A Village on Fire: The Destruction of Rural Life in Southeastern Burma


They were going to burn our houses so they wanted us out of our houses, and they didn't give us any chance to take our possessions. We all ran away. The Burmese took all my things and destroyed whatever they didn't want. I had nothing. I fled and stayed in the forest. We had to run all the time, every month. We had no chance to build a hut all through hot season. Sometimes we made a roof out of grass or a plastic sheet, but we had to sleep on the ground. We ate rice with some salt and forest vegetables. There were 40 families with us. A lot of people were ill: diarrhea, malaria, beriberi, abscesses, stomach pains and so on. We had no medicine there, we just had to use the roots of trees. People died of illness, especially the children. Where we were staying I saw over 50 people die of illness.... Then we made a hut in our farm field. We planted our paddy, and we were eating some that we had grown. But on November 5th, they came and destroyed all of it before we could finish the harvest. They burned all the paddy we had already gathered in the rice barn, and they destroyed all that we hadn't yet harvested...

Naw Mu Eh (not her real name) is an unassuming 53 year-old Karen woman who has been displaced from her village in the Papun hills of southeastern Burma. She has no clear idea of why her village was destroyed by the Burmese army -- there were no members of armed opposition groups there, only farmers. Her story is repeated by hundreds of other villagers from her district and by thousands more throughout rural southeastern Burma. In recent years, two hundred villages have been destroyed in Naw Mu Eh's district alone, its residents hunted down and shot on sight by Burmese Army patrols. Since 1996, at least 1,500 villages (comprised of some 300,000 people) in central Shan State have been destroyed and their inhabitants forcibly moved. Since 1997, 200 villages throughout Karenni (Kayah) State have been relocated, and close to 200 villages in Papun District of northern Karen State have been shelled and burned. Since December 1999, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has ordered over 100 villages throughout Dooplaya District of central Karen State to hand over their entire rice harvest to the army and then move to army- controlled sites or risk being shot on sight. In many areas, more than half the population has become internally displaced. There are over 100,000 Karen refugees, and at least as many Shan refugees, in Thailand, with more arriving every week.

These are the well-documented realities of life in rural southeastern Burma, traditionally home to the Karen, Mon, Tavoyan, and other ethnic peoples. Regardless, the situation in rural Burma has received little international attention. Critics of the Burmese government instead concentrate on the regime's harassment of the democratic opposition in Rangoon. This focus ignores Burma's more widespread human rights crisis -- the military's increasingly systematic campaign to control and profit from all aspects of life in the rural farming villages where more than 80 percent of Burma's people live. This campaign is destroying the very fabric of Burma's agrarian society and the viability of the farming village as an economic and social unit.

Throughout rural southeastern Burma, most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, growing rice and/or cash crops like fruit, sugar cane and betelnut in small family fields. On flat land, wet paddy cultivation is practiced, but in mountainous areas, families practice swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture and grow hillside rice, rotating each year between hill fields on an 8 to 10 year cycle. Villages in flat, fertile areas can be as large as several hundred households, while in remote hill areas some villages have as few as eight or ten families. Families operate on a subsistence level, growing enough rice and vegetables for their own use, raising some chickens, pigs and cattle, and fishing for personal consumption. Cash crops and extra rice or livestock are sold in surrounding villages or the nearest market town. However, the local economy within the village operates largely on barter, with loans and payments often made in rice. This ancient system is very delicate and provides little safety net in hard times; if one family has troubles the village can pitch in to help them, but if an entire year's crop fails the village goes hungry for the following year. The continuous demands for forced labor, food, money, and materials by army battalions in and around rural villages have put enormous pressure on this system, rendering the traditional way of life untenable in many villages, even the most remote.

Destruction as Policy in Rural Burma

Unlike many repressive regimes, the SPDC represents no political ideology and has no more than a token constituency among the general populace. The regime therefore focuses most of its energies on controlling the civilian population. This is especially true in rural areas, many of which are populated by indigenous ethnic peoples (who make up 50 percent of the population(1)). Since the 1970s, successive military governments in Burma have sought to crush the armed ethnic-based opposition groups by destroying the civilians' ability to support them. This approach, officially known as the Four Cuts, aims to deprive opposition groups of food, funds, recruits, and intelligence. In practice, it is implemented by systematic intimidation and repression of the civilian population such that they no longer dare support the opposition. Those undeterred by scare tactics are often so destitute that they are unable to provide the opposition with material support.

