An indigenous Karen community leader, Saw O Moo, was murdered by Tatmadaw forces on April 5th 2018. According to information received by KHRG, he was shot and killed by Tatmadaw Southern Command Headquarter (SCH) Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #351 when he arrived at Wah Klo Hta place, on the edge of Htee Hsee Hta Plaw [also known as T'Ree Plaw] farm, Ler Mu Plaw village tract, Lu Thaw Township. He was on his way back home from a meeting to organise humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs). At the time of his murder, Saw O Moo was riding on his motorbike with Saw Hser Blut Doh, a Battalion Deputy Commander from Karen National Defence Organisation [KNDO] Battalion #1, Company #2. The Battalion Deputy Commander had asked Saw O Moo to drive him to Ler Mu Plaw.
During the incident, Saw O Moo was shot dead. Until now, the location of his body is unknown. The Battalion Deputy Commander escaped, leaving four mortar shells in the area where the incident took place. Saw O Moo's motorcycle was damaged and his motorcycle battery was stolen by Tatmadaw. When Karen National Liberation Army [KNLA] soldiers approached at the incident place, they only saw Saw O Moo's blood on the ground and his damaged motorcycle. Because Saw O Moo's body has not been found, local community members are afraid that he might have been tortured until his death. They believe that the Tatmadaw might have buried his body secretly.
About Saw O Moo
Saw O Moo is an indigenous man from Ler Mu Plaw area. He was 42 years old, and survived by his wife and his seven young children. His youngest child is only ten months old. According to a documentary by the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network [KESAN], Saw O Moo was a defender of Karen indigenous rights, of Karen ancestral territories, traditions, and of the environment. He was actively engaged in community work and development as an indigenous leader. He worked for the development of Salween Peace Park and Luthaw Paw Day. He was passionate about education, environmental conservation and wildlife protection.
Saw O Moo’s murder: A Violation of NCA Code of Conduct and of International Human Rights
Saw O Moo's wife, Naw K---, explained why her husband was still travelling during the conflict period: he believed that the Tatmadaw will not shoot civilians because of the NCA Code of Conduct. Prior to his death, the Tatmadaw put letters on civilian roads to explain the purpose of their military operation and build better relations with the local community. The letters deposited in the area stressed that the Tatmadaw would not harm civilians.
Despite this, Tatmadaw forces from Southern Command Headquarter (SCH) LIB #351 did not keep their word and shot Saw O Moo, an unarmed civilian. Although the Deputy Commander he was travelling with had two guns and four mortar shells on him, the killing of Saw O Moo is a violation of the NCA Code of Conduct. KHRG has received other reports of Tatmadaw shooting at civilians on motorbikes in the morning of April 5th, 2018.
By killing Saw O Moo, the Tatmadaw violated the following article of Section 3 of the NCA Code of Conduct, according to which armed groups have agreed to "avoid acts violating a person’s dignity, violence, extrajudicial detention, kidnapping, torture, inhumane treatment, imprisonment, killing or otherwise causing the disappearance of the individual." In addition to this, Tatmadaw violated Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], that states that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." The murder of Saw O Moo by Tatmadaw forces is also a war crime, since it violates Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the murder of civilians.
The Tatmadaw released a statement regarding the incident on True News Information Team, in which they denied wrongdoing and claimed that Saw O Moo ran away when they ordered him to stop. In this statement, the Tatmadaw claimed that the two civilians that they shot at were suspected of being involved in sabotage attacks and planting mines. They also captured one of the men dead with evidence of his wrong-doing. This statement was also mentioned in The Irrawaddy news report.
Regarding the Tatmadaw statement, Naw K--- responded that she strongly believed that her husband would not have run away during the incident because a considerable amount of his blood was found on the ground where the incident took place, as well as on surrounding trees and bamboo.
Saw Hser Blut Doh who was travelling with Saw O Moo reported that, "When I saw the Burma Army soldiers, I immediately jumped off from the motorbike and ran. Saw O Moo could not stop his motorbike immediately, so the soldiers shot him. I could hear gunshots as I ran into the forest.", as reported by Burma Link.
Contested Military Road Reconstruction led to clashes and displacement
Since November 2017, there has been tension in this area between the Tatmadaw and the KNLA. The Tatmadaw have been reconstructing a road for military purposes between Ler Mu Plaw and Kay Pu village tracts. The Tatmadaw personnel who constructed the military road are from Toungoo District (which is the Tatmadaw Southern Command Headquarter). Burma Link has stated that the Tatmadaw Southern Command had issued prior notification of this to the KNLA and Nyaunglebin District authorities.
This road is in Karen National Union (KNU) territory. Local civilians use it to travel. It would also cross the farm land of local communities and indigenous Karen reserved forest without having prior permission from either local civilians or the KNU authority. Local civilians are already at risk when they travel because of Tatmadaw violence. The murder of Saw O Moo by Tatmadaw is an example of how dangerous military roads can be for local communities.
The Tatmadaw soldiers based in the army camps in Hpapun District have been providing security for the other Tatmadaw personnel who have been reconstructing the military road. The reconstruction of the military road has damaged many civilians’ plain and hill farms, and reserved forests in three village tracts: Saw Mu Plaw, Ler Mu Plaw and Kay Pu village tracts. Despite the land confiscation and land damage, no consultations have taken place with the local community, and no compensation has been offered.
Because the Tatmadaw military road construction was planned in the KNU control area without the permission from KNU authority, the Tatmadaw abused the NCA Code of Conduct Article 8 Section B, which states that "movement of armed troops in the areas controlled by the other is allowed only after obtaining prior agreement".
Saw O Moo's wife Naw K--- reported that local civilians did not consent to the reconstruction of the military road, because civilians wanted to construct a road that would serve their transportation needs. As a result, clashes broke out between Tatmadaw and Karen National Liberation Army [KNLA] on March 5th 2018. The violence led to the displacement of more than 2,000 civilians, including Saw O Moo’s family.
Impact on Saw O Moo’s family
When a KHRG researcher interviewed his wife Naw K---, she reported: "Even if I ask them [Tatmadaw] to resurrect my husband, they cannot do it so I strongly urge all of the Tatmadaw to withdraw from my area [Mu Traw District] and I don't want any compensation for my dead husband case. I am happy to pay compensation back to them for their leaving my area. This is my biggest dream and calling for the Tatmadaw to go back [to their place]."
Saw O Moo’s wife urges the Tatmadaw to withdraw from indigenous Karen land. She desires genuine peace for her children and community. She wants nothing more than to return to her village and work on her farm in peace.
Saw O Moo’s family is currently displaced and hiding in the forest due to conflicts between Tatmadaw and KNLA. Being displaced has been a challenge to their livelihoods. Saw O Moo’s wife has to struggle alone, and secure her children’s health and education without her husband. This is a huge burden for a woman who is displaced due to violent conflict. She added that, "I am currently displaced in the forest because of the Tatmadaw activities so the biggest problem that I am facing now is food and health problems."
Saw O Moo's murder by Tatmadaw forces is a violation of human rights, as well as a violation of the NCA Code of Conduct. His death profoundly affected his wife and children, who face livelihood challenges and are worried about their future. In Karen culture, a father is the main shelter of his family. His death is a great loss to the Karen community, which has lost indigenous leader advocating for their rights.