Another blot on Myanmar's rights record

 By Clifford McCoy  Jan 10,2007  Asia Times

MAE SOT, Thailand - Myanmar's army is using the threat of starvation to force thousands of civilians out of the country's eastern hills, where the government is pitched in a protracted battle against ethnic insurgent groups. As the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continues its almost year-long offensive, new reports are surfacing of troops targeting the civilian population by destroying fields and rice stores and even shooting on sight villagers tending to their crops.

The controversial military strategy, characterized by the military as the "Four Cuts", targets civilians to undermine support for ethnic insurgents by severing them from sources of intelligence, funds, recruits and even food. The broad strategy dates back to the 1960s and was largely instrumental in forcing insurgent groups out of the country's central regions and into border areas.

The current campaign is designed to force the civilians out of the hills of Pegu division and northern Karen state, thus eliminating the last large area of territory the insurgent Karen claim. Significantly, the area is also the site of two proposed large hydropower dams that the military regime plans to build along the Salween River and contains large untapped swaths of forests and mineral and gold deposits.

In the field, the Four Cuts strategy has been implemented through forced relocations, the burning of villages and random killing of civilians. Yet from a military perspective, the most effective component of the strategy has been targeting village food supplies, and the latest indications are that government troops are intensifying such operations. Although the right to food is not expressly guaranteed under international law, numerous international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions, contain provisions that civilian populations should have access to adequate food.

The growing attacks against civilian food supplies have recently been well documented in reports released by independent organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a grassroots advocacy group, and the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a relief organization that brings medical and food supplies to displaced villagers inside Myanmar. Human Rights Watch, a US rights group, in late November expressed its "grave concern for the food security of the local population if the army attempts to disrupt the harvest in order to take over food stocks for its troops".

Human-rights reports from the area of the current offensive have largely been based on the testimonies of displaced villagers still living in hiding in the area or refugees who have arrived on the Myanmar-Thailand border. Relief workers and human-rights monitors working in the area have corroborated the villagers' stories with photographs of burning villages and rice stores, landmines and destroyed fields. The reporting has covered such a large area that the growing attacks on food supplies indicate a centralized military strategy rather than the work of renegade military units.

That strategy is currently being employed against the Karen in northern Karen state and eastern Pegu division, which according to a November press release by Human Rights Watch has resulted in the displacement of about 27,000 civilians. More than 5,000 of these displaced civilians have made their way to Thailand to join the estimated 145,000 refugees now seeking shelter in camps there. The number of refugees seeking shelter in Thailand has surged in recent years as the Myanmar military has intensified its attacks against civilians.

US criticism, UN scrutiny
Myanmar's military regime is under growing international pressure related to its poor human-rights record. The United States successfully lobbied to have Myanmar placed under the scrutiny of the United Nations Security Council and is seeking a Security Council resolution on Myanmar calling for it, among other things, to stop attacks on the civilian population. The US has significantly cited Myanmar's threat to regional security as its rationale for heightened UN attention to the deteriorating situation.

The continued arbitrary killing of civilians, burning of homes and destruction of food supplies as a part of the military's counterinsurgency strategy against the armed opposition will no doubt add more fuel to the diplomatic fire. The ruling junta has so far shown little regard for international opinion, continuing with its controversial offensive despite the risk of coming under UN sanctions and already threatened by the International Labor Organization with legal action at the International Court for its continued use of forced labor. The ruling SPDC is also under pressure for well-documented reports detailing the military's widespread use of rape in conflict areas and its alleged involvement in the narcotics trade - charges the regime strongly denies.

The reports also come at a time when China, India and other regional countries are increasingly engaging Myanmar's generals to secure new energy deals, some in contested ethnic territories. While these deals have helped to shore up the junta's coffers substantially and clearly provide financial incentive for brokering ceasefires with rebel groups, reports from Karen state and other ethnic areas show that they have not led to a concomitant change

in the regime's attitude toward basic human rights but rather have helped to finance the purchase of more weapons systems.

