THE YE-TAVOY RAILWAY
An Independent Report by the
Karen Human Rights Group
April 13, 1994
In November 1993, the SLORC began construction on the Ye-Tavoy railway in Burma's far south, between the towns of Ye in southern Mon State and Tavoy in Tenasserim (Taninthari) Division. The railway is approximately 110 miles long, and as usual with all of the SLORC's "regional development projects", every inch of it is being built at gunpoint, entirely by the enforced slave labour of villagers. Estimates are that over 20,000 people have already been enslaved on a rotating shift basis from hundreds of villages between Ye and Tavoy, as well as from the two towns themselves and other villages far beyond the reach of the railway. As of February 5, 1994 the New Mon State Party (NMSP) had confirmed figures totalling 13,493 people enslaved, and this only included one area of construction up to that date. The population in the area is mixed, made up of Mon, Karen, Tavoyan and Burman, all of whom are being enslaved. The usual procedure is to force every family in each village to provide one family member for labour for rotating shifts of 15 days, though this can vary. People who do not work to the satisfaction of the soldiers are often beaten, and many people have died from beatings, sickness, and lack of food. The Committee for Publicity of People's Struggle in Monland (CPPSM) reports that by January, 10 villagers from Hsin Ku village, 10 from Hsa Taw village, and at least 15 others had been detained by SLORC for not working hard enough and are now being forced to work on the railway indefinitely, without rest. The SLORC provides no food, and the NMSP reports that in at least one area, the villagers were told to bring food for 2 weeks and then kept for 3 weeks. As a result, many ran out of food and villagers from Way Kyaun, Aye Kanee, Kamauk Kyaun, Pa Ya, and Aung Bin Kwin villages fled home. The soldiers threatened the headmen and forced the villagers back to the railway, where they distributed 200 bags of rice they had trucked in from Ye town with the understanding that the villagers must pay it back. Of course, they took photos and video of the soldiers giving out the rice, but it was finished in one day and then the soldiers forced the people in villages surrounding the work site to provide more food for the labourers. However, this is the only reported case of any food whatsoever being arranged, and absolutely no one has been paid. Further south, the Mergui-Tavoy Information Service of the Karen National Union reports that villagers who must work on the railway are also being forced to provide 20 railway sleepers per family, which they must cut and make themselves.
The main line runs north-south parallel to the coast. In some areas, the SLORC seems to be building up to 3 parallel railway lines, according to villagers from the area. For example, near Tavoy they seem to be building one line on each side of the north-to-south flowing Tavoy River, and possibly a third parallel line further east. The villagers are not sure of the overall plan, but there may have been a route change partway through construction. The line being cleared further inland may also not be a railway at all, but preparatory work for the planned French-American-SLORC-Thai gas pipeline to be laid from Kanbauk on the coast to Nat Ei Taung at the Thai border. SLORC may be calling the third line a "railway" just to cover up evidence of slavery on the pipeline route.
The slave labour is mainly being supervised by SLORC Infantry Battalions #343, #409 and #410, and Light Infantry Battalion #104. Since early 1992, the SLORC has sent 10 new battalions into the area, #401 thru #410, mainly to secure the gas pipeline route. This flood of new troops and their demands for money, food, and slave labour have already made life desperate for the villagers, and the Ye-Tavoy railway has driven them the final step to starvation. Villages are now breaking up and thousands are fleeing to the forests, the revolutionary areas and the Thai border. The Thai Army is now working closely with SLORC to stop them reaching and crossing the border, but even so hundreds are arriving in refugee camps north of Kanchanaburi.
The following interviews were conducted by the Karen Human Rights Group in these refugee camps at the end of March 1994. The villagers come from several areas, and have worked on various different stretches of the railway and at different times. This explains the differences in their stories relating to the type of labour, the treatment by the troops, and the width of the path being cleared. Note that the width of the path is very wide for a railway, because it is usual for the SLORC to clear a wide "killing ground" along roads and railways in order to make it hard for civilians and opposition forces to cross without detection.
The SLORC, as usual, says this project is for the long term benefit of the local villagers, but even if the villagers are allowed to ride on it, which they may not be, none of them will have the money to do so because of constant extortion and looting by SLORC troops. It is more likely that the railway is being built to transport ammunition and supplies to the thousands of new troops the SLORC is sending into the area, and possibly to supply the planned gas pipeline, which will cross the railway at about its halfway point. As for the effect on area villagers, one need only look at the 100-mile Loikaw-Aung Ban railway, built between Kayah and Shan States in 1991-93. It was built by hundreds of thousands of Pa'O, Shan, Karenni and other slaves "for their own good". 20,000 Karenni were driven into labour concentration camps for the purpose. Hundreds, maybe thousands, died of beatings, disease and starvation "for their own good". Now that it's finished, the main effect on the villagers in the area is that they are all forced to do slave labour "guarding" the railway line. Diplomats from Germany, Britain and other states disgraced their countries by flocking to cut the ribbons at the Loikaw-Aung Ban railway, and they will almost certainly do the same on the Ye-Tavoy railway if the SLORC manages to finish it. It is up to people in those countries to stop them, in memory of the villagers whose stories you are about to read.
All of the names of the villagers who tell the following stories have been changed, but all details of their stories remain as told. They often mention "porter fees": this is a name given by SLORC troops to protection money they extort from villagers. It is theoretically to be used to hire munitions and supply porters, but such porters are always enforced slaves, and are never paid. Please feel free to use the text of this report in any way which may help the peoples of Burma end their suffering.
NAME: Maung Aye
ADDRESS: Michaung Laun Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married, 2 children aged 7 years and 4 months
DESCRIPTION: Karen Christian, Farmer
I arrived here a couple of months ago. I came because the soldiers are shooting at people around my village. I can't bear to live there now. When I was there I had to work on the railway for 15 days at a time and they fed us nothing. We had already run out of food, so we asked to go home but they wouldn't let us. So we asked them for food but they refused to give us any and shot at us. Twenty-six people were shot after stealing food from the soldiers. They were shot on the railway around Nat Gyi Sein village in Ye Township. Then I escaped from them. They shot at me and the bullets went through my shirt, here [Maung Aye showed bullet holes in the side of his loose button-down shirt, which is the only shirt he now has].
