State repression and the creation of poverty in southern Karen State
With most of southern Karen State's Dooplaya district under SPDC control since 1997, villagers face increasing regimentation, restrictions and exploitation by the SPDC and its armed allies that make life virtually unsustainable. The main aspects of this regimentation were already described in detail by KHRG in the report Setting Up the Systems of Repression: The progressive regimentation of civilian life in Dooplaya District (KHRG #2006-04, September 2006). This report follows the same themes, updating the situation by drawing on KHRG's continued interviewing and reporting in the field since September 2006. Forced agricultural programmes, forced labour, and forced recruitment to SPDC-run organisations and administrative structures are combining with systematic state-run extortion, looting, and confiscation of land and crops to artificially create poverty and hunger, forcing many villagers to send family members to Thailand to work illegally for the family's survival. While some UN agencies claim that these are simple matters of poverty that have nothing to do with state repression, villagers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands by finding daring and creative ways to evade or refuse the demands placed on them by the SPDC and other authorities and undermine the power of these groups over their lives.
Regimentation of civilian life
Before 1997, many villages in Dooplaya District of southern Karen State lived outside the control of the Burmese military regime. However, through a large-scale offensive in 1997, the ruling State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) managed to capture most of central Dooplaya District and cut off many of the thousands of internally displaced people who tried to flee across the border to Thailand. Central Dooplaya's open terrain makes it very difficult for villagers to escape and hide for long, as they have done in the hills and forests of Karen State's northern districts, and the regime was therefore able to expand military subjugation over most of the civilian population. Life in Dooplaya has become increasingly regimented since this date. Originally the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) used methods of forced relocation and land confiscation to establish control over villagers. Later, as SPDC control over Dooplaya intensified, many villagers were allowed to move back to their villages, but they now face abuses of a different sort as the SPDC imposes restrictions on movement, forced agricultural programs, systematised extortion, forced labour and enrollment in the regime's parastatal civilian associations, all imposed under threat of violence. In early January 2004, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the SPDC agreed on an informal ceasefire. However, this ceasefire did not bring about an end to fighting or human rights abuses in Karen State. Instead, sporadic fighting continued and the SPDC continued its campaign of repression against the civilian Karen population. If anything, the ceasefire allowed the SPDC to further consolidate its control over the population of Dooplaya, by allowing it to penetrate further into the forested hills in the east of the district which it had been previously unable to enter, without fear of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) attacks.
A common strategy used by the SPDC for controlling the population of Dooplaya has been the forced registration of villages, documenting the inhabitants of every household and detailing all their land and belongings, including sawmills, livestock, carts, telephones and other resources. Villages in Dooplaya report that these registers have then been used by SPDC forces as a basis for extortion, taxation and demands for forced labour or forced organisation. Such demands have become a regular part of villagers' lives, with villagers not only facing demands from the SPDC, but also from the smaller SPDC-allied groups, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Force (KPF). In addition, the SPDC demands that villagers report on any KNLA visits to the village and any KNLA activities they know about. Villagers are threatened that they will be punished if they do not comply and are furthermore punished in retribution for any KNLA attacks on SPDC units, irrespective of whether they know about the KNLA presence in the area. Villagers have also been forced to pay for SPDC security forces operating in their villages. In this way, the SPDC aims to quash resistance and exact even greater control over villagers' lives.
In order to extend its control over villagers' lives, the SPDC has forced villages to establish Village Peace and Development Councils (VPDC), which are answerable to the local Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) and act as a local arm of the SPDC. By using the TPDCs and VPDCs to impose demands and restrictions upon villagers, the SPDC forces village leaders into the very command hierarchy they are trying to resist. VPDC Chairpersons are required to attend meetings at the TPDC office every month, to discuss the development of their villages. However, rather than a discussion, these meetings usually consist of SPDC officers issuing orders and demands to the village heads, scolding and threatening them for any recent lack of compliance with orders, and reminding village heads of their duties to the state. Moreover, village heads in Dooplaya report that they have to spend at least 1,000 to 2,000 kyat per meeting, with no benefit to their villagers. They have to cover their own expenses to attend the meetings and are often forced to purchase items at the meeting, such as magazines and calendars or paddy or castor seed, as part of forced agricultural programmes. When forced agricultural programmes are announced through these meetings, village heads are simply issued orders and are not allowed any input as to how these programmes are to be carried out.
