New Internationalist

From a scorched land

Issue 410

Two survivors from Karen state, where the Burmese military has been laying villages to waste, tell their stories.

The Burmese military regime, which goes by the misleading name of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has just one aim – to stay in power indefinitely. Militarism is the extent of its ideology.

The SPDC’s energy is mainly expended on controlling the country’s civilian population. Those that resist such control face its wrath. For nearly half a century now it is Burma’s rural areas, populated mainly by the country’s ethnic minorities, that have born the brunt. These regions have been home to armed resistance movements hankering for local control.

In order to crush these movements, the SPDC employs the tactic of ‘draining the ocean so that the fish cannot swim’, that is, subjugating and impoverishing the civilian population so that they cannot provide the resources to support such armed resistance.

In many cases the civilians may have no contact with the resistance groups, but get caught in the crossfire. The SPDC has forcibly relocated hundreds of villages to army controlled sites. Forced labour is widespread to support troop movements and with the presence of the soldiers come the most perverse misuses of power – the looting of food and resources, wanton rape and killings, making people walk across minefields in order to ‘clear’ them, and the demand for complete obedience at all times.

The longest running resistance struggle is in Karen state, and this is where the Burmese army keeps launching offensive after offensive, ripping up the lives of thousands of mainly farming people who just want to earn their keep in peace.

‘My heart hurts’

Naw Mya Cei, 49 years old

I am from Sha Zee Bo village in Taungoo (Taw Oo) District. I have five children.

CIDKP
Naw Mya Cei near the Thai-Burmese border. CIDKP

I was responsible for one section of the village under SPDC army rule for four years. Though the SPDC said it was voluntary work we were forced to build their camp, work in their gardens and collect sharp pieces of bamboo to build three layers of fences. They forced us to carry their ammunitions and other supplies to their camp. Sometimes they forced us to give them poultry without paying us. Every day they ordered six villagers to be messengers or to guard the roads or the camp. When we were too busy cutting bamboo or carrying wood, my oldest son went instead of us. It was not good for his studies.

The SPDC just force men, women and children to do everything they want. Sometimes they didn’t allow us to go to work in our vegetable plots, they ordered us to stay in the village and do nothing. We were guarded so no villager would leave, and spread or collect information from outside We work hard for our families and also we work hard for the SPDC; but order us about pitilessly, they hurt or even kill us. Often we failed to give them what they wanted, but sometimes we lied to them by giving only half of what they asked for. We knew that they receive monthly incomes but to show their power they asked us to give food and do things for them. To build their camp they took somebody’s land, destroyed someone’s house and took the furniture. They do everything they want. My heart hurts and I can not forget that they shot and killed my three nephews, Saw Poe Poe , Saw Ken Nay and Saw Has T’Kaw Kaw, without any reason. They arrested my husband and asked for money without saying what we had done wrong. I gave the money but they didn’t release him. I lost my money. They forced my husband to work before they release him– it hurts my heart so much.

After being a section leader for four years it was enough for me. I arrived at Ei Tu Hta camp [for internally displaced people, in an area beyond SPDC control] on October 28th [2007]. I came here with my youngest son and daughter. I came here with the biggest hope for my children to continue their studies and finish higher education. I am very pleased with them because they are studying very well here. I had made a record of all my feelings about what happened, which troop had done what thing to me, but I dared not keep it, so I burnt it.

‘I was forced to work at 15’

Saw Eh Drew, 46 years old

I am an ordinary farmer from Wa Tho Koh village, in Tatabin Township, Taungoo (Taw Oo) District. The SPDC outpost is close to my village so everyday the soldiers come and force the villagers to build roads, the military camp and to carry things. Everyday they ask about ten villagers to work for them. Usually they select one person from every household and if they refuse to come, the soldiers will arrest the entire family. A relative then has to offer some things and pay a bribe to release them. If they can’t pay the money, both the family and the head of the village will be punished. They can do whatever they want to do to you.

The SPDC soldiers also use the villagers as porters in the frontline. This happens at least once or twice a month. Sometimes they take us for a week at a time to carry their things. If we were unlucky, they forced us to go very fast even when carrying big and heavy loads. When we can’t walk at their pace, they kick us with their jungle boots. Sometimes we had to clear the roads [of landmines] in the frontline areas; their cars would follow us. It was very difficult for us, because when there are fights, it is always the villagers that got hurt. If they are seriously wounded, the soldiers kill them immediately. They say it distracts other people. People with smaller wounds are sent back to the village but without any support.

We have to face a lot of problems. Villagers are not allowed to use torches, batteries and wire. The military suspect that these things can cause them problems, that you can produce landmines with them. So they tell the villagers: ‘If we see a torch, battery and wire in someone’s house, we will arrest and punish them as we want.’

Moreover the SPDC doesn’t want the villagers to go very far from their village. They order the villagers: ‘If anyone wants to go out from their village they need to come to us to get permission and a written travel document from us. And those who get a travel document have to come back on time.’

The SPDC soldiers oppress the villagers in many ways. Sometimes they finished all their rice and they ‘borrow’ it from the villagers but they never give it back. Sometimes they came to the village and asked for pigs or some other animals to cook. If the villagers do not give them, they just take and slaughter them by themselves. Many villagers have faced problems like this, but they can do nothing. We are not free to work for ourselves; instead we always have to follow orders. I was forced to work since I was 15. Today I am 46 six years old.

My family and I were able to come to Mae La refugee camp [in Thailand] because I lied to the SPDC soldiers that we were going to celebrate Christmas in another village. If I hadn’t, I would have had to live in my village under their control and do their jobs until I die.

Testimonies recorded by the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP).

Read more in the forthcoming May 2008 edition of New Internationalist which will be on Burma.

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