Bullets and Bulldozers: The SPDC offensive continues in Toungoo District
The first two months of 2007 have done nothing to lessen the intensity of attacks against the villagers of Toungoo District. SPDC forces continue to send in more troops and supplies, build new camps and upgrade older ones using forced village labour, convict porters and heavy machinery brought in for this purpose. Local villagers have been the ones to suffer from the increased military build-up and infrastructure 'development' as such programmes have put the SPDC in a stronger position to enforce their authority over civilians in rural areas and undermine the efforts of local peoples to evade military forces and maintain their livelihoods. Employing the new roadways and camps to shuttle troops and supplies deeper into areas beyond military control, SPDC forces continue to expand their reach in terms of extortion of funds, food and supplies; extraction of forced labour; and restriction of all civilian movement, travel and trade. These abuses have combined to exacerbate poverty, worsen the humanitarian situation and restrict the options of villagers living in these areas.
As part of the SPDC's military expansion in Toungoo District, troops under the authority of Southern Regional Command have continued into 2007 with armed attacks and road construction in combination with Light Infantry Division (LID) #66, and Military Operations Commands (MOCs) #15 and 16. The activities of these units have focused on upgrading the Kler La to Mawchi and Kler La to Buh Hsa Kee roadways in eastern and southeastern Tantabin township respectively. The SPDC has been upgrading the durability and capacity of these roadways in order to accommodate the transfer of supplies from army camps at Th'Aye Htah and Yoo Doh Koh to frontline troops based at Buh Hsa Kee in southeastern Tantabin township. In order to carry out this project the SPDC has been utilising the forced labour of thousands of convicts sent in from prisons across Burma. The army has furthermore brought in six bulldozers to work on these roads as well as supporting vehicles loaded with petrol, and local villagers have been forced to ride on these bulldozers and walk alongside, in front of and behind them as human shields against attack. In an effort to defend these vehicles and the ongoing construction, SPDC forces have also fired mortars into nearby villages during the course of the road work apparently to scare off potential KNLA attacks.
Since January 2007, SPDC forces have been intensifying efforts to secure the area around Kler La town where many civilians remain living outside of military control. The army has therefore built a new camp at the site of Wah Thoe Koh village using the forced labour of villagers from Gkaw Soh Koh, Wah Thoe Koh, Ler Koh and Maw Pah Der villages. From this camp, soldiers under the control of Light Infantry Divisions (LID) #66 and 55 have been making sorties into the surrounding hills, threatening the precarious situation of villagers seeking to evade military patrols. In response, these communities have been discussing amongst themselves the possibility of flight into refugee camps in neighbouring Thailand.
KHRG has received reports that LID 66 troops are now being rotated out of the region and replaced by LID 55. According to normal SPDC practice, LID 66 was supposed to rotate out in August 2006, but already had their stay extended in order to continue attacking villages through the rainy season and the subsequent harvest. As of mid-February 2007, attacks on villages have briefly subsided while this rotation occurs, but troops continue to machine-gun and mortar forest areas where villagers are suspected to be hiding. The influx of LID 55 troops indicates that the SPDC plans to continue the attacks through the coming months and the rainy season beginning in June.
Attacks on villages
Following the end of the rains last November and the start of the rice harvest SPDC commanders pushed their troops to conduct attacks against agricultural fields in an attempt to disrupt the harvest. By burning rice fields, farm field huts and rice storage bins and attacking farmers and those found near covert hill fields, the military has sought to reduce the harvest and thus undermine the ability of civilians to sustain themselves while evading SPDC control in forest hiding sites. To that end, soldiers from Infantry Battalion (IB) #35 Column #1 under the command of Soe Htun and his deputy commander Zaw Nay Myo attacked Hsaw Wah Der villagers while they were harvesting their crops at Yaw Hsa Kee on November 3rd 2006. The local community, having previously fled their village to elude soldiers in the forest, had at this moment returned to harvest their crops because they were running out of rice. Coming across the farming villagers, the soldiers opened fire, killing 47-year-old Saw John and 19-year-old Saw P'Ree Sein and wounding 44-year-old Naw Muh Htoo and 25-year-old Saw B'Hla Gyi. The soldiers then went on to burn 150 big tins of rice (totalling over 200 kg.) belonging to Saw John as well as several nearby farm field huts.
