'All the information I've given you, I faced it myself': Rural testimony on abuse in eastern Burma since November 2010

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Published date:
Thursday, December 15, 2011

Human rights abuses faced by ethnic communities across rural eastern Burma have continued since November 2010, and are consistent with patterns KHRG has documented since 1992. Drawing from a dataset of 1,270 oral testimonies, sets of images and documentation written and collected over the last year by villagers trained to monitor human rights conditions in their own communities, this report presents information on 17 categories of abuse and quantifies their occurrence across KHRG research areas. By placing recent testimony from villagers in the context of twenty years of abusive practices, this report should make clear that developments since the 2010 elections have neither expanded villagers' options for claiming their human rights, nor addressed the root causes of abuse in rural eastern Burma. External assessments of developments in Burma that ignore local perspectives on continuing human rights abuse thus exclude the input of the most knowledgeable and engaged stakeholders – who also stand to lose the most from inaccurate conclusions drawn without their participation. The testimony presented in the report should thus function as a critique of any attempt to assess changes in Burma that ignores local perspectives, and a call to heed the concerns of rural people who are gauging, on a day-to-day basis, the way past, present and continuing abuse impacts the future for communities in eastern Burma.

I. Introduction and executive summary

"My village is big so each time they ask for ten or fifteen people to porter for them … They never stop. They tell the village head to go to see them. They say 'We don't have food, so bring us food and chickens' … They [the villagers] often have to go and [do labour] … so they are too tired to work on their livelihoods … I just want to say we are facing problems because of the SPDC Army [Tatmadaw], and we can't complain to anyone."

- Naw P--- (female, 40), Ta--- village, Ler Doh Township, Nyaunglebin District (May 2011)[1]

"The people in the hiding sites work as loggers and collect flowers [to sell], but we have to be careful and watch out for SPDC Army [Tatmadaw] forces. We don't want to meet them. … The SPDC Army [Tatmadaw] knew about our plans [to flee], but as long as there are forests and secrets in the world, there's no problem [for us]. The SPDC Army [Tatmadaw] knows everything about us, but there's a world and we can flee. We know this."

- Saw T--- (male, 59), Ma--- village, Te Naw Th'Ri Township, Tenasserim Division (December 2010)[2]  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Villagers working with KHRG gathered more than 1,270 oral testimonies, sets of images and pieces of written human rights documentation between November 2011 and November 2011. Villagers giving this testimony – and gathering other evidence to document conditions in their communities – raised a myriad of concerns, including serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. These abuses were described by communities across KHRG research areas in eastern Burma, which include government-delineated Kayin and Mon states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions. KHRG has been training villagers in these areas to document and monitor human rights conditions in their communities since 1992; the information they gathered during the last year indicates that members of rural communities face human rights abuses consistent with those documented by KHRG over the past 20 years.

People experiencing abuse, and working to help their communities better protect their human rights, are best placed to understand the threats they face, and to gauge the degree to which these threats affect their own priorities. External assessments of developments in Burma that ignore local perspectives on continuing human rights abuse thus exclude the input of the most knowledgeable and engaged stakeholders – who also stand to lose the most from inaccurate conclusions drawn without their participation. Similarly, assessments that focus only on human rights concerns expressed during a short period of time will inevitably be inaccurate and lead to miscalculations due to a disproportionate emphasis on recent events at the cost of understanding the way past and continuing abuse impacts the future for communities in eastern Burma. The main purpose of this report, then, is to systematically communicate concerns articulated by communities in eastern Burma since November 2010, and compare them to the past 20 years of documentation by KHRG.