In October 2006, villages in Kaw Nweh village tract of Kawkareik township were forced to buy newspapers for a month at a cost of 4,000 kyat and farming books for 2,500 kyat each at the TPDC meeting. In the same month, eight villages in Yay Kyaw Gyi village tract were also ordered to pay 'fees' towards the expenses of the Karen State football and Done dance teams. The village names and amounts they had to pay are as follows:
In November 2006, Tha Ya Kohn village in Kawkareik township was forced to buy three bowls of castor seed for 8,000 kyat, three posters for 400 kyat, one boxing ticket for 3,000 kyat and two calendars for 3,000 kyat. The arbitrariness of these prices is evident in the varied amounts demanded, as at the same November meeting Kyaw Sha Kohn village was forced to buy three bowls of castor seed for 8,000 kyat, two posters for 600 kyat, two boxing tickets for 2,000 kyat and a calendar for 1,500 kyat, while previously that month Ywa Thay village had been forced to buy six bowls of castor seed for 1,400 kyat and five posters for 1,500 kyat. At another TPDC meeting at the end of November 2006, Ah Pah Gyi village tract was ordered to pay 500 kyat for a rubber stamp (to be used as the VPDC seal on orders issued to villagers) and 1,000 kyat for a journal.
In addition, throughout Dooplaya, villagers have been forced to join SPDC organisations, such as the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation (MWAF), the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA), the militia or the fire brigade. Normally village heads are given quotas for the number of villagers that must join the organisation and are forced to pay application or membership fees for each villager. Villagers see this as an attempt by the SPDC to expand their control over the villagers and extort money from them, as often they are never informed of any duties or activities they should perform, nor any benefits they will receive, after they have paid for their application.
Land confiscation and forced agriculture
It is common for local SPDC officials to confiscate land from villagers in Dooplaya. This land is then sold either back to the villagers, if they can afford the price set by the officials, or otherwise to the highest bidder. On other occasions, villagers are forced to crop their fields for the SPDC under state-instigated forced agricultural programmes. Sometimes the villagers are forced to crop paddy on their fields and then give a percentage of their harvest or profit to SPDC, despite the SPDC's claim to have stopped this practice after criticism from the World Bank in 2003. Many villages have been forced to crop paddy for the SPDC during the dry summer season (January to May), although this is often unsuccessful, as there is typically insufficient water at this time of year to maintain crops. M'Hee Gklah village, in Kya In township, made a loss of 400-500,000 kyat from summer paddy planting in 2006, but are still being forced to do it again this summer. Each farmer has to plant one and a half baskets of paddy seed and the villagers have to do all the ploughing and cropping and then transport the crop to the SPDC at the end. If they fail to produce the quota demanded, they must buy rice on the open market and hand it over to the authorities to fill their quota.
In addition, since the SPDC announced in December 2005 that it planned to implement a project to grow castor bean plants on "50,000 acres in each of Myanmar's nine military divisions", for the purpose of refining the beans to produce biofuel, KHRG has received growing numbers of reports of villagers being forced to buy castor seed from the SPDC at TPDC meetings and then cultivate the plants. To meet the 50,000 acre target, each TPDC has been ordered to plant a quota of castor bushes; these are divided between all the villages in the township based on village population, and each village is then ordered to buy the required volume of seed, plant it on whatever land is available and cultivate it. Some villages have been threatened with fines if any of their quota of plants dies. For example, in June 2006, both M'Hi Gklah village and Kyauk Kaing Kohn village were told that each person in every household, including children, must plant 200 castor plants without fail. Thus a household of 10 people had to plant 2,000 plants, regardless of how young or elderly the household members may be. This has caused much stress and difficulty for the villagers, because not only is there not enough land to do this planting, but they say they are not familiar with how to grow this crop and see little use in it, and it also leaves them with very little time to plough their fields and crop their paddy. As a result many village leaders have purchased the required seed but simply put it in storage instead of planting it, hoping to negotiate or pay their way out of punishment when the time comes.
