Toungoo Interview Transcript: Saw B---, December 2011
This report contains the full transcript of an interview conducted during December 2011 in W--- village, Daw Hpa Hkoh Township, Toungoo District by a villager trained by KHRG to monitor human rights conditions. The villager interviewed 50-year-old Saw B---, a church leader in W--- village, who described demands for forced labour by Tatmadaw Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #378 in November 2011, including cutting and portering bamboo poles for the rebuilding of LIB #378 military camp near W--- village, and portering food and performing messenger duty. Saw B--- raised concerns regarding food and livelihood security due to the destruction of W--- villagers' cardamom and coffee plantations by rats. He also explained how the Tatmadaw accused villagers of providing assistance to the Karen National Liberation Arm (KNLA) and placed explicit restrictions on the movement of villagers going to work in their cardamom and coffee plantations, which negatively impacts harvests and food security, in addition to restrictions on the transportation of batteries and medicine. Saw B--- also described the death of one villager due to the lack of medical facilities in the village. Other concerns raised include the absence of accessible education beyond grade seven, an insufficient number of teachers, and the omission of the Karen language from the W--- village school curriculum. Saw B--- noted that since the 2010 General Elections in Burma, the Tatmadaw began to increasingly frame demands for forced labour in terms of loh ah pay; a term traditionally referring to voluntary service for community projects. Saw B--- explained that villagers have responded to such concerns by deciding amongst themselves to only send those villagers who are available to go for forced labour, as well as by sharing food and lending money during times of hardship, and teaching the Karen language in church on Sundays.
Interview | Saw B---, (male, 50), W--- village, Daw Hpa Hkoh Township, Toungoo District (December 2011)
The following interview was conducted by a villager in Toungoo District and is presented below translated exactly as it was received, save for minor edits for clarity and security. This interview was received along with other information from Toungoo District, including four incident reports, five other interviews, one situation update, and 346 photographs.
Ethnicity: Bweh Karen
How do people address you?
People call me Saw B---.
How old are you?
Where do you live?
I live in W--- village.
Which township and district is W--- village in?
W---village is in Daw Hpa Hkoh Township and Toungoo District.
Which area is W--- [village] in?
W--- village is in the Day Loh [river] area.
What is your ethnicity?
My ethnicity is Bweh Karen.
What is your religion?
I'm a Christian.
Are you married?
Yes, I'm married.
How many children do you have?
I have two daughters and one son, so altogether I have three children.
How old is your eldest child?
My eldest child is 14-years-old.
How old is your youngest child?
My youngest child is five-years-old. My middle child will be 11-years-old next month.
What is your occupation in the village?
I am a leader of the church in my village.
What is your responsibility as a church leader?
There is not much to do in the village as a church leader, but sometimes we just give advice to the village head when they need our help. Furthermore, when the villagers don't know how to do something, I can show them the way to do it.
Can you tell me about what you have experienced as a church leader?
Yes, as I told you before there is not much for me to do but give advice to the village head because some village heads are very young. So, if they need to do something for the village, but they don't know how to do it, I advise them on how to do it. Regarding the religion [religious needs of the community], when the pastor is not in the village, I can lead them as a pastor or arrange to find another pastor.
How long have you had this responsibility?
I took on this responsibility in 2006 and now it's 2011 so it's been five years already.
Have you ever faced any problems as a church leader?
I have never faced a problem that I couldn't bear and [find a way to] solve. We have faced some problems but we have tried our best to solve them.
What are the problems that you have faced?
The problems concern the villagers' livelihoods. Sometimes we have faced food shortages in our village, and if a villager doesn't have enough food, we can't look down on him/her [cannot ignore the villager], so we try to arrange a way for them to have food on a daily basis.
Were you ever forced to porter for the SPDC Army [Tatmadaw] during 2010 or 2011?
Now, the SPDC Army camp is based in our area and [they also have] a smaller army camp that they built near L--- [village] and [another camp] in M--- [village]. Sometimes they force us to carry rice to L--- and M--- [villages]. After a letter [is sent by the Tatmadaw], we have to send [follow the instructions and do forced labour] for them.
Is their camp close to your village?
Yes, it's close to our village. Their camp is just outside of our village.
How many miles is it from your village to the military camp?
It's not even in miles, but just in furlong.
Because their camp is close to your village, has the SPDC Army ever disturbed you when you were traveling?
