Understanding Burma


In order to fully understand the day-to-day suffering of Burma’s villagers and the mentality of the ruling junta, it is essential to have some idea of the country’s ethnic makeup and its historical development. This paper presents a brief summary of Burma’s people and historical development, followed by a summary of the current human rights situation. At the end we have provided endnotes and a suggested list of further reference materials.

A Land of Ethnic Diversity

Burma is a country of great ethnic diversity, its estimated population of 48-50 million being divided between at least 15 major ethnic groups, many of them with several distinct subgroups. These groups come from very different origins: for example, the Muslim Rohingyas of Arakan (Rakhine) State are related to Bengali and Indian traders of centuries ago, the predominant Burmans originally migrated from the Indo-Tibetan region, the Shan are a Sino-Thai race originating from what is now China, the Karen, Karenni and Pa’O originated from the region of Mongolia, and the Mon are closely related to the Khmer of Cambodia. The extent of these differences is partly visible in the differences in culture and language, with languages such as Burmese, Shan and Karen having virtually no similarities at all. There is no reliable census data for Burma at present, because the last real census was conducted in the early 1930’s and all of the census data since British colonial days has been collected by Burman-dominated regimes keen on exaggerating the dominance of the Burmans; for example, in many areas anyone with a Burman name (which many people adopt to avoid official discrimination) and anyone who is Buddhist has been listed down as a Burman. Using data collected this way, the SPDC and its predecessor regimes have claimed that 67-70% of the population is Burman, while in reality it is more likely that at most half the population is Burman, with 50% or more of the population divided among the other ethnic groups. After the Burmans, the most populous groups are the Karen with an estimated 6-7 million (when taken including the Karenni and Pa’O), and the Shan and Mon with about 4 million each1. Even these figures, however, can only be taken as rough estimates.

Kingdoms and Colonisation

There is a great deal of debate over who arrived in Burma first, this honour being claimed by the Burmans, Mon, Karen and Rakhine, among others. Most of these claims appear to be based more on racist dogma than on available historical evidence, particularly the claims of the Burmans and Rakhines, but the oral histories of the Karen and Mon appear to coincide more closely with the historical records and artifacts available. According to the Karen version, their people arrived in Burma, a region which at that time was virtually unpopulated jungle, approximately 2,500 years ago (the current year 2000 is 2739 on the Karen calendar) after a migration in several stages from the region of what is now Mongolia, and settled in what is now the Irrawaddy and Sittaung basin of central Burma. Other groups began arriving at around the same time, possibly shortly before or after, particularly the Mon/Khmer. The Mon/Khmer began imposing their feudal kingdom structure on the other peoples, most of whom had little or no political structure. This began the movement of peoples like the Karen from the central lowlands out into the hills. The Shan also had a strongly structured hierarchical society and in time began dominating what is now Shan State, while the Rakhine kingdom dominated what is now northwestern Burma. The Burmans (whose current calendar year is 1362) were probably among the latest groups to arrive, but over the centuries their kingdoms gradually defeated the Mon and the Rakhine. For hundreds of years until the 1800’s, there were various warring kingdoms trying to eat away at each other’s territories, while less-organised or more peaceable peoples were gradually driven further into the hills toward the peripheries of what is now Burma. In 1767, the armies of the Burman king Hsinbyushin even conquered much of Siam (Thailand), sacking the capital at Ayutthaya and extracting tribute from the existing dynasties. However, none of these kingdoms were ever strong enough to occupy and hold all of this territory, so once they had conquered they generally had to withdraw and life went on.

The British took over what is now Burma piece by piece in 3 wars: 1824-26, 1852-53, and finally in 1886, when ‘Burma’ became part of the British Empire as a province of British India. Until that time, no one had looked on this diverse region as a single geographic unit, and this is an important point in understanding the historical argument for autonomy or independence of the non-Burman peoples. The British systematically eradicated the structure of the Burman kingdoms, but at the same time allowed the continued existence of the Shan princedoms and the Karenni sawbwa’s. These local rulers were allowed some autonomy because they were seen as less of a threat and because the British did not want to allocate the resources necessary to control such vast and far-flung territories, preferring to gradually implement an indirect rule enforced through local leaders. For peoples such as the Karen, Karenni and Kachin, British colonialism was partly a liberation from the repression of the Burmans, and it gave them their first access to education and some forms of development. British and American missionaries had a great deal of success with some of these peoples, gradually converting a sizable minority of Karens to Christianity (mainly Baptist), many Kachin, Chins (also known as Zo) and Naga of northwestern and northern Burma to Baptist and other Christian faiths, and a large proportion of the Karenni to Catholicism. As opportunities opened, many people from these groups joined the colonial administration, civil police force and army. Although in these colonial institutions they were heavily outnumbered by Burmans (for example, in 1938 the civil police force was 71% Burman and only 8.7% Karen2), many Burmans remained resentful of British rule and were not very well trusted by the colonisers compared to the other peoples.