The SPDC has implemented the Four Cuts policy more systematically and brutally than did its predecessors. In areas of Burma such as the Karen, Karenni (Kayah), and Shan States where opposition groups continue to fight, the SPDC's current tactic is massive forced relocations of the civilian population. Forced relocation was used as a military tactic in the past, but only on a localized scale. In 1996, however, the junta began delineating regions of resistance and forcing hundreds of villages at a time to move to army-controlled sites along main roads or to camps near major towns. In hill villages throughout Karen State, residents are now being ordered to move into the center of their villages, meaning that they are only to go to their fields between dawn and dusk under threat of being shot if they violate curfew. This restriction disrupts the entire crop cycle because villagers are used to staying in field huts far from the village for much of the growing season. Many of them find that they can no longer produce enough food for themselves.

They're forcing all the villages in Meh Pleh Toh area to move. They want to force us out as soon as possible. They said that if we stay in our village, we will become targets for their guns.... In my village I had a farm with fields. I had enough land to grow all of our food every year. Now I want my field back, because if we can't eat rice then we can't survive.

Villagers are usually given a week to move, after which they are told that their homes and belongings will be destroyed, and that they will be shot if seen around their villages. After the relocation deadline the army usually sends out patrols to destroy the villages, and to hunt out and destroy any food supplies. Once at the relocation site, people are not allowed to return to their fields and must survive by foraging for food or looking for local day labor. Villagers must bring their own food and building supplies because nothing is given them; in many cases they are even forced to hand their rice over to the army. At the same time, the army uses them as a convenient source of unpaid forced labor, making it almost impossible for them to support themselves. After a few months, many people find that they must either flee or starve. Ironically, many of the villages ordered to move have had no contact with opposition groups.

Most people, knowing what awaits them at relocation sites, flee into the forests when they are ordered to move. They then try to survive on hidden rice supplies and plant small patches of crops in various locations, fleeing whenever army patrols pass through the area. Tens of thousands of people are presently living this way in central Shan State, northern Karen State, eastern Pegu Division, Tenasserim Division, and throughout Karenni (Kayah) State. Many are starving. Access to medicines is limited and many die of treatable diseases. Children receive no education and live with the constant risk of being captured or shot by passing SPDC patrols. Most have been living this way for two to three years; eventually, finding they can no longer survive, they head for Thailand as refugees.

Caught Between Armies

Forced relocation is not the only thing ripping villages apart. Even villagers who have not been forced to move find it has become almost impossible to survive. Village leaders living in conflict areas have described their lives as "standing in a leaky boat...being rocked from both sides." They are forced to support opposition armies, such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Army (SSA), with food, porters, and recruits. Villages are severely punished by the SPDC for giving any support to the opposition. Whenever SPDC columns are ambushed, the regime's soldiers retaliate by torturing elders and burning homes in the nearest villages. The SPDC also routinely forces villagers to march in front of their columns as human minesweepers and shields against ambush. This form of abuse is on the rise in central Karen State, and many SPDC columns specifically target women and children. While most of the villagers support the opposition's aims, they find it difficult to provide material goods and often ask local guerrilla commanders not to attack the SPDC in their region for these reasons.

Forced Labor.

The SPDC Army's relentless demands for forced labor are also undermining the economic and social fabric of rural villages. At any given time, a village has to provide an average of one person per household to perform a whole range of forced labor: working as forced porters, guides and human minesweepers for military columns, and messengers and sentries for army camps; building and maintaining army camp fences, trenches, booby-traps, and barracks; cutting and hauling firewood; cooking and carrying water to soldiers; building, rebuilding, and standing sentry along military supply roads; clearing scrub along roadsides to minimize the possibility of ambush; growing crops for the army; and engaging in profit-making activities such as brick-baking, rubber planting or digging fishponds for the officers. Every village is surrounded by three to five army units, and the demands for forced labor are continuous. This forced labor is usually demanded on a rotating basis; a specified number of villagers must go for a day or a week and are not released until their replacements arrive. Neither food nor tools are provided them and they must work under guard. Conditions are especially brutal for those forced to porter for the army. They must carry loads of rations or ammunition weighing 60 lb or more, are marched in front of soldiers to detonate mines, and are kicked or beaten if they are too slow. If they become ill or cannot continue they are killed or left behind, and many porters die of disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, or abuse.

