|1991 Delta Massacre|
1991 Delta Massacre
15.28 PHASE 1: THE INITIAL ATTACK
The events began with an attack by land, sea and air on Bogalay township amongst the mangrove swamps in the very south of the delta region on, or around, September 27/29 1991. Called Operation Storm, it was led by South West division commander, Myint Aung. It was a systematic and widespread attack.
The motive for the attack was to destroy all possibility of armed resistance in the area after a village headman had reported a consignment of arms had been brought into a delta village by boat. The attack destroyed mainly Christian Karen villages marked red on the map; the town of Bogalay itself was spared. (It is important to be aware that Delta villages are much larger than the eastern hill villages, averaging about 1000 inhabitants in each, as opposed to a hundred or so in eastern mountains). Witnesses described helicopters being used in the attack, firing on civilians indiscriminately. When asked to draw the helicopters, witnesses all independently drew something which corresponded to the shape of the US Bell helicopter. Some witnesses described a chemical spray being used which turned the skin of victims to a charcoal colour and caused the destruction of crops and foliage in the area.
THE INTIAL KILLING September/ October 1991
The initial assault was carried out by ship, air and land. It indiscriminately destroyed victims. The numbers killed in the initial assault are unclear. However, survivors describe many people in Bogalay township rounded up, shot, bayoneted, thrown into wells and streams till they became clogged. Some were thrown into ditches and holes and grenades were then thrown in. Other witnesses described victims being thrown into rivers with their hands and legs tied behind their backs, and others being thrown out of helicopters at sea, as occurred in Argentina. Estimates of total numbers killed varied widely. The lowest estimated an immediate death toll of a few hundred; others put the total number killed initially and then dying from subsequent torture and imprisonment in the low thousands. Although it is not possible to estimate accurately the total numbers dying as a result of the operation, it is clear that this was mass, rather than selective, killing. Some witnesses also said that in addition to mass killing, community leaders, such as pastors were specially selected for killing. The overwhelming majority of the victims appear to have been Christian Karen men.
Survivors fled west, but two groups in particular were caught and massacred in two separate places. One group of approximately 30 was systematically killed on or immediately after the night of October 7,1991 by LIB 93 on a hill two miles south of Myaungmya, four miles north of Knotha (see map and accompanying sketch); a second group of approximately 60 was bayoneted to death much further west at Shwe Taung village, between Bassein and Trangale on one of the main outlets of the Irrawaddy (see map). Their bodies were then later brought back in by the incoming tide and many were secretly buried by villagers.
The scale of the killing, indicating that it affected the whole Delta region, is expressed by this witness from the far west in Ngaputaw Township, Irrawaddy Division mountain range:
15.29 PHASE 2: INTERROGATION, TORTURE AND KILLING
Thousands of mainly Karen civilians were rounded up after the initial massacre, tortured, interrogated and sometimes killed in the immediate aftermath of the first phase of the killing. One witness in Bogalay township was told by two drunk soldiers he would be killed that night because he was a Karen secretary of the local NLD. The story is indicative of two strands that frequently interweave in Burma's tapestry of human rights violations. Firstly, ordinary Burman soldiers, not infrequently go out of their way to save civilian victims indicating that these crimes are primarily the responsibility of those at the highest level. Secondly, this man's identity overlaps two legal categories: he is an ethnic Christian Karen, but he was also a secretary of the local NLD branch which is a democratic, largely Burman, political party. The criteria used for his selection for killing is thus difficult to determine: was he selected for killing because he was Karen, thus on ethnic grounds, or was he selected for political reasons, because he worked for an organization advocating democracy?
The question needs to be constantly posed because this is how, for better or for worse, crimes have been framed by international humanitarian law, i.e. either in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion (Genocide), or as crimes against civilians generally (Crimes Against Humanity) which include political victims. One can perhaps logically but tentatively infer from the situation, however, that since the mass assault was launched at an almost exclusively Karen population, and a largely rural Christian one at that, the primary reason for selection for killing was ethnic. The fact that this man may have been known to have been involved in political democratic activity was probably an additional serious aggravating factor. Active Burman NLD members usually tend ("only") to be imprisoned and tortured, rather than killed. Thus his selection for killing was probably determined by his ethnicity. Whatever the case, we must the remember the experts on the ICTR accepted that the existence of a political motive can co-exist with a genocidal motive.
It is difficult to know the scale of forced displacement and arrests after the initial attack, but certainly a large number of Karen civilians were rounded up afterwards. One witness said that after the initial assault no men were left in Bogalay township; other witnesses reported prisoners were executed in police stations during this second phase, the survivors being then transferred to prison in phase 3.