This report quantifies the occurrence of 17 categories of abuse faced by villagers across KHRG research areas, whose testimony makes clear that serious human rights abuses have continued since November 2010. Many of these abuses related directly to armed conflict; villagers were arbitrarily detained, violently abused and summarily executed while whole communities were attacked, placed at risk by landmines or subjected to stringent restrictions on movement, trade and access to humanitarian materials. Many other abuses, however, were not the result of armed conflict; instead they occurred in areas without armed conflict, and were often directly tied to both state and non-state actors' attempts to secure control over, and extract, communities' resources. Villagers described abuses including forced labour and arbitrary taxation, the unilateral implementation of development and natural resource extraction projects without local input or accountability, and the confiscation or destruction of land without consent and with inadequate or no compensation. While villagers in all seven research areas documented serious rights violations attendant to armed conflict, viewing the current human rights situation in eastern Burma only through the narrow lens of conflict-related abuse distorts the reality of the situation faced by villagers living in eastern Burma, and understates the range of serious abuses that restrict or destroy villagers' ability to support themselves, their families and their communities.

 

Key findings

  • Over the last 12 months, villagers in rural eastern Burma continued to raise concerns of ongoing human rights abuses consistent with trends identified over the last 20 years

  • Armed conflict is only one of multiple factors that contribute to the perpetration of abuse.

  • Past and recent experiences with violence facilitates the forced expropriation of labour, land and property from rural communities and the wide-scale and destructive extraction of natural resources

  • Local people are best placed to assess the continuation of historical trends of abuse, and the degree to which threats of violence constrain their ability to address human rights concerns

  • No accurate external assessment of current conditions in eastern Burma can be conducted without heeding the concerns of rural people who are gauging, on a day-to-day basis, the way abuse compromises their priorities

  • Domestic and international advocacy and engagement with state and non-state actors must take into account local priorities and concerns, and seek to address the root causes of abuse in ways that do not constrain villagers' options for claiming their human rights

 

After this introduction and details on KHRG field research methodology and the approach used to conduct analysis for this report, sections II, III and IV present information on 17 categories of abuse, and quantifies their occurrence in seven research areas, which stretch across four of Burma's 14 states and regions. Section II outlines different forms of harm perpetrated against civilians in eastern Burma during the reporting period. Villagers in all seven research areas reported abuses that amount to serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law: villagers in five of seven areas documented summary execution; torture was documented in four. The indiscriminate firing of mortars and small arms in civilian residential and agricultural areas was documented in all seven areas, while deliberate attacks on civilians and forced minesweeping or human shielding were both documented in six of seven areas.

Section III and IV outline other forms of abuse raised by villagers that, while individually less sensational, are nonetheless devastating for rural livelihoods and communities, particularly when understood in the context of their cumulative effects. Section III details abuses that restrict villagers' freedom to pursue their lives and livelihoods. Imposition of restrictions that prevented villagers from moving, travelling or conducting trade freely were documented in all seven research areas; restrictions on the transport of food, medical supplies, and the passage of medical personnel were documented in five. Five areas, meanwhile, also saw forced relocation and the arbitrary arrest and detention of civilians.

Section IV details human rights abuses that relate to the extraction of civilians' labour, land or property. Villagers faced abuses that entailed exploiting or expropriating individual and household labour and property: forced labour, arbitrary taxation and demands, and forced recruitment into armed forces and groups were each documented in all seven research areas. Villagers in all seven areas raised serious concerns about the impacts of development projects or extractive industries, such as logging, mining, rubber-planting and dams, on local communities, including the wide-scale confiscation of villagers' land, forced relocation and the destruction of natural resources on which villagers' livelihoods depend.

Crucially, serious violations like those described in Section II help to underpin the abuses described in sections III and IV. Villagers across eastern Burma reported that restrictions and exploitative demands were backed by explicit threats of violence. In cases where threats of violence were not made explicit, past and recent experiences with such abuse served as potent reminders. In a context where villagers have only rarely, or never, seen a soldier punished and where no legal or formal pathways exist for challenging, seeking protection from, or redress for abuse, even victims with no specific past experience of violence are likely to read a credible implicit threat into restrictive and exploitative demands. These concerns function to limit the practical options with which civilians can seek to address their human rights concerns, particularly via approaches that entail engagement with state and military authorities. It is precisely because communities in eastern Burma continue to face these threats, and because only they can assess the probability of such threats resulting in violence, that their capacity to assess and determine their own human rights concerns, and the ways in which these threats impact on their lives and priorities, should be recognised and heeded. Any approach which excludes villagers' own experiences, and local assessments of abuses which are serious and ongoing, risks mistaking short-term signs of change for a material alteration of the dynamics of abuse, with grave consequences for civilian populations across eastern Burma.