Counterinsurgency in Myanmar is often viewed as a government army in pursuit of rebel insurgent forces, where both sides ambush each other in the forested terrain along the border with Thailand. To the contrary, Myanmar's army spends little of its time actually engaging rebel military units and more time attacking the perceived civilian supporters of the insurgent groups especially through the destruction of their food supplies.

According to Karen military sources and relief workers, only one attempt has been made by army columns in the current offensive that began last February in Karen state and eastern Pegu division to attack a specific military target. This advance on the Karen National Liberation Army's 5th Brigade headquarters was repulsed with losses to the Myanmar army, they contend. While there are another two Karen National Union (KNU) brigade headquarters and three district civil headquarters in the area of the offensive, so far no push has been made to attack those facilities.

Much of the terrain where the offensive is taking place consists of rugged mountains where villagers grow so-called dry field rice on the sides of mountains. Wet rice can be grown in irrigated paddy fields in some of the valleys. Hill rice cultivation yields much smaller harvests than paddy rice even at the best of times, and most villagers in the area are subsistence farmers with very little grain in reserve. According to the recent reports, the army has developed systematic methods to disrupt the rice-growing cycle at each stage of the cultivation process, from clearing the fields, planting, growing and harvesting the rice.

Damning documents

Reports from KHRG and FBR, reconfirmed by discussions with many relief workers returning from the offensive area, make numerous references to these controversial tactics. Prior to large-scale military activities in the area, government troops sealed off the roads leading up into the mountains to civilian traffic and limited the amount of rice that could be carried into the mountains, even to villages already under their control. According to the KHRG, this tactic began as early as July 2005 in Thandaung township of northern Karen state.

Villagers living under SPDC control and those living outside military rule often trade rice at informal secret markets in the forests, an underground commerce network that the army is vigorously trying to snuff out. Civilians living outside of SPDC control use the markets to buy rice and other foodstuffs to supplement their food supplies or to make up for shortfalls in harvests due to poor weather or conflict-related disruptions.

According to a relief worker who frequently visits the area, by blocking the trade routes and limiting the amount of rice available on informal markets, the impact of future military operations to destroy food supplies would have a bigger impact. The tactic apparently worked in Thandaung township, from where several hundred food-deprived villagers were forced to leave the area last April and seek refuge in Thailand.

When the major military offensive began last year, the army directly targeted civilian fields and food supplies. During the planting period, villagers sowing seeds are conspicuous on the open hillsides and often make easy targets for military sharpshooters; during the harvest season, soldiers often burn or trample the mature plants before they can be threshed. Rights groups accuse the army of destroying rice-storage barns and seeking out caches hidden in the forest around villages. Human Rights Watch last month condemned in a press release the military's use of landmines in rice fields to deter villagers from cultivating their fields.

The tempo of the army's operations has increased since the end of the rainy season in November and almost weekly reports come out of the area about the ongoing destruction of rice fields and stocks. A November 28 FBR report stated that the sounds of machine-gun and mortar fire could be heard in the distance as soldiers fired on villagers harvesting their crops. The same report said, "At the same time they are patrolling the villagers' old rice fields and shooting anyone who comes near to harvest their rice." In another FBR report issued on December 12, the organization noted, "Food supplies are very low, and without outside help it will be very difficult for the people in hiding to survive."

The report also stated that increasing malnutrition is adversely affecting the overall health of people in the area. Health workers say the lack of adequate food is lowering the resistance of people in the area to illnesses such as malaria, skin diseases and dysentery. A 2005 study by the Backpack Health Workers Team, a medical-relief organization that provides aid to villagers inside Myanmar, found that families whose food supply had been seized or destroyed faced 1.7 times the odds of contracting malaria compared with households with a steady food supply. Those ratios are now likely dangerously higher after a full year of military attacks on villager food supplies.

The Myanmar army's sustained attack on food supplies is causing a growing number of villagers either to move into SPDC-controlled relocation camps or, more likely, to flee across the border into bulging refugee camps in Thailand. That lends credence to the United States' assertion that rights abuses in Myanmar are having a destabilizing effect on the larger region. That should give member states on the UN Security Council plenty of food for thought as they deliberate how to deal with Myanmar.

Clifford McCoy is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist.