation that Tatmadaw may inflict abuses on them for little or no reason, stemming from a deep lack of trust in Tatmadaw:
“During my [KHRG] research this time, I found out that villagers are very afraid because they did not want me to record their voice much. They are afraid of this information being released [to the Tatmadaw army] and that the Tatmadaw army will do something [bad] to them.”
Photo Note written by a KHRG researcher, Dooplaya District/ southern Kayin State (received in June 2016)
This fear of direct attacks if villagers speak out against the Tatmadaw can be traced through 25 years of KHRG reports when Tatmadaw have taken revenge on villagers, such as the Tatmadaw group Sa Tha Lon threatening to kill 10 villagers for every 1 soldier killed by KNLA, and issuing direct threats should villagers complain about their abuses:
“They [Tatmadaw] take the live stock, but you can’t complain.They said if you complain, they will kill you.”
Saw WW--- (M, 36), Kyainseikgyi Township, quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (published in March 2000)
In addition to villagers fearing retaliation for speaking out against abuses, villagers also lack trust in Tatmadaw’s motives for staying militarised in southeast Myanmar, including near civilian areas. They explicitly worry that fighting will break out again due to ongoing military activities by Tatmadaw and BGF including transporting rations and ammunition, patrolling, and repairing army camps, which villagers perceive as preparation by Tatmadaw for ongoing conflict.
Even now villagers fear living and working near armed bases or near armed actors, because of previous abuses where they were forced to labour, shot on sight, or arbitrarily detained. Villagers do not trust the motives of Tatmadaw and feel personally insecure and vulnerable in their presence. They remain fearful that if they take any action that is deemed inappropriate by Tatmadaw, they might be physically punished, or if they enter an area at the wrong time they may be caught in the crossfire of fighting, or at any time they may be arbitrarily abused. These fears further impact villagers who note that they do not feel safe to enjoy full freedom of movement when travelling outside of their community, near army bases, or when accessing their farmland, due to the presence of armed actors. This is particularly the case at night, and for female villagers, and for villagers located near an army base. The abuses throughout KHRG’s reports especially committed by Tatmadaw mean that fear and lack of trust remain deeply ingrained in villagers, which leads them to continually fear the negative potential consequences of militarisation.
Throughout KHRG’s 25 years reporting period, villagers have reported that militarisation and abuse has and continues to have negative consequences on their livelihoods, such as impairing their ability to work, and causing them physical and emotional suffering.Tatmadaw and EAGs’ demands for forced labour and the displacement that frequently followed have caused significant livelihood disruptions. Forced labour has deteriorated villagers’ health from physical exhaustion but also brought upon starvation and emotional guilt on a larger scale when villagers have been unable to cultivate their fields and provide for their families:
“Each time I came back home after that [forced labour] I felt sick of that kind of thing, because it took away the time I need to work for my family.”
Saw II--- (male, 56), JJ--- village, quoted in a Field Report written a KHRG researcher, Htantabin Township, Toungoo District/northern Kayin State (published in October 1999)
Despite Tatmadaw and EAGs decreasing serious and intentional abuses such as forced labour following the 2012 ceasefire, villagers continue to feel unsafe which restricts their ability to travel and access their farms, leading them to state that their livelihood insecurities are aggravated by the presence of armed actors. Specifically, villagers’ fear of Tatmadaw and its allies prevents them from accessing their farmlands, which are often located outside of the village:
“As the hill farms are close to the Tatmadaw camp, they dare not to do farming. In Ler Muh Plaw village tract, there are about one hundred farmers’ lands which are about a thousand acres of land [in total] that villagers dare not go back and work on as they are afraid that the Tatmadaw might shoot and kill them.”
Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District / northeastern Kayin State (received in March 2014)
The same concern was expressed in 2007 when Saw M--- from Toungoo District spoke about the Tatmadaw:
“The villagers weren’t able to go and tend their fields, so their hill fields and flat fields became over grown with weeds and the paddy plants couldn’t grow freely. They didn't have enough food. They had to buy it from the other villages such as Kler La and Gkaw Thay Der but now we can't go to buy food anymore. The SPDC [Tatmaaw] military camps are situated along the way so we can't do anything about it."
