Supporting local responses to extractive abuse: Commentary on the ND-Burma report Hidden Impact
Eighteen years of KHRG field research indicates that regular extractive abuses by the SPDC Army and NSAGs threaten local livelihoods and are a fundamental human rights concern for villagers throughout eastern Burma. These abuses appear to be the product of the established SPDC Army and NSAG practice of supporting military units via extraction of significant material and labour resources from the local civilian population, enforced by implicit or explicit threats of violence. These findings were recently affirmed by ND-Burma, which last week released a report documenting the prevalence and impact of arbitrary taxation for communities across Burma. This commentary is designed to support ND-Burma's report, by offering additional recommendations based upon evidence that civilians have developed and employed a range of strategies for protecting themselves from extractive abuse or its consequences. These responses vary between contexts, and have been formulated based on first-hand awareness of the local dynamics of abuse and potential space for safe response. Seeking to understand, and then support, these local protection efforts should be the starting point for any external actors interested in improving human rights conditions in eastern Burma in both the short and long term.
On September 1st 2010 the Network for Human Rights Documentation - Burma (ND-Burma) released its first report, 'We have to give them so much that our stomachs are empty of food:' The Hidden Impact of Burma's Corrupt and Arbitrary Taxation (hereinafter Hidden Impact), documenting the widespread use of various forms of 'taxation' by State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) authorities to extract resources from Burma's civilian population. KHRG welcomes the release of this report, and supports ND-Burma's decision to focus attention on a human rights issue that is of such priority for communities across Burma.
The findings of Hidden Impact are consistent with information collected by KHRG over almost two decades of field research in eastern Burma. KHRG's research focuses on reporting local perspectives on, and responses to, human rights abuse. Villagers' testimonies consistently describe how regular extractive abuses by SPDC Army authorities - and by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) - severely undermine local livelihoods, making such abuses a predominant and urgent human rights concern for many communities. Extractive abuses by the SPDC and NSAGs documented by KHRG include various forms of arbitrary taxation and ad hoc demands for financial and material support, as well as demands for various forms of forced labour including: fabricating and delivering building materials; construction and maintenance of roads; portering; forced recruitment into military service; guide, sentry, and 'messenger' duty; construction of army camps, fences, schools, libraries and clinics; and forced agriculture.
KHRG's research also strongly indicates that the forced extraction of significant financial, material, and labour resources from civilian populations by SPDC and non-state military units is an established, widespread practice throughout eastern Burma. Military personnel who engage in these practices do not appear to be punished or otherwise held accountable for their actions, suggesting that the practice of SPDC units supporting themselves via local extraction is ignored or tacitly condoned, if not explicitly mandated by SPDC policy. KHRG therefore supports Hidden Impact's findings that extractive abuse is linked to deliberate SPDC Army practices. KHRG has previously made several specific recommendations focusing on the revision of SPDC Army practices that entail the extraction of significant resources from civilian populations and severe impacts on local livelihoods.
KHRG has also documented widely, however, that civilians employ a variety of strategies to avoid or reduce demands like those described above, and thereby protect their communities and livelihoods from extractive abuse and/or its harmful effects. Local protection strategies documented by KHRG include: complaints and negotiation; bribery or payment of 'fines' to avoid fulfilling a demand, including negotiations to reduce payments; lying; refusing; confronting; seeking intervention or mediation from alternate mutually-recognised authorities or respected figures; various forms of discreet partial or false compliance; and evasion. For detailed analysis and examples of these strategies, see Appendix 1 below.
The strategies described above are not always effective; indeed, they can sometimes expose villagers to new risks. Villagers interviewed by KHRG have reported violence or threats of violence used by military personnel to enforce unmet demands. In cases where the threat or spectre of violence is not overt, threats are intimated clearly enough that villagers recognise that responses other than compliance risk dangerous consequences. Even the use of a formalised forced labour complaint mechanism, established by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in cooperation with the SPDC, can be dangerous for civilians.
Given the prevailing threat of extreme violence faced by many communities, outside observers should not assume that because some villagers can reduce or avoid extractive abuse, all villagers can use similar strategies to safely or successfully protect themselves. Conversely, observers should not assume that because some villagers are unable to do anything but fully comply with an abusive demand, all villagers have similarly limited options for responding to abuse. The local contexts within which civilians face abuse vary widely, as do the power relationships that dictate villagers' available options for protecting themselves. Local villagers have first-hand awareness of these relationships, the space available for attempting to avoid complying with certain demands, and ultimately the protection strategies that they can feasibly employ without risking punitive violent responses from military authorities. Uses of these strategies comprise one part of a dynamic relationship, in which civilians continually test the limits of what they can do to safely resist abuses, and in which the range of viable protection strategies evolves according to local circumstances. That communities and community leaders in eastern Burma are sometimes able to reduce or avoid extractive demands illustrates not only the courage and creativity with which villagers respond to threats to their security and livelihoods, but also that local actors are best able to assess the obstacles and threats they face, including protection concerns, and develop commensurate and effective responses.
