Villagers from NMSP territory taken as porters by SPDC during continued conflict
November 19, 2010
After the recent outbreak of post election fighting between the Burmese SPDC forces and the DKBA, local residents in Three Pagodas Pass sub-township have been forced to serve as porters for the SPDC battalions. The abduction of residents within NMSP territory is a direct violation of the ceasefire, and signals a significant escalation in the SPDC’s disregard for ceasefire conditions it had previously set. These villagers face an extreme threat to their lives as porters taken during active conflicts often are used as either human shields against incoming fire, to trigger ambushes, or as human landmine clearers. Taking residents as porters is also likely to cause significant economic hardship, as the majority of the area residents are dependent on income from daily labor.
On November 13th, Burmese army State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) No. 284 arrived at TadeinVillage, Three Pagodas Pass sub-township, Kyainnseikyi Township, Karen State. LIB No. 284 is a reinforcement to Burmese battalions that had been fighting Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) battalions No. 907 and 906 in Three Pagoda Pass (TPP) town 13 miles away. Earlier on November 9th and 10th a rumor had spread that a Burmese battalion had taken 10 villagers to use as porters between Jaw Pa Luu village and Chaung Sone village, only 6 miles away. Villagers who had heard that LIB No. 284 would arrive in their village, fled into the woods to avoid the possibility of being taken as porters. Villagers who hid remained in the jungle from the afternoon of the 13th till the evening of the 14th.
Nai Byaing who witnessed the arrival of LIB No. 284, and the subsequent arrest of Tadein villagers, describes the event below:
November 13th is the first day of when a group of SPDC army soldiers with 80 men, came to arrest the villagers to serve as porters. It was about 2 PM when that army with its 80 men entered into our village. While the 80 soldiers are in the village, there were two more groups of SPDC army with 300 men farther [away], that temporally settled down outside of the village. Totally, there are approximately 400 soldiers from those three groups of the SPDC army. When the group with 80 men [arrived] in the village, they shouted that the men in the village [had to] come out and that they needed help. I think this was ordered by the commander of that group. When no one came out, they shouted like this, “If no one comes out to help, we will set this village on fire.” While shouting like that, a grandma came out from her house and said that there are no men in the village, but they are outside the village working on the farms and crop fields to survive for their living. After the grandma has said like that, that SPDC army group walked out of the village, and they arrested every one they found on their way of outside the village.
Nai Byaing, who is from Tadein village, estimated that only 20 villagers were arrested to serve as porters. However another resident, Maung Par Lay, estimated that the SPDC battalion took at least 30 to 40 villagers to serve as porters. In each case though villagers have confirmed that the battalion actively sought to take the men from the village.
While residents who witnessed the arrests were unable to confirm which battalion was responsible for the arrests, members of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) have confirmed that the battalion was LIB No. 284 which operates under the Southeast Command. According to an officer of the NMSP who is in charge of observing security in the region coordinating strategic troop movements, confirmed that LIB No.284 has been frequently patrolling the area around Tadein and Chaung Sone village, and has set up a temporary base in the area.
According to the NMSP officer, LIB No. 284 was the only battalion in the area the day that the villagers were taken by the Burmese battalion:
If we say that is the LIB No. 284 arrested the Tadein villagers to serve as porters, it is true. This is because in the early morning of November13th, that was the day when the SPDC army started ordering villagers to serve as porters – soldiers who were at the local market shopping are the soldiers from the LIB No.284. The battalions which were patrolling outside the village were LIB No. 588 and LIB No.106.
As of November 18th, HURFOM has been able to confirm if the villagers taken as porters have been returned home, or where they are. However it appears they are still with LIB No. 284 as according to residents in Chaung Sone village, the battalion commander of LIB No. 284 announced to the residents of Chaung Sone, that the people who were portering in his battalion had come voluntarily and were not forced.
Villagers taken form their homes for this purpose are often taken for a few days to months at a time. As the majority of residents Tadein village work in farming or in day labor positions, this portering severely impacts families and communities who require the daily work and income of that missing person, to survive.