Saw M--- (male, 57), O--- village, quoted in a Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Toungoo District/northern Kayin State (published in December 2007)
In both cases, regardless of how the abuse has changed, villagers felt more confident retaining their safety if they did not go to their farms. Villagers chose to displace themselves and face possible food insecurity, rather than face potential beatings, killing, torture, and forced labour Tatmadaw could inflict upon them for traveling to their land.
Adding to ongoing limitations on villagers’ daily livelihood security is the contamination of landmines in community areas. When villagers travel to access their farmland they risk their physical security, which prevents them from securing their traditional livelihood. Traditional livelihood options include hunting and foraging in forests and alternative livelihood opportunities remain scarce:
“Personally, especially in the area where villagers are looking for the food, if they do not plant the landmine, it is the best. If villagers are free to travel it will be great and we do hope that kind of dream will be fulfilled. […] if they do not want villagers to go out to find food in the forest, the relevant government and recently elected [Myanmar] government should be involved and find a way to improve villagers’ lives and create job opportunities for the villagers.”
U A--- (male, 53), B--- village, Kyaukkyi Township, Nyaunglebin District/southern Kayin State (interview published in September 2016)
These testimonies suggest that villagers’ livelihoods continue to be compromised from military presence near their villages.
Psychosocial and physical impacts
Spanning 25 years, KHRG reports also evidence the emotional impacts or trauma caused by militarisation and abuse, mainly by Tatmadaw:
“I think about how in the time of the Burmese [Tatmadaw], they forced our father to do ‘lohahpay’ and our brother to go as a porter, and sometimes they came back and they didn’t even look human. They were dirty and ragged, and sometimes my father said, ‘The Burmese are no good, they didn’t even feed us rice’. I looked at our father and I was sad, and it hurt my heart.”
Naw HH--- (female, 29), quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Hpa-an Township, Thaton District / northern Mon State (published in September 1999)
Cases of forced labour and portering, watching fellow porters die or be killed, stay with villagers beyond the time period of abuse. One porter testified: “It was terrifying, being upthere” after he was forced to carry Tatmadaw munitions to the front line where fighting was happening in 1992, KHRG’s first year of reporting. Other villagers spoke about their continual exposure to human rights abuses, particularly forced labour that left them feeling “asthoughtheywerealreadydead”. KHRG reports also document that some villagers, who have experienced abuses by armed groups including disability after stepping on landmines, and having to flee their village and not return have attempted suicide or died by suicide due to the emotional and physical consequences of abuse.
Physical trauma and disability also continue to be a constant reminder of the military abuse that civilians in southeast Myanmar live through. Disability and injury from landmines, and physical injuries resulting from severe abuses cause daily pain, financial insecurity due to medical costs, and limit the working potential of many Karen civilians. For example, between 2013 and 2017 KHRG documented 21 incidents of villagers being injured by landmines. This is no doubt a fraction of the number of physically injured and mentally affected villagers living with the ongoing consequences of the conflict. The longevity of the impacts of these military abuses is further compounded by the void in services that exist in both southeast Myanmar and Myanmar as a whole to address the physical and psychosocial impacts of conflict.
Militarisation and abuses: Agency strategies
“Real is in gourdanger inadvance, we went in to hiding.”
U XX--- (male, 54) quoted in a Field Report written by a KHRG researcher,
Kayin State (published in August 1994)
Villagers employ agency tactics that are context dependent when faced with militarisation and abuse. Agency strategies are influenced by the risk that they perceive themselves to be under if their actions result in retaliation, as well as the variety of choices available to them, the support of their community, the success of previous agency, and the consequence for them if they chose not to act. At no point during KHRG’s 25 years have villagers expressed that they do nothing when confronted with the risk of abuse.
Since the 2012 preliminary ceasefire, village agency tactics have changed. Armed groups now have ceasefire-based restrictions, and cases where villagers chose to flee or temporarily displace themselves to avoid further abuse are less common. This suggests that whilst militarisation and abuse continues, villagers to some extent feel safer to stay in their home communities and use alternative methods to resist, avoid or limit military abuses and demand justice.
