Shoot on Sight: The ongoing SPDC offensive against villagers in northern Karen State

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The Burmese army launched a large scale offensive in the districts of Toungoo, Nyaung Lay Bin and Muthraw in northern Karen State in November 2005 targeting the civilian Karen population.  This offensive has been ongoing for over a year and it continues today. Villages are being shelled with mortars, looted and burnt to the ground.

Crops and food supplies are being destroyed. Burmese soldiers are ordered to shoot on sight, regardless of whether it is a combatant or a defenseless civilian. As a result more than 27,000 people have been forced from their homes, either hiding in the jungle or trying to find refuge in Thailand.  The Burmese army continues to in- crease its military presence in these areas and carry out attacks against villagers.

In addition to the increased number of military attacks and militarisation of these districts, which has been ongoing for a number of years, in particular since the Karen National Union (KNU) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) agreed to a verbal ceasefire in January 2004, there has also been a rise in human rights abuses perpetrated by the army.  These include: force labour and portering demands, land confiscation, rape and other gender based violence, looting and destruction of property, arbitrary taxation, restriction of movement, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Despite the fact that this offensive has been underway for over a year now there is not a clear singular reason behind the attacks.  However, a number of contributing factors have emerged: the move to the new capital Pyinmana and the establishment of a five kilometre security zone around it, the acquisition of land for national development projects, and the need to secure transportation routes to and from these sites. Additionally, the three districts targeted are considered the ‘heartland’ of Karen resistance to Burmese oppression. Despite the armed struggle though the KNU and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) against the regime, it is the people, the civilian villagers, that pose the biggest threat to local and regional SPDC power these days. The non-violent resistance strategies, such as defying orders from the military and fleeing into the jungle rather than being controlled, employed by the villagers make them active participants in the struggle for peace and justice in Burma, not passive victims.

Nonetheless, the reasons behind the offensive do not detract from the fact that the Burmese army is attacking the civilian Karen population without any form of provocation.  In addition to purposely attacking villagers the Burmese army is also undermining the grassroots people’s ability to survive.  The villagers in the offensive area, who are mainly farmers, were beginning to harvest their crops when the offensive began last November.  As villagers had to flee to safety in the jungle, their crops either rotted in the fields or were eaten by animals, leading to food shortages.

This acute food shortage will be further exacerbated next year.  As the offensive continued over the past twelve months more villagers had to flee the Burmese troops. This meant that they could not prepare for next years crop. Consequently in November and December 2006 there will be no crop to harvest and food scarcity will continue next year, regardless of the political situation. Most of the 27,000 people who have been displaced have very little, if any, food. Their diets are supplemented with food that they can find from the jungle.  Due to the severe landmine contamination of the areas, it is extremely dangerous to search for food. In addition to food scarcity internally displaced persons (IDPs) face serious health issues, especially during the wet season.  Malaria is prevalent, as are skin diseases, dysentery and malnutrition.  It is the children and the elderly who suffer the most under the given conditions.  Heavily pregnant women also face additional hardships as they have to flee the same as other villagers, walking for days and giving birth while on the run.  Villagers, as a result of military attacks, are more likely to be injured by a landmine or through soldier violence, for example being shot or stabbed. Access to medical services is virtually non-existent, and what is available is gravely insufficient. As a result people often die from preventable and curable diseases and treatable injuries.

The regime prevents all non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies inside Burma giving humanitarian aid to the villagers affected by the offensive. The junta prohibits organisations traveling to these areas and documenting human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis. It is virtually impossible to bypass these regulations, as the region is very mountainous and all transportation routes, apart from walking, are controlled by the SPDC. Some community-based organizations that work cross-border from Thailand manage to bring some assistance to the IDPs, but it is only a tiny amount of what is needed. The SPDC deems the activities of these groups illegal and if the Burmese army catches workers they will simply disappear never to be heard of or seen again. While the majority of IDPs choose to stay in hiding near their villages as a form of non-violent resistance, others decide to travel to Thailand to seek refuge in the camps along the Thai-Burma border.  So far this year Thai authorities have allowed approximately 3,000 people to cross the border and enter a refugee camp near Mae Sariang, Thailand.  However, the Thai authorities have not consistently kept the border open and have frequently refused IDPs entrance to the kingdom, reasoning that they are not fleeing fighting, but are merely capitalising on the resettlement opportu- nities that are being opened up to the refugees in the camp.

As a result of the border’s sporadic closure, approximately 1,400 IDPs (a figure that is continually rising) are living in a makeshift camp along the Salween River, on the Burmese side of the border.  This temporary IDP settlement receives aid from organisations working along the Thai-Burma border, at the discretion of the Thai authorities, but there are numerous protection issues associated with the camp.  There is a Burmese army base that is only an hour’s walk away, making the IDPs vulnerable to a potential attack.

This is the worst offensive that the junta has conducted since it joined ASEAN in 1997.  However, the offensive is not an isolated event, but rather the continuation of a campaign by the military junta to control the population of Burma.  Despite the fact that this offensive has been underway for over a year, the international community is yet to find a solution that will persuade the SPDC to stop their attacks on civilians. Throughout the numerous military campaigns thousands of lives have been lost all valuable and irreplaceable.

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