Rangoon Must End Forced Labor, Allow Humanitarian Access
(Bangkok, June 10, 2005)-- The Burmese army continues to target civilians in its war against ethnic Karen insurgents, forcibly displacing large numbers of poor villagers, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and forced labor continue to characterize the tactics of an unreformed and unaccountable Burmese army.
A new 70-page report, "'They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again': The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State", documents numerous incidents of forced displacement, including a mother forced to flee her village after watching Burmese soldiers shoot and kill her daughter, a young family fleeing for their lives after soldiers went on a rampage in their Karen village, and a Karen man watched as troops looted his village after forcing him and other residents to flee.
"The government still allows the Burmese army to kill and drive people out of their villages with complete impunity," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "While the world has rightly condemned the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of democracy, it needs also to focus on the Burmese army's brutal displacement of the Karen and other ethnic minorities."
Human Rights Watch interviewed 46 ethnic Karen about their experiences of forced displacement. Together, the 46 reported being displaced more than 1,000 times in their lives. Incredibly, five individuals said they had been forcibly displaced more than 100 times.
Burma continues to flout its international legal obligations on the use of forced labor. Many Karen villagers told Human Rights Watch that they fled their homes to avoid attacks by the Burmese armed forces. Many explained that they had to run away to avoid forced labor for the army. One 19-year-old man explained:
One evening ... my mother sent me to the market.... On my way home, I was arrested by the Burma Army soldiers, and my arms were tied behind my back. They forced me to get into a truck, which already contained over 100 people.... In the morning they gave us some rice, and then took us to the battalion base....We were put in a building surrounded by soldiers, where we spent the night. The next day we had to carry rice up the motor road to Mu Then. We eventually arrived at their Ka Pen base, where we stayed for three months.
"Despite repeated denials by the Rangoon, the army continues to conscript local villagers, including children, to work either as army porters or as unpaid laborers," said Adams. "Besides putting their lives at grave risk, it creates incalculable hardships for very poor people and their families already living in constant fear of attack by the Burmese army and it proxy forces."
Human Rights Watch found that many internally displaced persons may not be able to go home again, as their villages may be destroyed, in a battle zone, occupied, or mined. Contrary to common assumptions, many may also not want to go home after being displaced so many times over such a long period, preferring to stay where they are or to resettle elsewhere.
Human Rights Watch said that those providing assistance should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the needs of displace persons. Instead, as set out in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the focus should be on individual choice and the needs of specific communities.
The main problems identified by Karen displaced persons were lack of consistent access to food, insufficient income and livelihood problems, lack of access to education and health services, and landmines. Most said that their primary need is to be able to farm properly, without disturbance, and thus improve their incomes and food security.
Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to allow impartial humanitarian agencies free access to displaced persons and for donors to increase assistance. Landmine mapping and clearance is a particularly urgent unmet need.
"Solutions for displaced persons in areas of Burma still in conflict or heavily militarized require imagination and resources," said Adams. "Providing aid through local, community based groups and attempting to build up civil society should be a priority for donors."
Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese government should be pressed to allow local organizations to be formed and work freely."
Independent estimates suggest that, as of late 2004, as many as 650,000 people were internally displaced in eastern Burma alone. According to a recent survey, 157,000 civilians have been displaced in eastern Burma since the end of 2002, and at least 240 villages destroyed, relocated, or abandoned. Many internally displaced persons live in hiding in war zones. Recent military offensives by the Burmese army have created thousands more displaced persons.
"The recalcitrance of the Burmese government and the behavior of the Burmese army should be an embarrassment to Burma's friends and patrons in Beijing, New Delhi," said Adams. "They should tell Rangoon to end the abuses or find new friends."
Excerpts from "They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again"
There were two groups [of Burmese army soldiers] ... They had about sixty men each... the "strategic commander" gave them orders to attack the village. I just ran. I could hear machine gun fire and mortars when I was running to the borderline. I am afraid for my family, and very afraid that the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] will kill me. It's possible I will be tortured when I go back. Eleven SPDC soldiers were killed by the KNU [Karen National Union]. I don't want to go back to see the [SPDC] soldiers. I want to go back to my village when the fighting stops but I will be prepared to run once again.
- H.T., a 28 year old Karen from Dooplaya District
I will never forget our suffering at Ler Kaw village. When the soldiers shot my thirteen year old daughter, her intestines came out. Her father and I tried to save her, and escape. She was in agony, and screaming, but we couldn't do anything to ease her pain. She died after an hour. We haven't done anything against the government. All we had in our hands when their troops attacked was our paddy, and harvesting tools. If the soldiers had called us, we would have gone to talk with them. They didn't have to shoot.
- Karen mother from Nyaunglebin District
We had to flee to the jungle, where we stayed for a week, with very little food. Then we returned to re-build our homes, and try to farm again. However, the next year, they [the Burmese army] came and destroyed our village again.
- 52 year-old Karen man from Nyaunglebin District
Burmese soldiers came into Tho Mer Kee village and burnt down all the houses. They killed all our pigs, goats and chickens -- -- and then shot the buffalos for fun.
- Karen woman
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