In July 2006, Operations Commander of Strategic Operations Command (SOC) #2, Colonel Aung Kyaw Nyein, ordered a surveyor to measure villagers' land near the army camp of Infantry Battalion (IB) #283, along the planned road between Ther Dter village and Meh Gk'Taw village. Following measurement, 65 blocks of land were confiscated from the villagers, with each block measuring up to 5 acres in area (and at least 4 chains, equivalent to 80 metres, wide). Aung Kyaw Nyein then sold all of this land back to the villagers at 20,000 kyat per block and hence collected 1,300,000 kyat from all the land he had confiscated. In November 2006, the same battalion started building a new road network connecting Kya in Seik Gyi town to Kya In, T'Ghay, Meh Gk'Taw and Aung Chan Tha villages. Again land was confiscated from the villagers, with all land without houses near the new road measured and sold off block by block. The villagers were also forced to cover the petrol costs for the machines which were used to construct the new road.
Villagers in Kawkareik Township are also very concerned about the construction of the Asian Highway. The Asian Highway is an inter-governmental project backed by the United Nations, envisaged as a way to enhance trade and tourism opportunities by connecting 32 countries along 140,479 km of highway. The Burma section of this highway will connect Burma to India on one side and Thailand on the other. The highway will cross Dooplaya district at Kawkareik Township and the construction of this stretch of the highway is due to start this summer. Villagers are very concerned as they know that the highway will destroy many of their lands, fields and gardens and that they are unlikely to receive any compensation. The construction of the highway in Thaton District has already involved much uncompensated land confiscation and forced labour for the construction. The SPDC has yet to respond to complaints by landowners in Kawkareik township about the expected loss of their lands.
On 1st November 2006, IB #284 Commander Khin Maung Myin Aye and Deputy Commander Maung Myint called a meeting of Village Heads at the Operation Command's office in Kya In Seik Gyi town, to discuss the lands that had been confiscated from villagers in the area surrounding Wah Boh Gohn army camp ten years previously. The village heads were informed that if land owners wanted the land, they would have to buy it back, otherwise it would be sold off to other people. Moreover, if the villagers bought back their land, they would then be forced to crop rubber on that land and give a percentage of the output to the SPDC.
As society has become more regimented in Dooplaya, villagers have become accustomed to regular demands for forced labour from the various armed groups. Forced labour demands include orders to serve as guides for military patrols, collect building materials and deliver them by cart or by foot, to work on road construction or conduct building work and to grow crops for the Army on confiscated land. This labour is unpaid and uncompensated and, in the majority of cases, villagers are not even given any food or drink while they work.
The villagers in Meh Gk'Taw Htah and Bpeh Traw Doo area of Kawkareik Township have faced many demands for forced labour from both the SPDC and the Karen Peace Force (KPF). In December 2006, Commander Aung Myint Soe of SPDC Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #343 demanded that two bullock cart owners carry the packs and ammunition of a column of 120 soldiers for two hours. The owners were not given any compensation for the use of the carts and were not given any food to eat. The same battalion also approached another villager while he was working in his flat field and demanded that he guide them and carry them, and their loads, on his cart to Gklay Htah. There were 10 soldiers, each with loads of about 10 viss (35 lb. / 16 kg.), and the villager was forced to carry them for 1.5 hours without being given any pay or food. In December 2006, SPDC soldiers also took a twelve-year-old child from his house in Noh N'Boo village, in Kawkareik township, when his parents were not there. They forced him to guide them on foot to the Gklay river, a 30 minute walk away. The child was given a bag to carry, which weighed 5 viss (17.5 lb. / 8 kg.) and was not given any pay or food. The soldiers tried to get the child to lead them further, but he refused, saying he needed to return home and do his homework.