Yes, as usual, they always want to give us problems and we don't know what they think of us [if we are soldiers or just villagers]. We have many reasons for travelling. For instance, [once] when we went to our plantation field outside of our village, they [Tatmadaw soldiers] saw us and they said, "you can't go today, but you can go tomorrow; for today, we will not allow people to travel." They said this to us. If we want to carry things, they would not allow us to go and disturbed us by giving many reasons. For example, they said "Karen [Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)] soldiers came, but you didn't tell us, so today you are not allowed to travel [to work in the fields]; you gave food to the Karen soldiers but you didn't give us food so you can't go to work."
When did you last go for loh ah pay?
I can't remember the exact date, but I remember the month.
Can you tell me that?
It was in the mid-November . They [the Tatmadaw] were going to repair their military camp and they demanded the villagers go and cut the bamboo poles.
How many villagers had to go for loh ah pay?
Sometimes they ordered ten or twenty villagers to go for loh ah pay. If possible, they wanted to order the whole village, but we decided [which villagers] and about how many villagers needed to go for this loh ah pay. If we can send ten villagers, then we will send ten villagers, if we can send more than ten villagers, we will send more than ten villagers. It's not that we want to go for loh ah pay and want to help them [the Tatmadaw] willingly, but they asked us for [loh ah pay] once [already] and if we don't send any villagers to them, they will keep asking about this. So, it's not good if we don't send any villagers for loh ah pay.
You said sometimes you have to carry food for them to L--- and M--- [villages], so how far is L--- from W--- village?
To,[travel to] L--- [village], it took over one hour walking [by foot], but to M--- it took three hours [to travel] one way.
Did the SPDC Army also pay or give food to the villagers when they ordered them for loh ah pay?
They have never paid us for loh ah pay but sometimes they gave us food.
Do you know what their military unit is?
Their military unit is [Light Infantry Battalion (LIB)] #378.
How many soldiers are there in the military camp?
I don't know about the exact number of the soldiers, but I think it's around 50.
Do you know their battalion commander's name?
Because I'm not a village head, I'm not familiar with their battalion commander, so I don't know their battalion commander's name. I recognize the battalion commander when I see him, but [I don't know] his name.
In your opinion, comparing the past and with [the present year] 2011, do you think there have been any changes concerning [Tatmadaw] military activity?
After the [general] election [in Burma] in 2010, the SPDC Army ordered less forced labour than in the past. Even though they still ordered forced labour after the 2010 [election], it's a lot less than in the past. But instead of [calling it] "forced labour" they [call] it "loh ah pay" and have said that the villagers have to work together and participate in the development of their village. But for me, I understand that it is still forced labour, and not "loh ah pay"
How many households are there in W--- village?
There are [censored for security] in my village.
What are most villagers' occupations in your village?
Because we live in the village, most of the villagers are hill field farmers and plant [crops in] plantations.
Are there any villagers who don't get enough food?
Yes, we have some villagers who don't get enough food.
Are there any villagers from your village who go to other villages to work?
How much do they get paid for a day?
For one day, they will get around 2,000 or 2,500 kyat (US $2.44 or$3.07).
What is the best season for income in your village?
The best season for income in our village is the season when we sell cardamom and coffee. This season is the best season for our income. But this year we have had problems with the cardamom plants and coffee trees because of rats. The rats ate our cardamom plants and coffee and so they were all damaged. So, this year we don't have much income from our cardamom and coffee anymore. In the past the rats didn't eat our cardamom trees and coffee, so we got the best income from cardamom and coffee.
When you plant cardamom, how many years do you have to wait to be able to sell it?
In our village, when we plant cardamom, we have to wait at least five years to be able to sell it. If the soil is good for planting, you will be able to sell it in five years, but if the soil isn't good for planting, you have to wait eight or ten years to be able to sell it.
Do you think there will be any problems in the future regarding the livelihoods of the villagers?
Based on the problems we are facing this year, I think the coming year will be more difficult for us and we will face more problems. Until now, there are lots of villagers who borrow money and food from other villagers. They don't want to borrow it, but if they don't borrow, they can't survive because they need food for their daily survival. They borrow money and food from others in the hope that [they will be able to make back the money when] selling cardamom and coffee in the following season. If they can sell their cardamom and coffee, they will pay back the money and the food that they had borrowed [from other villagers]. But because of the problems that I have discussed above, I don't think that we will be able to sell our cardamom and coffee well. So, I think it'll be more difficult for the villagers and we will face more problems.
How is the transportation from W--- village to other villages?
Last year, we tried our best to build a road through Shwe Nyaung Bpin village. Even if it's not a good road, we can still travel on it. Motorbikes can go on it, but it's a little difficult and we need to be careful. The transportation isn't very good yet because of the roads.
