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An Overview of SLORC's Onslaught Ag

Subject: An Overview of SLORC's Onslaught Against The Karen, Burma  Update, April, 1997

BURMA UPDATE is produced by the Jesuit Refugee Service-Asia/Pacific
24/1 Soi Aree 4, Phaholyothin 7, 
Bangkok 10400. 
Email: jrsap@xxxxxxxxxx 


According to the Human Rights Guide, 1992, Burma had the lowest human rights
rating in the world(1).  Little has changed and, in fact, Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch (Asia) have continued, for the past 9
years, to document 'clear and persistent pattern(s) of torture,
ill-treatment and extrajudicial killings ...'(2). The scale, frequency and
diversity of human rights violations in Burma is immense. Various bodies of
the United Nations as well several governments and other concerned agencies
throughout the world have also continuously documented gross violations of
human rights. 

To add to this existing body of knowledge, this edition of Burma Update is
intended to provide a descriptive account of events on the Thai-Burma border
from 1 January to 31 March 1997. What began as attacks on refugee camps in
Thailand by Burmese-backed groups (3) soon turned into a full-scale military
offensive by the Burmese Army against the Karen, particularly on the 6th and
4th brigade areas of the Karen National Union (KNU). There is a strong
argument that villagers from ex-KNU controlled villages have been persecuted
due to imputed political opinion, i.e. that people from these villages may
be seen by the SLORC to have supported the KNU in the past and may therefore
fear persecution on return. Added to this, consideration has to be given to
non-Karen villagers whom, prior to the military offensive, co-existed with
the Karen and who also found themselves subject to persecution on the basis
of living in KNU territory. The attacks and the military offensive against
the Karen in KNU controlled territory by state agents thus requires further
analysis and evaluation. 
The various responses to these events by actors (4) in the field will be
viewed in an attempt to illustrate the gaps in protection in a country that
does not allow UNHCR to fulfil its protection mandate. The refoulement,
pushbacks, denial of access into Thailand and the separation of families
will also be viewed. That the main effects of the attacks and dry-season
offensive have been an increase in tensions and fears of repatriation in the
existing refugee camps along the border is without doubt. An influx of new
refugees are now existing in refugee camps of an extremely 'temporary'
nature. Protection needs have never been more crucial. 

For refugees, the cornerstone of international law is the principle of
'non-refoulement'. This Burma Update will briefly examine this principle as
well as viewing a selection of the international Declarations and
Conventions as ratified by Burma and Thailand as well as selected
conclusions of the UNHCR Executive Committees (EXCOM), of which Thailand has
been a member for the past 20 years. The role and policies of UNHCR in
Thailand will also be briefly explored. 

This edition of Burma Update is by no means a comprehensive account of the
events along the border during the past 3 months, nor does it seek to
encompass the many other factors that are informing Thai or Burmese policies
at present. However, recent pressures on Thailand's asylum policies,
particularly in the Kanchanaburi area, indicate shifts in policy that have
been surmised as being connected with the complex political, military and
economic (6) relationships between Thailand and Burma. That the Karen have
now become an economic 'hindrance' rather than a political 'buffer" is
clearly related to this switch in asylum policy. Thus, it is without doubt
that recent events have occurred due to high level political reversals of
policy that are being informed by economic rather than humanitarian
considerations. Other factors that are not explored, but warrant analysis,
in this edition of Burma Update are the cease-fire negotiations between the
KNU and SLORC as well as the outcome of the recent ethnic conference that
attempted to unify the various 'ethnic' and pro-democracy groups along the


