I am writing this to try to give a picture of what the situation is for people who are displaced by the attacks of the Burma Army. These people, technically called Internally Displaced People or IDPs number over 1 million in Burma and over 600,000 in the Shan, Karenni and Karen States alone. The most recent major offensives of 1997, 2000, 2003-2004 and the smaller scale attacks since then have only added to the suffering of the people.
There are some places in the Karen and Karenni areas of displaced persons that have not been attacked in years and where life looks almost normal. There are schools, clinics and churches, some even made of wood. Rice fields are in full production and livestock abound.
Sometimes you will not hear the sound of gunfire for 2-3 months at a time. In these areas there are not even any landmines to worry about and you could think there is no war in Burma. And then, often only a half days walk away, there is killing, burning of villages and direct oppression by the Burma Army. The Burma Army continues its expansion of roads and camps making it more difficult and dangerous for people to move freely. These roads surround many of the ‘peaceful’ areas, and the people there feel it is only a matter of time before they are attacked. The growing road network allows greater control of the area as well as acting as a series of obstacles for villager and IDP travel in many areas. These roads are garrisoned, patrolled and mined by the Burma Army. We have had to cross these roads multiple times during this relief mission and it always dangerous as well as logistically challenging for the movement of relief supplies and sick or injured people.
We are currently in the Northern Karen State and have just returned from a humanitarian relief mission to the Northwestern Karen and Southern Karenni areas and are moving with two Karenni families who are fleeing death by the Burma Army. (Please see their story below in the main text.). This is one appreciation of the situation and a ground level view of what things are like for people in hiding from the Burma Army. Every situation is different but the examples and stories below, while not inclusive of all situations, are representative of what is happening right now in some of the ethnic areas of Burma.
Much of what is happening is difficult to capture with photos, video and reports. It is generally a slow and insidious strangulation of the population rather than an all out effort to crush them. While the campaign of control against the ethnic villagers and IDPs meets the UN definition of genocide, it is not the kind of genocide that occurred in Cambodia or Nazi Germany. There are rarely massacres nor are there attempts to annihilate the people. Many areas of Burma have large ethnic populations who are not subject to direct military action or the attempts to kill them. These areas are generally where there is no organized resistance to the government or areas where ethnic armies have entered into some form of ceasefire with the Burma Army.
The dictatorship of Burma attempts to control all the peoples of Burma and among these ethnic peoples seem to be the most difficult to control. The dictators are in an ongoing and brutal program of domination, assimilation and exploitation.
While they try to wipe out the resistance and fight them whenever they see them, there seems to be more of an effort to dominate the population. This is done in order to cut off support for the resistance as well as to expand the dictators’ control over the people.
Under attack is a peoples’ way of life and their ability to stay in their homes and farms. The Burma Army regularly, about once a month in the Karen and Karenni States, launches 1-4 battalion sized sweeping operations in villages and areas where IDPs are suspected to be hiding. These troops harass civilians, loot homes, beat, rape and torture indiscriminately and sometimes burn homes or entire villages. They also place landmines in areas that they want to deny to the people and the resistance.
For example, in a typical area of 10-15 villages, in one month the Burma Army may send 2 battalions that will patrol an area, steal from homes, maybe burn a few field huts and rice barns (sometimes an entire village or villages), lay landmines on main trails, threaten the population, then return to their base. During these sweeps the resistance will try to protect the population and 3-5 skirmishes will typically break out resulting in 2-5 dead and 5-10 wounded Burma Army soldiers and 1-2 wounded resistance fighters total. These are usually meeting engagements or ambushes of attacking Burma columns by the resistance. They usually last only a few minutes but buy time for villagers and IDPs to escape into the jungle with some belongings before the Burma Army can arrive at their villages or hide sites. The pro-democratic resistance (in this area, the Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party), are made up of dedicated men and women who take great risks to defend their families and people and who run mobile clinics, schools and small scale relief services. Most of their families and relatives are IDPs or are already refugees. While they cannot usually stop the Burma Army, they do provide early warning of attacks and can often delay these attacks. It is only through them that relief can meet the peoples under attack by the Burma Army. They provide the information, communication, transportation, logistical and security support needed for the provision of humanitarian relief.
What is it like to be an IDP now in 2006?
There are many kinds of IDPs but I will illustrate by using some of the most common situations that people now find themselves in. During this mission we came across many forms of displacement. Three are described below.