These local responses to abuse should be understood as serving a function that is in line with the humanitarian protection objectives of all actors interested in improving human rights conditions in eastern Burma. Political and practical difficulties associated with using outside advocacy to obtain sincere commitments from senior SPDC officials to alter abusive practices, as well as obstacles to communicating and enforcing reform throughout the chain of command, suggest that supporting existing local processes for assessing and addressing communities' protection concerns remains the best available option for improving protection of civilians and civilian livelihoods in the short term. Any actor interested in improving the protection of human rights for civilians facing extractive abuses in eastern Burma, then, should make their starting point supporting local strategies for self-protection. Efforts should be made to increase the number of villagers able to actively pursue protection of their human rights, broaden villagers' range of feasible options for self-protection, and reduce the risks for villagers that attempt such activities. Outside actors could, for example, seek to support villagers' attempting to negotiate reductions in abusive demands by encouraging the SPDC to make clear policies about what constitutes legal taxation, encouraging the punishment of violators and then widely publicising information about such punishment. While such policies would not likely be immediately or comprehensively obeyed, the existence of such a law - particularly if it has been enforced even in an ad hoc manner - might serve as a useful negotiating tool in some local contexts.
Support for local protection efforts must be based on a detailed understanding of local dynamics of abuse, community priorities, and local capacities for - and threats to - response. This means seeking first to understand the particular strategies used by different communities to respond to abuse, and then crafting external responses to support those local activities. Policies and programmes fashioned in this way will be best positioned to positively strengthen local capacities for self-protection in the short-term. Detailed understanding of dynamics of abuse and local response is also crucial to ensuring that no well-intentioned activities inadvertently undermine local attempts at human rights protection. Many communities, for instance, attempt to reduce demands by providing false population statistics; if a village home to 70 households is sometimes ordered to provide fewer forced labourers than a village of 100, large villages may feel it behoves them to appear smaller. Actors providing aid or development support should thus be careful not to undermine these attempts by, for instance, initiating or supporting registration processes that contradict strategically falsified local information.
Ultimately, local attempts to protect villagers from abuse are an important method by which regular people are able to seek control over their lives despite an absence of institutionalised democracy. Supporting these processes is not to abandon attempts at effecting national-level political change in Burma; in many ways, strengthening local capacities for human rights protection is a prerequisite for sustainable, long-term political change. Local responses to abuse, particularly those that involve engaging with power holders or cooperation within or between communities, represent a vital opportunity for developing civil society networks and forms of local accountability. Such developments are painstakingly slow and will not alone guarantee protection of civilians from human rights abuses. But they are a vital method for rebalancing existing power relationships between civilians and a large, powerful and unaccountable military that is not likely willing or able to change abusive practices overnight via administrative fiat, or regime change. Given these realities, every possible effort should be made to support local efforts at human rights protection; no villagers' human rights should be sacrificed for any external agenda while methods exist for improving local human rights conditions, today.
Appendix 1: Local responses to extractive abuses
Extractive abuses such as forced labour or arbitrary taxation are backed by implicit or explicit threats of violence. Failure to comply with such demands risks violent responses by army or state personnel, the risk increasing the more overt the lack of compliance. Despite such risks, however, rural villagers employ a variety of strategies to minimise or avoid complying with exploitative demands. These strategies range from simple requests for reductions in 'taxation' quotas to aggressive challenges for military personnel to withdraw their demands. Relying on firsthand knowledge of and experience with local military personnel - and repression - local villagers are often deft at discerning how much or how little space exists to oppose particular orders. Strategies which villagers employ in areas under the consolidated control of the SPDC Army or NSAGs include, amongst other techniques complaints and negotiation; bribery or payment of 'fines' to avoid fulfilling a demand, including negotiations to reduce payments; lying; refusing; confronting; seeking intervention or mediation from alternate mutually-recognised authorities or respected figures; various forms of discreet partial or false compliance; and evasion. The following Appendix provides details on these strategies, including direct testimony from villagers describing their experiences across eastern Burma. Sections of this Appendix were previously published by KHRG in the November 2008 report Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State.