Nationalism, Japanese Occupation, and Independence

In the first half of the 20th century, the Burman feeling against the British began to take tangible form in the beginnings of nationalist liberation movements, particularly the Thakin movement in which Aung San was a leader. Over the years the Thakins looked to outside countries for military help in overthrowing the British, culminating in the trip of Aung San and the ‘30 Comrades’ to Japan for military training in early 1941. By the end of 1941, they had returned and put together an ‘army’ of a few thousand in Siam, and followed the invading Japanese into Burma. In the face of the Japanese advance, the British Army retreated to India. During the ensuing 3½-year Japanese occupation of Burma, Aung San’s ‘Burma Independence Army’ acted as enforcers for the Japanese forces, and attracted a mixture of nationalists seeking independence and riffraff who wanted to loot villages. A wide range of atrocities were perpetrated by the BIA against Karen villagers and other ethnic peoples, as many Burmans finally had their opportunity to vent their frustrations against peoples they perceived as British ‘collaborators’. In areas such as the Papun hills, Karen villagers feared the BIA much more than they did the Japanese occupation forces.

At the same time, some Karen, Kachin and others had left for India with the retreating British forces, later to parachute back in, and a few British officers had remained behind in Burma. Villagers were organised into resistance units and armed to fight the Japanese and BIA, and the villages suffered heavy retaliations as a result3. In 1944-45, when the Allies re-entered Burma, the Karen, Karenni and Kachin were instrumental in helping them to recapture Burma by systematically harassing and creating havoc among the retreating Japanese4. In return for their loyalty they hoped for independence from the Burmans after the war, but it never came. By 1944, Aung San and the BIA had realised that the Japanese had no intention of granting real independence and that the tide of the war was turning, so they switched sides and also fought the retreating Japanese. After the war, Aung San approached the British for independence. The non-Burmans protested that they should be granted freedom from the Burmans, and the British convened the Frontier Areas Commission of Enquiry (FACE) to hear testimony, particularly from Karen regions, on their views. However, as more and more villagers testified of BIA atrocities, the British began to regret the experiment and after the Commission closed they wiped much of the testimony off the record. In the end, independence was granted under Aung San’s plan, with a unitary government which would clearly be Burman-dominated.5

Realising that some kind of accommodation would have to be made with the non-Burmans, Aung San engineered the 1947 Panglong Agreement, whereby some representatives from the Shan, Chin and Kachin hills signed their willingness to cooperate with his government and not to seek secession for at least 10 years. No representatives of the Karen, Mon, or any other peoples were present. Even so, Panglong appeared to be a good starting point, but its spirit was wiped out a few months later when Aung San was assassinated by his Burman political rivals. When independence came in January 1948, U Nu became Burma’s elected leader. He immediately faced a Communist rebellion which threatened to topple the government, and was largely saved by non-Burman units of the former colonial army. However, behind their backs he was raising his own Army, and he soon turned it against the Karen and other non-Burman units. At the same time the Karen and others began rising for some form of independence or federalism, first in large peaceful demonstrations, but when this didn’t work they went into armed rebellion. In 1949, the newly independent government faced armed uprisings not only by the Communists, but the Karen and others as well.

Civil War

Through the 1950s, U Nu’s party managed to hold power and bring about some economic progress in the central Burman cities despite facing several armed opposition groups in the countryside. However, Gen. Ne Win, whom U Nu had made head of the Army, seized the government first in 1958-60, and then again in 1962, when he established a full military dictatorship and began stripping everyone in the country, Burman or otherwise, of their rights.

Through the 1950’s and 1960’s, more and more ethnic armed groups rose against the regime until by the late 1970’s there were well over a dozen armed opposition groups controlling something like 20-30% of Burma’s entire land mass. The Communists had become entrenched in large areas of Shan State, while ethnic-based armies controlled much of the hill territory near all of the country’s land borders. Ne Win’s response was to increasingly militarise the country and make his repression of all freedoms more and more systematic. He introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, which essentially meant state control of everything, and he was the state. He largely cut off the country from international trade or contact, which only strengthened the hand of the armed opposition groups and drove the country into abject poverty. In the early 1970’s he introduced the Four Cuts policy, aimed at cutting off all supplies of food, funds, recruits and intelligence to opposition groups; in practice, it meant undermining the opposition by systematically driving into destitution the civilian population supporting it. Forced relocations, forced labour and all forms of abuses against the civilian population became the order of the day.

Gradually the opposition to Ne Win’s rule became almost universal. In the cities, major demonstrations broke out in 1974 but were put down by the military with many arrests and killings. In 1976, nine of the ethnic-based armies united to form the National Democratic Front (NDF) alliance. However, Ne Win’s rule continued until 1988, when a sudden demonetisation which had wiped out many people’s savings triggered mass uprisings in Rangoon, Mandalay and most provincial towns. Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets, led by university students and Buddhist monks, only to be raked with machine gun fire or charged with bayonets by combat troops. Anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people were killed nationwide, and for the first time Burman pro-democracy activists fled to ethnic-held areas in the hills, where they formed their own pro-democracy organisations and allied themselves with the ethnic armies to form the Democratic Alliance of Burma and other alliances. In Rangoon, Ne Win stepped down but eventually hand-picked a junta, which assumed power in September 1988 and called itself the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