I) IDPS whose villages were burned and now live in less accessible places where they are living and farming at the bare subsistence level.
We walked through the village of Maw Tu Der in Toungoo District of Northwestern Karen State, which was burned down by the Burma Army in 2004. The villagers hid in the jungle for 3 months before they moved to the present site. They have built crude shelters hidden in the trees off of trails that have deliberately been kept small and difficult to travel on. The people have a kind of security in these hiding places due to the difficulty of access and with the help (mostly early warning) of the local resistance forces. But there is a definite loss in food production and available cash to purchase clothes, blankets, cooking utensils and farm implements. There is also a dramatic negative impact on their health because of decreased nutrition, greater exposure, and the close sharing of inadequate water sources.
In “new” Maw Tu Der, the people were dressed in rags and many were sick. We talked with a mother who had an infant who could not walk. It was not clear whether this was due to some disease or malnutrition. There is no nearby clinic and Burma Army patrols make it difficult for medical teams to arrive here with regularity. (Both the Karen Human Rights Group and Backpack Health Workers have extensively documented this direct correlation between Burma Army oppression and the negative impact of health on the population.) The setting is bleak, dirty crowded hovels in dark corners of the jungle. A redeeming feature is the people themselves, who are almost invariably cheerful and want to share even their last chicken with us. When we protest and say that if they really must give us a chicken to eat with them then we must pay, they reply, “Are you not our guest? We always take care of our guest. It is our way, and it makes us happy”.
II) Village attacked, but people have returned to the same site:
We met a different but also representative situation within two days walking from these Karen IDPs. We crossed over the mountains that make up the Karen/Karenni border and descended to the Karenni village of Gwe Ga Per, which is situated in a broad and beautiful valley. The fields are irrigated and terraced and there are buffalo in every field. Most of the houses are made of wood and have tin roofs. This was once an even more prosperous valley, but due to the attacks of the Burma Army there has been little improvement in the past 30 years. Just last month (December 23, 2005), the Burma Army along with a small contingent of Karenni (KNSO- a breakaway Karenni faction now loyal to the Burma Army), attacked Gwe Ga Per village. They first shelled the village with 60mm mortars from a nearby ridge and then they entered the village. They looted each home and then began to set fire to them. By this time the Karenni resistance was able to respond and seven of them launched a counter attack against the over 300 Burma Army troops. The Burma Army forces immediately withdrew and thus were only able to burn down 25 houses before they fled. This fleeing in the face of small resistance is very common and has many possible reasons. The Burma Army troops are not cowards and when motivated are an aggressive adversary. They are tough and move well in the mountains using map and compass and often avoiding trails. They outnumber and out gun the resistance in every area, so why the frequent retreats in the face of the resistance?
We believe that these are some of the reasons below:
1) The pro-democracy resistance (in this case Karenni), are fighting for their own homes and families. The Burma Army forces are not. The resistance is willing to risk death to protect their loved ones and villages. The Burma Army, as the aggressor, has no such motivation.
2) The resistance is also fighting for the ideals of ethnic rights, autonomy and democracy. The Burma Army does not share these ideals nor do they seem to have any ideals high enough to risk dieing for.
3) The resistance (while poorly armed and equipped), are fighting in their native land, which they know intimately. They are inured to the tough life of living in the mountains and can survive with very little. They are very quick, and as many grow up hunting, they are natural jungle fighters. They also enjoy a very supportive base among the local population and can find food, shelter, information and assistance in almost every village.
4) Due to local support in some areas, the resistance has a very well developed and accurate information/intelligence network. The Karenni soldiers for example can move between and around Burma Army camps and even between moving troop columns without being detected while the resistance knows almost every move of the Burma Armies in advance. The underground networks in towns controlled by the Burma Army are very good and thus the resistance is rarely surprised.
5) The Burma Army is conducting what they term is a counter insurgency. More than anything it seems that the Burma Army’s main interest is to establish control over the population. They attack ethnic resistance forces when they can or on specific orders, but generally they seem content to harass villagers and IDPs and attempt to put all the people of an area under their control. It may be that they believe that if the people are completely submissive, then the resistance will have no support and thus be easily defeated. And attacking civilians is less risky and costly thant trying to find and attack the resistance.