On November 15th, a patrol of SPDC troops operating out of Htee Hsa Bper village arrived at Ber Ka Lay Koh village north of the Kler Hla to Mawchi motor road at 8:00 in the morning. An hour later, a second group of SPDC soldiers arrived from a base at Maw Koo Der arrived. Operating in tandem, these two groups burned 22 homes in Ber Ka Lay Koh village. Remaining in the village overnight, the soldiers went on to raze a further 17 homes in the lower part of Ber Ka Lay Koh the following morning. After having destroyed the homes inside the village, these troops then fired mortars into the forest in the direction of the villagers' flight. The villagers, however, were able to avoid the shelling and escape injury. Nonetheless, this assault has made the situation for the villagers even more precarious as soldiers destroyed their homes, food stores and other supplies in the course of the attack. Continuing on from the second day of attacks against Ber Ka Lay Koh village, these troops marched on to reach Oo Per village by noon where they destroyed the homes of Saw Dta Paw Muh and Saw Dta Nee Nih. The troops then shortly returned to Htee Hsa Bper village where they burned down 15 homes and then left for Thay Khee Der village where they razed a further 17 homes. This succession of attacks pushed many villagers to flee into the forest. Despite the cold season the large numbers of displaced villagers were not willing to light any fires for fear of attracting the soldiers and facing further mortar shelling. A partial list of villages attacked, including those mentioned above along with the date of assault is as follows:
While the killing with impunity of Karen civilians has been a consistent practice of the SPDC military, such attacks have become more regular in Toungoo District since the start of the current northern Karen State offensive in November 2005. On August 8th 2006, for example, soldiers from LID #66 killed 75-year-old Pu Dt'Gkeh, a villager from Th'Dah Muh Der, while he was working in his field. On September 5th soldiers from IB #73 under the command of Aung Kah entered Zee Hpyoo Kohn village where they conducted searches of three separate homes. In the course of these searches they encountered Saw Htoo Per and his family while they were in the midst of worshipping. At this point the soldiers grabbed everyone they saw for detention and arrest. While they subsequently released Saw Htoo Per's wife and children the soldiers took Saw Htoo Per and his son Saw Baw Baw Htoo away from the house and executed them. On October 25th, these same troops arrived at the hill-side rice fields of Ma La Kohn village while the farmers were in the process of harvesting their crops. Upon spotting the villagers in their fields the troops opened fire, killing 40-year-old Saw Maung Maung, 16-year-old Saw Chit Chit and 15-year-old Saw Ah Cho, while another villager, 15-year-old Saw Kwa Lah, was seriously injured in the shooting. At 5:30 in the evening of November 13th about 100 troops from SPDC LID #66 and IBs #14 and 11, based in Ghah Muh Der arrived at Naw Thay Der village and attempted to capture a group of 12 villagers who had come from Ber Ka Lay Koh village and 4 others from Oo Per village. Although some of these individuals were able to escape capture, the SPDC soldiers still managed to kill 23-year-old Saw Kri Htoo, the son of Saw Doh Doh from Ber Ka Lay Koh village. Following this incident, the soldiers moved on to Htee Hsa Bper where they encountered and shot dead 23-year-old Saw Tha Pwee, son of Saw Dta Kyaw Dtaw of Oo Per village after he returned from selling his cardamom seeds.
On November 20th 2006, soldiers from SPDC Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #6 led by Column Commander Aung Soe Win and Second Column Commander Aye Lwin fired on Hsaw Wah Der villagers Saw Kwah Hla and Saw Heh Dtur as they were returning along the road from Gkaw Thay Der after having bought food supplies. These shots killed both villagers from whose corpses (show in the two photos above) the soldiers looted money and other belongings.