In the villages surrounding Kya In Seik Gyi town, Strategic Operations Command (SOC) #2 makes demands for forced labour year round. In the dry season villages receive demands for wood, bamboo and thatch to repair nearby army camps and firewood for brick baking, while in rainy season villagers are forced to crop paddy for the Army in addition to their own crops. In October 2006, the KPF Commander Bo Eh Myee demanded that five villages surrounding Gklay village in Kawkareik township construct houses for his soldiers. Each household had to bring five shingles of leaves and five bamboo poles with them and every villager had to go. They were not given any food or pay and had to bring their own rice and water. The villages that had to take part in this construction work were Gklay Poh Kee, Gklay Poh Htah, Daw Kyeh Kee, Meh Gklaw Wa and Th'Der Koh. Similarly, in Kya In township, every villager in Bpee T'Kah village was forced to cut bamboo for the KPF, although the villagers did manage to negotiate to only cut 700 poles instead of the 1,000 demanded.
Extortion and looting
SPDC soldiers, along with the DKBA and KPF, commonly make demands of villagers for food, building materials, money and other items. Demands are made in the village (normally to village heads), by order or letter, or at TPDC meetings (as discussed above). From October to December 2006, SPDC battalions entered some villages in Dooplaya District twice a month or more, demanding food such as chickens, goats, rice, chillies and fish paste. Sometimes the rice the villagers had grown was insufficient even for their own consumption, but the soldiers still demanded it from them. As a consequence they had to buy additional rice to meet the soldiers' demands at a cost of around 12,000 kyat per basket. On November 26th 2006, column #2 from IB #343 based in Kyaikdon demanded three viss (10.8 lb. / 4.8 kg.) of chicken (worth 9,000 kyat at that time) from the village head of Hla Pah village and on December 4th 2006, column #1 of the same battalion demanded four viss (14.4 lb. / 6.4 kg.) of chicken (worth 12,000 kyat), ten packets of coffee mix (worth 1,500 kyat) and one basket and twelve bowls (96.5 lb. / 43.8 kg. in total) of rice (worth 22,500 kyat) from the same village.
Villagers have also faced demands to cover the costs of petrol for road-building or to provide diesel for generators to recharge soldiers' radio batteries. For example, IB #284, based in Wah Boh Gohn in Kya In township, told the villagers in Dt'Kah Kloh village that they would have to pay between 200,000 and 300,000 kyat for the cost of diesel to fuel machines to construct a new road near their village. The villagers could not afford to pay this amount, so they requested that they be allowed to construct the road themselves. The SPDC allowed them to do this and the villagers did so. But then in October 2006 the SPDC announced that they were going to construct another new road between Dt'Kah Kloh and Dt'Kah Kee villages and again demanded the fuel costs, this time demanding 40 gallons of diesel from the two villages. A gallon of diesel cost the villagers 4,800 kyat, so the total cost was 192,000 kyat, which had to be paid by November 7th 2006.
As can be seen from the quote above, it is also common for SPDC soldiers to loot and steal when they enter villages. In Dooplaya, villagers report that they are scared to go to work outside their village when SPDC troops are around, because soldiers often enter unoccupied houses and steal their chickens, ducks, vegetables and other belongings. For example, on November 18th 2006 IB #231 Military Operations Commander (MOC) Than Htun demanded a chicken from Ywa Thay village and yet still stole bamboo, a pumpkin and cigarettes from the villagers. Similarly, when the soldiers of LIB #343 entered Bpeh Traw Doo village they stole a machete and caught and ate villagers' chickens. The DKBA and the KPF also frequently log the areas surrounding the villages, leaving villagers without necessary building materials for their homes and destroying the natural habitat, which supports plants and wildlife that form a vital component of villagers' livelihoods. Even where items are demanded, it still amounts to little more than stealing, as villagers fear repercussions if they do not comply and soldiers often take what they are not given. Moreover, the soldiers who loot and steal are able to do so with impunity, as complaints from the villagers to commanding officers are often ignored or dismissed. In fact, soldiers' rations are often stolen or sold off by their commanding officers who then instruct them to live off the villages. Soldiers have also threatened to punish villagers who report them to their commanders.