"I want to stay in a safe place. When I hear the dogs crying at night I
think SLORC is 
attacking again".
At 2 am on 3 January 1997, two refugees from Karenni Camp 2 were killed and
9 refugees were wounded as a result of an unexpected attack by Burmese
troops. Reportedly, these troops used mortars, hand grenades, AK47s and M16s
in what seems to have been an attempt to terrorize the 6,400 people in this
camp. It has been stated that the attack was conducted by the Karenni
National Democratic Army (KNDA), the armed wing of the Karenni National
Democratic Party (KNDP). Uniforms from the KNDA and a statement by the KNDP
(9) were left behind after the attack but residents in Karenni Camp 2
believe that SLORC was behind this attack. According to Human Rights
Watch/Asia, in a statement dated 3 January 1997, these 'attacks on unarmed
civilians were clearly in violation of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva
Conventions, prohibiting violence against non-combatants, to which Burma is
a signatory.'. In the same statement, Human Rights Watch/Asia pointed out
that the refugees from this camp 'were prevented from moving deeper into
Thailand by Thai Border Police ...'. That this camp is not being relocated
to a safer location inside Thailand, does not bode well for the prevention
of further attacks or raids. That this camps lack security and that the
refugees fear reprisals is without doubt. 
>From June to September 1996, 3,421 Karenni arrived into the northern border
camps, fleeing heavy fighting across the border, forced relocation, forced
portering and a plethora of human rights abuses. In one week in October
1996, a further 1,248 Karenni people arrived in these same camps, mostly
from relocation sites in the townships of Loikaw and Shadaw. In these
relocation sites people live in unbearable and appalling conditions. The
SLORC provides no shelter or medicine and some people attempting to leave
have been beaten or shot. The breakdown, after only three months'°, of a
cease-fire agreement between SLORC and the Karenni National Progressive
Party (KNPP) has added to the vulnerability of the Karenni refugee camps -
especially those located close to the border such as Karenni camp 2. 

On 4 January 1997, there was a mortar attack from across the Salween river
on a Karen refugee camp, known as Shoklo, which houses a population of
7,286. Two people were seriously injured in this attack. The Democratic
Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the armed group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist
Organisation (DKBO), set up in December 1994, was blamed for this attack. 

The DKBA had been issuing warnings to the Karen refugees that if they did
not return to Burma, their camps would be destroyed. These warnings had been
given approximately six months prior to this mortar attack. Fear from the
warnings and the mortar attack affected the refugees in Don Pa Kiang and
Hway Ka Loke refugee camps, who were reportedly not sleeping in their homes
at night. 
On the night of 28/29 January, these fears were confirmed. Attacks on Don Pa
Kiang and Hway Ka Loke occurred. The DKBA entered Don Pa Kiang (population
of 3,827) at approximately 10:15 pm. They looted shops and the homes of the
refugees before setting the camp alight - approximately 80% of the camp was
burned down, some 600 houses. At the same time, Hway Ka Loke (population of
6,729) was looted, set alight and again approximately 80% of the camp was
burned down. Just one week prior to these attacks refugees had described why
they had fled insecurity in Burma - forced labour, forced portering, being
forced to build a 7 foot fence around a military base, torture, arbitrary
execution of their  village leader and finally selected families in their
village had been given a relocation order to leave and were told that should
they return they would be shot.
Mae La refugee camp, which houses a quarter of the refugees along the border
(population of 25,322) was also subject to an attack at around 6 am on 29
January. Seventeen houses were burned. 

In a press release of 29 January, UNHCR Thailand stated that it 'deplores
such attacks against civilian refugee camps,'. In a statement dated 30
January, Human Rights Watch/Asia urged '... the Thai government to
reconsider its position and permit the refugees to establish new camps
further from the border, where they can be adequately protected.'. This
statement also pointed out that, 'Although Thailand is not a party to the
1951 Convention on Refugees, under international law all nations are
considered responsible for the protection of asylum seekers in their

Attacks by the DKBA are, unfortunately, not a new phenomena along this
border. As stated by Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch/Asia: 

"This is not the first time the DKBA has attacked refugees in Thailand. How
many more people will have to be made homeless or killed before the threat
of further violence is taken seriously by the Thai authorities?" 


There is a strong argument that villagers from ex-KNU controlled villages
have been persecuted due to imputed political opinion i.e. that people from
these villages may be seen by the SLORC to have supported the KNU, by merely
living in then-KNU controlled villages, in the past and may therefore fear
persecution on return. Added to this, consideration has to be given to
non-Karen villagers whom, prior to the military offensive, co-existed with
the Karen and who also found themselves subject to persecution on the basis
of living in KNU territory. Human rights violations in the then-KNU 6th and
4th brigade areas by the Burmese Army are now being reported. 


