Central Papun District: Village-level decision making and strategic displacement
This report details a sequence of events in one village in central Papun District in late 2009. The report illustrates how the community responded to exploitative and violent human rights abuses by SPDC Army units deployed near its village in order to avoid or reduce the harmful impact on livelihoods and physical security. It also provides a detailed example of the way local responses are often developed and employed cooperatively, thus affording protection to entire communities. This report draws extensively on interviews with residents of Pi--- village, Dweh Loh Township, who described their experiences to KHRG field researchers, supplemented by illustrations based on these accounts by a Karen artist. This is the third of four field reports documenting the situation in Papun District's southern townships that will be released in August 2010. The incidents and responses documented below occurred in November 2009.
Civilian populations in eastern Burma must frequently contend with regular threats to their livelihoods and physical security stemming from attempts by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Army to consolidate or maintain control of areas in which it continues to face low-intensity challenges by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). SPDC Army units in these areas support themselves by extracting significant material and labour resources from the local civilian population, backed by implicit or explicit threats of violence. Villagers must further contend with abuses related to KNLA activities, including conflicting demands from armed groups, threats from landmines laid by both sides and SPDC restrictions and reprisals.
Villagers, however, have responded with a variety of individual and collective strategies for protecting themselves from these abuses, or the effects of abuse. This report, which examines in detail conditions in Pi--- village in central Papun District, is an attempt to foster better understanding of the concerns and priorities of communities that continue to face abuse, and how and why they employ particular responses. Using information from KHRG researchers and excerpts of interviews with villagers from Pi---, as well as illustrations by a Karen artist, the report is designed to challenge traditional depictions of villagers as passive victims, while indicating potential entry points for practical external support for civilian protection across conflict areas in eastern Burma.
The report details the circumstances that led the population of Pi--- village to make the collective decision to flee to several locations in Dweh Loh and Bu Tho townships. In November 2009, Pi--- villagers decided to go into hiding in order to avoid sustained abuses by soldiers from a SPDC Army battalion stationed in a camp near their village. Villagers reported that the unit, from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #219, regularly imposed heavy demands for forced labour and the provision of material support, mirroring the practices of other units from LIB #219 across central Papun, as well as other SPDC battalions deployed in eastern Burma.
Although such ongoing demands threatened the livelihoods and physical security of villagers from Pi---, they had nonetheless attempted to pursue livelihoods activities and preserve sufficient resources to remain in their homes. On November 21st, however, a soldier from LIB #219 stepped on a KNLA landmine while walking outside Pi--- village, injuring himself and two other soldiers. The men, women and children of the village were subsequently subjected to multiple days of heavy restrictions and harsh treatment that exacerbated existing strains on their livelihoods and raised new security concerns. These concerns prompted the villagers to re-evaluate their situation and consider the best way ensure their own protection and, according to villagers interviewed by KHRG, resulted in their eventual decision to abandon the village.
Pi--- village is located in Ma Htaw village tract, Dweh Loh Township, which lies southwest of Papun Town in the Yunzalin River valley, between the Bilin and Ka Ma Maung to Papun roads. The SPDC Army maintains a large and permanent presence in this lowland area, with major camps at Toung Tho Lo (aka. 'Three Mountains), Ma Htaw village, Htwee Thee Uh (Chaw Tha Yar in Burmese), and Ku Seik, and at strategic points along the vehicle roads; in 2009, LIB #219 was headquartered at Toung Tho Lo. Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) Gk'saw Wah 'White Elephant' Special Battalion #777 also maintained a presence in the area in 2009, while units from Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) 5th Brigade remained active in adjacent upland areas of Dweh Loh and Bu Tho townships, and sometimes making 'guerrilla' style attacks and placing landmines and booby traps in lowland areas.
In 2009, LIB #219 soldiers based in Ma Htaw village tract made frequent and onerous exploitative demands from communities in the surrounding village tracts to support their presence and ongoing operations. Residents of Pi--- reported that the unit stationed at the SPDC Army camp near their village consistently issued demands for unpaid forced labour, especially for portering and messenger duty (set tha). Villagers were particularly concerned about the risk of death or injury from landmines while performing these duties, and reported that they would avoid travelling along roads while portering or delivering messages for the SPDC Army because they believed that the roads had been mined by KNLA and SPDC forces; KNLA units active in central Papun often lay landmines along roads during and after the annual monsoon rains to disrupt SPDC and DKBA activities, such as troop rotations and re-supply operations. The villagers communicated their concerns about landmines to the SPDC soldiers, but reported that the labour orders were not withdrawn or revised. One villager also told KHRG that soldiers based near Pi--- often demanded, and sometimes simply confiscated food to supplement their rations, although villagers were able to preserve limited food resources by hiding rice from the troops.