Then when we got back to our village, the soldiers came and called us to go back to work again, but we didn't dare go back, so the soldiers beat many villagers. No one wanted to go back to the work site because they can't get any food there. The soldiers took many people to the railway by force and they fed them nothing. When the soldiers were around the village that time, I was hiding in the bushes. Then when they left to go back to their camp, I ran away and came here. I just kept running, because I knew the way. My family just had to suffer. They could do nothing, because they couldn't follow me. Then the soldiers came to my house and poked my wife in the side with a rifle butt. They kicked her hard in the stomach, and she vomited blood. Then they kicked my baby son down into the fire, and all the hair on his head was burnt. They slapped my 7-year old son in the face and he cried out. They beat them because I had escaped. Along the way here I stopped to wait for my wife and children. Then I brought them with me. My wife is still sick now from the beating, and my baby son is still sick. If you touch his head it is still painful. [Maung Aye's baby son still has a bad burn scar and no hair on the crown of his head].
I worked at the railway three times. It was the third time that I escaped. Each time was 15 days, with no time off. After 15 days on the railway, I had only 3 days back in the village before going again. At the railway we had to level the ground, clear the scrub and the grass. Sometimes we had to clear the forest. The area was bamboo jungle, and there were some hills and mountains. Sometimes it was farmland, with coconut trees and betelnut trees. If there were trees, we had to cut them down. They destroyed the farmland if they needed to. We also had to build an embankment about the height of one person, and 40 feet wide. We had to clear the jungle along a path 200 feet wide. We had to break rocks and carry them about half a kilometre in bamboo baskets. We had to bring our own tools. I saw over 4,000 people working altogether, including so many women, and also pregnant women and a few children. The youngest was 14, and there were old people over 50 and up to 60 years old. We all had to do the same work together. We worked from 7 o'clock in the morning, then we could rest for a few minutes at 1 p.m. and then we had to keep going. They didn't feed us. Even at night we had to work sometimes, cutting firewood. They had a generator for light. We had to work until 11:30 p.m. At night we slept on the ground. There were always soldiers around. When someone had to go to the toilet, they were followed by soldiers.
Some people got sick. Even if they were sick, they were working. If they stopped, the soldiers beat them up with a piece of bamboo. Some nearly died, and some were vomiting blood. They didn't get any medical attention. Some people died of sickness, and some recovered by themselves. I saw 5 people die of sickness and starvation. I also saw some people who were very tired so they tried to rest under a tree. They were beaten up. The soldiers just beat them while they were sitting there, and hurt them badly. They couldn't even walk after the beating. Then the soldiers just forced them back to work. The soldiers usually beat people with bamboo sticks and metal pipes. There were soldiers all around, so nobody could escape. If some people tried to escape, the soldiers shot at them. The soldiers shot 26 people dead after they stole soldiers' food. The soldiers brought food for themselves, and they also had porters who brought a lot of food for them. We didn't have any food, so we tried to steal some from the soldiers. They were #409 Battalion. I only know one officer's name - Lt. Htun Myint. He used to walk around checking us while we worked, and the other is Lt. Myo Thant.
Some women were raped, including a woman named Ma Thein Myint from our village. When the officer raped her she was screaming, and they shot her to death. She was 21 years old, and she was my cousin. She was raped by a Lieutenant Colonel named Thaun Myint. My father tried to report it, but the officer he had to report it to was the same one who raped her, so it was just ignored and no action was taken. I also heard that they raped two women from another village, then killed them by stabbing them with a knife. They gave the bodies back to their families and said that they had killed each other in a fight.
Our village is 4 or 5 miles from the railway. It has 78 houses, and one person from each family has to go work on the railway. The soldiers take us in trucks like the trucks that take people to jail, because they're afraid people will escape. The soldiers also collect porter fees, 300 Kyat from each family for 5 days. To get the money people had to use many different ways, like selling their belongings or finding work for money. Anyone who couldn't pay or refused was taken to work on the railway and not allowed to come back. They just have to keep working there.
Some people escaped together with me, but later when the soldiers came to the village they arrested them and put them in jail. I was the only one who made it here. Before I escaped I worked on 3 different parts of the railway. We never knew which part we were going to work on - we just had to go where they took us. They are building 3 railway lines parallel to each other, about 4 miles apart. We knew nothing about why they are building this railway. I think they only want to keep us working. I don't think this railway can do any good for us.
NAME: Nai Thein Dar
ADDRESS: Kwan Ketaw Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married with 2 children aged 1 and 4
DESCRIPTION: Mon Buddhist, Farmer
I arrived here about 20 days ago. I left because I couldn't deal with the oppression of the Burmese troops anymore. I had to go work on the railway 3 times, for 3 weeks altogether. Each time 14 people from our village had to go, and we only have 15 families in our village. Our group of 14 had to go for 7 days, then 7 days at home, back to the railway for 7 days, and so on. Since we have only 15 families, in some houses where there is only one man, then only one has to go. If there are 2 or 3 men, the SLORC calls them all. If there are no men in the house, then a girl, a woman, or even a pregnant woman has to go. About 5 or 6 women had to go from our village. While the men are gone working, it is not so much of a problem for families who have money, but for families who don't have anything it's a very big problem. They can even die.
The railway is 2 hours' walk from the village. When we arrive the soldiers check us. We have to have one leader for every 10 people. If somebody is missing, we have to pay 10,000 Kyat. At the railway there are not only people from my village. There were a lot of people, and I couldn't count them. Altogether I think there must have been 20,000 people, but not all in one area. In each area there were probably 4,000 or 5,000 people. At the railway, we had to dig the ground. We had to clear a way 300 feet wide through the forest, and if there was a big tree, we had to dig out the roots. If there was a mountain, we had to cut through it. We had to use our own tools. We had to work on hills and flat land, deep forest and thin forest. Sometimes we had to cross rivers. Once one place was finished, we had to move on. We started work at 7 in the morning, stopped for lunch at noon and then we had to work again. The work finished at 4:30 p.m., and we took a bath and ate. Then at 7 p.m. we had to start again.