Inside Burma, a variety of eyewitness reports, beginning in the first week
of February, have illustrated the scale of the movement of Burmese Army
troops headed towards the border to "fight the Karen". The Burmese Army in
charge of the southern half of Tennasserim district is headed by Major
General Thiha Thura Sit Maung - a officer who is notorious within Burma for
his 'tough' tactics. Between 70-80,000 troops, that had been trained in
Pathein, were mobilised for this operation. These troops included the
'double digit' (11, 22, etc.) battalions that are known as the 'real
fighting forces' within Burma. Troops, including battalion 99, were
witnessed travelling through Moulmein in the first week of February (11).
Many areas of KNU control have also been affected by this dry season
offensive, the two main areas being the 6th and 4th brigade areas.

The attack on KNU 6th brigade area had begun on I I February. The 6th
brigade headquarters of Teakaplaw fell on Thursday, 13 February 1997. As
recounted in the Nation (12); "The fall of the base was the biggest defeat
for the rebels since the Burmese army captured their long-time headquarters
of Manerplaw in December 1994."  

The attack on KNU 4th brigade area involved troops taking an anticipated
route from Tavoy, taking the road east to the village of Myitta from where
troops would travel along the banks of a river to the KNU 4th brigade area
villages of Ah Moe, Hti Hta, and Hti Khee. The offensive in the KNU 4th
brigade area was named the 'Thura" (13) operation. It was expected that the
attack would occur, at the latest, by 28 February. By approximately 2pm on
26 February the divisional headquarters of KNU 4th brigade, Hti Khee, had
fallen. The Burmese Army continued South, reaching the villages of Ke Ma Kee
and Htaw Ma Maw on 22 March. The people from these villages were finally
able to cross into Thailand at 3 am in complete darkness. 

A dry season offensive was expected in 1997 but few commentators suspected
that SLORC would attempt to take control of the entire border and few
suspected that they would succeed so quickly. The loss of so much KNU
territory is expected to represent a major deterioration in the human rights
situation in this territory. There have been numerous accounts of arbitrary
executions, rape, torture, beatings and lootings as a direct result of this
military offensive. On 9 February, a Christian pastor was taken from
Kaletgyi village by the Burmese Army (14); he was beaten until his hands and
legs were fractured and later he was shot. The deterioration of asylum
policies in Thailand, seen in this light, is especially worrying. Never
before has UNHCRs Protection role been more necessary. 

What began as a military offensive against the Karen turned into what has
been described as warfare against any given population in the area. Muslims
in the village of Kyaik Don have seen their mosques destroyed and the Koran
ripped up in the street. Many mosques along the border have been destroyed
and the materials and valuables looted and given to Buddhists. There have
also been reports of Muslims being forced to eat pork. 


Prior to and during the military operation came a massive conscription of
'porters', including the use of prisoners. Reports have been forthcoming of
porters being conscripted for this operation from Tavoy to Moulmein, plus
some accounts of people being taken from as far away as the outskirts of
Rangoon. It has also been estimated that circa. 600 men were taken from the
small town of Mudon. There have been reports of people being taken from a
football ground in Thanbyazayat as well as people being taken from their
cars on the road leading into Moulmein. Every house in the city of Moulmein
had to either give money (200 kyat) or provide one porter (15) per house.
Porters were taken from the bazaar in Moulmein as well as from other small
shops (16)  in the city. The 7 February was the day of Chinese New Year,
however the evening saw no festivals and the streets were practically void
of men. It was reported that people were 'hiding' in their homes so that
they were not taken as porters. The following evening, the conscriptions
complete, the festivities commenced once more. 

It is important to understand not only the scale and history of portering
but also to consider the sense of terror that is invoked by having family
members taken as porters who often do not return and just 'disappear'. One
refugee described how his friend 2 years previously had been taken as a
porter and had been shot for an unknown reason during this time. Many of his
friends had died or had been injured during their time as porters. He
described how he had been made to porter 4 or 5 times in 1996, carrying
ammunition, food and building materials during the night. He was later
tortured by SLORC for 3 days by being tied to a tree and left in the direct
sunlight. He was of the opinion that this torture had occurred because the
soldiers had looked at his hands and had gestured that these were the hands
of a soldier and not a farmer. Thus, after having been taken from his
village and used as a porter on numerous occasions he was suddenly accused
of being an insurgent.