Is this a road that the villagers worked together to build?
Yes, our villagers participated and built it together. The Burmese government didn't help us with anything.
Is there a school in your village?
Yes, we have [a school in W--- village].
What is the highest grade at the school in your village?
In the past, the highest grade was fourth grade, but since the 2006-2007 [school year] the highest grade has been seventh grade.
How many students are there in the school?
There are [censored for security] students altogether.
How many teachers do you have [at the school]?
Actually, there should be eight teachers for the whole school but we don't have enough teachers. Because the teachers are [also] distance university students, sometimes they have to go back to their city to go to their university. During those times, some classes of students don't have a teacher.
Are all the teachers [employed by] the Burmese government?
Yes, and all of them are from Daw Hpa Hkoh Township.
How much are the teachers paid per month?
The headmaster gets 90,000 kyat (US $110.02) a month and the other teachers get 60,000 kyat (US $73.35) a month.
How do you feel about the teaching skills of the teachers at W--- [village] school?
It's not that I want to criticize, but they are just teaching in order to get paid. They don't want to teach the best they can, but in order to get money. They don't care whether or not the students understand what they are teaching. I know that I shouldn't talk like this because some of the teachers really dedicate themselves for the students, so I want to say that I don't mean that every teacher doesn't care about the students, just some of them.
Where do the parents send their children after they have finished seventh grade in their village?
Most of the parents send their children to Than Daung Kyi [town] and some send their children to Toungoo [District] after their children have finished seventh grade in the village. Some children are very clever and their parents also want them to continue their education, but they can't afford their child's education fees because of money problems. So some children have to stop their education after grade seven.
Do the primary students and the seventh grade students have to pay the same amount of money for school enrolment?
No, the payments for school enrolment are not the same. I have a daughter who is in grade five. I have to pay 5,000 kyat (US $6.11) for the school stationary and school enrolment [fees per year] for her. For my youngest, I have to pay 1,000 kyat (US $1.22) [per year].
How much do sixth grade students and seventh grade students have to pay for school enrolment?
From grade five to grade seven, they only ask for 5,000 kyat from students.
Are the teachers allowed to teach the Karen language?
... [censored for security] ... But I haven't seen the teachers teach the Karen language yet.
How do you feel about the teachers who don't teach the Karen language?
I don't know whether the government allows them to teach the Karen language or not, but I think it's because we [the church] don't have a Karen [language] textbook and the teachers also don't have one.
Do the teachers teach the Karen language during Sunday school classes?
We have Sunday school class every week. Some of the teachers teach the Karen language during Sunday school class. The students are also trying their best to learn the Karen language during this class. But the problem is that we don't have a special Karen language class for them, so they don't know how to write in the Karen language as well as they should.
Do you have a hospital in your village?
No, we don't have a hospital. We just have a person who understands a bit about medicine. He finished medical training conducted by the Burmese government. We don't really have confidence in him because he is not an expert about medicine.
Where do you go if a villager is really sick and needs to go to the hospital?
When we are sick, we usually go to Daw Hpa Hkoh [Township] hospital and sometimes we go to Toungoo [District hospital]. Because our village lacks a hospital and is far from the towns that do have hospitals, some villagers die even though they shouldn't. Some villagers only have a fever but because we don't have medicine and other treatment, they die before arriving at the hospital.
Are you allowed to bring medicine from other villages to your village?
No, they [Tatmadaw] firmly prohibit it. We don't even dare to bring medicine to our village. It's really serious. If the SPDC Army sees that you [a villager] are transporting medicine or batteries, they will fine you or they will arrest you. The villagers really aren't allowed to bring medicine.
What is your opinion on why the SPDC Army prohibits the villagers from carrying medicine and batteries?
I think that if we have medicine, they [the Tatmadaw] will think that we share it with KNLA. [They would] think that [too] if we have batteries. They worry that we will give it to the KNLA without them knowing. This is the first reason for me. For the second reason, I think they just want to torture us, which is why they don't allow us to fulfil our needs.
What diseases [illnesses] occur most in your village?
I don't know about in the past, but this year the diseases that occur most often are malaria and fever.
Where do you go and buy rice?
For food like rice, salt and fish paste, some villagers go directly to Toungoo [town] to buy it. But some villagers who have difficulties with money just go and buy it at Than Daung Kyi [town] from the shop owners who they are close with. Then they can buy food without paying money at that time and pay later when they get money by selling the cardamom and coffee. Even though they want to go to Toungoo [town], it's a problem that they don't have the money to pay for it when they buy it.