6) The use of proxy forces. Just north of Gwe Ga Per (the Karenni village described above), is an area under the control of another Karenni group loyal to the Burma Army- the Karenni Nationalities Peoples Liberation Front KNPLF). As long as the KNPLF remains loyal to the Burma Army and complies with their demands (for taxes, free labor, attacks on the Karenni resistance when ordered, and support of all Burma Army policies), the people can live in a kind of peace. Thus in some areas under Burma Army or proxy control, there still is no protection from forced labor, rapes, extra-judicial killings and forced relocations.
However, no villages have been burned in the KNPLF area mentioned above since 2000 and that is not the case in the areas where the resistance still operates. In resistance areas, almost every village has been attacked at least once since 2000. In spite of these attacks there is a reservoir of empathy for the resistance in some areas under proxy or Burma Army control. As was reported from an area that is under control by the Burma Army and their proxy the KNPLF, ” If for no other reason than history, we sympathize with the resistance. The resistance has always stood for our right to live free and has tried to help us, and share our aspirations to live in our own homeland in our ways. So even if we do not agree with all of them, or some of the things they do, we sympathize with them. Even if we can not help them we want them to continue.” In spite of these positive views in some areas under proxy control, this usually does not result in direct support for the pro-democracy resistance.
7) IDP support for the resistance. In our own field experience most IDPs support the resistance indirectly or directly. A typical response from an IDP living in an area fully supporting the resistance was by a Karenni Grandmother we interviewed. Her home has been burned 3 times since 2000. Question; “What do you think about the resistance and some peoples’ claims that they bring on the attacks of the Burma Army?” She replied,’ Those (the resistance) are all my sons. We have a right to stay in our own homes and farms as we always have. We have a right to have our sons to defend us and or freedoms. We don’t need the Burma Army to control us. We want to be free.” And as one pastor asked, “Why do the Burmese soldiers come to burn our villages? We do not go to burn theirs. Why do they want to come and bother us? We only want to have our farms, do our work and live in peace. Our life in the mountains is already very hard, why do they want to make it harder?”
Even in areas under the control of the Burma Army and in areas where they exert indirect control through their proxies like the KNSO and KNPLF, the people want self-determination. They do not want to live under the rule of the dictatorship with the restriction of freedom and human rights abuses that occur there. But many do support the proxies as they feel there is no alternative and that this is the best and most realistic course of action. Some support the proxies for personal gain, some because of real and perceived injustices by the resistance and many because their family members are with the proxy forces. Most support the proxies because their families live in the areas of proxy control and they are loyal to their families.
8) A mitigating factor is economic interests and corruption. In many areas the Burma Army has corrupted itself through the desire for economic again and often leave certain areas of resistance alone as long as the Burma Army can tax products going through the area. The Burma Army often sells its own supplies and makes false reports of attacks against resistance forces. In some areas the Burma Army avoids contact with the resistance and makes its priority the development of local business beneficial to the Army. It is a combination of corruption, inefficiency, low morale and lack of logistical support that makes this war look like a fifty percent war. One day everything is fine and a villager or IDP can go to a Burma Army controlled market and trade, the resistance can help farm fields, rest and visit their families. Then the very next day, the Burma Army is on patrol, a village is burned one or two people shot, and one or two people step on landmines laid by the retreating troops. Then a few days later, the Burma Army returns to its base and the people try to go back to their fields and go to the market again.
9) Another constant factor in this is the slow expansion and addition of Burma Army camps and thus the expansion of control of the surrounding area. They tell the villagers, “Don’t let the resistance fight us in this area, if they do we will hold you responsible and burn your homes and kill you.” This puts the resistance in a very difficult situation and makes it very difficult to stop the advances of the Burma Army.
With or with out resistance activity, the Burma Army will oppress civilian populations. This is our experience after 10 years providing relief in the field and is well documented by the Karen Human Rights Group, Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, many other human rights and relief organizations.
In the face of this, some families who have been attacked are too terrified to stay and they will move deeper into the jungle in what is usually less arable land or move out of their homeland to refugee camps in neighboring countries. The result is the expansion of control by the Burma Army and the loss of the local population as people flee to refugee camps, or hiding places deeper in the jungle. The original population is further reduced by the forced relocation of people and villages to areas controlled by the Burma Army.
III) The IDP situation of people on the run, in hiding or attempting to flee the country completely, is another situation we find many people in.