Negotiation and confrontation
In recent KHRG reports, villagers more commonly resist military abuse by reporting potential and actual cases, including forced labour demands, to their village head or the armed actor who is responsible. For example, when Tatmadaw took supplies without payment from one village for army camp repair in 2014, the villagers complained directly to the Tatmadaw officer in charge. Other cases where villages have raised complaints and made contact direct to armed groups include a village head in 2012, Hpa-an District who confronted the local BGF about planting landmines in his area:
“The Border Guard started to plant landmines beside the village, beside the villagers’ farms, beside the well, on the boundaries of the farms, in betelnut plantations, durian plantations and rubber plantations, and on the road that the villagers use for traveling. The villagers have been hit by landmines, and their buffalos and cows have
also been [hit], so the village head went and asked the Border Guard soldiers, "Why didn't you tell the villagers that you planted landmines?" The Border Guard [soldiers] replied, "Villagehead, we didn't plant the landmines, they were planted by the KNLA." One of the village heads responded, “The KNLA soldiers planted landmines in the forest and they told the villagers where they had planted them. You [the Border Guard] planted landmines in our farms and in our plantations; why didn’t you tell us?” Border Guard Company Commander Hpah Maw Hkoh replied to the village head, “You are disobedient and assist the KNLA soldiers, so we have to do things like this to you." Another village head replied, "We do not only assist the KNLA soldiers, we assist any troops that come into our village, and if they need something, we help all of them." Border Guard Company Commander Hpah Maw Hkoh told the village leader, “Ask the KNLA soldiers to remove all the landmines that they have planted and we will also remove all of our landmines.”
Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Nabu Township, Hpa-an District/central Kayin State (published in July 2012)
The tactic of village heads negotiating directly with armed actors has been present throughout KHRG reports. For example, the village head from Hta--- village, Bilin Township, in 2009 negotiated with armed groups when he faced demands from both Tatmadaw and DKBA (Buddhist):
“They[theSPDC/Tatmadaw]orderedthevillagerstoprovidethemthatchandmoney.Thefirsttimetheyorderedustogivethem150,000kyat(US$156.00),butI didn’t give it to them. Then they said, if the villagers couldn’t pay as they ordered, to give them just 50,000 kyat (US$52.00). I continued to act like I’ve lost my hearing; even though they reduced the amount money [demanded from villagers], I didn’t give them any. The DKBA also demanded thatch. I sent it to them.”
P--- (male, 38), village head, Hta--- village, Bilin Township, Thaton District/ northern Mon State (published in November 2009)
One case even exists of a brave village head directly negotiating with the DKBA to prevent them from developing an army base near his village and when facing ceaseless orders for labour, village heads report how they risked their safety and often faced violent abuse when acting as the go-between with their community and the armed group. Any direct contact with Tatmadaw or soldiers from EAGs was extremely risky for village heads and villagers alike.
Whilst the danger of repercussions were much more acute during the 1990s and 2000s, the ongoing presence of armed actors and the systematic impunity of military actors for past and present abuse cause some villagers to report that they still fear repercussions if they complain about armed activity in their area, limiting their agency options. Villagers report this fear throughout KHRG’s 25 years, signifying an ongoing lack of trust in armed actors and a restriction on the rights that villagers can claim due to the context of militarisation in southeast Myanmar.
Avoidance, preparation, displacement and escape
In cases where confrontation is not an option or would pose a risk to village heads’ and villagers’ security, villagers have employed strategies of avoidance to subvert the risk of military abuse. The agency strategy of avoidance continues to be used in communities, informed by decades of agency under conflict where avoidance was the primary agency tactic. In one case from 2014 a community built their own road so that they do not have to use the military road around their village which carried the risk of encountering armed groups. Villagers also continue to use the strategy of traveling in groups to stay safe when they are near army bases, further evidencing the unchanged context of insecurity due to armed actors in southeast Myanmar. This agency strategy is especially noted by women. These tactics of avoidance and protection are evidence of a militarised environment where encountering armed actors or responding to their demands puts villagers in grave danger.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, avoidance was employed by village heads in the form of evading orders for forced labour, messengers and meetings, evidenced in the increasingly threatening order letters sent by armed groups to village heads when they did not act based on the first demand, as the below order letter sent by Tatmadaw to a village head in 1999 shows:
By evading these orders, villagers were avoiding direct contact with Tatmadaw in order to avoid abuse. Additionally, this strategy of avoidance bought the villagers’ time and often they would be secretly active preparing food supplies and other basic supplies with the intention of strategically displacing themselves when they could no longer avoid the demands. Villages often received up to three increasingly threatening order letters before their village was attacked and burned, at which point their agency strategy of avoidance intensified to become strategic displacement.