Villagers in Dooplaya also face excessive and arbitrary 'taxation', with overlapping demands for funds from the SPDC, the KPF, the DKBA and in some areas the KNLA. The KPF frequently demand payments for fields and plantations. In December 2006, the KPF sent a letter to Gklay Poh Kee village in Kawkareik township ordering them to pay fees for their plantations, hill fields and flat fields. The village didn't pay the total amount demanded, but still gave 50,000 kyat as they were afraid they would be tortured or punished otherwise. Sawmill owners face particularly heavy demands for such 'taxation' and villagers report that new payments are often demanded by each new SPDC column rotating into an area (which occurs every few months) as well as by the KPF. In Ywa Thay village of Kya In township, an SPDC soldier demanded that one sawmill owner with a broken sawmill pay 5,000 kyat and another sawmill owner, who had only used the sawmill to construct the village school and not for his own profit, pay 20,000 kyat. The DKBA and the KPF also frequently set up checkpoints on the roads near the villages, demanding money from villagers who try to travel to work or buy food. At the many KPF checkpoints in Kya In township, villagers are forced to pay 50,000 kyat to pass with a herd of cattle and sometimes have to pay 30,000 kyat for just one or two buffalo. This has made it very difficult for the villagers to sell their cattle to visiting cattle traders, as it is so expensive for the traders to transport the cattle out of the village.
Rape and sexual abuse
Cases of rape or sexual abuse by soldiers in Dooplaya District continue to be reported. Soldiers have committed such abuses as a means of control and because they are rarely punished for such attacks. One incident of attempted rape began on December 7th 2006, when Gkaw Kwa army camp commander Aung Chan Lay, under the control of SPDC IB #586 Battalion Commander Theh Htun, and his soldiers were conducting security operations on the road between Kya In Seik Gyi and Kyaikdon. When they reached M--- village at 10 o'clock, three soldiers went to Naw K---'s hut to cook food. Naw K--- is 41 years old and has five children. The soldiers saw that Naw K--- was alone and tried to persuade her to go bathing, but she refused to go because her leg was injured. Then one soldier told her that he would give her milk to drink and talked to her about love, asking her to love him. She told him she had a husband and children and was not interested in him, but the other two soldiers said, "He is a medic. Choose to love him!" After talking with her for a while, two of them went back to the car road and only the medic was left. In fact he was not a medic, but his two friends had said that he was to make her fall in love with him. She was not interested in him, but he still professed his love to her and demanded her love in return. He kissed her, grabbed her breast and massaged her painful leg. Then he sat on her injured leg and pushed her down to the floor twice. Then he climbed onto her body, so that she couldn't move. When he started to unzip his trousers, Naw K--- could see that her situation was desperate, so she kicked the soldier with her injured leg and he fell off her. Then he heard the sound of Naw K---'s mother coming back from collecting vegetables, so he took his gun, left the hut and went back to find his friends on the road. Naw K--- said that he wrestled with her for about 30 minutes, but he didn't manage to rape her.
In some cases SPDC soldiers have raped Karen women strategically, as sex before marriage violates cultural norms so many women who have been raped face communal pressures to marry the soldiers afterwards. Some women married in this manner are taken away by the soldier when his unit rotates out of the area, while others are simply left behind while the soldier goes on to repeat this tactic in his next posting.
The response of villagers
Despite the increasing militarisation of Karen society and the systematic nature of repression, villagers in Dooplaya have found many ways to resist human rights abuses and negotiate with soldiers and officers for reductions of demands. For example, at great risk to themselves, village heads often defy demands to send people for forced labour or to join SPDC-controlled organisations. In D--- village in Kya In township, local SPDC officers tried to force villagers to join the Pyit Thu Sit (people's militia), but the villagers refused to go. The soldiers threatened that should they not join, they would be punished. The villagers nevertheless refused to join and as yet the soldiers have not punished them. The same village has also avoided the forced construction of a library that local SPDC officials demanded they build over a year ago. The forced construction of libraries is an SPDC tactic used to support the claim of 'development' in Karen areas. However, not only must villagers expend their own resources and labour in the construction of these structures, but they furthermore receive negligible SPDC support following their completion, leaving the libraries empty or containing only a handful of Burmese magazines.