Villagers taken as porters also face the abuses of unpaid forced labor – verbal abuse, prolonged physical exertion carrying supplies and weapons, and physical abuse. More dangerous though is the documented use of porters by SPDC armed forces as human shields, and human land mine clearers, forcing the porters to walk ahead of the battalion, will lead to the deaths or sever maiming of villagers shot or step on landmines.
Maung Par Lay, 37, who is Karen, and has been working as a fisherman on the western bank of the Zami river near the Tadein village, describes the threat from working as a porter for the SPDC:
I think there are about 40 men arrested by the SPDC serving as porters. In the village, there are only a few men left. I am lucky that I was not arrested by the SPDC army. That is because yesterday we – I and some of my friends – were fishing along the bank of the river. But we would have definitely been arrested if we were in the village or hiding in the woods or farms. These days it is very dangerous for those who are ordered to serve as porters. If the SPDC and breakaway DKBA Bridge 5 launch attacks, they [the SPDC] will use the porters to protect themselves [SPDC soldiers] from the shooting and force them to walk in front. I also had to go first walking in front of the army when I was once arrested to serve as porter. At that time, I was very lucky because there was no fighting.
One significant issue is the relationship of the SPDC to the NMSP, with whom it still ostensibly retains a ceasefire from 1995. Tadein village has been considered territory controlled by the NMSP since then, and has housed a small Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) garrison. In May 2010 the NMSP decreased the number of MNLA soldiers stationed there, after tension significantly increased over the NMSP officially rejecting the final demands of the SPDC border guard force (BGF) proposal, which also prompted a temporary exodus of NMSP members and families to NMSP controlled IDP sites . On November 9th after fighting broke out in TPP town the remaining MNLA soldiers were pulled out of Tadein village, but were later returned. On the day that LIB No. 284 came to Tadein village, at least 10 MNLA soldiers, were based at the village boat stands.
According to the NMSP officer in charge of security observations and strategic troop movements, the move demonstrates the SPDC’s disregard for the NMSP:
Because of fighting in this region and arresting Mon villagers to serve as porters in our [NMSP controlled territory] controlled area [shows] that they do not care about us [NMSP]. We have to just wait and observe. We have to wait for orders from the Captain or Commanders because we are from the army too.
LIB No. 284 is part of a larger contingent of Burmese battalions sent as reinforcements to Burmese battalions already fighting in the TPP, and now Chaung Sone, areas. Between the 12th and 14th of November, three battalions were sent from the Military Operations Management Command (MOMC) No. 8, specifically LIBs No.409, No.410, and No.405, which are now stationed along the Zami river near Tadein village. At the same time 4 battalions were sent from the Burmese Southeast Command (SEC), specifically LIBs No.284, No.270, No.588, and No.106.
The presence of these reinforcements is an extreme increase in the militarization of the area, bringing SPDC troop strength to a 5 year high of over 1120 soldiers in the TPP area. While the DKBA has reinforced Brigade 907 and 906 with soldiers who had been fighting in Myawaddy , DKBA now is likely able to field around 260 to 370 soldiers. As this article is written, HURFOM continues to receive reports that fighting continues now near Chaung Sone village. This increased militarization appears to indicate that the SPDC strongly intends to hold onto TPP town and the surrounding region whatever the military cost. It is important to note that while the DKBA can field only a third of the forces the SPDC has brought to the area, the yet un-clarified status of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) with an estimated 270 soldiers, and the splinter group, the Karen Peace Force (KPF) with 60 soldiers, will likely play a significant role in the possibility of future fighting in the area.
While the rumors of 10 porters being taken before November 12th are still unconfirmed, the clear use of Tadein residents as porters is a significant threat to other local communities. The militarization of the area by all armed parties, and the apparent heavy-handed treatment of the currently disengaged NMSP by the SPDC, indicates that there is potential for a significant increase in fighting. This fighting would likely not only lead to other instances of forced portering by the SPDC, but also other additional abuses that would constitute crimes against humanity, as the already nominal respect for human rights by the SPDC would evaporate.
The possible continued use of villagers as porters will likely impact local communities livelihoods as family members are taken for portering. Moreover, these family members have an increased chance of being maimed or killed while serving as porters. Such sever threats due to increased fighting could result in a potential larger exodus of refugees from the TPP area, and even NMSP controlled territory, to Thailand, then was already seen on November 9th and 10th.