Methodology

Field Research
KHRG has gathered testimony and documented individual incidents of human rights violations in eastern Burma since 1992. Research for this report was conducted by a research network of villagers trained by KHRG, some drawing salary and other material support, and some working as volunteers. Villagers who submitted information contained in this report were trained and equipped to employ KHRG research methodology, including to:

  • Gather oral testimony, by conducting audio-recorded interviews with other villagers living in eastern Burma. When conducting interviews, villagers are trained to use loose question guidelines, but also to encourage interviewees to speak freely about recent events, raise issues that they consider important and share their opinions or perspectives on abuse and other local dynamics.

  • Document individual incidents of abuse using a standardised reporting format. When writing or gathering incident reports, villagers are encouraged to document incidents of abuse that they consider important, by verifying information from multiple sources, assessing for potential biases and comparing incidents to local trends of abuse.

  • Write general updates on the situation in areas with which they are familiar. When writing situation updates, villagers are encouraged to summarise recent events, raise issues that they consider important, and present their opinions or perspectives on abuse and other local dynamics in their area.

  • Gather photographs and video footage. Villagers are trained to take photographs or video footage of incidents as they happen when it is safe to do so or, because this is rarely possible, of victims, witnesses, evidence or the aftermath of incidents. Villagers are also encouraged to take photographs or video footage of other things they consider important, including everyday life in rural areas, cultural activities and the long-term consequences of abuse.

  • Collect other forms of evidence where available, such as letters written by military commanders ordering forced labour or forced relocation.

Verification
KHRG trains villagers to verify reports by gathering different types of information or reports from multiple sources, assessing the credibility of sources and comparing the information to their own understanding of local trends. It is important to emphasise, however, that KHRG reporting is designed to share the perspectives of individuals and communities in remote rural areas, rather than to focus on incident-based reporting. Though information was assessed for credibility by KHRG during all stages of analysis for this report (detailed below), the purpose of this report is to identify human rights abuses that were raised by villagers, rather than to quantify a number of confirmed incidents. Emphasis has also been placed on locating concerns raised by communities in trends identified by KHRG over the last 20 years, rather than seeking to disqualify testimony because rural people may not always articulate things clearly or keep exact records of abuse perpetrated against them. This report seeks to emphasise the cumulative weight of the large data set analysed for this report, and the consistency with which abuses of the same type are raised by communities across a wide geographic area.

Every piece of information in this report is based directly upon testimony, articulated by villagers over the last year. In order to make this information transparent and verifiable, all examples have been footnoted to published KHRG reports or, in some cases, to unpublished information that remains on file with KHRG. Previously published transcripts of 70 audio-recorded interviews and 54 documents written by villagers detailing individual incidents and summarising the situation in their areas are available in three Appendixes to this report. Wherever possible, this report also includes selections of testimony to illustrate examples highlighted by KHRG. In some cases, this testimony is directly from victims; in other cases, it is from written statements by villagers who, while not always themselves victims, have been trained by KHRG to document human rights issues in their home areas. In all cases, the testimony comes from people who have themselves directly experienced abuse or the effects of abuse, and who continue to live in eastern Burma.

Analysis for this report
This report focuses exclusively on events that occurred during the reporting period November 2010 to November 2011. During this period, villagers trained by KHRG collected a total of 1,270 oral testimonies, sets of images and documentation written by villagers, including: 523 audio-recorded interviews, 220 incident reports, 84 situation updates, 125 other documents written by villagers, 111 sets of photos and video amounting to a total of 12,517 images, and 207 written orders issued by civilian and military officials. Interviewees included both village leaders and persons not in positions of leadership, as well as men, women and youths. While KHRG is committed to interviewing villagers from all ethnic groups within its research areas, the majority of villagers interviewed belong to different sub-ethnicities of Karen. Interviews were, however, also conducted with other ethnic nationalities including Burman, Pa'O, Mon, Arakan and Shan villagers.