We had to bring all our own food. People who had some money could buy some vegetables. The rest of us just had fishpaste and rice. At night we slept on the ground on some leaves - we had no mats or plastic. All the time, 24 hours a day the soldiers were around. There were 2 different groups of soldiers, one for the railway and another who were going to the frontline. So when those troops needed porters to go to the frontline, they asked the troops guarding the railway and people were forced to go. Many people had to go with them as porters, but I don't know how many. Whenever those troops came they could take as many people as they wanted.
The soldiers on the railway just controlled and checked us. If they saw someone who stopped working, they beat them. Sometimes, they talked to the leader of that village, and ordered that person to pay 10,000 Kyat. If the person couldn't pay, there would be a big problem. The soldiers don't care about the people, they only care about their railway.
I saw people being beaten very often. There was one man, and when the soldiers got drunk they ordered him to do a lot of things that he couldn't do. The man spoke back to the soldiers, and then he was beaten. They grabbed a stick and beat him with it on his head and his back, and he fell down and started spitting blood. He lost a lot of blood but then the soldiers just left him there like that. None of them helped him, only some of his friends came and cared for him. His head was cracked a little and he went unconscious for about 5 minutes. He couldn't work for half a day because he couldn't move. But as soon as he could get up the soldiers called him to work again. I saw many people being beaten up, but this man was the most serious. After beating them, the soldiers look at their condition and as soon as they look better they are forced to go back to work. The soldiers are from #410 Battalion.
Some women were also beaten, but not so hard. The soldiers just make the women afraid. They also took some women away as porters. I saw one woman who gave birth at the railway. There was also a single girl who was crushed to death when a tree fell on her. She was only about 16 or 17 years old. The soldiers did nothing - some of her friends had to drag her out from under the log and bury her.
I saw people from 12 years old up to 50 years old working there. I don't know about other parts of the railway - maybe there are people even older. When people got sick, nobody took care of them or gave them medicine. If they couldn't work but weren't terribly sick, they were ordered to work anyways or else they would be beaten, so they had to force themselves to work. The sick weren't allowed to go home.
The soldiers also came to our village and asked for porter fees. The poor families had to give 500 Kyat each time, and the richer families had to give more. If the soldiers come, all our animals, rice and money must be given to them. They catch the livestock by themselves, and you can't protest or they'll curse and scold you. And however much rice they ask for, you have to give them. Sometimes the soldiers come every 10 or 15 days, sometimes they come every 3 or 4 days. It takes 2« hours to walk to the village from their camp.
I came out here with just my family and my brother's family from another village. Many more people want to come but they are afraid of the trip right now. One or two days ago a SLORC soldier shot a Burman villager along the way, so most people don't dare come yet. When we came out, we slept 3 nights on the way and walked for 4 days. I knew the way because I've been here once before. We didn't bring anything with us except the clothes on our backs because we were afraid the soldiers might interrogate us on the way. We saw some soldiers, and they stopped us and asked "Where are you going?" We told them that we were going to our Aunt's house because our Uncle was sick, and they let us go. I will not go back. There are too many problems there.
NAME: Ma San Myint
ADDRESS: Tha Yet Chaung Village, Tha Yet Chaung Township
DESCRIPTION: Burman Buddhist, Farmer
I have been here just 2 days. I came because of the heavy labour. We had to work for the SLORC all the time. I had to work on the railway for half a month in February. After I finished my turn, I came out here and another group replaced us. About a hundred people from my village went to work with me - our village is quite big, more like a town. We received an order to go to work, and then we knew we had to go. One person per family had to go. I am the eldest child. I have only younger sisters and brothers, and they are still primary school students, so I had to go instead of my mother and father. My father can't do anything for the time being because he is suffering from a disease. If I was not there, my parents would have had to hire someone to go for us.
I don't know exactly how many women had to go. In our group there were about 15 women. It was quite far. We had to go to Tavoy town, and then we had to go to the area north of Tavoy. We had to collect money and hire a truck to take us. It cost us 100 Kyat per person.
At the railway the men dug the ground, and we girls had to carry the dirt. We had to take our own tools. It was in the hills in the jungle. We had to work from 7 a.m. until noon, then we got one hour rest and we kept working until 4 p.m. We had to eat our own food - we brought it from home, and added food from the jungle. I didn't see what the soldiers ate, so I don't know. The soldiers guarded us with guns. They didn't do any work, they were only watching. Nobody tried to run away. If people felt very tired, they could rest for a couple of minutes. I took rests on the way when I was carrying dirt. I just walked and worked as slowly as I could. I had to carry the dirt about 20 feet and make an embankment about 20 feet wide. They didn't say how much we had to do, they just told us to hurry and finish it.
At night we had a small shelter to sleep in. Each village had built a shelter for themselves, and we had to fix the shelter when we arrived for our turn of work. We brought sleeping mats from home. There were no soldiers around at night, only in the daytime.
There were young people working, 13 years old. Most of the older people were around 40. The children were doing the same work together with us - the old people, too. Some sick people were working. If they looked really sick, they didn't have to work and they could stay in the shelter. The soldiers let some of them go back to the village, but the villagers had to replace the sick person. I saw pregnant women working too. The soldiers didn't pay us anything.
After a half month working for them, I came out here by myself, together with my cousin. The rest of my family stayed in the village with our relatives. It took me 3 days to come here, and I could only bring 3 small bags of my belongings. There were 12 of us altogether. We came with someone who knew the way, and just followed him.
