Lives for ransom: Consequences of kidnappings in southern Karen State

June 21, 2012

HURFOM: Recent kidnappings committed by unidentified armed groups have caused a sharp increase in uncertainty and fear experienced by residents living around Three Pagodas Sub-township, Kyainnseikyi Township in Karen State. In the face of eight cases of kidnapping since April and demands for exorbitant amounts of ransom, local authorities have yet to adequately address the threats, leaving residents to feel abandoned by local government and security forces. Some families sell their properties to pay for the safe return of kidnapped individuals, but poor households cannot do anything but manage their anxiety, pray for relatives, and wait. A recent field report demonstrates how, while political transition and precursors to peace are occurring in major cities, rural villages and peripheral areas still regularly experience injustice and security risks.

The field assessment discussed herein includes the villages of Pyaung Ma Htain, Sisone, Kumar, Kyawphalu, Anankwain, Hlootshan, Winkhana, Pharpya, Kyawinkha won and Chaung Zone. Interviews were conducted with the various ethnic groups represented in the Three Pagodas area, such as Mon, Karen, Lao-shan and Burmese, and research extended to villages around Three Pagodas Pass such as Ywathit, Kyonkwee, Kyaw phalu, Dhama yaikthar, and Japanese Well.

Absent rule of law despite presence of numerous security forces

Many areas have seen a surge in the presence of security forces, including Burmese Arms troops, ethnic ceasefire groups, border guard forces, local police, and civilian militia. At the same time as the No.3 Burmese tactical troops are settling in to Anan Kwin village in southern Kyainnseikyi Township, Karen State, LIB No.284 troop is establishing a battalion on the main road in Three Pagodas Pass (TPP). Alongside government troops, ethnic ceasefire groups lay claim to local sites as well. General Tin Hlaing Oo who leads the Karen National Union (KNU) ceasefire group positioned the KNLA troop No. 16 in Mae katar and Thabarwa villages, and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) General Ye Htaik and Karen Peace Force (KPF) General Yan Shin, leaders of the border gourd force, settled in TPP Township. The Mon ethnic ceasefire group is situated in Japanese Well and Kyan Taw, areas that hug the Thai-Burma border in TPP. There are many peace and security forces located in the region, yet authorities have not successfully stopped the threat and occurrence of kidnapping and extortion. For this reason, and as field interviews elucidate, residents who have lived through four decades of civil war want to believe in political transition and the rule of law, but they remain doubtful because the cooperation between local armed groups has been ineffective.

In accordance with agreements made at their monthly meeting, Burma military troops, border guard troops, police militia forces, and armed groups are jointly providing border protection. In addition, NMSP, KNU, DKBA, and Karen ceasefire groups are delivering border guard security in different areas. Since April, there have been eight incidents of kidnapping in spite of the fact that there are several border security groups, and villagers do not understand why these problems are still occurring. Frustrated local residents said that, increasingly, kidnapping is happening regardless of the presence of security forces and without authorities issuing penalties or pursuing justice against the perpetrators.

“For instance, we live in Kyonkwee village, and we have to pay monthly security taxes to the militia force. We have paid for “development, peace, and security” many times in my life, and we sometimes have to pay in response to the demands of ethnic armed groups. So, we are used to having to pay taxes, but we are never given anything in return. Now is the time for political transition and ceasefires. But while others think there are transitions, here we are still facing the terrible threat of kidnapping. I am disappointed and want to say that local officers are disregarding their responsibilities,” expressed U Kan Aye, 62, a retired civil servant originally from Kyainnseikyi Township.

Although the perpetrators are currently known as an “unidentified armed group,” upon their release, many victims allege that “Nai Htun” is leading the group. Several families reported that when members of the group contacted them to demand ransom, they called themselves “Nai Htun’s armed group.” Upon his escape, 30-year-old Ko Oo (alias), who lives in Quarter No.3 in TPP and was a victim of one of the eight kidnappings, said most of the group members speak in Mon language and are settled on the Thai-Burma border 40 miles from Sangklaburi, Thailand. On June 2, Nai Oo attempted escape without waiting for the captors to demand ransom because he knew his family would be unable to pay the amount requested.

Nai Nyan, a 50-year-old Mon villager whose home is located in a New Mon State Party (NMSP) controlled area, reported that he has observed the suspected Nai Htun kidnappers somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma. He estimated there are seven members in the group and each member was equipped with new guns and ammunition.

“Most people in this area know the notorious captor Nai Htun; I think I met his group accidently near Baan Mai, a village close to the Thai-Burma border, two months ago. I was there cutting wood in the forest and I saw them 200 yards away. As soon as I recognized them as Captor Nai Htun’s group, I hid myself and tried to observe them as much as I could. I saw three plain-clothes people with the armed group and thought they must be hostages,” Nai Nyan explained.