Information collected between November 2010 and November 2011 related to events that occurred both during and prior to that period. In order to identify the degree to which previously identified trends have continued, this collection of primary documentation was analysed exclusively for events occurring after November 2010. Because KHRG's information cannot purport to be comprehensive, the report does not seek to quantify a total number of incidents across research areas. Instead, this report seeks to identify the occurrence of different types of human rights abuses across eastern Burma, and determine the degree to which trends identified in years past continued to occur.

In order to quantify information geographically, KHRG organised information according to seven research areas: Thaton, Toungoo, Nyaunglebin, Tenasserim, Papun, Dooplaya and Pa'an. These seven research areas are commonly referred to as "districts" and are used by the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as many local Karen organisations, both those affiliated and unaffiliated with the KNU. KHRG's use of the district designations to explain our research areas represents no political affiliation; it is rooted in KHRG's historical practice, due to the fact that villagers interviewed by KHRG, as well as local organisations with whom KHRG seeks to cooperate, commonly use these designations. The seven districts do not correspond to any demarcations used by Burma's central government, but cover all or some parts of government-delineated Kayin and Mon States and Bago and Tanintharyi regions. In order to make information in this report intelligible to stakeholders using maps with government designations, the map in Figure 1 includes both the government demarcation system and the seven research areas, or districts, used to organise information in this report.

In order to systematically organise the large volume of information analysed for this report, in April 2011 KHRG conducted an internal workshop to identify the most common types of human rights concerns raised by villagers over the past 20 years. The development of these categories was not dictated by internationally defined legal rights. Where relevant, however, analysis in the sections below make reference to international humanitarian and human rights law; these references have been made in order to help articulate distinctions drawn between categories or to highlight the unlawful nature of a given set of practices. After developing these categories, from April to November 2011, a total of six KHRG staff members analysed and coded existing as well as incoming information, assessed each piece of documentation for content and quality, and assigned it a translation and publication priority. A second round of analysis, in which coding was confirmed or adjusted and collated by district, was conducted in December 2011. KHRG staff then identified the number of districts in which each type of abuse was documented, and used this information to draw conclusions about the nature and geographic scope of human rights concerns raised by villagers. Results of this coding are summarised in Table A.1 below. Full analysis of these results make up the bulk of this report, in sections II to IV.

Censoring of names, locations and other details
Where quotes or references include identifying information that KHRG has reason to believe could put villagers in danger, particularly the names of individuals or villages, this information has been censored, and the original name has been replaced by a random letter or pair of letters. The censored code names do not correspond to the actual names in the relevant language or to coding used by KHRG in previous reports, with the exception of excerpts taken from previously published KHRG reports. All names and locations censored according to this system correspond to actual names and locations on file with KHRG. Thus, censoring should not be interpreted to mean the absence of information. In many cases, further details have been withheld for the security of villagers and KHRG researchers.

Independence, obstacles to research and selection bias
Though KHRG often operates in or through areas controlled by armed forces and groups including the Tatmadaw, Tatmadaw Border Guard battalions and non-state armed groups (NSAGs), KHRG is independent and unaffiliated. Access to some contexts has sometimes been facilitated by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), particularly in cases where KHRG researchers need to cross vehicle roads or enter villages that the Tatmadaw has burned or are likely to be mined. Other groups were not willing to facilitate research by KHRG; Tatmadaw, Border Guard and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) soldiers were the chief obstacles to safely conducting research in eastern Burma during the reporting period. Villagers documenting human rights abuses did so with the understanding that they risked arrest or execution should perpetrators of abuse learn of their activities; in some areas, bounties have been placed on the heads of villagers for documenting human rights abuses.

Because of the obstacles described above, it is only possible for villagers collecting testimony to interview civilians who are not likely to report documentation activities to authorities in a way that would place those villagers in danger. This does not represent a research constraint in areas where whole communities are in hiding, view authorities perpetrating abuse as a threat, and as such are likely to flee rather than risk encountering them. In other areas, however, security considerations mean that villagers are not always able to openly interview civilians from all perspectives. Villagers most likely to compromise the security of villagers working with KHRG may also be villagers that are most likely to present a positive view of Tatmadaw, and be critical of NSAGs that continue to be in conflict with Burma's central government.