In October and November 2009, villagers in Pi--- and the surrounding villages were heavily affected by measures imposed by SPDC forces to secure roads in the area for rations delivery. In October, tight movement restrictions on all villages in Ma Htaw village tract prevented villagers from travelling freely between their homes and agricultural projects. Although individuals with land near their villages were able to work their fields and plantations for limited hours during daylight, crops in 16 plantations and two paddy fields belonging to residents of Pi--- were destroyed because they could not be properly maintained by their owners. On October 25th, every household in Ma Htaw village tract, including Pi---, was ordered to send one person to clear brush and grass from sections of the Ka Ma Maung to Papun vehicle road near their villages, despite the risk of death or injury by landmines laid along roads by SPDC and KNLA forces active in the area.
SPDC and DKBA forces also recognised that KNLA landmines and ambushes along the road were a serious concern in the area around Pi---. Beginning on November 9th, residents of Pi--- were ordered to send villagers to serve as round-the-clock sentries at the SPDC Army camp near the village as an additional security measure due to fears about KNLA attacks and landmines; Pi--- was told to supply three villagers at a time, and rotate those on duty with fresh sentries every morning and evening. On November 15th, DKBA soldiers under the command of Saw Pah Soo, a monk, and Company Commander Soe Myint Oo, also ordered bullock cart owners in Ma Htaw village to drive their carts from Ma Htaw to Pi--- and back, in order to clear the road of landmines. The villagers were instructed to place heavy loads, but not military equipment or rations, on their carts to ensure that any existing mines were triggered.
Worsening SPDC abuse and village-level responses
Despite efforts to clear landmines and otherwise secure roads for annual delivery of rations after the end of the rainy season, on November 21st 2009 a soldier from a unit of 30 men from LIB #219 based at the Pi--- SPDC camp stepped on a landmine while walking between the camp and Pi--- village, injuring himself and two others. After the incident, the residents of Pi--- village were ordered to assemble in the camp and subjected to harsh treatment and tight restrictions, apparently as punishment. Locally deployed SPDC units often tell villagers that they will be held accountable for KNLA landmines and ambushes near their homes, regardless of whether or not the villagers have any contact with KNLA forces in their area; for this reason, village heads have asked local KNLA commanders not to carry out operations near their communities. At least one villager from Pi--- interviewed by KHRG field researchers expressed surprise and frustration that landmines had been planted so close to their village without consulting the villagers or considering the impact on the community.
After assembling the population of Pi--- in the SPDC camp, the villagers were interrogated about the landmine and forced to stay in the sun for the remainder of the day without food or water, until 5 pm. Adult villagers who were not already serving as forced porters were ordered to clear brush from along the vehicle road while the children, including infants, were forced to sit in the sun unattended while their parents worked. Villagers told KHRG that they were not allowed to feed or otherwise take care of their children. Male villagers, many of whom had already been regularly serving as porters prior to the explosion, were forced to continue portering SPDC rations and faced increased hostility from the soldiers.
While Pi--- village was empty, some of the SPDC soldiers entered homes and looted rice, oil, salt, fish paste, and some of the villagers' animals. After being denied food for the day, the villagers returned in the evening to find almost no food in their village. The LIB #219 commander issued an order forbidding locals from pounding rice paddy that evening. For the next two or three days the residents of Pi--- were again ordered to work clearing roadside brush while their children and women not working as labourers were forced to sit in the sun. The villagers were only permitted to return to their homes for a short time each evening, after which they had to return to sleep inside the SPDC Army camp.
As explained by Saw R---, for the residents of Pi--- village the abuses perpetrated by LIB #219 soldiers after the landmine incident made life in the face of ongoing abuse unsustainable; while the villagers had apparently been able contend with earlier exploitative demands imposed by LIB #219, such as by hiding food stores, the harsh restrictions and treatment after the landmine incident were a new development that could not be borne. At least one individual interviewed by KHRG said that while the adults could endure the punitive forced labour, exposure and deprivation of food imposed on the village, their children could not. Some villagers reported that they appealed directly to the soldiers about the harsh treatment, but that their complaints were ignored. After the third or fourth day of harsh treatment, the villagers held a meeting to discuss their situation, and potential responses. They decided to leave Pi--- that night. A KHRG field researcher reported that 105 villagers in total, including 47 children, escaped to hiding sites in Ma Htaw village tract, and east across the Ka Ma Maung to Papun road in Meh Nyu and Meh Gku village tracts in Bu Tho Township.