The SLORC and the SPDC

The SLORC inaugurated its rule by massacring more civilian demonstrators, then immediately began implementing more draconian measures than Ne Win had ever imposed. However, the regime was hungry for international funds and support, particularly the foreign aid which the international community had cut off in its horror at the massacres. In an attempt to appease both international and domestic criticism and to obtain financing, the SLORC began to make a show of opening markets and announced democratic elections for 1990, calculating that it could control the election results by keeping the opposition divided. Unfortunately for them, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San (who is an ‘independence hero’ to most ethnic Burmans), had returned from England to tend her sick mother in 1988 and had been dragged into the political whirlpool. She became the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a new opposition party, and the electoral opposition parties began rallying around her. To put a stop to this the SLORC put her under house arrest in 1989, but when the polls were held in May 1990, the NLD won 82% of the parliamentary seats, its allies 16%, and the SLORC’s ‘National Unity Party’ only 2%. The junta immediately began taking steps to ignore the election, and never did honour the result. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest until 1995, and even now is so restricted in her movements that she remains under virtual house arrest. Elected Members of Parliament have been harassed, arrested, disqualified, or forced or coerced to resign. Some have died in prison, while others fled to areas held by the ethnic resistance groups and formed a parallel government.

In the ethnic-held areas, agreements were made between ethnic and pro-democracy groups wherein most of the ethnic armies dropped independence from their objectives, and in return the pro-democracy groups agreed to the concept of a federal system with some autonomy for the ethnic states. The SLORC changed the country’s name to ‘Myanmar Naing-Ngan’, a name essentially meaning ‘Burman Country’ in the Burmese language, which the Burmans had used historically to refer to their kingdoms of the central plains; at the same time changing all other names to their Burmese language versions such as ‘Rangoon’ to ‘Yangon’. This was seen by the ethnic nationalities as part of ethnic cleansing and by the Burmese pro-democracy groups as the act of an illegal regime, so all of these groups rejected the name change.

The SLORC stepped up its military offensives against the ethnic armed opposition and its repression of the civilian population. In 1989, the Burmese Communist Party imploded when the ethnic Wa soldiery rebelled against the mainly Chinese leadership, and then formed the United Wa State Army. The SLORC saw an opening and negotiated ceasefires with the Wa and several small groups within Shan State, promising SLORC Army support for drug trafficking operations in return for ‘joining hands with the government’. Burma rapidly became the world’s largest supplier of opium and heroin. The regime then used military offensives, large-scale forced relocation of civilians, the complicity of neighbouring countries, and finally buy-offs of the leadership to force other armed opposition groups into ceasefire deals, none of which addressed any of the political or human rights concerns of those groups. After each deal, the SLORC sent more military to effectively surround the ceasefire groups, making it impossible for them to consider a resumption of hostilities. Human rights abuses against the civilians, such as forced labour for the SLORC military, continued.

The SLORC presented these ceasefires internationally as evidence that it was creating ‘peace’, and claimed that it had secured ceasefires with 7 of 9 opposition groups; then 9 of 11; then 11 of 13; then 14 of 15; and at present, 17 of 18 opposition groups. The reality is that many of the groups in the list are SLORC creations, while at least 5 groups continue to fight the regime (the Karen National Union, the Shan State Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party [which the regime includes in its ‘ceasefire’ list], the Chin National Front, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, various Arakan Rohingya groups, etc.). The SLORC continued to offer business opportunities in return for international political support, and gained admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, while still keeping China as its principal political and military backer. In late 1997, the regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Most of the armed groups fighting the SPDC have given up their control of territory in the face of mass military offensives, and now fight entirely using guerrilla tactics. In areas where there is still armed opposition, the SPDC is demanding the outright surrender of the opposition groups, backing this with military offensives and by implementing the Four Cuts policy more systematically than ever before, forcibly relocating hundreds of villages at a time, systematically torturing and executing any villagers suspected of having any links to the opposition, and forcing the civilian population to do labour and provide all the material needs of the Army. In rural areas where there is no conflict, the Army and administration demand regular forced labour on infrastructure and money-making schemes, extort money out of farmers until they have to flee their land, and force them to hand over large proportions of their crops to support the Army. In the cities and Burman areas, the regime keeps most of the universities closed, all freedom of expression and association is denied, unauthorised access to fax machines, foreign radio or the internet is punishable by long jail terms with hard labour, high school students have been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for handing out pamphlets, and corruption and official extortion are rampant. The economy is destroyed, with a worthless currency, spiralling inflation, billions in foreign debt incurred by building up the military and almost no foreign exchange reserves. Politically the situation is at a stalemate, with the SPDC refusing to negotiate with the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or representatives of the ethnic nationalities; the regime appears to believe that if it can simply continue holding power, the international community will give in and give it the financial and political backing it needs in return for access to Burma’s resources and extremely cheap labour.

