Karen Face Rights Abuses

Forced labor and other abuses in eastern Burma’s Karen border region are highlighted in a report.

Child-Porters-305.jpg A group of Karen children, who say they were used as porters by soldiers in Burma, gather in a village for refugees in northern Thailand, Aug. 23, 2009.
RFA/Khin May Zaw

Burma’s Karen minority face a “constant threat” of forced labor and other serious human rights violations despite moves to end an armed ethnic conflict and introduce political reforms in the country, a  U.S.-based rights group says.

Nearly one-third of 665 households in Karen state surveyed by the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported violation of their rights.

Most of the violations, reported between January 2011 and January 2012,  involved forced labor, with 25 percent of households saying their families had been forced to act as porters, grow crops, or sweep for landmines for the military.

The Burmese military was the main perpetrator of forced labor violations, but armed rebel groups also committed abuses, the report said.

The report, conducted with five partner organizations and covering 88 villages in Karen state, said that about one percent of households reported kidnappings, torture, or sexual assault.

The survey report was released this week as President Thein Sein’s government, which has enacted a series of democratic reforms since taking over in March last year from a military junta known for its rights abuses, negotiates a peace agreement in the region.

“This survey demonstrates that even with political reforms and discussions of a ceasefire, human rights violations by the Burmese army remain a constant threat for too many families in Karen State,” the PHR’s Burma Project Director Bill Davis said.

The group demanded accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations and asked that ethnic minorities have access to basic services, including health care.


The Burmese government has been battling Karen insurgents for decades in the mountainous region that borders Thailand.

Although there were no major offensives by the Burmese military during the past year, the government maintains a heavy troop presence in Karen State that restricts civilians’ movements and forces them to provide soldiers with food and labor, PHR said.

Those living in territory controlled by the Burmese army were much more likely to experience a rights violation than those in areas where insurgent groups were actively striving for control, it said.

The Burmese government and Karen rebels signed a peace agreement in January, though a formal cease-fire has not yet been agreed upon.

But PHR warned that given the prevalence of human rights violations in areas where there is no active armed conflict, a cease-fire agreement would not necessarily lead to an end of abuses against the Karen.

“As observers of the peace negotiations in Karen State hope for a cease-fire, we must remember that an end to hostilities does not necessarily lead to an end to human rights violations,” Davis said.

“Any agreement to lay down arms must also include provisions that target the foundations of violence, such as greater political participation and mechanisms to hold accountable the people who violate human rights,” Davis said, urging the international community not to ignore the human rights situation in the region.

Economic development

The survey also showed a link between investment projects proposed by the Burmese government in the region and increased human rights violations.

Those living near a mine, pipeline, hydroelectric dam, or other economic development projects were significantly more likely to have experienced a human rights violation, it said.

The research showed a much stronger incidence of human rights violations in territory controlled by the Burmese army, particularly in Tavoy, Tenasserim division, where the government has plans to build the Dawei deep sea port and special economic zone.

“Civilians living there reported experiencing forced labor, blocked access to their land, and restrictions on their movement at rates two to eight times higher than in other areas surveyed,” the report said.

For those living in Tavoy, the odds of having a family member forced to be a porter were 4.4 times higher than for families living elsewhere, it said, recommending policies regarding economic development in the region be formulated with the participation of all communities involved.

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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