NAME: Saw Po Thu
AGE: 19 "
ADDRESS: Ye Pone Village, Ye Pyu Township
DESCRIPTION: Karen Christian, Farmer
I came here because the SLORC kept forcing us to work for them.They also came and took as much of our livestock as they could catch, and they took our plants, our vegetables, and whatever else they could take. They tried to take it all by force, and nobody dared to stop them. We don't know why they do this - it's just their will, they just oppress us. We also had to pay porter fees: 3,000 Kyat each time we couldn't go do labour for them, which means once a month. We have to work very hard to earn this money any way we can - sometimes we have to sell our pigs and livestock to pay them.
I've worked on the railway twice, for 15 days each time. The first time was a few months ago, on the railway to Three Pagodas Pass. The second time was a month later on the Ye-Tavoy railway. They are building 3 different railway lines, the main one from Ye to Tavoy, one near Ye Pone [i.e. one along each side of the north-south Tavoy River], and the Three Pagodas Pass line. Our village has 70 houses, and over 20 people had to go at a time. The head of the village chose us to go by turns. When your turn comes, if there are 5 people in your family then all 5 have to go. The women had to go as well. Everyone over 16 years old had to go.
To get to the Three Pagodas Pass railway we had to go by public truck to Ye Pyu, and it cost 150 Kyat each [Saw Po Thu has probably mistaken another line running north-south further inland for a railway to Three Pagodas Pass - we are not aware of a railway being built to the Pass, and according to other information #405 Battalion is based further south, close to the Ye-Tavoy railway and the proposed gas pipeline route to Nat Ei Taung]. Then we had to walk two days to the work place. The Ye-Tavoy railway is only 2 miles from the village. They destroyed our orchards to build it. I lost some land myself. On the Ye-Tavoy railway, we had to dig the ground and carry the dirt to the railway. We had to bring our own tools and food. If we ran out of food, we had to send a message to our village to send us some rice. We were working in forest and hills, but no big mountains. We worked from 7 a.m. to 12 noon, then we had a break to eat, then we worked from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
I saw over 3,000 people working there under control of SLORC #409 Battalion. We were working together with women too. The oldest man was about 80, and the youngest was 16, all working together. Some people were sick, some had diarrhoea, but they got no medicine. The soldiers beat people who couldn't work. They beat them with a big stick. I saw people bleeding, and they beat an old man to death right in front of me. They beat me too - I tried to cover myself with my hands and they beat on my hand with a big stick [Saw Po Thu then showed a large bump on his hand from a badly healed bone]. Over 10 people were killed from beatings. The soldiers beat them up and then they just got worse and worse and died. Then the soldiers had us drag them to the forest and left them there. They didn't even bury them, and they wouldn't let us bury them. There was a very bad smell from that and we had to breathe it. Quite a lot of people tried to run away, and some were caught on the way. The soldiers just beat some of them to death in front of everyone, and the rest were forced to pay 3,000 Kyat.
The work is the same on the Three Pagodas Pass railway, except that there they are using bulldozers on the flat land and we only have to work on the hills. #405 Battalion is in charge there. The working conditions are the same as the Ye-Tavoy railway. I saw about 3,000 people there, and people were beaten like on the Ye-Tavoy railway. I didn't see anyone killed on the Three Pagodas Pass railway. Many people ran away, but I didn't see anyone who was caught. I heard that some women were raped but I didn't see.
As for what good this railway will do for us, I suppose when it's finished it will look nice. Other than that, it's not good for me and it's not good for anyone. I lost some farmland. Now I've come here alone, and my parents have stayed behind. We are all looking for a safe place. Some come here, and some hide in the forest.
NAME: Pu Lay Ko
ADDRESS: Michaung Laun Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married, 8 children aged 8 to 31
DESCRIPTION: Karen Christian, Farmer
I've been here about a month, because I can't bear working for the SLORC. Before my village was torn apart it had 90 houses. Now almost the whole village has run away. They ran separately in different directions. The soldiers are breaking up villages because they want to cut the connections between the villagers and the KNU [Karen National Union]. They used to torture a lot of people in my village, and last year they killed 2 young men in front of us after accusing them of being connected with the KNU. After the killing, they tied them and dragged them to the forest. The soldiers also stole our livestock and the vegetables we grow - they took as much as they wanted. I don't know why, and we didn't dare stop them. They took 1,000 Kyat from us for porter fees each time they came. To get the money, sometimes we could give them our savings, and sometimes we had to sell our livestock.
I had to go work on the railway once, for 7 days. Over 30 of us went from my village. The head of the village chooses who has to go by turns. The railway goes just by the outskirts of our village, so some people lost their land. At the railway we had to dig the ground, and there were some big trees along the way, so we had to dig them out and carry them away. We had to clear a path about 100 feet wide, and we had to take our own tools. I saw over 1,000 people, including a lot of women and a few pregnant women who were also digging the ground and carrying the dirt. We had to carry the dirt about 30 feet. We also had to break and carry rocks. There were also some men who were about 80 years old, and the youngest were 16 years old. People got sick, but no one died of sickness. If they were seriously sick, they let them go back home or to the hospital, but the villagers had to replace the sick person.
We worked from 7 a.m. until noon, then from 1 p.m. until 5 or 5:30 p.m. At night we slept on the ground, and there were always soldiers around. Before we could go to the toilet we had to ask permission. We were followed by soldiers all the time. While we were working, the soldiers were checking us, guarding us, and watching us. If someone stopped working or rested, they beat them a lot with sticks, or sometimes with rifle butts. I wasn't beaten myself, but some were wounded. They were beaten until they were bleeding from the head. Then the soldiers just left them behind and didn't care about them. They didn't get any medicine. Some could go back to work, but some couldn't. I didn't see anyone die. The soldiers were from #409 and #410 Battalions.
I don't know why they are building this railway, and I don't think it will do any good. I came here with my family - it took us 5 days on foot. We only brought a few of our belongings. Now almost our whole village has run away.