When villagers and village heads were unable to avoid demands and were forced to labour or porter in gruelling conditions often for months without respite, many villagers planned their escape, despite the threat of being killed if caught escaping. Saw SS--- from Thaton Township, Thaton District escaped after being forced to porter at the age of 14 years old:
“ I had to stay there for over 5 months, carrying food and water, cutting wood, and building their bunkers. Then they made me carry rations to Mae La. On the way I said to my friend, “I can’t carry anymore. Live or die, I’m going to escape”, and I dropped my load and ran away.”
Saw SS--- (male, 24), TT--- village, quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Thaton Township, Thaton District/northern Mon State (published in January 1995)
To avoid further arrest, labour, demands, recruitment and other military abuses, numerous villagers chose to flee on a semi-permanent basis. Especially in the 1990s and late 2000s, entire villages were abandoned as communities walked with their belongings on forest paths to IDP and refugee camps near or on the border with Thailand. The forest paths were often heavily mined, with the shoot-on-sight policy active by Tatmadaw, and villagers fled without shelter, food or medical supplies on the way. Villagers report walking for days or weeks to reach a camp, and that many elderly and young children died during the journey due to illness and weakness. KNLA soldiers were reported to help those fleeing by checking and securing a safe crossing for villagers across disputed armed group boundaries. Naw R---, who fled her home in Tanintharyi Township in May 2007 described to KHRG her experience of fleeing:
“Because of the operation of SPDC [Tatmadaw] soldiers we dare not to live in our own village. We always have to move to another new place. We’re afraid of them [SPDC soldiers] because if they see us they might use us as porters or shoot us. I came to escape here at N--- village last year... We had to swim and cross the river from N--- village to Ht--- village because our boat was broken. We slept in Ht--- village for one night; we were in trouble, and there were no places to sleep... [The next day] SPDC soldiers came to this village [Ht---] and started to shoot at the villagers. We were very worried and had to [leave and] find our own safe place. I couldn't carry my children and bags. It was raining a lot so we couldn’t run very far. Pa Ht--- [her neighbour] could carry just one blanket. We had to run as fast as we could. We almost lost our way. There were five families altogether. One of my neighbours lost his child because he had to carry things and his three children also. After that we became separated in groups and couldn’t find each other... We ran without stopping until we reached a safe place. It was beside the stream. There was no food this time. Mosquitoes kept biting us. I felt very sad for my children. A leech bit my husband. We stayed hiding ourselves here until we knew that the SPDC soldiers had gone away from us... Regarding the issues [described above], we decided to build a secret hut for our family deep in the jungle. If the soldiers come, then we run immediately to our own hut.”
Naw R--- (female), N--- village, quoted in a Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Tanintharyi Township, Mergui-Tavoy District/Tanintharyi Region (published in October 2009)
The agency strategies villagers used, were almost never employed in isolation. As Naw R--- testified, her family did much more than flee to retain their safety. Villagers often supported their neighbours to escape by carrying their children and supplies, fled intentionally to water sources to continue the journey, and built temporary safe houses in the forest to remain out of sight.
Prior to displacement, preparation strategies were utilised by villagers, hiding belongings before Tatmadaw’s arrival. Military tactics such as the destruction of food and cooking materials after villagers fled were deliberate attacks on villager livelihoods and often caused greater hardship for villagers than the direct, physical abuses that they also faced. When villagers knew of the risk of village attack, they hid supplies in nearby forests, built temporary shelters in the forest, or buried their food supplies to prevent them being destroyed if their village was burnt. When villagers have been forced to flee in recent years, KHRG reports show that this has often been with little notice or due to immediate orders by armed groups and they have not had time to prepare food supplies or belongings. Village agency tactics which were formed under the extreme duress of protracted conflict, such as storing food in forests and building temporary shelters in forests, have reduced under the apparently safer context of the post-ceasefire period. However, when villagers’ security is still threatened and they are forced to flee, they are left in a vulnerable situation without emergency supplies should they be unable to return to their village.
Villagers continue to temporarily displace themselves to avoid abuse when fighting in their area is imminent, evidencing the continued insecurity of daily life in southeast Myanmar due to ongoing militarisation. Saw UU--- fled from his home in Meh Pro village tract, Paingkyon Township, Hpa-an District shortly before he was interviewed in October 2016:
“When we heard Tatmadaw attacked at [the area around the] vehicle road, we still stayed there [in the village]. When we heard people [DKBA splinter] say that Tatmadaw took over [the area around the vehicle road] then we didnot stay in our area [village] anymore.Therefore, we fled and carried [our belongings] onto the hill. Then people [DKBA splinter] told us to come down [back to the village] then we came back. Again,people [DKBA splinter] told us [Tatmadaw] attacked [them] so we fled and carried [our belongings] on to the hill [again].”