The Present Day: Junta Policy in the Rural Areas

The SPDC itself is a classic case of a paranoid military junta; its leaders restrict even the most basic freedoms in the belief that any freedom whatsoever will be used to oppose their rule. They may be right, because unlike repressive regimes in many parts of the world, the SPDC represents no political faction or ideology other than pure militarism and has no constituency among the general populace. The result is a regime which focuses most of its energies on controlling the civilian population. This is especially true in the rural areas, many of them populated by the non-Burman ethnic nationalities which together make up approximately 50% of Burma’s population. Ethnic-based armed resistance movements have been seeking autonomy by fighting the central regime for the past 50 years, and the SPDC and its predecessors have believed since the 1970’s that the best way to destroy these groups is to destroy the ability of the civilians to support them.

This approach gave rise to the official Four Cuts policy, intended to deprive opposition groups of food, funds, recruits and intelligence. In practice, this is implemented by systematic intimidation and repression of the civilian population until they no longer dare support the opposition, and by making them so destitute that they are unable to provide any material support. In other words, undermine the opposition by directly attacking the civilians who support them, often referred to as ‘draining the ocean so the fish cannot swim’.

The Four Cuts have been official policy since the early 1970’s, but the present State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta has made their implementation much more systematic than ever before. Using military offensives and large-scale forced relocations, the junta has managed to force many of the ethnic resistance groups into military ceasefires which do not address any political or human rights issues. However, several resistance groups continue to fight, particularly in Karen, Karenni (Kayah) and Shan States. In these areas, the junta’s main tactic is now mass forced relocations of the civilian population. In the past forced relocation was used as a military tactic but only on a localised scale, a few villages at a time; however, in 1996 the junta began delineating regions where any form of resistance occurs, and forcing hundreds of villages at a time to move to Army-controlled sites. Between 1996 and the present, at least 1,500 villages in central Shan State have been ordered to move and destroyed, affecting at least 300,000 people6; since 1997, 200 villages covering the entire map of Karenni (Kayah) State have been forced out and burned7; since 1997, close to 200 villages in Papun and Nyaunglebin Districts of northern Karen State have been shelled and burned without warning, driving the population into hiding in the forest8; between 1996 and 1997 over 100 villages in southern Tenasserim Division were forced out and destroyed, followed by a mass military offensive which is still destroying more villages now9; and since December 1999 the SPDC has ordered that over 100 villages throughout Dooplaya District of central Karen State hand over their entire rice harvest to the Army and then move to Army-controlled sites or face being shot on sight10. In hill villages throughout Karen State, villagers are now being ordered to move into the ‘centre’ of their villages, meaning they cannot stay near their fields, and are only allowed to leave the village between dawn and dusk under threat of being shot if they are out after curfew. This disrupts the entire crop cycle, because villagers are used to staying in field huts far from the village for much of the growing season to do all of the intensive labour which is required. Many of them find that they can no longer produce their own food.

The junta’s strategy is to consolidate control by forcing all villages out of the remote hills to Army-controlled sites, then using them as forced labour to build access roads into their home areas, then establishing Army camps along the roads, and then re-introducing villagers into what are essentially ‘forced labour villages’ along the roads where they can be easily controlled and are always available to serve the soldiers. In the process, no one is to be allowed to live in the hills out of reach of the Army any longer.

Many of the villages ordered to move do not even have any contact with opposition groups, but they fall within an area where the SPDC believes the opposition can operate. The villagers are usually given no more than a week to move, after which they are told their homes and belongings will be destroyed and they will be shot on sight if seen around their villages. After the relocation deadline the Army usually sends out patrols to destroy the villages, and particularly to hunt out and destroy any food supplies. The villagers are usually ordered to move out of the hills, to larger Army-controlled villages or sites along roads. They have to bring their own food and building supplies because nothing is given to them; in many cases they even have to hand over their rice to the Army and have it rationed back out to them day by day. Once in the relocation site, people have few or no opportunities to return to their fields and must survive by foraging for food or looking for local day labour. At the same time, the Army uses them as a convenient source of unpaid forced labour at local Army camps and along the roads, making it almost impossible for them to support themselves. After a few months, many people find they have little option but to starve or flee.

These days most people know what awaits them at the relocation sites, so when they are ordered to move they simply flee into hiding in the forests surrounding their farmfields. They then try to survive from hidden rice supplies around their villages, planting small patches of crops in several different places and fleeing from place to place whenever SPDC Army patrols come around. Tens of thousands of people are presently living this way in central Shan State, throughout Karenni (Kayah) State, in Toungoo, Papun and Nyaunglebin districts of northern Karen State and eastern Pegu Division, and Tenasserim Division of southern Burma. They have little food and many are starving, there is no access to medicines and many die of treatable diseases, their children have no access to education of any kind, and they live under the constant risk of being captured or shot by passing SPDC patrols who also seek out and destroy their food supplies and crops in the fields. Many of them have been living this way for two to three years already. Eventually, finding they can no longer survive this way, a steady stream of them try to make their way to the border with Thailand to become refugees.

