LIVES THAT DO NOT MATTER
PERSECUTED IN BURMA - DENIED SANCTUARY IN THAILAND
Members of NGO groups operating in the region, KNU (Karen National Union) officials, and Thai authorities may disagree with some or perhaps much of the information presented in this report. I welcome all of these groups as well as any others to challenge any of the information that they find to be incorrect, erroneous, or misleading. Hopefully through this process the full truth will be known, so that 63 lives that currently do not matter can someday be 63 lives that do matter.
Most of the sources for this report live in Burma and are actively involved in resistance activities against the Burmese Military Dictatorship (SPDC), so their identities will not be stated. Other sources for this report include Thai nationals and expatriates living in Thailand, and out of concern for their security have requested anonymity. Also, for purposes of security some individulas and locations have been replaced with false names (given in italics). This information, however, can be made available to certain organizations and individuals.
[DW note: Photos related to this report include the first image in our November 2002 Burmese war crimes exhibit and the last three images in our September 2002 clandestine photography exhibit.]
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14)
The following brief report documents the flight from persecution and tragic, on-going struggle for survival of 63 persons of the Karen ethnic minority group of Burma. The 63 persons discussed in this report are all civilian non-combatants, whose number consists mostly of women and children. (1) Composed of 15 families, this group fled to the Thai border after escaping from a Burmese Army forced relocation village for Karen civilians. In their agonizing flight to the Thai border, they were pursued by at least 300 Burmese soldiers for approximately 5 days. One would think that when this group of persecuted civilians reached the safety of Thailand on October 25, 2001, they would be granted sanctuary and that their dangerous ordeal would be over; unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
Sixty-three Burmese immigrants seeking refugee status in Thailand were forcibly sent home yesterday, Maj-Gen Mana Prajakit, commander of the 9th Infantry Division said.
(Bangkok Post, November 7, 2001)
Thai authorities, in total disregard of internationally recognized human rights principles, forcibly sent back the 63 to a war-torn region in Burma, thereby robbing them of their right to asylum from persecution. Thai authorities did this in full knowledge of the human rights abuses that were being perpetrated against Karen civilians in the area, including rape, torture, murder, forced relocation, and forced labor.
UNHCR considers that persons fleeing war and war related conditions, and whose state is unwilling or unable to protect them, are in need of international protection and should be considered refugees.
(Protecting Refugees: Questions and Answers, UNHCR Regional Office, Thailand, pages 5-6)
The 63 Karen asylum seekers were forcibly repatriated to Burma by Thai authorities on November 6, 2001. On January 7, 2002, elements of the group, again fleeing imminent danger in Burma, were denied entry into Thailand by Thai authorities. This is certainly not the first instance in which Thai authorities, particularly of Thai 9th Infantry Division, have forced Karen asylum seekers (as well as other asylum seekers from Burma) back into imminent danger. After being forced back into Burma, rejected asylum seekers often become IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). The life of an IDP in Burma is extremely difficult and hazardous. Due to conditions inside Burma, it would be impossible to calculate the number of civilian asylum seekers from Burma who have endured deprivation and abuse or who have perished because they were forcibly repatriated or denied entry into Thailand by Thai authorities. Hopefully this report will help shed some light on this situation, which is clearly inhumane and in violation of internationally accepted human rights standards. It is also worth mentioning, that the area in which the tragedy of the 63 unfolds is in close proximity to the now infamous Total-Unocal Yadana natural gas pipeline. At the time of writing this report, Unocal (an American oil and gas company) is facing a precedent setting lawsuit in the United States over its alleged complicity in human rights violations incurred during the construction of the Yadana pipeline.
In this report, I have chosen to focus on only one group of rejected asylum seekers the 63. One reason for this is simply that no other group or individual has shown any interest in telling their story. Also, by concentrating solely on this group, I hope to present the reader with a more in-depth, human side to the tragedy of forced repatriation/denial of entry. The final reason for this focus is that I am fortunate enough to be associated with Karen human rights teams in the area that gathered the information necessary for this report.
It is our hope that this report will help bring international attention to the plight of asylum seekers from Burma who have been unjustly denied sanctuary in Thailand. We hope that this situation will be properly investigated and that action will be taken against the parties that are responsible. Assuredly, if action is not taken more innocent people will needlessly suffer and die.
The Flight of the 63
On October 25, 2001, the 63 Karens crossed the border into Thailand at Planhard Village, Tong Pha Pom Township in Kanchanaburi Province. The ragtag group of 15 families had somehow managed to dodge 2 columns (300+ men) of pursuing Burmese Army troops. They were escapees from GGG Forced Relocation village for Karen civilians. The 63, like others in forced relocation centers/villages (FRAs) throughout Burmas ethnic minority areas, found living there unbearable. Having to subsist day to day under the close watch of Burmese troops was a frightening experience. Detainees were required to provide forced labor, and there was never enough food. If anyone was suspected of having ties with resistance groups, they were executed by military intelligence (MI). Such was the case of Saw X, who assumed the unenviable task of being headman for the group of escapees. Saw X received information that MI would kill him soon, because they learned that his son served in a resistance group.