Flight usually happens immediately before an attack, if the people get a warning, or after the attack as the villagers or IDPs attempt to escape. In both these cases people flee with only what they can carry and for most families this is their infant children, some utensils, a blanket or two for the entire family, some plastic sheeting, a few days supply of rice.
When we come face to face with these people it is a heart-rending scene of very obvious desperation.
Last week three Karenni families who were fleeing for their lives from the Burma Army joined us as we were on this relief mission.
They had to flee with only what they could carry and as many of the children were too small to walk, the fathers and mothers had to carry these children. The other children carried small bags and basket, their life’s possessions. The families arrived at dusk after two days of hard walking. They were exhausted from being on the run and one of the fathers, Saw Nu Nu told us their story. “The Burma Army and their helpers the KNSO (Karenni National Solidarity Organization- a group loyal to the Burma Army) were on their way to kill me. They had already killed one of my friends and cut off his head last month, in December. At that time they captured me and three others from our village of Pa Haw Ko as well as three from other villages. We were gathered together from ten surrounding villages for a prayer meeting when the Burma Army forces appeared and captured some of us. We were tied up, beaten, punched then we were given electric shocks to our body. They struck us with rifle butts and one of them used a pistol to beat us. One man’s jaw was broken, one mans skull was broken and for me I was not able to endure the torture. They did this to us one by one. One of us was then forced to go with the soldiers and my friend Saw Gwe was killed. I may have been killed just as my friend was but I managed to escape. The Burma Army accused us of being in the resistance but we are not. They said informers had given them this information. We are farmers. It is true that years ago my friend who was killed served as a Karenni Soldier, but he was retired, as he had to work his farm to support his sick mother and his family. I am just a farmer. Our family had to run now because we got word that the Burma Army and KNSO were on their way to capture me again and this time they would be sure to kill me. We now cannot stay here and so we will go to a refugee camp. I do not want to take revenge. I am just a villager, I will move away from them.” Two more families came in behind Saw Nu Nu’s family and joined our relief team. The Karenni resistance who had helped them to escape escorted them.
The son of one of the families, Saw Naw Ku, had been captured at the same time of Saw Nu Nu and six others. All were tortured and one man killed and decapitated, but Saw Naw Ku managed to escape after Saw Nu Nu escaped. This family of five; Saw Naw Ku, his two young sisters and mother and father were very weak and sick. The mother was vomiting and collapsed as we walked with her. She cried and we could see she was not just physically sick but also very distraught to be leaving her home, farm and homeland. We gave her an IV, prayed with her and rigged a hammock stretcher and carried her on over the mountains to a safer area. She is now resting at a mobile clinic and though she is seriously sick with malaria ad a respiratory infection she is improving and smiled for the first time yesterday. When she fully recovers she and her family will be moved on to a refugee camp. The other two families are with us still and we will escort them all the way out.
I hope this report gives a useful if very limited on the ground perspective to the IDP issue. The dictators are intent on complete domination of all the peoples of Burma and the Burma Army continues its slow, corrupt but relentless attacks on the people. In the face of this we, as anyone who has been with these IDPs and villagers can testify, find hope. This hope is in the spirit of the people who help each other in the face of attacks, carry those who have stepped on landmines, share food with those in hiding, organize relief, run schools, try to protect their people and never give up hope for a free life in their own homes and villages.
In a Karenni village we visited recently, the Burma Army burned 25 of the villagers’ homes to the ground. But the church is still standing and the people gather to sing and pray every Sunday. There were five services and as the villagers walked back from each one, they were still singing hymns in groups of three and four. The cheerfulness and generosity of these villages is typical of everywhere our team has gone and is a testimony to their culture and faith. They told us they expected another attack, but they would hide and then come back and re-build again. “This is our homeland and is a gift from God for us to take care of”, one woman told us.
The very act of civilians defying Burma Army attempts to force them to move to relocation sites or comply with orders is one of the greatest acts of resistance to the dictators in Burma. This takes tremendous courage and hope. They do have hope and it is rooted in the dignity of the human spirit and a love of the highest gifts of life.
We are grateful to these people who inspire us and together we are working, even if we can only do this in very small ways, for something better in Burma. There are tremendous obstacles but we are grateful for all the people and different organizations inside and outside this country that work in different ways to alleviate suffering now and support positive change for the future.
No one here or anywhere in Burma or other countries is doing this alone. Your prayers, support and actions all give real hope and real help.
Thank you and God bless you,
A relief team leader Free Burma Rangers