This desperate lack of options is most clearly reflected by the statements of villagers included in KHRG reports such as Wholesale Destruction (1998) and Death Squads and Displacement (1999). In the remote hills of Papun and eastern Nyaunglebin Districts, villages have been shelled and burned without warning and villagers hiding in the forests are hunted on sight. In the western plains of Nyaunglebin district, which are close to the Sittaung River and under SPDC control, the villages have been forced into relocation sites where nothing is provided, and the SPDC has created new ‘Guerrilla Retaliation’ execution squads which have been systematically killing any villagers who have ever helped the opposition in the slightest way. As a result, villagers from the western plains flee into the hills, while villagers in the hills are themselves fleeing into the forests or toward Thailand - a trip that involves passing through northern Papun District, where even more villages have been systematically destroyed and the situation is equally as bad.

Forced relocation is not the only thing ripping the villages apart. Even in villages which have not been forced to move it has become almost impossible to survive. Village leaders living in conflict areas have described their lives as ‘standing in a leaky boat which is being rocked from both sides’. They are forced to support opposition armies, such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), or the Shan State Army (SSA), with food, porters and recruits, and then they are severely punished for this by the SPDC Army. While most of the villagers support the aims of the opposition, they find it difficult to provide material support and they often ask local guerrilla commanders not to attack the SPDC in their area, because whenever SPDC columns are ambushed they respond by torturing the elders and burning homes in the nearest villages, accusing them of not providing sufficient intelligence. This dilemma comes out the most clearly in testimonies from villages where the SPDC is largely in control; strong examples can be seen in the KHRG reports Caught in the Middle (1999) on Thaton District, and Peace Villages and Hiding Villages (2000) on Toungoo District. A typical SPDC written order sent by Infantry Battalion #26 to a Karen village in Toungoo district in 1999 reads, "do not give paddy, rice or ‘set kyay ngwe’ [protection money] to the enemy. [We] will burn and relocate the villages who give these. [We] will decree them to be hard core."11 However, villages have no choice but to provide these things, and they constantly face retaliations by SPDC commanders for it. At the same time, it must be said that the opposition armies do not engage in the brutal abuses of the SPDC Army, and when the worst abuses are occurring the villagers often flee to the opposition troops for some form of protection.

Landmines have become an added threat to villagers, particularly over the past 3 to 4 years. In Karen State, landmines are now being laid heavily by at least 3 groups: the SPDC, the KNLA, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (a Karen splinter group allied to the SPDC). None of the mines are mapped, and though the KNLA tells the villagers which pathways are mined the information often doesn’t get to everyone. Most of the casualties are villagers, particularly because of the SPDC practice of using villagers to march in front of their columns as human minesweepers and human shields against ambush. This form of abuse is on the rise in central Karen State, and many SPDC columns are specifically choosing to use women and children for it. According to research done by Non-Violence International for the September 2000 Landmine Monitor (the publication of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines), the estimated number of landmine casualties in Karen State rose in 1999 to well over 1,000, more than the reported landmine casualties for all of Cambodia during the same time period. With landmine use increasing every month, Burma is beginning to be seen as Asia’s new landmine hotspot. On the ground, this is reflected in the testimony of villagers, many of whom say that the main thing making them flee their villages was fear of being taken by the SPDC to clear mines. Pa’an District of central Karen State is now one of the most heavily mined areas in all of Burma, and this is reflected in the feelings of villagers from the area recorded in the KHRG reports Uncertainty, Fear and Flight (1998) and Beyond All Endurance (1999); a few years ago, villagers interviewed from this area knew little or nothing of landmines, but now the issue permeates their consciousness and their fears.

Even this is only another factor in a whole range of suffering which combines to make life in villages impossible. In conflict areas, villagers face daily or weekly demands from all of the SPDC Army camps and mobile patrols in their area. At any given time, a village has to provide an average of one person per household for a whole range of forced labour: forced porters, guides and human minesweepers for military columns, messengers and sentries for Army camps, building and maintaining Army camp fences, trenches, booby-traps, and barracks, cutting and hauling firewood, cooking and carrying water to soldiers, building and rebuilding military supply roads, clearing scrub along roadsides to minimise the possibility of ambush, standing sentry along military supply roads, growing crops for the Army on confiscated land, and engaging in profit-making activities for the officers such as brick-baking, rubber planting or digging fishponds. Every Army unit demands most of these things from the surrounding villages, and every village is surrounded by three, four or five Army units. The forced labour is usually demanded on a rotating basis; a specified number of villagers must go for a day or a week with all their own food and tools, and they are not released until their replacements arrive for the next shift. Nothing is provided for them, and they often have to work under guard. Conditions for porters are especially brutal; forced to carry loads of rations or ammunition weighing 30 kg / 60 lb or more, they are marched in front of soldiers to detonate mines and kicked or beaten if they are too slow. If they become ill or cannot continue they are killed or left behind, and many porters die either during portering or afterwards, from disease complicated by physical exhaustion and malnutrition.