NAME: Nai Win Tint
ADDRESS: Kun Nyaw Village, Ye Pyu Township
DESCRIPTION: Mon Buddhist, Farmer
I've been here for 9 days. I had to work on the railway twice for 15 days each time I finished working the second time just before I left to come here. Sixty people had to go from my village - first thirty people had to go, then the other thirty had to go replace them, and the two groups took turns. There are 60 houses in the village, so it was one person from each house. Sometimes the women have to go, and some families would have nothing to eat if the man went to the railway, so he hides and the woman goes instead. They called the whole village together, the village head divided us into two groups and then they sent one group at a time.
The railway is 2 hours walk from the village. At the railway we had to cut down the trees, dig out the roots and stumps, clear the scrub and sometimes cut into the mountains. All this work is being done not by machines, but by people. If the path was too low, we had to dig dirt and carry it to make it higher. If the ground was too high we had to dig out the dirt and carry it about 25 feet away. We had to make the way flat and equally level all along. We had to break the rocks and whatever else was along the path. We also had to carry rocks and dirt from 50 or 60 feet away to fill in trenches. We had to work in very dense forest, in the hills but also on the flatland and in the valleys. We had to bring our own tools. There were thousands and thousands of people. There were thousands of women, and a lot of old people too. They were 50 or 60 years old, and there were children age 12 and above. Everyone had to do the same work. Every morning at 3 a.m. the soldiers blew a whistle, and we had to get up and start cooking and eating breakfast. Then at 7 a.m. they blew another whistle, and everyone had to get into single file and the soldiers counted us. If any people were missing, those people were ordered to pay them 10,000 Kyat. Then we had to begin work. At noon we got a rest and we wanted to eat but it was just a rest break, not an eating break. Then we had to work from 1 o'clock until 4:30. At night everyone had to sleep at 8 p.m. We got to eat twice a day, early in the morning and in the evening. We had to bring our own food. We brought rice and some oil, chillies and salt. Some people ran out of food, but then their friends from their village gave them some more.
The soldiers watched us all day, because they were afraid people might run away. If a person stopped working the soldiers shouted at them, ordering them to work. If a person had tried to run away they put him in the stocks [the SLORC often uses mediaeval-European style wooden leg stocks to confine villagers]. I saw them beat so many people, including 3 from my village and many from other villages. I saw three people beaten by the soldiers because they had fever, were very tired and couldn't keep working when the soldiers ordered them to. The soldiers were often drunk, and if you couldn't work or if you spoke back to them then they beat you. They beat people very severely, with a piece of wood. They bashed them in the head until they were bleeding, but they didn't go unconscious. Then they just left them laying there, and we had to take care of them.
There were pregnant women working on the railway, and there was a woman who gave birth there. She couldn't go home so she had to give birth and sleep on the ground in the forest. No one could take care of her because everyone was busy doing forced labour, so her baby died. And I heard there were 2 girls who were raped by soldiers while they were walking from one part of the railway to another. The soldiers called them over to rest, and the girls were afraid of the soldiers so they obeyed and sat down with the soldiers. Then all four soldiers raped them. Those two girls are from Pah Chaut village in Tavoy township. I don't know their names.
I saw about 10 or 15 people who got sick from sleeping on the ground under the trees at night and because we had to drink water from streams that weren't clean. They got fever and diarrhoea. If they got really sick and the village head asked the soldiers, they could get some medicine. If the village head dared to go to the officer and ask and he could prove they were ill, the really sick people could go home. Otherwise they couldn't. I saw one person who died of sickness at the railway, and one young girl died when a tree fell on her.
Some people tried to run away because they couldn't bear to work for the soldiers anymore. The soldiers went to catch them, and if they were caught then they beat them badly. Then the soldiers ordered them to pay 10,000 Kyat and forced them to work for an extra 15 days. They had to get the money to pay or borrow it somehow. Some people couldn't pay so the soldiers grabbed them and took them away, but we don't know what happened to them. The soldiers were from #410 Battalion.
I don't know why they are building this railway. I think they will use it to transport their soldiers and ammunition. Even while we were working at the railway the soldiers entered our village and took whatever they wanted. Every month they take 1,500 Kyat from our village for porter fees. My family was already here, so I came by myself on foot. I didn't bring anything.
NAME: Hla Aye
ADDRESS: Seingoo Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married with 3 children aged 12 to 15
DESCRIPTION: Mon Christian, Farmer
At home we were working for the SLORC all the time. We didn't even have time to provide for our own families. We had to pay them 210 Kyat every month too - they said it was "emergency porter fees" for their operations at Nat Ei Taung, but they just collect the money for their own sake. We had to serve them constantly, and we had nothing to eat. That's why we came here. We arrived 45 days ago, and people are still coming every day.
They started the railway project this year, about 5 months ago. Our village had to go to work there, and so did the other villages. The last time I went, there were 27 of us from our village of 100 houses. There must have been 4,000 or 5,000 people altogether, from hundreds of villages. We had to go 15 miles to the railway. Some villages are closer, and some people had to come much farther, like those from Tavoy, which is 100 miles away from the work place. The SLORC told the village head how many people he had to send, and he looked at the family register and made a list of people between 13 and 60 years old. One person per family had to go, regardless of the number of people in the family. We had to go for 15 days, then when we got home we could stay in our village for 4 weeks and then our group had to go again. Before we could go home, we had to wait for the next group from the village to replace us, and it had to be exactly the same number of people. Women had to go if their husbands were sick or couldn't go.
People came by private truck which brought them and then took back the people they were replacing. We didn't have to pay for the truck - the SLORC forced the owners of private trucks to bring people to the railway, and the owners had to pay for the petrol themselves.
