Concentration Camps, Consolidated Villages, Forced Labor, Food Paucity
Township “X”
Mergui – Tavoy District, Burma
article by Saw Takkaw

Members of the Karen ethnic minority living in the vicinity of this road project are not only forced to provide labor for its construction but also to finance it. Over the past five years, Burmese military authorities have extorted an estimated 50,000,000 Kyat (50,000 USD) from Karen civilians in Township “X” for the road’s construction, thus earning the project the ignominious title “the 50,000,000 Kyat road” among the local population.

The road project is approximately fifty kilometers in length and runs alongside a string of forced relocation camps (concentration camps *) and consolidated villages. A forced relocation camp is established when several villages are forcibly depopulated and then relocated to a specific location (hence the term “concentration camp”). In a consolidated village, people who live on the outskirts of a village are forced to move to its center. Consolidated villages are closely monitored by local Burmese Army units. Forced relocation camps have a large on-site military presence, and are highly susceptible to abuse, including forced labor, and confiscation of property without compensation.

Formerly, this area was under the control of ethnic and pro-democracy resistance forces. However, in 1997 the Burmese Army launched a massive offensive in the region and quickly routed the lightly armed resistance groups. Since the offensive, Karen ethnic minority civilians in Township “X” have been viewed by the Burmese Army as a conquered, subject, and suspect people, and in accordance with the SPDC’s infamous “4 Cuts” campaign, have been herded into concentration camps and consolidated villages. Within these confines the Karen live in fear and humiliation.

Even though resistance activity in Township “X” has steadily decreased over the years, SPDC abuses against the Karen in the area, according to local human rights teams, have actually increased. ** Unable to endure these conditions, some families choose to flee from the concentration camps and consolidated villages, but they do so under great peril and uncertainty. Escapees can expect pursuit by Burmese troops, who will fire upon them without warning, for the SPDC does not want the outside world to know about the true human rights situation in Burma (particularly in remote border areas). Also, due to the Thai government’s disregard of internationally accepted principles concerning asylum of persecuted persons and refoulement, flight to neighboring Thailand may lead to arrest, maltreatment, and subsequent repatriation. Forced repatriation may entail pushing asylum seekers, including the elderly, sick, and nursing mothers, into war zones or, in some cases, handing them over directly to Burmese authorities. The other option for escapee families is to try to survive as IDPs in the jungle free-fire zones, where more than likely they will never receive aid from relief organizations (which characterizes the failure of the international community to protect and assist the world’s now staggering IDP population). The fact that Karen families are willing to take such flight risks is in itself testament to what the Karen are facing in “pacified” areas.

Because the Karen in these camps and villages must toil up to four days a week on forced labor projects, they are unable to attend to their farms and other means of supporting their families. What little money they are able to acquire is often subject to seizure under threat by the Burmese Army. Burmese troops garrisoned in Township “X” are apportioned rice from their command, but may of their other food requirements are commandeered from the villagers. Villagers are allowed to farm only in areas designated by the Burmese Army (usually in close proximity to the concentration camps and consolidated villages), and sometimes they must farm in poor soils. Recent periods of unfavorable weather have led to crop failure, further exacerbating the villagers’ already tenuous existence. Escapees from concentration camps in Township “X” have confirmed these findings, and have stated one of their motivations for taking flight was food paucity.

Making matters worse, the road the villagers are forced to labor on and finance is not a development project that will benefit the local population, but a military road. Upon completion, the road will be used to re-supply Burmese Army bases in the mountains, further consolidating their control of the region. This road will no doubt lead to a larger military presence in the area – which according to current paradigms in Burma will also lead to further persecution of the local population. Tragically, these villagers are forced to facilitate their own oppression.

The stones for this roadbed were carried from a nearby river.

* These sites in Karen State (Tenasserim Division) are commonly referred to by human rights groups as “forced relocation camps.” I believe this definition is no longer applicable, for the term forced labor camp carries with it a sense of impermanence – and many Karen have already been interred in the camps for over four years. Also, because of the scale and the nature of the human rights abuses that routinely occur in the camps, in particular the organized and mass use of forced labor, the term forced relocation camp is euphemistic, not clearly conferring the harsh conditions evident in the camps. Therefore, I will encourage human rights workers in the region to use the term “concentration camp” in place of forced relocation camp not to sensationalize the situation or for propaganda purposes, but simply because the term concentration camp is more accurate and appropriate. It is also interesting to note that concentration camp has been used by human rights groups in describing alike sites in Karenni state for at least the last ten years.

** According to one local resistance leader, the annual and marked decrease of military activity (e.g., ambushes) by resistance groups in Township “X” has emboldened SPDC troops who, now unafraid, have gradually ventured from their fortified areas thereby leading to an escalation of harassment and oppression of Karen villagers and IDPs.

Photo note: These photographs were taken covertly in the area discussed above. Human rights abuses perpetrated against the Karen in this region by the Burmese Army occur frequently and on a massive scale. Members of Karen human rights teams risked their lives to take the photos.