For the first 2 weeks after their escape, the 63 hid in thick jungle near Site P, where they were secretly supplied food by other Karens in the area. Because they feared and mistrusted the Thai 9th Infantry Division, the group initially intended not to flee to the Thai border; they hoped to live undetected in the jungle and establish small farm plots for their survival. But when SPDC troops learned where the group was hiding, they swarmed into the area. It was during this operation that Saw SS, one of the escapees, was shot by SPDC troops. He was shot without warning, while setting up a farm plot. After the first shots rang out, the 63 quickly dispersed into jungle, and miraculously, they avoided taking further casualties. The group then decided that the only way for them to survive was to flee to Thailand. They were in no condition for such a long and dangerous journey, but there was no choice. Burmese troops were searching for them in the area, and Saw SS, who suffered from a gunshot wound to the arm, would not be able to hold out much longer without medical treatment. And so the decision was made: the 63, a band of scared and exhausted civilians, would make a daring run for the border. Saw SS was placed in makeshift stretcher and sent ahead of the group ( his arm was later amputated).
Heavy monsoon rains and rugged terrain helped the 63 slip by within an earshot of the pursuing Burmese columns, but the arduous journey to perceived salvation in Thailand came with a price. One elderly lady perished from diarrhea. She might have survived with more care, but unfortunately the group could not risk taking a rest or building a fire to boil drinking water or to cook. Therefore, the healthy became weak and the sick became sicker. One young girl was so stricken with malaria that she had to be carried. All in the group suffered from exhaustion and hunger, and many were ill. They were also covered with leeches.
Had they been seen by the Burmese troops, they would have been shot without warning. Being civilian non-combatants, they had no weapons for their defense. Although they were hungry and exhausted, the fact they were being hunted motivated the group push on. Fortunately, for part of their journey the group was escorted and assisted by a small detachment of KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) soldiers and medics.
But for all their struggle and sacrifice, it appears that their exodus had been in vain. Less than 2 weeks after their arrival to the Thai border, the group was forcibly sent back on November 6, 2001 to the country from which they fled the country of Burma, whose government wishes to abuse, imprison, or kill them. But according to the Bangkok Post they were only attempting to escape poverty, and according to Maj-Gen Mana they were just illegal immigrants. (2)
Not a War Zone
Thai authorities claimed that the group was not fleeing a war, so therefore they could not be granted refugee status. (3) But in fact, Zone Y, the region from which these Karens fled is a war zone, and it would be difficult to classify it as anything else. Zone Y is dotted with FRAs, abandoned and burned villages, IDPs, free fire-black zones, landmines, and bunkers, in addition to 2 large Burmese troop bases and one battalion of Burmese troops. Resistance groups operate in the area, and bloody skirmishes with Burmese troops do occur (with approximately 30 firefights between KNU (Karen National Union) fighters and Burmese troops in 2001). Thai intelligence, which closely monitors all military activity in the region, should certainly be aware of these facts.
In addition, the creation of forced relocation areas for ethnic minority civilians is an integral part of the Burmese Armys 4 Cuts military campaign against ethnic minority resistance groups. In an attempt to crush ethnic minority resistance groups, the SPDC is in fact waging war against ethnic minority civilians. Forced relocation villages/centers (FRAs) allow the Burmese Army to closely monitor all of the Karen villagers activities. FRAs also provide the Burmese Army with a readily available pool of forced labor for digging trenches, building roads and bridges, or for portering. In Zone Y, SPDC forces are often based within the FRAs. Their positions are therefore surrounded by Karen civilians, which discourages attacks by resistance forces. If an attack does occur in the area, Burmese troops punish the civilians within the FRAs.
Another problem stems from Thai pressure on resistance groups not to carry out combat operations along the Thai-Burma border but well inside Burmese territory. This policy helps insure the safety of Thai villages along the border, but prevents Thai troops on the border from actually hearing firefights between SPDC troops and resistance forces. If the Thai authorities claim that they heard no fighting, then technically it did not occur, and therefore no persons fleeing these areas may be granted asylum.
The Thai Army sends the group to a safe place
In less than 2 weeks, Thai hospitality for the group of 63 scared and exhausted Karen ceased. They were not to be granted asylum and become refugees, but rather they were to be cast into the living nightmare of being IDPs.
We allowed them a short stay because there were children and sick among them.
(Maj-Gen Mana, Commander
Thai 9th Infantry Division, Bangkok Post, November 7, 2001)
On November 6, 2001, the group was loaded into 2 Thai Army trucks; no aid organizations or the UNHCR were present to monitor their relocation. Thai 9th Infantry Division soldiers told them that they would be taken to Tonya Refugee camp in Sangklaburi where they would be received by aid organizations. This proved to be a lie, and they were probably told this to ensure that they would move without incident or protest. Elements of the Thai Doe Sha Doe (Border Patrol Police), upon learning that the group was to be forced back into Burma, complained to 9th Division authorities that such an action would be inhumane. But the protestations of the Doe Sha Doe were to no avail, and the hapless group was robbed of their basic right of asylum from persecution.