This pattern of army killings of civilians has continued unabated into 2007. On January 19th 2007, troops from LIB #75 based at Shah Shee Bo army camp and operating under SPDC Southern Regional Command arrested Saw Poe and Saw Ah Lu, residents of Yin Shah village and Saw Kyaw Nay Win, Saw Paw Hsu, Saw Hta Kya and Saw Dt'Ro Roh, residents of Zee Hpyoo Kohn village. At this time the troops confiscated 620,000 kyat from the detained men and sent them to Shah See Bo camp where they were all executed. On January 29th, following the forced relocation of villagers out of the Gklay Loh river area to Yin Shah village, Saw Hta Lu Gu, one of the relocated villagers, returned to his former village where soldiers spotted him and shot him dead.
Continued military expansion, attacks on villages and the killing of civilians have all combined to restrict the options of villagers seeking to evade the army and thus their means of resisting abuse. Increased SPDC construction and control of roadways have effectively blocked the travel routes of displaced villagers living in hiding while soldiers continue to operate under a shoot-on-sight policy, planting landmines in abandoned villages and along forest paths and destroying covert hill fields and food stores upon detection.
In response to military attempts to block access to food and medicine, displaced communities have utilised covert trading networks linking them with those villages living under SPDC control which may have somewhat more access to food and supplies. In this way, these communities can continue to survive in their forest hiding sites. However, the wide strips of barren land which SPDC units force villagers to clear along the sides of roadways (see below under Forced Labour) make it much more difficult for displaced families and communities to cross these roads without being spotted and fired upon. Instead of connecting people to trade and communication networks and facilitating movement, roads in Toungoo District thus become obstacles to movement and instruments of military control. The development of the Kler La to Buh Hsa Kee roadway has had this result for the communities of Hsaw Wah Der, which has been evading the military, and that of Gkaw Thay Der which already lives under SPDC control. Local army units have been seeking to obstruct small scale trade between these two communities which remain a distance of two hours apart, travelling on foot.
To make matters worse, the ongoing travel necessary to continue evading military patrols means these displaced communities are unable to carry sufficient supplies of food, medicine and clothing. Many thus confront illness, disease and injury which they are ill-equipped to address. Natural remedies available in the forest are typically insufficient to meet their medical needs and access to clinics, beyond the prohibitive costs of the limited medicine available for sale, is also obstructed by the likelihood of military arrest should they be detected. While displaced communities share their limited rice supplies between themselves, there are insufficient quantities to go around. These restrictions on food and medicine make cross border assistance to these communities brought in from Thailand all the more crucial as the SPDC appears set on starving displaced villagers out of the hills and into military-controlled villages and relocation sites.
Restrictions on movement
In rural areas the SPDC monitors and restricts all civilian movements as a means of maintaining military control, and in SPDC-controlled areas west of the mountains and in the valleys of Toungoo District this policy is being rigidly implemented by the troops of Southern Regional Command by arbitrarily arresting and killing local villagers found outside their designated villages of residence. These soldiers have restricted residents to their home villages and forbidden external travel without written permission forms. Even in order to tend their nearby hillside rice fields, villagers have to purchase permission documents from local SDPC officials. The cost of one such document is 500 kyat and its validity lasts only one week. Once this pass expires, villagers must apply for a new document and pay again the requisite fees. Even with a permission document officials nonetheless prohibit villagers from remaining in their fields overnight – a practice necessary to protect crops from animals and maximise time engaged in tending crops. Instead, farmers cannot leave their villages until seven in the morning and must return no later than four in the afternoon. Soldiers who have caught villagers travelling beyond their fields to visit neighbouring communities, even those possessing valid permission documents, have interrogated, threatened and tortured them regarding their movements and forced them to serve as military porters.