Excessive ransom demands

Over the past 15 years, many households have shifted to working in the production of raw materials, such as on a rubber plantation, moving away from growing lemon, pomelo, betel nut, and other seasonal crops. According to a revenue inquest conducted by local authorities, over half of the population, estimated at 50,000, living in the areas affected by the kidnappings survive by working on rubber plantations.

According to information gathered by the field researchers, the highest ransom paid by a family occurred on August 7, 2011. A source close to the family said they were originally asked for 500,000 Baht to ensure the family member’s freedom, but the armed group ended up agreeing to 300,000 Baht and one baht of gold (“baht” is used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver in Thailand and Burma, and one baht of gold is equivalent to 25,000 Baht in currency, according to one gold market source). The hostages were Nai Maung and two of his plantation workers originally from Kyainnseikyi Township. The three were taken while working on Nai Maung’s eight acres of rubber plantation located near Kyonkwee village.

A 52-year-old rubber plantation owner and villager from Joehablu expressed his opinion during an interview on June 2, 2012, by stating “Most of us whose livelihoods depend on rubber plantations are facing economic crisis, the only difference being whether it is more or less crisis. I own five acres of rubber trees and survive by tapping these trees to produce rubber sheets and sell the products. However all rubber cultivators need to spend large amount of profits on fertilizer, maintenance and labor costs. These expenses total more than half of my profit. We can only rely on this remaining 50%, which is just enough to feed my family. We don’t have extra money to pay huge ransoms demanded by kidnappers.”

Nai Ngwe Maung, 45, is a resident of kyonkwee village and is frightened to be captured by the infamous kidnappers that are active in the area where he works. He said that civilian kidnappings have been common over the past ten years as a method for insurgency groups to obtain support from local people. But in those cases, the captors only asked for ransom that family members could reasonably pay. The ransoms being demanded now are almost impossible for many families to afford.

“I do not mean the past kidnappers were better. It’s just that I’m terrified of Nai Htun and his troops because I don’t have extra money to pay their required ransom. I don’t own a plantation and survive only as a hand-to-mouth worker.” Referring to the case of Nai Maung and the two rubber tappers who secured their release by paying more than 300,000 Baht, Nai Ngwe Maung said, “500,000 Baht to release three people is too much for me. If it was me, I would rather die than pay them.”

In February of this year, a group of four kidnappers suspected to be from Nai Htun’s group kidnapped two Mon residents near the Dama Giri Buddha Temple, two kilometers northwest of Three Pagodas Pass, as well as another two young villagers outside of town. According to three sources from the victims’ families, the kidnappers demanded 130,000 Baht to release all four hostages.

Less than three months later, on May 8, 2012, another case of kidnapping occurred in Quarter No. 2 of Three Pagodas Pass even though local authorities had set-up security troops in town. At that time, 12 local villagers were taken hostage, and the local residents believed the kidnappers were from the same group. Field interviews demonstrate how most of the victims were extremely poor and their families could not afford to pay the kidnappers’ demands. Fortunately, all victims were freed after one of them pleaded with the captors for release.

In many cases, the kidnappers targeted local merchants or rubber cultivators in the hopes of receiving more money. However, in mid-2011, seven woodcutters from Mudon, Kyainnseikyi and Kawkareik Townships were kidnapped, although they had been barely getting by as illegal woodcutters for almost five years in TPP and New Mon State Party (NMSP) administered areas. A source from one victim’s family confirmed to HURFOM that the families managed to pay 80,000 Baht [2,600 USD] for all of the hostages to be freed. The family member tried reporting the kidnapping, but local authorities were unhelpful. One staff member from the Township administration office replied that they, too, had received ransom demands from the kidnappers to release the apprehended woodcutters. “I am a relative of U Soe, one of the seven men kidnapped. [The kidnappers] use Burmese language on the phone to ask for ransom money for the seven hostages from the administration office, but I don’t know how much they requested. Finally, [the victims’] families collected Baht 80,000 to pay the kidnappers.’’

HURFOM field reports show that the majority of rubber cultivators and woodcutters working in areas to the southwest of Three Pagoda Pass (TPP) are affected by the insecurity. On April 25, an unidentified armed group that included an estimated five armed personnel came and demanded money from 50 families that work on rubber plantations and as woodcutters. U Myo Aye, the owner of three acres of plantation said, “One armed man, approximately 38 years of age and speaking Burmese, said that his group wanted 5,000 to 10,000 Baht per family per year, as ‘support’ funds. The amount requested would depend on the stability and size of each family’s income. Most of us have not made any payments yet. He seemed to be one of the heads of the group, and he threatened that if we reported them to the authorities, we would be punished.”

Plight of local inhabitants in unstable conditions

“Local villagers have been afraid to harvest bamboo-shoots and mushrooms in the forest. We are day workers from poor families, and if a kidnapper catches us, what do we have to pay them? If they captured rich men, then of course it’s possible to receive some ransom from these people. For us, we have no money to pay and will end up to dead,” said one Pyaung Ma Htain villager.