Saw UU--- (male, 45), VV--- village, Meh Pro village tract, Paingkyon Township, Hpa-an District (interviewed in October 2016)
Often villagers made the difficult decision to wait strategically for the end of the harvest before they chose to flee, tolerating the risk of abuse during this time in order to secure food supplies that they could hide in the forest to maintain themselves. Worryingly, recently displaced villagers
have stressed their concerns that their paddy will be ruined as they have not been able to cultivate it or protect it from animals as their displacement was not strategic but immediate. Such cases suggest that displaced villagers continue to suffer disproportionately from military abuses as they lose their livelihood security.
Additionally, under threats of fighting, forced recruitment for both adult and underage males, and forced labour, villages in KHRG reports developed early warning systems, employing village volunteers as guards and messengers to warn the community if soldiers were approaching, a practice that some communities continue with today, showing the lack of security that they still live with. When villagers were warned of soldiers approaching their village, the most common tactic was to hide in forests and jungles nearby, waiting for days for the armed group to move through. This prevented members of their group, particularly young men, being taken for forced labour or forced recruitment. This tactic did not come without consequence, as Tatmadaw or DKBA shot villagers caught fleeing. Moreover, villagers often returned to find that their homes had been looted, their rice store deliberately poured away or burnt, their pots and pans bayonetted so that they could not cook or boil water, and their animals killed or stolen. When fighting was immediate and came without early warning and the chance to flee, villagers hid in bomb shelters that they had dug, and report using them even in 2016, when unexpected attacks threaten the lives of villagers. These village agency tactics of avoidance and preparation which were prominent throughout 1990s and 2000s but do still occur in more recent reports highlight how militarisation poses risks not only to villagers’ physical security but also their livelihoods.
Agency specific to landmines
With regard to landmines, villagers have been active in requesting information from armed groups who they feel safe to approach about where landmines have been planted. However, whilst the KNLA in some reports notified villagers where it had placed landmines, injury and death of villagers has continued and the use of posters or community announcements about contaminated areas is incomplete if not undertaken systematically by all armed actors responsible, particularly as the laying of landmines by armed actors has not been routinely mapped and tracked by the armed groups themselves. More recently villagers have been active in attending mine risk education workshops held by CBOs. The main strategy of villagers when dealing with landmines however continues to be villagers self-limiting their movement and travel in suspected landmine sites, a strategy which is present throughout 25 years of reporting and which results in continued livelihood restrictions.
Under militarisation, villagers have always attempted to continue their livelihoods by re-establishing their homes and strategically tending to their farms. Aiming to continue as normally as possible under militarisation, after villages were burnt, communities re-built them, often in more temporary materials or in new locations further away from army bases. In 2016, one villager from Hpa-an District mentioned how recently he had noticed villagers repairing houses in stronger materials, with the suggestion that they believe this time they will not be burnt and destroyed. In other cases of villagers stabilising their own situation despite an insecure and unstable context, villagers harvested their crops at night-time to avoid being seen by armed actors, risking their safety if they were caught but securing essential food supplies. This agency strategy of returning to harvest in secret continues to be a form of sustenance for many villagers who remain in IDP and refugee camps today, particularly when faced with limited food rations.
The variety of agency strategies that villagers have employed throughout 25 years of KHRG reporting is testament to the excessive variety of abuses that they have lived through and, in many cases, continue to feel at risk from. The opportunity for more negotiation or confrontation with armed actors since the ceasefire leads to new avenues for village agency, but the militarised context continues to cause some villagers to feel limited in expressing the injustice and abuses they experience due to their fear of reprisal by armed actors. Therefore many communities still feel safer to employ local, insular methods of avoidance, protection and self-reliance even in 2017.
Access to justice
In order to challenge and change the context under which abuse against villagers by armed actors happens, justice for both the victim and the perpetrator must be considered. However, recent villager testimonies suggest a lingering lack of faith in the Myanmar justice system to serve and protect them. This extends not only back to the history of the conflict, where victims of severe human rights abuses continue to live without justice and Tatmadaw perpetrators have been awarded impunity for their actions, but relates to the current ineffective justice system at both the local and Myanmar level which villagers have experienced when reporting abuse.