As part of the SPDC's programme of road construction military units have been regularly forcing civilians to do labour without compensation. Prior to the arrival of the six bulldozers for work on the Kler La to Buh Hsa Kee roadway, Light Infantry Division (LID) #66 commander Maung Maung Aye forced villagers living along the way to cut back vegetation and clear landmines flanking both sides of the route. Eliminating all forest plant growth in wide swaths along roadways in Karen areas serves as both a defensive measure against KNLA ambush as well as a means of hindering the movement of civilians seeking to evade military forces. On November 22nd, Maung Maung Aye ordered villages to provide a quota of workers for forced labour along sections of the Kler La – Mawchi road that lay near to their communities. Maung Maung Aye forced the villagers to do this work twice in December 2006 and once again in January 2007. After having cleared the specified areas, he then forced these villagers to twice porter army loads further down the road. The village names, number of villagers forced to labour and the area of the road on which they had to work are as follows:
Commander Maung Maung Aye of LID #66 has been particularly aggressive in his use of forced labour. On September 26th, for example, he forced five truckloads of villagers to porter army supplies from Kler La to Gkaw Thay Der. Not only has he been forcing villagers to clear roads and porter army supplies but he has also forced them to serve as human shields, protecting bulldozers from potential KNLA attacks. He ordered villagers from Maw Pah Der village to provide one person per household to serve in this capacity alongside bulldozers working on road construction in the Wah Thoh Koh area where the SPDC is currently constructing a new camp. In this case soldiers forced three villagers to ride on the outside of the chassis and five villagers to march along each side while the rest of the villagers were corralled in front and behind the moving vehicle. Prior to the development of this camp soldiers confiscated the designated land, so far totalling five acres, from local villagers. In order to prepare the site for the new camp, soldiers destroyed villagers' durian, mango, cardamom, dog fruit and betel nut trees that had been growing there and provided no compensation to the owners in return. Other SPDC officers, such as IB #6 Commander Aung Soe Win along with Deputy Commander Aung Lwin Oh, have also been forcing large numbers of villagers in the Kler La area to porter army supplies between Kler La town, Naw Soh, and Gkaw Thay Der. In the plains area around Maw Nay Bpwah village SPDC forces arrived with two bulldozers for which soldiers from LID #66 forced villagers from Bplayh Hsah Loh to 'take security'. In this case as well, soldiers ordered villagers to march alongside the bulldozers so as to shield the machines from any possible KNLA fire. All of this labour is demanded with no compensation provided for their labour and time lost from working their own fields, which suffer as a result. In some cases the soldiers have provided the villagers forced to labour with a single meal for their whole day of work.
Soldiers have also been demanding that villagers provide bullock carts to transport army rations along the roads to SPDC camps further afield. On November 22nd commander Zaw Htun of LIB #439 based at Shah See Bo village ordered neighbouring villages to provide designated quotas of bullock carts to transport rations to the camp and Shan See Bo. The village names and the number of bullock carts demanded are as follows:
To obtain more forced laboures, SPDC authorities have also been tricking or coercing townspeople from Toungoo town to army posts in the hills. In August 2006, KHRG interviewed Saw P---, 35, and Naw H---, 28, who came from Toungoo town but were living in hiding in the hills along with displaced villagers from Hsaw Wah Der village. They said they were among a group of people in Toungoo town who were tricked into joining an SPDC 'development' scheme in mid-2006. They were told that a new village was being established in the hills to the east on the outskirts of the large village of Kler La (Bawgali Gyi) and that families settling there would receive 20,000 kyat per month and rations from the Army to help build this new village, plus they would have the opportunity to earn added income in the nearby during and mangosteen plantations. But they were not taken to Kler La or to any other 'new village'. Instead, on July 18th they were transported to Kler La and the next day to Maing Daing Gyi SPDC Army camp, near Naw Soh village on the Kler La - Buh Hsa Kee road, where they were put to work cutting bamboo and building perimeter fences around the army camp. They were given no money nor any place to build a house, and only received two milk-tins of rice a day (only enough for one meal), plus cooking oil and yellow beans. When they asked to be taken back to Toungoo town they were refused. After over a month doing forced labour at the Army camp, two families totalling nine people escaped into the surrounding hills, where they joined villagers in hiding from SPDC forces. They told KHRG there were still 15 people from Toungoo being held at the army camp as forced labourers.
Although SPDC forces attempt to get local civilians to serve as porters for military patrols, in most cases the villagers flee before approaching troops are able to catch them. As a consequence, and in order to support the large-scale deployment of troops in Toungoo District, the SPDC has been sending in large numbers of convicts from prisons across the country to carry loads alongside military patrols. Convoys carrying hundreds of convicts have delivered their human cargo to Toungoo town where military officers divide them up between the various battalions.