How much do you have to pay for a big tin of rice that has already arrived in your village?
Usually, we have to pay 25,000 kyat (US $30.56) for a big tin of rice that people come and sell in our village. If we go and buy it at Than Daung Kyi [town], a big tin of rice will cost only 20,000 kyat (US $24.45).
What is the cost of meat?
One viss of pork will cost 4,500 kyat (US $5.50) and [one viss of] chicken will cost 5,000 kyat (US $6.11).
Are there any products that cost a different [amount] between last year and this year? Are products more expensive now?
The price [we sell] products changes every year. Last year the cost [at which we could sell of the cardamom was a fair [price]. A viss of cardamom was over 10,000 kyat (US $12.22). But this year, we can sell a viss of cardamom only for 5,000 kyat (US $6.11). This year, the rice that has arrived in our village will cost over 30,000 kyat (US $36.67), I think. The villagers will face more problems concerning this issue.
Have you seen the SPDC Army come and develop your village?
We have lived in our village for a long time, but I have never seen them develop our village. Sometimes, when the SPDC Army comes to our village, they ask us what we need. I think it's just to give us hope because they just ask us and never take action on it. I haven't seen them do anything that supports our village's development.
Why do you think the SPDC Army doesn't develop your village?
I think it could be for many reasons that they don't develop our village. I'm not sure whether they don't want our Karen people to be successful in our lives or they don't want to help improve [any of the] citizens' standard of living. They might have many reasons for not developing our village. It also could be that they have a weak point that we don't know about. But for sure, I think they might have a certain reason for this.
What do you think of the KNU [Karen National Union]?
...[censored for security]...They try their best for their people always stand for the truth.
Is there anything else that you want to report?
There is nothing special that I want to report [on] more.
 KHRG trains villagers in eastern Burma to document individual human rights abuses using a standardised reporting format; conduct interviews with other villagers; and write general updates on the situation in areas with which they are familiar. When writing situation updates, villagers are encouraged to summarise recent events, raise issues that they consider to be important, and present their opinions or perspective on abuse and other local dynamics in their area.
 In order to increase the transparency of KHRG methodology and more directly communicate the experiences and perspectives of villagers in eastern Burma, KHRG aims to make all field information received available on the KHRG website once it has been processed and translated, subject only to security considerations. As companion to this, a redesigned website will be released in 2012. In the meantime, KHRG's most recently-published field information from Toungoo District can be found in the Report, "Toungoo Situation Update: Received in November 2011," KHRG, April 2012.
 In Karen, the Burmese phrases Na Ah Pa (SPDC) and Na Wa Ta (SLORC) are commonly used to refer to the Burmese government or to Burma’s state army, the Tatmadaw. Many older Karen villagers who were accustomed to using the phrase Na Wa Ta (SLORC) before 1997 continue to use that phrase, even though the SLORC has not officially existed since 1997. Similarly, despite the official dissolution of the SPDC in March 2011, many Karen villagers continue to use the phrase Na Ah Pa (SPDC) to refer to the Burmese government or to the Tatmadaw; see: "Mission Accomplished as SPDC ‘dissolved’," Myanmar Times, April 4-10th 2011. The term Na Ah Pa was used by the villager who wrote this report and “SPDC” is therefore retained in the translation of this report.
 A furlong is 0.125 of a mile / 0.2 of a km.
 Loh ah pay is a Burmese term now commonly used in reference to forced labour, although traditionally referring to voluntary service for temples or the local community, not military or state projects.
 As of April 13th 2012 all conversion estimates for the kyat in this report/interview are based on a rate of 818 kyat to US $1. This reflects new measures taken by Burma's central bank on April 2nd 2012 to initiate a managed float of the kyat, thus replacing the previous fixed rate of 6.5 kyat to US $1.
 Cardamom seeds come from a plant belonging to the ginger family, and are recognized by their small seed pod, papery outer shell and small black seeds. Cardamom is typically grown on the jungle floor in South Asian countries.
 Unit of volume used to measure paddy, milled rice and seeds. One big tin is equivalent to 10.45 kg. / 23.04 lb. of paddy or 16 kg. / 35.2 lb. of milled rice.
 A viss is a unit of weight equivalent to 1.6 kg. / 3.52 lb.
 In this context 'development' is used generally to refer to development projects such as schools, medical clinics, water and sanitation projects or infrastructure.
|All images and reports © Karen Human Rights Group||Top|