The soldiers divided us into groups and we had to work separately. For example, if one group could clear 2 miles in a day then the next group started 2 miles further on. We worked from 6 a.m. till 11 a.m., then we ate, then more work from noon until 5 p.m. We were working in forest with a lot of bamboo. There were 2 parts of the route where we had to clear the path. Along one part we had to clear it roughly, and along the other part we had to clear it very carefully and make it smooth - we even had to sweep it. We had to bring our own tools so we divided them among our village - some of us brought hoes, others brought knives, and others brought baskets. There were soldiers who were watching close to us, and some other soldiers stayed further away watching the whole group. They guarded us carefully because they were worried that someone might escape. Sometimes people tried to escape and were caught, and the soldiers beat them up severely. Sometimes they beat them with wood, sometimes they kicked, sometimes they punched, until the people were bleeding from the head, and some of them were bleeding seriously. Sometimes the soldiers kicked us in the side, punched us in the face or beat us on the head. Sometimes people were beaten unconscious. After a beating, they just sent the people back to their group, and forced them to keep working. No one was killed by beatings, but one or two men died from sickness and exhaustion. The soldiers never gave any medical care. The sick had to finish their time like the rest of us. If somebody couldn't work, they let him stay at the side of the working place, and after he finished his 15 days they let him go home. There was no way we could try to stop working, because the soldiers guarded us closely and forced us to hurry all the time. If someone stopped, they beat him. I saw this happen in our group and in other groups.
They fed us nothing. We had to bring our own food. We ate rice, oil, salt and whatever vegetables we could find in the forest. When we ran out of food, we borrowed from each other. If we finished it all, we had to send a message and get more from home. At night we just made a fire and slept on the ground. We couldn't build a shelter because we didn't have time, and we were in a different place every night. We had no mats to sleep on, just the bare ground. The soldiers were always around the whole night, guarding us closely. We had to ask permission to go to the toilet. They didn't follow us, but we didn't dare try to escape because there were other groups of soldiers nearby.
It will take at least 2 years to finish this railway, and the villagers will have to do all the work for sure. The railway
won't change things for my family, except that hopefully when it's finished we can live in peace and provide for ourselves again. I can't see what good the railway will do for us - maybe we can breed chickens and sell the eggs to the passengers on the train. It won't improve things for the rural people in the countryside - we know that. All we get is trouble when the SLORC makes a project.
Now even though we've fled the village, other people have to continue working on the railway project, and they have to continue paying all the porter fees. The poor families don't have any money to hire someone to go in their place, so they have to keep on going to work on the railway. Five or six families came out here with us, and 10 or 11 families had already run away from the village before us. It was dangerous coming here, because if any soldiers caught us they would have beaten us and sent us back to the railway. Our group of families had to hire a person for 3,000 Kyat who knew how to avoid the troops and get here. After we decided to run away, we sold all our livestock and property to get the money. We left our land and our farm, and we brought 2 pots for cooking and some blankets to use along the way. We hope when they finish this railway we can go home, but we're not sure.
NAME: Nai Nyan Dar
ADDRESS: Yay Nyan Gyi Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married with 4 children aged 16, 14, 5, and 9 months
DESCRIPTION: Mon Buddhist, Farmer
I came here because I can't bear to work for the SLORC anymore. We had to work on the railway, and we had to build a camp for the troops. The railway work started in November. I had to go work for them two times, for about one month each time. They gave us nothing. We had to bring our own food, and when we finished our food we sent a message home and they sent us more to eat. We couldn't go home. After I got home from the first month at the railway, it was 7 days before I had to go back again to work at the army camp. Every family had to work in turns. If there is no man in the family, then they call the women. They called all of us to work, old, young, or middle-aged. The village head has to make a list and choose who goes each time. We are just farmers and small gardeners, and while I was gone working my family had to work selling things [such as noodles and snacks] as hawkers in order to feed and clothe themselves.
The railway is about 3 miles from the village, and we went on foot. We had to work in the forest and on some hills cutting down the trees and clearing the forest. The path we had to clear was 100 feet wide. We had to bring our own tools: hoes, shovels and iron crowbars. I saw about 500 or 600 people working there, about half of them women. One of the women gave birth at the work site, and some others were pregnant. The youngest people were 15 or 16 and the oldest were 60 or 70 years old. We were all doing the same work together.
Some people were sick with physical pain, but there were even some nurses working on the railway with us. The soldiers gave some medicine to the sick people. I didn't see any of them die. Those who recovered had to keep on working. We worked from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with a half hour rest around 11 a.m. They gave us nothing - we get no presents from SLORC. The soldiers cooked for themselves - sometimes they ate pork, beef, and good meat curries, because they have money. We only ate vegetables that we collected while working in the forest. Some people tried to escape, and they weren't caught.
The soldiers were always there, just sitting down and watching us. They told us to hurry and not to waste time. They beat people who stopped working, sometimes with bamboo sticks and sometimes with a cane. Some got no marks from the beatings, but some got wounds that left scars, and some were bleeding. They beat people on the lower part of the body below the waist. I didn't see anyone seriously hurt or dead from the beatings. At night the soldiers surrounded us and we had to sleep in the middle of them on the ground, with nothing underneath. We just had to sleep along the railroad without any shelter. To go to the toilet we had to ask their permission and they followed us with their guns. The soldiers were from #104 and #108 Battalions.
We also had to build Klay Aung camp for #108 Battalion. The railway line is going to pass right by this camp. We had to clear a compound, build all the buildings and cut bamboo to make fences. We had to work for one month at the camp after I was at the railway.
The soldiers also forced us to pay "porter fees" of 100 Kyat per month. Anyone who couldn't go to work on the railway also had to pay 300 Kyat more. We had to pay it to the army camp at Michaung Ain. Every family has to pay - even while you work on the railway your family has to pay porter fees. We had to save up this money in various ways. Sometimes we had some rice, betelnut, coconuts or some other vegetables and we sold them. The SLORC doesn't say what the money is for, they just send an order paper to the village head who has to collect the money and give it to the army camp. They just collect these porter fees for themselves. The fees are a big problem for every family, but there's no way to refuse the soldiers' order.