Since last year, the unidentified armed group has been increasingly engaged in the kidnappings of local inhabitants, resulting in direct threats to people’s safety and livelihoods.  Villagers do not have any details about the kidnappers and have no idea how to avoid them or protect themselves from unexpected attacks while working in the forest or on rubber plantations. The level of fear regarding arbitrary kidnapping seems to be increasing every day. Based on the accounts of local villagers and laborers who live in unstable areas around Kyawphalu village, the threat of kidnapping prevents people from working, and reduction to daily income has created conditions of food insecurity and even starvation.

“At first, we thought the security situation surrounding the kidnappings was going to improve with the protection of local authorities and various security forces. However, it seems no one is willing to protect us, and now, and the situations have been getting worse, which we did not expect. We are now very concerned about our survival due to lack of income for several weeks,” said Ko Yan Naing, 48, one of thousands of rubber tappers who stopped going to work as a result of kidnappings around Three Pagodas Pass area.

Even rubber plantation owners have been impeded by the risk of attack. Since the kidnapping has been happening with more frequency, the owners do not dare tap their rubber for fear that they will be kidnapped and asked to pay ransoms they cannot afford. Many reported that not tapping rubber was the safest option for them.

“We have three acres, and we only make enough from that land to cover daily expenses. This kidnapping is really terrible for us. The amount of money asked for ransom is higher than ever before—we have never seen ransoms of hundreds of thousands of Thai Baht. Now, we haven’t been able to tap rubber for two weeks. We don’t know how long this will go on,” explained a Kyawphalu village resident, who did not want to reveal her name, in June.

According to plantation worker Ko San Aye, there was an eyewitness account on the May 27, 2012, of an armed group of seven people kidnapping four local residents. Ko San Aye, 45, is worried about the impact these activities have on his daily income in southern Kyainnseikyi.

“On that day, I visited my friend below Quarter No.3 on a cashew nut plantation. When I was coming back, I heard that two workers from the cashew nut plantation where I worked had been kidnapped, so I returned to my friend’s cashew nut plantation. I didn’t dare to go back again. The next day, we heard on the news that ten villagers had been kidnapped. On the evening of May 28, near U-Doung lake, some people were kidnapped again. If day workers like us had been captured, you can imagine what would happen to them. Kidnapping is for [the sole purpose of] extorting money. If we can’t afford to pay, we will lose our lives. Like others, my family didn’t dare to work. Although kidnapping is not targeting poor people like us, the kidnappers don’t know who is poor or rich. Because we were evading capture by staying away from the plantation, it became difficult for us to cover daily expenses. If we couldn’t work, we couldn’t live either, so today I must go to work. This is our faith,” continued Ko San Aye.

1,200 households of residents from the villages of Ywathit, Kyonkwee, Kyawphalu, Dhamma Yeiktar, Japanese Well, and Kyantaw were concerned about kidnapping. According to a member of the NMSP department located in Japanese Well, none of these people could work for three weeks. In that area, there are also many workers from Pyoung Ma Htain, Sisone, Komar, Kyawphalu, and Anankwin villages worried about kidnapping.

“Recent kidnapping news has worried villagers from outside of Three Pagoda Pass, Kyainnseikyi Township, Lohshan, Win Kha Na, PharPya, and Kyonkhawon villages. The kidnappers are part of an armed group that does whatever it wants. In my 60 years, I have often heard about kidnapping. Most of the kidnappers are believed to be associated with some armed group, or maybe robber groups that are active in the areas. Previous kidnappers asked realistic amounts of ransom from people, but the current kidnappers ask too much money. It’s not fair at all. If it was me, I would have to pay with my life because I couldn’t afford to earn that much money,” said one Lohshan resident who owns a betel nut plantation.

Conclusion

“We really appreciate the words of rule of law. Whichever government controls the country, we are satisfied, as long as we can live and work freely under the protection of the rule of law,” said U Kan Aye.

The kidnappers’ shift from targeting businesspeople to seizing common, often poor, villagers has resulted in serious impacts on local residents’ lives. In the afflicted areas, there is a lack of security and a sense of fear that is reminiscent of the periods of armed conflict before ceasefires were signed. The persistent incidents of kidnapping and extortion, along with the associated fear that disrupts the livelihoods of local residents, must not be allowed to continue. The current government, as a strong proponent of democracy and a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is obliged to enforce the rule of law and protect its citizens from such violent and crippling threats. Also, the use of extortion and arbitrary taxation by various militia and security forces is illegal and must be immediately punished and prohibited. Local residents’ feelings of isolation and mistreatment are not consistent with the current political goal of achieving meaningful social and political change, and without remedy, constitute a stain on the country’s path to democratic reform.

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