Villagers report a lack of communication from government staff to civilians about how to engage with the legal system in order to claim their rights, and when they do seek to claim their rights to protection they perceive a weak implementation of the rule of law:
“I have seen neither activities like the township administrator coming and giving awareness to the children [civilians], nor KNU sharing their laws with the civilians. Even if you follow the law some people still try to oppress you, that’s why you need human rights.”
Saw PP--- (male, 31), Win Yay Township, Dooplaya District/ southern Kayin State (received in November 2016)
Villagers continue to not trust the application of the rule of law in Myanmar, which is compounded by bad experiences and human rights abuses at the hands of Myanmar authorities. The inefficient and ineffective judicial and court system, cases of prolonged detention without trial, a lack of public access to military courts where abuses perpetrated by military actors are tried, depriving the affected villagers of knowing the outcome of the case, and cases of punishment which are not proportionate to the military abuse further undermine villagers’ faith in the application of the rule of law. With regard to recent Myanmar government efforts towards reform, one community member noted in 2015 that whilst new rights are being written by the Myanmar government, they exist only on paper and the communities do not yet feel that they actually enjoy these rights. This perceived lack of progress in reform, when combined with the ongoing oppressive environment of militarisation, serves to undermine civilians’ trust in the Myanmar justice system to protect them.
Within KHRG reports, lack of belief in the justice system relates not only to dissatisfaction after recent experiences. Cases of mass human rights abuses against civilians by Tatmadaw and other armed groups which occurred most frequently prior to the signing of the 2012 ceasefire also remain unresolved, with affected villagers having no route to justice. The majority of Myanmar civilians have grown up under a system where the state military controlled the law and could “putyou[villagers]injailwithouttrial”. Furthermore, the impunity of military perpetrators for abuses they have committed leaves some local community members with the impression that the justice system continues to work only in favour of the most powerful people in Myanmar:
“None of the human rights abuses have been solved or forgiven because, how do I say this, it is like, ‘if there is more water, water wins and if there is more fire, fire wins’. I mean people who have more power can do whatever they want.”
Saw QQ--- (male, 41), RR--- village, Thandaunggyi Township, Toungoo District/northern Kayin State (received in November 2016)
Other villagers recommend taking steps towards addressing previous human rights abuses suffered on a large scale by villagers:
“Mostly in my area, they placate [forgive] the things that they have done in the past [for peace for bothsides] sothat the issue does not grow bigger and bigger by fighting against each other.If they take the path of revenge and fighting against each other, the issue will be endless. But if we look on the side of the rule of law, all human beings have human rights therefore if we could give the properpunishment to the person who committed the abuse that would be better.”
Saw PP---, (Male, 31), Win Yay Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (received in November 2016)
Saw PP--- suggests that to ‘forgive and forget’ is not an appropriate solution to securing peace and preventing further conflict. Instead, he and other villagers want the rule of law to be applied equally for citizens and armed actors, so they may obtain justice and start to feel safe even in the context of militarisation.
KHRG’s 25 years of documenting militarisation presents evidence that militarisation has not accidently harmed Karen civilians but has at times been used to deliberately and brutally break Karen communities. Communities in southeast Myanmar continue to experience direct abuses by armed actors, even to a lesser extent, in the post-ceasefire period. The legacy of decades of systematic human rights abuses under militarisation is that continued fear and distrust of Tatmadaw, and by extension the Myanmar government and Myanmar justice system, is ingrained in many villagers, and that any militarisation activity of Tatmadaw, BGF and at times EAGs, generates implicit security concerns for local communities. While some abuses have decreased in isolation, such as forced labour and forced recruitment of both adult and underage males, the militarised context in which these abuses happen has not remarkably changed.
Militarisation throughout 25 years continues to have negative impacts on villagers’ livelihoods, and villagers’ safety in responding to these abuses such as confronting perpetrators or reporting the abuses, remains at risk. Evidently, the militarisation of southeast Myanmar, the legacy of extreme military abuse, and impunity of armed actors who committed abuses against civilians creates an environment which undermines villagers’ human rights and fails to prevent the risk to villagers of further abuse by armed actors.