When they were interviewed by a KHRG field researcher shortly after fleeing Pi---, the villagers expressed sadness that they had had to leave their homes and land, but said at the time that they did not want to return to face further abuses. At least two interviewees said that SPDC authorities had attempted to contact the villagers in their hiding sites to encourage them to return to Pi---, but that they did not yet feel that they could safely go back. The villagers had not yet set up permanent shelters, and were actively monitoring the situation to determine whether to return to their homes, remain in their present locations and integrate into their host communities, or remove themselves to more secure hiding sites further from SPDC control. Many villagers said that they had insufficient food and limited sources of income in their hiding sites, but were surviving as best they could with support from local communities in the areas to which they had fled. A number of villagers were taking employment as daily labourers, harvesting rice on farms owned by members of their host communities in return for a small amount of un-threshed paddy to sustain themselves and their families. Although most had invested significant labour into their own hill fields in Pi--- during 2009, they did not feel safe to return to maintain their agricultural projects. Villagers said they were continuing to discuss their options among themselves, but it appears likely that different households may arrive at different conclusions about how to address their concerns.
Villagers' accounts of their experiences of and responses to SPDC abuse in Pi--- village before and during November 2009 illustrate how communities in rural eastern Burma often assess their local human rights situation, and how different abuses impact their livelihoods and physical security. Prior to November, the residents of Pi--- appear to have judged that their protection needs would be best served by staying in their homes and meeting LIB #219's demands for forced labour and material support. This entailed maintaining existing agricultural projects despite restrictions on their movements, and attempting to preserve limited food resources with strategies such as hiding rice.
As abuse intensified following the injury of three LIB #219 soldiers by a KNLA landmine outside Pi--- on November 21st, however, the new livelihoods and security threats prompted the villagers to consider displacement as a better means of ensuring the community's protection. The decision to abandon their homes and land resources in favour of relocation to areas with potentially greater food and physical insecurity was the outcome of a village-level decision-making process in Pi--- that reflects the villagers' perception of the imminent and serious threats posed by LIB #219. After becoming displaced, the villagers continued to assess and discuss how they could best address protection concerns, such as by returning to Pi---, remaining in their temporary hiding sites, or relocating to alternative hiding sites further from military control.
The Pi--- community's decision to flee is an example of the way that villagers often use displacement strategically, as a method for protecting themselves from abuse. Such decisions are not taken lightly, as they mean abandoning land that may be the site of significant family or cultural connection, as well as extensive investment of labour and resources. Villagers in Pi---, and elsewhere, nonetheless appear to carefully evaluate and compare security and livelihoods risks at home and in other areas. These local concerns and priorities, and the strategies employed to address them, should be acknowledged, respected and supported. Local actors are best able to assess the obstacles and threats they face, including protection concerns, and formulate appropriate responses. External actors wishing to promote human rights in eastern Burma should thus seek detailed understandings of these activities and the concerns and priorities that inform them. Such nuanced understandings are necessary for developing practical support that broadens villagers' range of feasible options for responding to abuse and the effects of abuse.
All illustrations included in this report were drawn, coloured and provided for KHRG's use by Saw Taw Nay Htoo, indentified below the images in the report as STNH.
For more on problems related to depictions that frame villagers contending with abuse as passive victims, see Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008.
For details on the activities of LIB #219 in central Papun in 2009, see: "Central Papun District: Abuse and the maintenance of military control," KHRG, August 2010.
For examples of KNLA units targeting SPDC roads and road construction operations in other parts of Bu Tho Township, see: "SPDC and DKBA road construction, forced labour and looting in Papun District," KHRG, March 2009. The KNLA formally adopted the use of guerrilla tactics in 1998 at a military conference in Mae Hta Raw Tha, Dooplaya District. See, Ashley South, Ethnic politics in Burma: States of conflict, New York: Routledge, 2009 (2nd ed.), p.56.
Set tha; Forced labour as a messenger stationed at army camps or bases and serving as a go-between to deliver orders from army officers to village heads, but also involving other menial tasks such as cooking, collecting water and cutting firewood.
For more on road clearance as a form of forced labour see: Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State, KHRG, November 2008, pp.49-50.
Some male villagers had already been regularly serving as porters prior to the explosion. They were forced to continue portering SPDC rations but were not permitted to return to sleep in their village for five nights and faced increased hostility from the soldiers.
Villagers interviewed by KHRG field researchers identified commanding officers in LIB #219 as Ba--- and Ho---. These names have been censored for security reasons.
Villagers' and KHRG field researchers' accounts differ as to the number of days the residents of Pi--- were subjected to harsh treatment before fleeing; one villager and KHRG field researchers said the abuse continued for three days, while another villager said they suffered for four and a half days.
Karen speakers sometimes use an ordinary name in lieu of an indefinite pronoun such as 'someone'. In the quote above, Naw M--- is using this speaking convention which has been maintained in the translation; she is not referring to actual people. An English equivalent might be, "We don't know if the SPDC took them or if it was Tom, Dick or Harry," in which Tom, Dick and Harry are not actual people.
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