Soldiers treat these men worse than pack animals, forcing them to labour under extreme burdens of 35- 45 kilograms (77 - 100 lbs), on insufficient food, with no medical care and wearing nothing but rubber flip-flops or, having lost these, going barefoot along mountain paths where illness, disease and injury are rife. As a consequence, these porters are typically unable to sustain the effort needed to continue apace with soldiers who threaten, harass, torture and kill them en masse in order to keep the Column moving.
Villagers living under SPDC control face regular extortion of money, food and other supplies which soldiers enforce under threat of violence. As part of road construction work LID #66 commander Maung Maung Aye, having forced large numbers of villagers to labour on road construction, threatened local communities that should the KNLA attack the bulldozers or general construction work, he would fine them an arbitrary sum in retaliation.
In order to construct a new SPDC camp at Wah Thoe Koh, Commander Hin Tun of IB #3 Column #4 ordered local villagers to provide 400 large bamboo poles each, 10 cubits (15 feet) long and 200 wooden poles 3 cubits (5 feet) in circumferance and 18 cubits (24 feet) long. He furthermore ordered each household to provide one person to labour in the construction of the camp each day. On January 17th 2007, SPDC officers from IB #10 arrived at a monastery in Kler La with the intention of celebrating the Buddhist festival of Ga Htein Bwe. For this occasion the officers invited 10 monks to receive donations in a merit making ceremony. In order to collect the funds for the donation however, these officers had their soldiers demand money from local villagers from whom they collected 150,000 kyat which the officers then offered to the monks.
SPDC soldiers have utilised the arbitrary arrest of villagers in Karen areas as a means of enforcing compliance with restrictions, extorting funds and extracting information about resistance activity and KNU/KNLA operations. On December 2nd 2006, soldiers from IB #48 arrested 47-year-old Saw May Htoo and his son Saw Thaw Thi Htoo; both of whom resided in Kheh Der village but were at the time staying in Dtaw Gkoo village. On the same day, soldiers also arrested 50-year-old Saw Ba Sein, village head of Zee Hpyoo Kohn; 50-year-old U Shwe Maung, village head of Dtaw Gkoo and the village head of Ray Hla. While they were detained the soldiers tortured and interrogated these village heads demanding a list of relatives of KNU members from their villages. Although they subsequently released the Ray Hla village head, as yet KHRG has received no information regarding the release of the others.
In October 2006, soldiers from SPDC LID #66 operating in areas of Kler La town were conducting search and destroy missions targeting displaced villagers covertly harvesting their rice. At this time, coming across one group of farmers the soldiers opened fire. All of the villagers fled the SPDC patrol but soldiers were able to capture 16-year old Saw Bpin K'Nay whom they brought back to the camp at Kler La. At this location they kept him detained in a small hole dug into the group. Although the soldiers were reportedly intending to execute Saw Bpin K'Nay after two weeks, he was able to flee before this time. Following his escape, Saw Bpin K'Nay said that during the period of his internment, soldiers regularly tortured him and never provided him with sufficient rations.
As the SPDC continues its expansion of roadways and army camps in pursuance of overall military control and the 'pacification' of Toungoo District, it is the local civilians whom soldiers and officers target in armed attacks on villages, killings and arbitrary detention. The extension of military networks deeper into the Toungoo hinterland furthermore obstructs the travel of displaced communities attempting to evade army patrols, effectively cutting them off from access to food, medicine and other supplies. The SPDC's attempts to starve civilians out of the rural areas of Toungoo District make the cross border delivery of food and medical aid all the more crucial; for villagers' attempts to resist abuse and claim their rights require access to resources outside of SPDC structures. Thus far many villagers have managed to effectively resisit abuses and evade military control to claim their rights, but they need material help to continue doing so.
 Tactical Operations Command, a command unit comprising three battalions under a Light Infantry Division - in this case, TOC #2 of LID #66, or TOC#662.
 For more information on the SPDC's use of convict porters see Less Than Human: Convict Porters in the 2005-2006 Northern Karen State Offensive (KHRG #2006-03, August 2006).
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