H--- village in Kawkareik township refused to give rice and oil demanded of them by Gklay Htah army camp. Another village reported that they waited a day before informing the SPDC about KNLA visits to the village, instead of informing them immediately as demanded. After having been forced to collect and deliver wood and bamboo to Gklay Htah army camp, P--- village in Kawkareik township refused to do the building they were demanded to do. Local villagers told the soldiers, "Your camp is full of soldiers, so build it yourself". When the KPF demanded 1,000 bamboo poles from B--- village, in Kya In township, the villages successfully negotiated to lower the number to 700 poles on the grounds that they needed more time to tend their fields.
Some of the most strenuous resistance has occurred in the context of the SPDC's forced agricultural programmes. Though most villages have been forced to buy castor seed, many of them have not yet planted it because they do not want to; the seeds sit in storage, despite repeated written orders from the authorities reminding them that they should have planted the bushes by now. T--- village in Kya In township resisted the forced plantation of castor by simply scattering the seeds randomly after buying them. They may later tell the SPDC soldiers that they did not know how to plant them or that the crop failed, as Karen villagers often do in such circumstances, but in the meantime they have not wasted valuable time and effort cropping castor instead of the more important subsistence crops. Similarly, many villages have ignored orders to plant a dry season rice crop, choosing instead to bribe their way out of the dry season rice quota when it is eventually demanded. Most villages have similar stories to tell of ways they have resisted and evaded demands and abuses by local military authorities, whether by ignoring orders, delaying or only partially complying, negotiating reductions, using bribes, misreporting information, or other means.
Effects on villagers' survival and living conditions
The numerous demands and restrictions enforced on the villagers in Dooplaya make it very difficult for them to maintain their livelihoods. The combination of forced labour demands, land confiscation, looting, heavy taxation and lack of medical care, for example, make it virtually impossible for villagers to make a sufficient living from their traditional cultivation of fields and plantations. This has led to food shortages in many villages, with villagers living a hand-to-mouth existence, having to search for food on a daily basis. In response, many parents have sent their children to refugee camp schools in Thailand and many young people, especially women, have travelled independently to Thailand in search of work in order to send money back to support their families. Villagers furthermore struggle with sickness and disease, particularly malaria. Military restrictions, such as those on trade, travel and the possession of medicine by ordinary villagers, and demands, such as those for forced labour and finances, have left villagers ill-equipped to address such illness. Although the SPDC often forces villagers to construct dispensaries at their own expense, the primary function of these structures is to support claims of 'development' in Karen areas. The regime provides neither supplies nor support for staff upon completion, leaving them empty unless local villagers and traditional birth assistants wishing to maintain these clinics take it upon themselves to stock them with medicine afterwards. In such cases, the villagers must purchase the medicines themselves and pay whatever medics or nurses are to work there. Medicine and treatment however, is prohibitively expensive, so many villagers die from common and usually treatable ailments or find themselves in serious debt after paying for treatment.
The repression and regimentation of Dooplaya District previously documented in KHRG reports is continuing unabated. Moreover, it is important to note that rather than individual incidents of human rights abuses, it is the combined impact of constant restrictions and demands that military personnel enforce in 'pacified' areas, such as Dooplaya, that most pervasively undermine villagers' livelihoods and ultimately make life in these areas unsustainable. This is not simply a question of poverty which can be addressed through financial aid programmes, as has been repeatedly asserted in various fora by Charles Petrie, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator and head of the UN Development Programme in Rangoon; it is a question of predation and exploitation by military authorities that requires confronting the structures of military repression. The villagers themselves are already doing so by resisting and evading the demands placed on them and thereby undermining military power in their villages, but they are left to do this alone with no support from outside actors, most of whom have opted to align themselves with state structures instead of helping them in this struggle.
 Late in 1997, the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC), but with no significant change in policy or tactics.
 These are long-handled self-propelled (petrol-fuelled) ploughing machines used mainly to plough irrigated rice fields; the operator walks behind the machine.
 A traditional Karen dance, normally performed at ceremonies.
 Infantry Battalion of the SPDC, supposed to be about 500 soldiers strong, but at present most SPDC battalions number under 200.
 Light Infantry Battalion of the SPDC, supposed to be about 500 soldiers strong, but at present most SPDC battalions number under 200.
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