In addition, mobile patrols often grab farmers on sight in their fields or in the villages to be porters or to do forced labour at the local Army camps. Because of this, villagers usually run as soon as they see an Army patrol coming - and the Army considers anyone who runs as a rebel and immediately opens fire on them. To avoid forced labour, the village men in many conflict areas leave the village to stay in hiding in their field huts or in the forest while the women, children and the elderly remain behind in the village to protect the house from looting by soldiers and to carry on some semblance of family life. The men only sneak back into the village for food and to visit when SPDC patrols are not around. This system makes the women particularly vulnerable, because SPDC patrols arriving at the village often rape them on seeing that the men are not around. In the absence of men, they often take the women as porters, or accuse them of being married to ‘rebel soldiers’ and hold them hostage pending the return of their husbands.

In northern Karen State some villages in conflict areas have tried to appease the SPDC by making their own ‘peace’ agreements; they promise to abide by all SPDC demands and not contact the resistance if their village is not forced to move. They are subsequently labelled ‘peace’ villages, but even in these villages the demands for forced labour, money, food and materials usually become so intense that the village elders cannot keep up with them all. They are then arrested and tortured for failure to comply, houses are sometimes burned and many villagers flee just as though there had never been any agreement.12

Abuses in the Non-Conflict Areas

It is a common misconception to think that forced labour and other abuses only occur in Burma’s conflict areas. Many people are finding that they cannot survive in their villages even in areas where there is no opposition activity at all. As explained above, the SPDC tries to control the life of every civilian with its Army, so the non-conflict areas have almost as many Army units as the conflict areas. With the rapid expansion of the Army in recent years to its current strength of over 400,000 troops, villagers who have never seen fighting now find their villages surrounded by 3 or 4 Army camps within one or two hours’ walking distance. The officers in these camps see the civilian population as little more than a convenient pool of forced labourers and a source of profit. Villages receive a constant stream of written and spoken orders demanding their forced labour as Army camp servants, messengers and sentries, cutting and hauling building materials for camp construction, building and maintaining the camp (translations of hundreds of these can be seen in the KHRG ‘Order Sets’ available on this web site). They are also taken as porters, because even where there is no fighting the Army still needs people to haul rations and supplies from roadheads to hilltop Army camps, or from the Battalion bases to faraway outposts in the middle of conflict areas.

Where they are in complete control, the SPDC also uses villagers as forced labour to improve the road networks and build infrastructure such as railways and hydro dams. Conditions on such projects can be brutal, with one person per family demanded on rotating one or two week shifts; in rainy season the adults have to work the fields, so the children often have to go and work in dangerous conditions with frequent mudslides. Once completed, the power from these dams goes only to the Army camps and to businessmen who can pay off the Army, while the villagers are often forbidden to take their bullock carts on the roads they have built with their own labour. The roads, usually only dirt, are badly engineered by Army officers and wash out every monsoon season, causing many villagers to refer to the period November to January as ‘road building season’, when they are forced to rebuild the roads each year.

For Army officers, a posting in the countryside is an opportunity to make a great deal of personal profit in a short time. Officers in areas where there is no opposition usually occupy themselves by ordering villagers to cut logs and bamboo, claiming it is for the Army camp but then selling it on the market for personal profit. Other such schemes include forcing villagers as well as rank and file soldiers to bake bricks or dig and maintain fish ponds. All profit goes to the officers, who also confiscate most of the rations intended for their soldiers and approximately half of the soldiers’ pay in the name of various ‘fees’ and ‘contributions’, then sell the rations on the market and tell the soldiers to get their food from the villages. This situation has become even worse since 1998, when the SPDC in Rangoon cut back severely on rations to units in the field and ordered them to produce more of their own food or take it from the farmers. The result has been the systematic confiscation of much of the best farmland by Army units. The farmers are not paid any compensation; worse yet, they are called out for forced labour farming their confiscated land, from planting to harvesting, and the officers then take the entire harvest. Some villages report that they even have to provide the seed for planting these fields.

In addition to forced labour, villagers face constant demands for cash, food and materials from every SPDC Army unit in their area. On average, a family must hand over anywhere from 100 to 3,000 Kyat per month to the Army in cash as extortion which masquerades under the names of ‘porter fees’, ‘servants’ fees’, ‘development fees’, ‘pagoda fees’, and so on. In theory, this money is supposed to be used to hire people for forced labour or to support projects in the area, but in reality it is pocketed by the officers and forced labourers are not paid. Villagers must also pay to avoid forced labour when they are ill or cannot go, at rates of 100-1,000 Kyat per day of labour missed. Cash is very hard to come by for most subsistence farmers in rural Burma because they do not operate in a cash-based economy, but if they do not pay these fees they are arrested. Every farmer in areas firmly controlled by the SPDC must also hand over a quota of every crop to the SPDC authorities for next to nothing. Usually this quota amounts to approximately 30% of the entire crop, but after the farmer deducts the portion of his harvest required for seed stocks, payments in rice for previous loans, use of other villagers’ buffaloes to plough, etc., the quota amounts to 50% or more of what is left. Quotas have been increasing in recent years, and no exceptions are made for bad crop years such as the disasters caused by droughts and floods in 1997 and 1998. The farmers often have no option but to buy rice on the market to fulfil the quota in such years, while the family goes hungry. The price paid for quota is less than half of market price, but corrupt SPDC officials take out so many ‘deductions’ for themselves that the farmers usually receive no more than 10-20% of market price for quota rice.13 Even with little or no rice left to feed their families, the farmers still face regular demands for rice and meat to feed the local Army camps, and armed patrols often enter villages to loot rice, livestock and valuables.