Rural villagers are sometimes able to negotiate to reduce or avoid demands placed upon them. Because demands for taxation and other resources are often issued to village heads rather than individual households, leaders are sometimes able to appeal to military personnel for reductions. Such negotiation takes different forms, with leaders invoking a variety of arguments based upon the local context.
Such successful negotiation efforts notwithstanding, attempts at negotiating a reduction in demands are not always effective and the initial order may stand unchanged.
Bribing officials is often intertwined with forms of negotiation as examined above. These two strategies can function together to reduce the total requirements placed on a given village. So long as the cost of the bribe is less than the cost of compliance, this strategy bears tangible savings for the local community. In May 2009, for instance, a village head from M--- village, southern Papun District, described to KHRG her attempt to reduce a demand made upon her village by DKBA soldiers. The soldiers had arrested two of her villagers for violating a curfew, and said they would not be released until the village paid 2,000,000 kyat (approx. US $1,818). Rather than pay the large amount, the village head was able to negotiate with and bribe the local commander, telling him:
Nevertheless, bribery occasionally has its limits:
Rural villagers sometimes lie and use deceit to reduce demands placed upon them by military personnel. Because these demands are often issued at a level proportionate to either the village population or number of households, a common strategy is to underreport the number of villagers or households in a given village, allowing villagers to reduce the total amount requested. In some contexts the savings are divided amongst the village, while in others the strategy is used to lesson the burden on vulnerable households, such as those headed by widows or orphans.
Outright refusal to comply with stated demands is a step up in the scale of confrontation between villagers and local authorities. As such, the decision to employ this tactic requires that the cost of compliance outweighs the risk of violent or other retaliation by military personnel. Villagers familiar with particular local officials are, therefore, in a better position to predict the possible responses which their actions may incur. Villagers have refused outright to comply with a range of orders issued by military personnel including, amongst other things, arbitrary taxation, forced labour and ad hoc demands for food.
Such refusal may, however, not be an outright rejection of entire demands, but rather a unilateral reduction in amount or simply a delay in compliance. Even so, reduced or delayed compliance provides tangible benefits to civilian communities. For instance, for farmers that must invest in seasonal inputs like seeds and fertilizer, taxation demands at an inopportune moment can force the sale of property or push households into debt. Alternately, if payment can be delayed until after a crop is harvested and sold, farmers may be more able to make a payment without having to resort to high-interest loans or sale of property.
As outright refusal is a much more overt form of resistance and thus an explicit denial of formal authority, violent or other retaliation is more likely. As such, these acts of refusal are all the more courageous.
Direct confrontation is the most overt form of resisting demands placed upon villagers (short of outright violence). In many respects confrontation overlaps with the various forms of refusal examined above. The effectiveness of confrontation over the implementation of abusive demands depends, like the various forms of negotiation and refusal examined above, on the particular relations and balance of power between the local military official and (typically) the village head; both parties' perceptions of the legitimacy of a particular demand; and the possibility of violent or other retaliation. Village heads or other civilians employing such confrontation must thus weigh the cost of compliance against the risk of retaliation.
It is important to note that direct confrontation is not always successful. Confrontation can result in villagers simply being ignored by military personnel or worse, in the case of violent or other retaliation. In the quote below, for example, the village head's complaint to a local SPDC official was simply dismissed with a denial that any action could be effectively taken to address the issue being raised. However, even when confrontation fails to obtain material benefits, such acts of resistance can still serve to uphold villagers' dignity.
Appealing to mutually-recognised authorities or respected figures
While the presence of SPDC Army, allied and opposition NSAG, as well as civilian authorities in some areas of eastern Burma can lead to greater extractive demands being levied on certain communities, villagers and village leaders have also reportedly used this circumstance to limit the extractive activities of one group. Villagers have described complaining about multiple demands levied by different authorities when negotiating with local commanders to reduce or avoid demands; others have reported appealing to more senior or alternate authorities, or mutually-respected figures to intervene and mediate or order the withdrawal of a demand issued by local authorities. When dealing with the DKBA, for example, some villagers have described being able to consult with senior monks to help them avoid complying with demands made by DKBA military personnel.
Various forms of discreet false-compliance
False compliance entails a response whereby the appearance of compliance is maintained without villagers actually meeting demands in full. This type of strategy has included, amongst other things, delaying compliance, foot-dragging on forced labour assignments, shoddy workmanship on construction projects, ignoring order documents, partial compliance (i.e. incomplete provisions of money, labour, food or supplies) or the provision of poor quality paddy or other supplies to meet demands.
Meeting demands only in part appears to be one of the most common forms of false compliance that villagers in Karen State have employed. It is a statement on the relative power of villagers that they are often able get away with providing an amount of money, labourers, food or other supplies below what soldiers initially demanded.
