Southeast Burma Field Report: Intensification of armed conflict, air and ground attacks, and widespread human rights violations, July to December 2021

March 30th, 2022  •  Author:   Karen Human Rights Group  •  8 minute read
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This Field Report presents and analyses information collected by KHRG field researchers and covers the period between July and December 2021.[1]

The reporting period was marked by increased armed conflict and attacks, which spread to locations in KHRG’s operational area that had reported little to no fighting or shelling during the initial five months following the February 1st 2021 military coup[2]. It was also marked by an increase in human rights violations, including forced labour, the use of human shields, torture, killings, theft and looting, and the planting of landmines.

Burma (Myanmar)[3] is party to several human rights treaties and is bound by principles of customary international human rights law prohibiting arbitrary deprivation of life; torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. During the current reporting period, KHRG documented multiple cases of forced labour and the use of civilians as human shields. In most cases, villagers were forced to serve as both porters and human shields as State Administration Council (SAC)[4] and Border Guard Force (BGF)[5] troops engaged in troop rotation and the transport of rations and ammunition between army camps in areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU)[6]. Both forced labour and the use of human shields constitute violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and other human rights conventions. In many cases, these acts have been combined with other rights violations like beatings or torture, the deprivation of food and water, and various threats, including threat to life. In Bilin Township, Doo Tha Htoo (Thaton) District, villagers living between Lay Kay and Yoh Klah army camps were subjected to repeated demands for forced labour and ‘navigation’ over the course of several months. In particular, skirmishes and ambush by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)[7], due to SAC and BGF trespass while travelling between their camps, systematically led SAC and BGF troops to round up any villagers they found along the way to protect themselves from further attack. At times, skirmishes and ambushes took place while villagers were forced to porter or navigate, putting them in grave danger. Villagers also experienced looting and other security threats as SAC and BGF soldiers camped in or near their villages while traveling between their army camps.

A surge of armed conflict and attacks, including airstrikes, took place in the Lay Kay Kaw area of Dooplaya District in December 2021 after SAC and BGF troops entered the area and conducted raids and arrests while searching for Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)[8] participants and People’s Defence Force (PDF)[9] members. Established at the time of the earlier ceasefire agreements to welcome back former refugees and IDPs to their country, Lay Kay Kaw New Town was supposed to serve as the symbol of a new era of peace and unity. Instead, the former refugees and IDPs who live there found themselves fleeing once again for their lives as fighting erupted throughout the area. Over 10,000 people were displaced in just over a week. Possibilities for seeking refuge in Thailand remain extremely limited. Most displaced villagers were either pushed back by Thai authorities or forced to set up temporary encampments along the river.

Mu Traw (Hpapun) District had been the target of major offensives, including airstrikes, during the first five months of the coup. Although there were no further airstrikes in Mu Traw District from July to December 2021, most parts of the district continued to experience heavy conflict and military activities. In some areas, fighting and shelling took place on a near daily basis during the current reporting period, thus many villagers continue to face displacement. Those who have remained in their villages have endured repeated threats by SAC soldiers, including battalion commanders, who seek to punish civilians for the activities of the KNLA. Such acts are in clear violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids reprisals against civilian persons and objects.

Fighting continued in Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin) District, leading to some displacement. While no fighting or shelling was reported for Taw Oo (Toungoo), Mergui-Tavoy and Hpa-an districts prior to July 2021, during the current reporting period, KHRG documented the emergence of fighting in both Taw Oo and Mergui-Tavoy districts. In the case of Mergui-Tavoy District, the fighting occurred between the SAC and a local group of PDF fighters.

Military activity, like troop rotation and reinforcement, sending rations and ammunition, and patrolling, continued to increase throughout all districts, except Hpa-an District (for which KHRG received no reports). These activities often included or took place alongside other activities, such as the increased use of checkpoints, direct threats against local villagers, arbitrary arrests, and opening fire while in villages, that led to heightened insecurity for local villagers.

Theft and looting, particularly of food items, crops and livestock, became more systematic as the presence of SAC soldiers in rural areas, including KNU territory, spread. Most of the theft and looting during the current reporting period occurred while SAC and BGF troops passed through villages or were temporarily camped in the area. Theft and looting have often taken place after villagers have been forced to flee their homes, and in some cases have been combined with the destruction of property. Looting and the destruction of property are prohibited under various components of international humanitarian law, including Additional Protocol II (Article 14) concerning the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, like foodstuffs, crops and livestock.[10]

Other serious human rights violations like torture and killings took place during the current reporting period. As the SAC continued to target anyone seen as opposing the military regime, it undertook violence against civilians while searching for people whom they suspected of having an affiliation with the PDF and CDM. On multiple occasions, SAC soldiers tortured and beat local civilians following bomb explosions in the area. SAC soldiers intentionally shot at civilians, killing three. In one of the killing cases, local villagers believe the victim was also tortured by the SAC prior to being killed.

Landmine contamination and the planting of new landmines continued to be a serious problem, with landmines being placed in civilian areas, along transportation routes and near critical infrastructure, as well as in areas that villagers depend on for their livelihood. Two deaths and injury to eight villagers, including one child, were reported for the current reporting period. All reported incidents took place in Mu Traw District. Villagers were often not made aware of the landmine contamination in their area. KHRG also received reports of time bomb explosions.

In July 2021, Burma was hit with a third wave of COVID-19 infections, this time reaching rural areas in KHRG’s operational area. Often whole villages reported experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, but due to lack of testing facilities, there was no way to confirm that all of these were positive COVID-19 cases. However, in Mergui-Tavoy District, where the Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW) actively engaged in testing, positive cases were found in every township of the district. The spread of the virus has been particularly worrisome in situations of displacement with reports of the virus spreading among groups who have displaced, since many are unaware that they are infected. Displaced villagers may also find themselves crowded together in hiding places, making the likelihood of infection greater. Access to healthcare services in general continued to be an issue due to restrictions on movement, brought about both by efforts to contain the spread of the virus and by increased military activities and armed conflict.

Access to education also continued to be an issue due to widespread school closures tied to the spread of COVID-19, the CDM and refusals by students to attend SAC-run schools since the military takeover. Most Karen Education and Culture Department (KECD)[11] schools remained open and experienced increased enrolments as students who previously attended government schools sought to continue their studies in KECD schools. The additional enrolments have placed heavy strain on KECD schools, and some have begun requiring parents to pay educational fees or rice (for the teachers) to keep the schools running.

The livelihood situation of villagers has grown more critical. Villagers reported being unable to work on their farms or plantations or travel to access work as day labourers. A number of factors have prevented villagers from carrying out their regular livelihood activities: displacement, conflict, ongoing military activity, landmine contamination, travel restrictions tied to COVID-19, increased checkpoints and security concerns while traveling, and fears of being apprehended to serve as forced porters or human shields. Many villagers are also now facing severe food insecurity as a result.

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