The SPDC provides very few social services in the villages which it controls. In some villages it sanctions the construction of a primary or middle school, but usually it is the villagers who must pay the cost of building it as well as the salary of the state-supplied teacher. More remote villages usually cannot afford to do this, so many have opened their own primary-level schools with their own volunteer teachers. Since the beginning of 1999, the SPDC military has been ordering the closing of many of these village primary schools in areas such as Pa’an and Thaton districts of Karen State, telling the villagers that only state-sanctioned schools are allowed. Many villagers cannot afford to send their children to state schools, however, and they also complain that in the state schools the teaching of languages such as Karen, Mon, Kayah, or Shan is strictly forbidden, causing children to grow up illiterate in their mother tongue. As a result, fewer and fewer children in the rural areas of Karen State have any opportunity for education. The same applies to rural medical clinics. Even in places where the regime has allocated some funds for the establishment of some basic social services, the local military and SPDC authorities use these services as an excuse to extort even more money from the villagers by force, usually amounting to several times the worth of the services being provided.

Even where schools are available, many children are pulled out of school as soon as they are big enough to work because of all of the demands for labour and money which their families have to face. Families sell their valuables to pay the SPDC fees and pay to avoid forced labour so that they can work in their fields or do day labour to make money. However, there are so many fees that the money does not last long, and many families send small children to do the forced labour so that the adults can still work the fields. Eventually they sell all of their belongings and livestock to pay all of the fees, and when they are still ordered to go for forced labour or pay money they have no option but to flee the village or face arrest, torture and possible summary execution. Trials are not held in rural areas, villagers are simply tied up and taken to Army camps where they are held in mediaeval-style leg stocks or pits in the ground, tortured and interrogated until the Army officer decides what to do with them. They are often held for ransom, held for months under torture without charge, or simply executed without any record existing of their arrest. To avoid this, villagers in areas all over Burma have fled to the towns where they become beggars or cheap labour, to the hills, or to neighbouring countries.

The overall result is that the subsistence farming village, the basic unit of society throughout all of rural Burma, is losing its viability under military control. The classic image of internally displaced people and refugees is that they have fled military battles in and around their villages, but this is far from the case in Burma. In thousands of interviews conducted by the Karen Human Rights Group since 1992 with villagers who have fled their homes, approximately 95% say they have not fled military battles, but rather the systematic destruction of their ability to survive caused by demands and retaliations inflicted on them unilaterally by the SPDC military. When they do have to flee fighting it is only for a day or two, because the war in Burma is a fluid, hit-and-run affair which villagers can dodge by hiding for short periods in the forest. However, once the SPDC occupies the area around their village the suffering is inescapable. The village, rooted as it is to the land, is just too defenceless and vulnerable. It can be forced out to work, looted, retaliated against, all with complete impunity.

Loss of Hope: The People and the Army

The population has largely lost hope and sees almost no way out of the present situation. In the urban and central Burman areas, people are too afraid to make any move to oust the regime because of the massacres they know would result. In the ethnic nationality regions, the opposition groups can no longer offer protection to the villagers, who cannot see any way to organise against the regime and see no option but to flee the SPDC Army whenever it is around. Anywhere from 2 to 4 million people are internally displaced in Burma, at least 1 million of these in the ethnic nationality areas, surviving in hiding in the forests or as beggars in the towns. Approximately 120,000 Karen and Karenni refugees are registered in camps in Thailand, with more arriving each week. An estimated 1 million or more additional refugees and economic migrants are scattered throughout Thailand in the illegal labour market. The entire situation in Burma is clearly unsustainable, but the regime absolutely refuses to lessen its grip on power in any way and there is no way of knowing for how long this situation can continue.

The Army, known as the Tatmadaw, has no real ideology and no constituency within the society that supports its rule, but it appears to have been successful in entrenching its rule more than ever before by entrenching fear and hopelessness in the minds of the people. Even its junior and mid-level officers work mainly only for purposes of their own power or wealth, or because being an Army officer is one of the few viable careers in today’s Burma. As for the rank and file soldiers, many are conscripted in forced lotteries, while others are coerced or misled into believing that the Army provides an escape from personal trouble or protection for their families. Once in the Army, they are dragged into the cycle of human rights abuses by officers who force them to take their food from the villagers and round up forced labourers or be punished. Even after years in the Army, they are not allowed to leave unless they round up 5 or 10 new recruits, which they do by coercing young boys they find at the markets and schools. As a result, most of the recruits to the Burmese Army are underage.