How can I know if this railway will do us any good in the future? If the SLORC would give us some money for our labour, it would be okay for us. I don't know if it will be for the good of the people, but we are surely in a lot of trouble right now. I think the railway will take at least 3 years to finish - we didn't even finish building the embankment. I don't know what they're building this railway for. At least 15 or 20 families have left my village now. I came here on foot, together with my family and another family. It took us 5 days to walk here, and along the way we couldn't sleep peacefully at night because we were too afraid of SLORC soldiers. We only brought along a pot for cooking and some clothes.
NAME: Mi Ong Son
ADDRESS: Seingoo Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married with 3 children aged 13 to 17
DESCRIPTION: Mon Christian, Farmer
I came here about a month ago with my whole family, because we had to work for SLORC all the time. My seventeen year old son had to go work on the railway because my husband had to stay home or we couldn't have provided for ourselves. My youngest son is too young to work. This year our dam broke and most of our paddy was damaged, but the SLORC made us sell them 8 baskets per acre anyways. We also had to pay them 210 Kyat every month for porter fees. We had a very hard time getting this money. If we couldn't get enough then we had to borrow from others, and pay them back later. Sometimes we had to sell our rice to get the money to pay them. It was very hard to pay them so regularly, to provide for the family and to survive. We couldn't suffer it anymore so we came here. 15 other families had already left the village before us.
The SLORC said the money was for porter fees - if we can't pay, then we have to go as porters. We used to have to send 5 people from our village as porters every month, but if we pay the money then we don't have to go. For the last two years we have paid instead of going. The poor families in the village have to pay at least 100 Kyat, and the richer families have to pay more, up to 400 or even 500 Kyat. Our family is "middle class" so we had to pay 210 Kyat. It depends on what the soldiers demand from the village. If they demand 10,000 Kyat, then the villagers have to collect money until they have 10,000. If they demand 20,000 Kyat, then we have to collect that too. We have to pay every month. There are 3 SLORC Battalions around - #108, #109, and #110 Battalions, from Klay Aung army camp about 15 miles away. They come to our village, but not very often as long as we pay - no more than once or twice a month. When they come they talk to the village head, eat and then go back. When they demand money, they tell the village head who organises a meeting, but my husband always goes to those meetings so I don't know exactly what they say.
NAME: Nai Thet Lwin
ADDRESS: Seingoo Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Single (eldest son of Mi Ong Son, see above)
DESCRIPTION: Mon Christian, Farmer
I'm 17 years old. I never went to school. When I was a child I went to school once. But then all the schools closed because of the 1988 uprising. The schools were never open regularly. The teachers are from our village, and they just teach the children whenever they are free. [Other villagers present explained that given the difficulty of the struggle to survive, the comings and goings of SLORC troops, forced labour, etc., it is impossible to keep a school running properly in the village. Before SLORC, teachers were on occasion sent from Burma, but many villagers (usually with the influence of the New Mon State Party) refuse to send their children to these teachers because they teach a nationalist Burman, anti-Mon curriculum where students are forbidden to speak anything but Burmese and learn the Burmese Army's version of history and other subjects.]
I had to go work at the railway line after harvest time in December because the soldiers ordered it. I only went once, then I ran away. It took one day's walk to get there, and I was there for 10 days. I worked with a group of 15 other young people, cutting down and carrying bamboo and vines and building shelters for the soldiers. The youngest person was 10 years old. We worked every morning until 11 a.m., then we rested and ate, then we worked from 12 noon until 4 p.m. Some of the huts we built were big, some were small. Most of them were big enough for 2 or 3 soldiers to sleep, with a raised bamboo floor and a roof of leaves. We built 6 or 7 huts in 10 days for the SLORC. We also built some shelters for villagers, just a leaf roof without a floor. Some villagers had shelters to sleep under, and others didn't. We built our shelter bigger than the others because so many of us had to sleep under it. Then we put leaves on the ground and slept on them. We had to bring tools from our house, and our food as well. I took 4 small baskets of rice. There were very many people at the railway. In our group no one was beaten, but one or two of us got sick. The sick people could go home if they got permission.
NAME: Nai Win Aung
ADDRESS: Seingoo Village, Ye Pyu Township
FAMILY: Married with 1 child aged 2
DESCRIPTION: Mon Christian, Farmer
I came here one month ago with my family and 6 other families. We came because of our problems with the railway. We were forced to work on the railway, we weren't paid and they didn't give us any food so we couldn't provide for our family. Then if we couldn't go work we had to hire someone to go in our place. We also had to pay porter fees all the time. Even when we were working at the railway our families had to pay porter fees as well. It was very hard - we had to sell all the rice we had saved and use the money we had saved to pay them. When this wasn't enough we had to borrow money from someone and pay it back little by little. We had to work for the SLORC and pay porter fees to them until we had nothing to eat. Now it is worse than ever before.
This year we had a very bad harvest because the dam broke and flooded our fields. Then the SLORC took part of our crop, and we didn't have enough. We must sell 14 baskets of paddy per acre to them at government price - if market price is 250 Kyat for one basket, then government price is only 170 Kyat. This year, we couldn't even sell them the full quota they demanded. We had finished harvesting in December and were preparing to plant other crops when the SLORC came to get people for the railway. I had to go 3 times, sometimes for one week and sometimes for 15 days. While I was working there, my wife and child had to provide for themselves as much as they could. It was very hard for us to solve this problem. The families just had to help each other.
Our village is small. Sometimes 27 people had to go to the railway, including women, children and old people. Sometimes 15 people had to go, all men. The village head came around collecting people every one or 2 weeks because he got orders from SLORC. He tried to treat everyone equally, but 15 people went the first time, and then the second time there weren't enough people so he had to choose some people who already went the first time. The same happened the time after that. The usual rule was 1 person from each family, but everything depends on the situation. Some families have 2 or 3 men and the village head must plead for all of them to go, but some pregnant women had to go as well. Some women even gave birth at the railway.