It is important to acknowledge that these limitations restrict KHRG's ability to make conclusions about all aspects of operations by opposition NSAGs or about potentially positive activities conducted by the government. For this reason, this report avoids making conclusions that would be unsupported by the data set, including practices of the government in areas where research was not conducted, or the non-occurrence of events about which KHRG did not collect information. Instead, this report focuses on sharing concerns raised by villagers that relate to events they experienced over the last 12 months, and analysing those experiences in light of patterns previously identified by KHRG.

It is equally important to acknowledge that research limitations do not call into question the veracity of documentation regarding practices by the Tatmadaw or other groups. While there is a risk that individuals interviewed by KHRG might hold personal biases that cause them to provide exaggerated or inaccurate information, the verification practices described above are designed to prevent such inaccuracies from being reported by KHRG. Furthermore, the sheer volume and consistency of information gathered by KHRG during the reporting period, as well as over the last 20 years, minimises the potential for inaccurate or incorrectly identified patterns. Ultimately, the constraints faced by KHRG mean that there are unanswered questions about issues not present in the data set, on which further research needs to be conducted. Patterns identified across such a substantial data set, however, mean that there should be no question regarding the seriousness, or widespread nature, of abuses villagers faced during the last year.

Table 1: Geographical spread of abuses, November 2010 to 2011

 

Thaton

Toungoo

Nyaunglebin

Tenasserim

Papun

Dooplaya

Pa'an

Explicit threats of violence

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Torture

No

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Violent abuse

No

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Rape and sexual violence

Unconfirmed

Unconfirmed

No

Unconfirmed

Unconfirmed

Yes

No

Deliberate attacks targeting civilians

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Indiscriminate firing of mortars or small arms

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Landmines and UXO

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Forced minesweeping and human shields

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Summary execution and other killing of civilians

No

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

Thaton

Toungoo

Nyaunglebin

Tenasserim

Papun

Dooplaya

Pa'an

Forced relocation

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Restrictions on freedom of movement or trade

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Denial of access to humanitarian goods and services

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

Arbitrary arrest and detention

No

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

Thaton

Toungoo

Nyaunglebin

Tenasserim

Papun

Dooplaya

Pa'an

Forced labour

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Arbitrary taxation and demands

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Forced recruitment

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Theft and looting

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Land confiscation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

Contents

Preface

 

1

 

 

 

 

Contents

2

 

Terms and Abbreviations

3

 

Figure 1: Locally-defined Karen districts (Kayin and Mon states; Bago Region)

4

 

Figure 2: Locally-defined Karen districts (Tanintharyi Region)

5

 

 

 

I.

Introduction and executive summary

6

 

 

 

 

Methodology

9

 

Table 1: Geographical spread of abuses, November 2010 to 2011

12

 

 

 

II.

Harming villagers

13

 

 

 

 

A. Explicit threats of violence

13

 

B. Torture

15

 

C. Violent abuse

18

 

D. Rape and sexual violence

20

 

E. Attacks on civilians

23

 

F. Landmines and UXO

34

 

G. Forced minesweeping and use of human shields

39

 

H. Summary execution and other killing of civilians

42

 

 

 

III.

Restricting villagers' lives and livelihoods

45

 

A. Forced relocation

45

 

B. Restrictions on freedom of movement or trade

49

 

C. Denial of access to humanitarian goods and services

52

 

D. Arbitrary arrest and detention

54

 

 

 

IV.

Taking villagers' labour, land or possessions

56

 

A. Forced labour

56

 

B. Arbitrary taxation and demands

64

 

C. Forced recruitment

68

 

D. Theft and looting

70

 

E. Land confiscation

72

 

 

 

Appendix 1:

Interview transcripts

77 to 376

 

 

 

Appendix 2:

Situation updates

377 to 475

 

 

 

Appendix 3:

Incident reports

476 to 501