Thus, states may not refoule, or forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger.
(Protecting Refugees: Questions and Answers, UNHCR regional Office, Thailand, page 2)
Maj-Gen Mana stated, We gave them medical treatment and sent them back to a safe place. (4) The safe place Maj-Gen Mana was referring to was Hteewadoh, a Mon ethnic village in Burma. But according to the group, the Thai Army dropped them off at Halawkani, a Mon refugee camp inside Burma. Upon arrival at Halawkani on November 6, Mon authorities at the camp rejected them and forced the group to move to Hteewadoh. The group then walked to Hteewadoh village, where they arrived at 5 p.m. The next day, humanitarian organization British Border Consortium (BBC) met the group in Hteewadoh and distributed food and clothing to them. Although many Karen civilians were hiding in Hteewadoh, aid workers were concerned that their safety could not be guaranteed, because the SPDC had signed a cease-fire with the Mon and not with the ethnic Karen resistance group in the region. The Mon, already in a precarious situation, perceived the influx of more Karen IDPs into their area not only as an extra burden, but that it could spur the SPDC to attack.
Soon thereafter, the cease-fire agreement broke down between the Mon and the SPDC. On November 19, IDPs in Hteewadoh received information that Burmese troops would soon attack the village. Some of the group then fled to Peh Toh Weh, another Mon village, while others hid in the surrounding jungle. At 7 a.m. the following day, Burmese troops attacked Hteewadoh and burned the entire village, including schools and churches. Saw P, one of the 63, was shot in the thigh during the attack. It was one week before the seriously wounded Saw P was discovered by other villagers. He was sent to a hospital in Thailand where his leg was amputated.
Just one day after the attack, Mon villagers of Peh Toh Weh, where elements of the 63 were hiding, demanded that they go back to Hteewadoh. In fear of returning to Hteewadoh, they moved to Kyen San Maung in Halawakani refugee camp. Mon authorities took pity on Karen IDPs but only allowed them to stay temporarily. At Kyen San Maung, the Karens were given 2 tins (cups) of rice per day per person. They were in hiding with 22 members of the Tavoyan ethnic group. Burmese troops were conducting combat operations in the surrounding area.
Did it happen again?
On January 7, 2002, Mon authorities asked the Karen IDPs to move to another part of Halawkani. On the same day, fighting broke out between 2 rival Mon groups. Once again elements of the 63 tried to seek refuge in Thailand, and despite fighting in the area, they were denied entry into Thailand by the Thai Army. When the group of Karen IDPs reached the Thai border opposite Halawkani, Thai 9th Infantry Division soldiers ordered them to go back. When the group returned to Halawkani, Mon authorities did not accept them and drove them away. (5) They were forced to move into an area of heavy Burmese troop activity. In an attempt to avoid detection from Burmese Army patrols, the IDPs then split up into small groups.
Living in the Deadly Box
Since their forced repatriation on November 6, 2001, the 63 must live as IDPs. The life of an IDP is one of misery, isolation, and uncertainty. IDPs often receive little or no assistance from aid organizations. Unwelcome by Thai authorities and persecuted by the Burmese Army, they must try to keep a low profile and fend for themselves in the thick, disease-infested jungle.
IDPs in Zone Y are surrounded by Burmese troop bases on three sides and in some cases four sides. They must also deal with landmines, Burmese patrols penetrating the areas in which they are hiding, and Burmese Army cleansing operations. Therefore, IDPs in Zone Y do indeed live in a deadly box. As one Karen source informed me, IDPs are like chickens in a cage. Whenever the master wants to eat one of them, he can do it easily. If the chicken runs or stands still, it does not matter, he will still die. (6)
The 63, now living as IDPs, have scattered in many directions. Some of the group wanted to go to a KNU liberated area in Zone Y (it was a Burmese Army forced relocation village in Zone Y that the group originally fled from), but due to Burmese Army patrols in the area, they must remain stranded in thick jungle along the border. They must constantly be vigilant. If they attempt to burn land for farming or to develop paddy, they run the risk of being discovered by Burmese Army troops. Sources on the border state that the KNU supported the group for a short time, but now claims it no longer has the funds to do so.
The area in which most of the 63 now live is a Burmese Army black zone. Anyone seen in this area, including women and children, will be fired upon by Burmese troops. Owing to conditions in the area and the fact that the 63 have broken up into numerous smaller groups, it is difficult to keep abreast of their situation. But sources along the border claim that the groups, like most IDPs in Burma, are currently facing difficulties acquiring food, medicine, and clothing. Although KNU backpack medic teams do make excursions into the area, the groups currently receive no other form of relief from either aid organizations or the UNHCR.
1. Anachalee Kongkrut, Application rejected, 63 sent home, Bangkok Post, 7 November 2001.
5. Interview with Saw M, 2001
6. Interview with Saw P, 2001