Grave Abuses in Ethnic Minority Areas Fuel Growing Humanitarian Crisis
October 26, 2007
As well as attacking monks and democracy protestors in Rangoon, Burma’s military junta is forcing ethnic minority villagers to flee their homes in the country’s border areas.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Burmese army attacks on ethnic minority villages have forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Burma, creating dire humanitarian conditions, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Burmese army continues to destroy civilian villages in its counterinsurgency operations. It often uses depopulated areas for military-controlled business concessions and infrastructure projects such as gold mines and hydroelectric dams, three of which are planned close by on the Salween River, near the Thai border.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the release on October 19 of the 2007 annual internal displacement survey carried out by the nongovernmental Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) and its local partner organizations. The TBBC found that as of mid-2007 there were 503,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in surveyed sites in eastern Burma. The report states that 99,000 IDPs were believed to be in hiding from Burmese army patrols, 109,000 were in military-controlled relocation sites, and 295,000 people were in areas controlled by armed groups with some ceasefire arrangements with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The TBBC surveyed IDPs in Tennasserim Division, Mon State, Karen State and Pegu Division, Karenni State and southeastern Shan State.

“As well as attacking monks and democracy protestors in Rangoon, Burma’s military junta is forcing ethnic minority villagers to flee their homes in the country’s border areas,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community must not ignore the dire humanitarian situation fueled by army abuses in rural Burma.”

Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports of serious abuses by the army during counterinsurgency operations in ethnic minority areas. In July, for example, Burmese army attacks against villages in Mon Township of northern Karen State displaced more than 200 civilians. In separate incidents during the same period, troops of Light Infantry Battalions 378 and 388 summarily executed three people. Such abuses against civilians are part of the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign begun in early 2006 against forces of the Karen National Union (KNU) from northern Karen State, which has caused the displacement of more than 40,000 civilians. In the areas cleared of civilians, an estimated 43 new Burmese army camps have been established.

Many displaced civilians hide from abusive army troops by living in the jungle, foraging for food. They are unable to return to their farmlands, where they routinely face violence by patrolling Burmese army soldiers. Thousands more have reached already overcrowded IDP settlements on the Burmese side of the border with Thailand, which refuses entry to many of the displaced. Human Rights Watch has documented internal displacement in Karen State and is alarmed that the situation has worsened since our report in 2005.

Others have found a way to enter Thailand to escape the Burmese army, joining an estimated 150,000 refugees who have been housed in 10 sprawling camps along the border for more than 20 years.

“The Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s authoritative work shows the alarming scale of forced displacement caused by the Burmese army’s methodical brutality against ethnic minorities,” said Adams. “Instead of providing desperately needed social services, the government sends soldiers to burn villages and makes civilians carry out dangerous forced labor during military operations.”

Military abuses are also occurring in other ethnic areas of Burma. In mid-2007 in eastern Shan State, more than 500 villagers from areas along the Mekong River were forced to flee their homes by army abuses, including routine forced labor, beatings, sexual violence, and pillage by Burmese troops and their ethnic Lahu militia allies. They have moved to the Loi Kaw Wan IDP settlement bordering Chiang Rai province of Thailand, already home to more than 3,000 displaced persons. There are four other IDP sites along the border with Thailand housing Shan IDPs, and Thailand denies access to any Shan refugees. Hundreds of Chin people from western Burma have also fled to India in the aftermath of the government’s recent crackdown on protesters and threats and pressure by local officials in Chin State to attend mass rallies in support of military rule.

Burmese military forces displace communities primarily for security reasons, but also to clear them for infrastructure projects and business concessions such as dams, gas pipelines and mines. The ongoing offensive in Karen State is directly related to the surveying of dam sites along the Salween River, which will be constructed and operated by Thai government and commercial interests such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).

Despite ongoing Burmese military offensives against its ethnic populations, Thailand in May pressured the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stop its refugee status determination process, leaving newly arrived asylum seekers without protection. Burmese asylum seekers in Thailand are subject to abuses by Thai security forces and forcible return to the risk of persecution (refoulement) in Burma, a breach of international refugee law. Thousands of recent arrivals from conflict areas in Burma waiting for refugee status determination by Thai authorities are not provided food and shelter until they are registered, a laborious process that takes several months.

Other international research organizations have also documented ongoing abuses by the Burmese army against civilians in ethnic minority areas. According to satellite imagery surveys conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Burmese army units destroyed scores of villages in northern Karen State during 2006-2007. Many military bases were constructed to support their control over the area. The satellite imagery shows sequences of villages with human activity, with subsequent images showing deserted and burnt villages, many of them with new military camps close by (see: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2007/media/0928burma_report.pdf).

In June, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a rare public statement condemning attacks against civilians in eastern Burma, which it said constituted frequent and widespread violations of international humanitarian law. The ICRC was also concerned about the use of convict labor to support military operations. Thousands of prisoners have been forced to carry army supplies, undertake construction labor, and, in a practice called “atrocity demining,” forced to walk ahead of Burmese army soldiers to trigger potential landmines. When convict porters fall behind or get sick, they are often summarily killed, according to information collected by Human Rights Watch. Using civilians as “human shields” or conducting summary executions are war crimes.

“The suffering of Burma’s people extends from Rangoon and the Burmese heartland to the remote villages of ethnic minorities,” said Adams. “Thailand, China and India need to press Burma’s government to end the human rights violations that are fueling a humanitarian crisis just across their doorstep.”

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