Temporary evasion by villagers of military personnel remains a frequently pursued tactic wherever possible. When effective, this strategy allows villagers to avoid compliance with demands for labour, money, food and other supplies (by avoiding the demand in the first place), without permanently abandoning their homes. Villagers able to get advanced warning of the impending arrival of army patrols or other military personnel likely to issue demands may simply 'happen' to be outside of the village when military personnel arrive. Sometimes a village head may receive news of the impending arrival of these military personnel and inform his or her constituents so as to allow them an opportunity to get away.
 The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), formed in 1994 after splitting from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The DKBA has operated in cooperation with the SPDC Army, and parts of the organisation formally came under the SPDC as a 'Border Guard Force' in August 2010.
 'We have to give them so much that our stomachs are empty of food:' The Hidden Impact of Burma's Corrupt and Arbitrary Taxation System (hereinafter Hidden Impact), Network for Human Rights Documentation - Burma (hereinafter ND-Burma), September 2010.
 KHRG conducts research in an area sometimes locally referred to as 'Karen State.' According to designations used by the SPDC, this includes all or portions of Kayin, Kayah and Mon states and significant parts of Bago and Tanintharyi Divisions. For a small sample of recent KHRG reports detailing the widespread use of forced labour, taxation and other extractive abuses levied against the civilian population by the SPDC Army and NSAGs, and impacts on community livelihoods, see: Shouldering the Burden of Militarisation: SDPC, DKBA and KPF order documents since September 2006, KHRG, August 2007; "SPDC and DKBA order documents: October 2007 to March 2008," KHRG, August 2008; Food Crisis: The cumulative impact of abuse in Rural Burma, KHRG, April 2009; Abuse, Poverty and Migration: Investigating migrants' motivations to leave home in Burma, KHRG, June 2009; SPDC and DKBA order documents: August 2008 to June 2009, KHRG, August 2009.
 An overview of extractive practices confronted by villagers is available in Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008, pp.40-76. This overview also describes additional forms of forced labour not listed above, such as mandatory attendance at meetings. See also: "Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review: Human rights concerns in KHRG research areas," KHRG, July 2010.
 The SPDC Army's consistent reliance on forced extraction of resources, labour and material support from the civilian population has been referred to as the 'live off the land' or 'self-reliance' policy by KHRG as well as respected scholars of Burma's military history. Andrew Selth, for example, dates the policy to 1997, when Burma's War Office reportedly issued an order instructing the country's Regional Commanders that troops "were to meet their basic logistical needs locally, rather than rely on the central supply system." See, Andrew Selth, Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory, Norwalk: Eastbridge, 2002 p. 136. See also, Mary Callahan, "Of kyay-zu and kyet-zu: the military in 2006," pp. 36-53 in Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson (eds.), Myanmar: The State, Community and the Environment, Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2007 p. 46.
 For examples of KHRG reports detailing local attempts to protect communities from extractive abuses and/or its harmful effects, see: Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008; "Ongoing accounts of village-level resistance," KHRG, July 2009; "Southern Papun District: Abuse and the expansion of military control," KHRG, August 2010.
 KHRG has also referred to some types of local responses as 'resistance strategies,' a term which emphasises the political character of strategies which function as implicit statements about the legitimacy of local power relationships that facilitate resource extraction and extractive abuse across Karen State. See, Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008. This report will refer to these practices as 'local protection' or 'self-protection' strategies, however, in an effort to emphasise the degree to which they are in line with traditionally understood humanitarian protection objectives. For the most commonly accepted definition of 'humanitarian protection,' see Strengthening Protection in War: A Search for Professional Standards, International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), 2001, pp.28-37. The ICRC defines protection as "all activities, aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. human rights, humanitarian and refugee law)."
 These facts provide an important reminder that outside actors should be careful not to encourage or pressure villagers to engage in self-protection activities that may place them in danger.
 The importance of supporting local strategies for human rights protection has been noted by, for example, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the European Community Humanitarian Office and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. For discussion of these and other examples of the way local self-protection strategies cohere with international humanitarian protection objectives, see Self-protection under strain: Targeting of civilians and local responses in northern Karen State, KHRG, August 2010 pp.50-52. See also, Casey A. Barrs, Preparedness Support: Helping Brace Beneficiaries, Local Staff and Partners for Violence, research paper released under the auspices of the Cuny Center, May 2010 pp.1-2.
 BBC and VOA; Foreign Burmese-language news radio stations which broadcast into Burma.
 Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed group which has, in various forms, been in conflict with Burma's central government since 1948.
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