Mobile patrols often grab farmers on sight to be porters or to do forced labor at the local army camps. In order to avoid forced labor, men in conflict areas often leave their villages while women, children, and the elderly remain behind to protect the house from looting by soldiers and to maintain some semblance of family life. The men sneak back into the village only for food and to visit when SPDC patrols are not around. The absence of men makes the women particularly vulnerable to rape by SPDC soldiers. Women are also taken as porters, or accused of being married to "rebel soldiers" and held hostage pending the return of their husbands.

In northern Karen State, some villages in conflict areas have tried to appease the SPDC by making their own "peace" agreements; they promise to abide by all SPDC demands and not to contact the resistance if their village is spared. Even in these "peace villages," however, the demands for forced labor, money, food, and materials often become so intense that the village elders cannot keep up with them. The army then arrests and tortures them for failure to comply, the village is sometimes burned, and villagers are forced to flee regardless.

The Army and the Rural Economy

Even in non-conflict areas, people find that they cannot survive in their villages. With the army's recent expansion to its current strength of over 400,000 troops, villagers who have never seen fighting now find their villages flanked by three or four army camps. These camps function mainly to control village civilians, who must regularly provide the army with money, food, and unpaid labor on projects designed to improve infrastructure. Roads are poorly engineered by army officers and wash out every monsoon season, leading many villagers to refer to the period from November to January as "road-building season." Forced labor takes people away from their fields at vital times in the crop cycle, making it nearly impossible to produce enough food. Villagers can usually avoid the labor by paying, but money soon runs out. Unable to farm, perform forced labor, and pay all at once, many people are left with no option but to leave their villages or face arrest. Villagers from non-conflict areas say that 25 percent or more of the people from their villages have had to leave the land for this reason.

If we don't sell [rice] to them they scold and beat us, so we have to buy some from outside to sell to them. This year I had to buy 30 baskets of paddy that I then sold to them...The villagers who can't buy any have to sell their cattle to buy paddy to give them. Those who have nothing are arrested and forced to porter and they beat them.... Some other people have their fields confiscated. (Farmer from Nyaunglebin area, Karen State)

Every farmer in an SPDC-controlled area must also hand over a quota of every crop to the SPDC authorities. The price for quota (amounting to approximately 30 percent of the entire crop) is usually less than half of market price. In bad agricultural years, farmers must buy rice on the open market just to pay their quotas. Even with little or no rice left to feed their families, the farmers face regular demands for rice and meat to feed the local army camps, and armed patrols often enter villages to loot rice, livestock, and valuables.

For army officers, a posting in the countryside is an opportunity for quick personal profit. Officers order villagers to cut logs and bamboo for later sale. Officers also confiscate and sell rations intended for their soldiers, instructing soldiers to get their food from the villages instead. This situation has worsened since 1998, when the SPDC in Rangoon cut back severely on rations to units in the field. The result has been the systematic confiscation by army units of much of the best farmland. Farmers are not compensated; worse yet, they are often called out for forced labor, sometimes farming their own confiscated land. Some villages report that they even have to provide the seed for planting these fields.

Finally, very little is budgeted for rural social services, and even the small amount available often disappears into the pockets of corrupt officials. Even where clinics and schools exist, exorbitant prices make them unaffordable for most villagers. Those who can afford state schools worry that children will grow up illiterate in their mother tongue as the teaching of ethnic languages such as Karen, Mon, Kayah, or Shan is strictly forbidden.


Under military control, rural Burma's subsistence farming village is losing its viability as the basic unit of society. Internally displaced people are usually thought to have fled military battles in and around their villages, but this paradigm doesn't apply to Burma. In the thousands of interviews conducted by the Karen Human Rights Group with villagers who have fled their homes, approximately 95 percent say they have not fled military battles, but rather the systematic destruction of their ability to survive, caused by demands and retaliations inflicted on them by the SPDC military. Where there is fighting, it is fluid and sporadic, and most villagers can avoid it by hiding for short periods in the forest. Once the SPDC occupies the area around their village, however, the suffering is inescapable. Villages, rooted to the land, are defenseless and vulnerable, and villages can be burned -- destroying rural life in southeastern Burma.

References & further reading

Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) Report #98-01: Wholesale Destruction. February and April 1998, Interview #52.

KHRG Report #98-08: Uncertainty, Fear and Flight. November 1998. Interview #14.

KHRG Report #99-08: Beyond All Endurance. December 1999. Interview #15.

KHRG Report #99-04: Death Squads and Displacement. May 1999.

All Karen Human Rights Groups reports are available at www.khrg.org.

(1). Editor's note: figures for ethnic nationality populations in Burma are inexact; the last census was conducted by the British before independence. Estimates range from 30 to 50 percent of the Burmese population.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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