Though the SPDC junta has very few supporters within the population or even within its own Army, it is a mistake to pretend that the leaders of the SPDC junta are outsiders or aliens with no connection to the society in which they live. They may be deluded, but they did spring from Burmese society and they have succeeded in gaining and holding power over it. Essentially, their power is rooted in the deep racism that has permeated Burmese society since its beginnings; not only the racial supremacy complex which many Burmans are brought up with, but the racism of the Karen against the Burmans, the Burmans against the Shan, the Shan against the Wa, the Wa against the Shan, the Mon against the Burmans, the Rakhine against the Rohingyas, the Burmans against the Chinese, the Christians against the Buddhists, and everyone against the Muslims. The list goes on and on, and the military has always exploited it to turn people against each other and thereby increase its power. SPDC propaganda encourages a blind racist nationalism, full of references to ‘protecting the race’, meaning that if Burmans do not oppress other nationalities then they will themselves be oppressed, ‘national reconsolidation’, meaning assimilation, and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’, meaning that if the Army falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would ensue. The non-Burman political groups are frequently just as guilty, relentlessly persecuting racial, regional and religious minorities within their own populations while demonising the Burmans, thereby preventing the very understanding among peoples which is so necessary to bring an end to military rule. A transition to democracy alone will not be enough to prevent the people tearing each other apart, particularly if it is a unitary, non-federal democracy. The first and biggest step in bringing about an end to the racism problem is to admit that it exists and to recognise its scale, but sadly there appear to be few people on any side of the struggle today who are willing to do so. Until they are, Burma will remain a country at war with itself.



Suggested Further Reading

The following alphabetical list is a selection of writings chosen to cover a broad range of topics in Burma. The inclusion or omission of a book does not imply support of its opinions or otherwise by KHRG.

Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) "Freedom From Fear and Other Writings", London: Penguin Books, 338 pages
A collection of writings by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aye Saung (2000) "Burman in the Back Row: Autobiography of a Burmese Rebel", Hong Kong: Asia, 296 pages (First edition Bangkok: White Lotus, 1989)
The autobiography of a Burmese rebel who spent several years in the 1970s and early 1980s with Communist-affiliated organisations as well as the Shan State Army.

Cady, John F. (1958) "A History of Modern Burma", Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 682 pages
A comprehensive look at Burmese history.

Lehman, Frederick K. (1981) "Military rule in Burma since 1962", Singapore: Maruzen Asia, 83 pages
Six essays on modern Burma.

Lintner, Bertil (1990) "Land of Jade: a Journey through Insurgent Burma" Edinburgh: Kiscadale Publications; Bangkok: White Lotus, 315 pages
An account of an 18-month trek, from Oct. 1985 to April 1987, through rebel-held areas in Sagaing Division, Kachin State and Shan State.

Lintner, Bertil (1990) "Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy", London: White Lotus UK, 208 pages
Detailed account of the 1988 uprisings.

Lintner, Bertil (2000) "Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948", Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 558 pages (First edition: Westview, Boulder, Colorado, 1994. 515 pages)
Political history of Burma since World War 2, with particular focus on north and northeastern Burma and the effects of the drug trade on events.

Morrison, Ian (1946) "Grandfather Longlegs", London: Faber and Faber
Account of the situation in Karen State under the Japanese occupation, based around the life of Major H.P. Seagrim, a British officer who stayed with the Karen through the war and was executed by the Japanese in 1944. Written in 1946, gives a good view of the real situation during the war including BIA atrocities against civilians and the life of villagers under the occupation.

Owen, Frank (1974) "The Campaign in Burma", Dehra Dun: Natraj Publishers, 165 pages
An account of the Allied campaign to recapture Burma from the Japanese.

Peers, William R. & Brelis, Dean (1963) "Behind the Burma Road: The Story of America's Most Successful Guerrilla Force", Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 246 pages
About Detachment 101 and the US-trained Kachin guerrillas during World War Two.

San C. Po, Dr. (1928) "Burma and the Karens", London: Elliot Stock, 94 pages
Written by a prominent, pro-British Karen who argues that the Karens need a country of their own.

Selth, Andrew (1996) "Transforming the Tatmadaw: The Burmese Armed Forces since 1988", Canberra: Australian National University, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, 207 pages
An account of the expansion of Burma's armed forces since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Silverstein, Josef (1977) "Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation", Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 224 pages
An introduction to modern Burmese politics.

Slim, William Joseph (Field-Marshal - Viscount) (1986) "Defeat into Victory", London: Papermac, 576 pages (First edition London: Cassell, 1956)
An account of the British campaigns in Burma in World War Two, by one of the British commanding officers.

Smith, Martin (1999) "Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity", Bangkok: White Lotus / London: Zed Books
Detailed reference on Burmese political development particularly since World War 2.

Smith-Dun, Gen. (1980) "Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel", Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Southeast Asia Programme, data paper no. 113, 126 pages
A history of the Karens by the first chief of the Burma Army, a Karen himself.

Yawnghwe, Chao Tzang (1987) "The Shan of Burma. Memoirs of a Shan Exile", Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 276 pages
A study of the Shans, their history and rebellion against Rangoon.

Yegar, Moshe (1972) "The Muslims of Burma", Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 151 pages
A history of Burma's various Muslim communities.