At the work place we had to cut trees and clear the bushes. It was forest with a few big trees and the rest were bushes. We had to dig out the roots of the big trees, and we had to cut through a small hill. We had to clear two to three furlongs [440 to 660 yards] every day with a width of about 100 yards - it was very wide. There were about 1,000 or 2,000 people from different villages working to do this. The majority of the workers are men, but I can't guess the number of women. The youngest was about 15, the oldest over 40. We had to bring our tools from home, as well as our rice.
There were always soldiers around. Some just guarded us, and some told us what to do. They didn't do any work, they just walked around and gave us orders. We couldn't rest except at mealtime. They were always yelling at us and telling us to hurry. If someone stopped to rest they beat him up or kicked him. Sometimes the person fell down because they were kicking him. Some people were beaten severely, but not so hard as to prevent them working. I was never beaten. Nobody in my group got sick. People who got sick could tell their village head, and if he vouched for them with the soldiers they could go home, but only if the village head could get a replacement for them. Our village head was there sometimes, but when he wasn't we had to talk directly to the soldiers.
We worked from 7 a.m. till 11 a.m., then we ate, then we worked from 12:30 till 5 p.m. In the evening we cooked and rested. We slept along the side of the railway without any shelter, but it never rained because it was dry season. We laid big leaves on the ground to sleep on. The soldiers guarded us all the time at night, but they never spoke to us. Sometimes someone escaped, so the soldiers reported it to the village head and he had to send a replacement. Usually the SLORC didn't know exactly who had escaped, but if they did know then they gave that villager trouble.
I don't know what they are planning to do with this railway, but it will take at least 3 years to finish. Even when it is finished, we won't be able to live peacefully in our village, because we'll still have to pay porter fees until they make peace with the revolutionary groups. We were working for SLORC again and again and paying porter fees until we had nothing left to eat. So we tried to escape from the village one night and we got away. We had to cross the railway line and a car road, so we had to wait until no soldiers were around. It took us 10 days to get here. When I got here I worked very hard, earned 50 Thai Baht [US$2 - at the time of printing] for one day and bought some rice. Then we got some rice from the refugee camp, so we are okay. Here it is better - at least if you work and get 50 Baht you can use it for your family, but there if you get 50 Kyat you have to give it all to SLORC. I want to go back when it becomes peaceful in my village, but if we still have to pay porter fees and work for SLORC, we won't go back.
NAME: Mi Pan
ADDRESS: Kaw Ka Village, Ye Township
FAMILY: Married, 4 sons aged 5, 9, 11, and 14
DESCRIPTION: Mon Buddhist, Farmer
My father arrived here one month ago, but I just arrived 4 days ago. I came with my whole family. I left to come here because I couldn't let them force me to work on the railway. It's too hard. While we were there I didn't have to work on the railway, but my husband and my father both had to. They had to start this work in October . The work is still going, but they ran away from it and came here. They had to go so many times, and each time they had to go for 15 days. After they finished, sometimes they only came home for 3 or 4 days and then they had to go back and work again. Each time they went to work they had to take their own food. Those who refused to go had to pay 700 Kyat.
From each house one person had to go to build the railway. My father stays in a different house, so he had to go too. My husband had to go about 6 times, and my father 8 times. The SLORC gives authority to someone in the village to order who has to go and when, and that person orders you to go. While my husband was away, I had to borrow money to live, and afterwards I couldn't pay it back. Two tins of rice costs 400 Kyat, and I also had to pay "porter fees" - 700 Kyat each time, and I had to pay 3 times.
To go from the village to the railway takes 6 hours on foot. The SLORC doesn't come, the workers just have to go on foot by themselves. Then they have to carry the rails for making the railway, dig the ground, carry dirt, cut wood, and many other jobs. The most recent work is carrying logs. All the workers cut them, and then they have to carry them to the railway or the SLORC brings them on trucks. My husband and my father had to do this, as well as all the other steps in building the railway. They had to work all day long - they never had free time. They start at 7 a.m., then at noon they're allowed to eat breakfast, then they stop working at 6 p.m. There were altogether over 1,000 people working along with my husband and my father. They had to clear a path wider than a car road along flat land. Not only clearing, but they also had to carry dirt and smooth it, and carry stones both big and small. The workers, including my father and husband, had to break the stones. Then they had to carry them a long way by themselves. They had to dig with hoes, and the SLORC provided some tools.
There were very many women included in the work. They have to work together with the men. There were also old people and children. The children were as young as 8 years old, up to 14 and 15 years old.
The SLORC never gives food, they all have to bring their own. My husband and father just took rice, salt, and fishpaste. Each time they went they had to take half the food in the house, and then if they aren't allowed to come home and they run out of food they have to borrow or buy food from others. [Note: The reason she says they took "half the food in the house" instead of 15 days' food is that they probably never even had 15 days' food in the house. Due to SLORC looting and forced labour, these people are already living from hand to mouth, close to starvation.] Those who go to work knowing they don't have enough food and who can't ask for any from relatives or friends will face starvation, so they just have to open their arms and beg food from other people.
At the railway they have to sleep under the trees, in the bushes. They have no mats, so they must sleep on the ground, and the SLORC patrols around. To go to the toilet they had to ask permission from the SLORC troops, and then the soldiers followed them. The soldiers also guarded the area all the time while they worked. You can't rest, even when you're tired you have to keep working. Some of the soldiers force people to work by scolding or beating them, and some of them don't. My husband and my father weren't beaten, but they saw beatings. Those who were beaten were working together with them, and when they were beaten they were very close. They were beaten on their bodies, until they bled. When people got sick the soldiers didn't heal them, they just left them. The sick weren't allowed to go home. They just had to stay where they were until they got better. If they couldn't work, then they weren't forced to work but they had to stay until they could work again. The soldiers give them nothing.
I don't know why they're making this railway, but it's not good. I don't want to go back. People will have to work on it until it's finished. I came out here with 5 families altogether - my own family and my relatives. It was difficult and it took a long time because we had to avoid the SLORC troops, so it took at least 8 or 10 days. We didn't bring any belongings, just some personal things. Now my husband and my father have gone back to the village to help other families find their way here.