15.30 PHASE 3 OF DELTA MASSACRE: IMPRISONMENT OCTOBER+
Burman prisoners inside Insein prison in October 1991 describe a sudden influx of about 2000 Delta Karen prisoners being brought to the goal. They all describe the prisoners being in appalling condition, especially with regard to some whose skin appeared to be blackened like charcoal. One witness described in some cases their hair had fallen out, and they were suffering from sickness and fever and were covered in scars. Interrogation and torture, prior to being brought to the prison, had included, amongst other things, being buried up to the neck and having trucks repeatedly driven over them. We can infer that only some had survived this secondary phase of torture and that many had died before arriving at Insein prison.
15.31 PHASE 4 OF DELTA MASSACRE: DISPERSAL AND SLOW DEATH
(For an idea of what it is like inside a Burmese prison, please look at the film Burma Behind Bars made mostly by Burman democracy activists). After arriving in Insein, many prisoners were transferred and sent to other prisons, such as Myaungma, Myingyan, Tharawaddy, Maubin and Pakokku prisons, though about 400-500 remained in Insein for about four years. About 500 prisoners were estimated to have been placed in Maubin and a similar number in Myaungmya. A particularly notorious prison was Myingyan, where Burman inmates described about 90-100 Karen prisoners died in the prison from deliberately inflicted conditions, such as systematic starvation and overwork. Others describe 49 Karen prisoners dying in Pakokku prison; 100 dying in Maubin prison, and 64 dying in Myaungmya prison. Witnesses described some being killed directly, while others died indirectly as a result of deliberately inflicted conditions.
The Burman prisoners described the following ways in which the Karen prisoners were specifically, and often fatally discriminated against, in excess of those conditions inflicted on Burman political prisoners:
15.32 PHASE 5 OF DELTA MASSACRE: AFTERMATH OF ATTEMPTED FORCED RELOCATION
Subsequent to the massacres and mass arrests, an order was reportedly given for all the Karen to evacuate Bogalay township. The remaining Karen reportedly refused to move and affirmed that they were prepared to die where they lived, rather than comply with a forced relocation order. As a result they were, apparently, allowed to remain where they were. However, it should be noted that it was not the intention that any Karen be allowed to survive in Bogalay township: thus the fact that some have survived does not preclude a charge of attempted genocide from being made, a charge which we remember requires no proof of outcome. However, there is conflicting evidence on the number of Karen who have remained in the area.
15.33 PHASE 6 OF DELTA MASSACRE: THE LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES
The Delta region has traditionally been a Karen area, especially in the rural parts, and has been the main centre of Karen population in Burma. Rough estimates of the percentage of the population who were Karen in southern Irrawaddy townships was traditionally about 40-50%. However, a population survey of 432 villages in Bogalay township commissioned by the United Nations* in 1999 revealed a breakdown in population between Burman and Karen as follows:
Moreover a similar survey in the adjacent township of Labutta immediately to the west reveals the following breakdown:
In the Delta township of Mawlamyinegyun immediately to the north, the survey revealed a breakdown of:
Some witnesses have spoken of about 18 villages being destroyed in Bogalay township with the area not being repopulated. One specific village identified as destroyed was U Ni Su village with about 200 houses and 1000 people. Witnesses who returned reported that all family members of former resistance fighters had been killed.
The possibility that the massacres were followed up by a mass transfer of population, or flight, is also supported by reports from an independent researcher working in the area who told me there were no Karen in the area of Bogalay township where she is working.
The mass killing of mainly adult men in a largely patriarchal society, is likely to have had a devastating effect on the Karen population of Bogalay township. The alleged use of chemical sprays to destroy vegetation and rice, and the destruction of churches and subsequent expulsion of 33 Karen teachers in the adjoining township compounded the effects of the killings by inflicting physical and cultural destruction. Moreover, terror tactics used are likely to have led to serious mental suffering.
15.34 WIDER EFFECTS AND POSSIBLE CARTOGRAPHICAL EVIDENCE
One expression and result of long term Burmanisation is the physical erasure of ethnic villages from maps. When I asked witnesses and survivors to identify Karen villages in Bogalay district and the Delta in general, many could not be found because they simply did not exist on the new Junta map. (This is something repeated elsewhere in eastern Burma.) In fact it was reported about 75% of large Karen villages in the area were missing from the modern map. Many Karen villages now only exist on the old British maps. However, in the new maps original small Burman villages have been included and in fact expanded. This is very significant: it may show in clear visible form the state sponsored policy of ethnic destruction, both in terms of policy intention (why else would large ethnic villages be erased and small Burman ones be included and expanded?), and as an expression of the reality of the consequences of that policy (many of the villages may actually have been literally destroyed by that policy and no longer exist). While in all countries, towns and villages naturally grow and decline, there is something suspicious if such changes are occurring along ethnic lines in a country whose regime is practicing a racial policy of Burmanisation. Moreover, the removal of villages from modern maps show that the deliberately inflicted changes are identifiable, quantifiable and measurable.
Witnesses brought to Thailand, who have survived in the Delta area since the events of autumn 1991, estimate that mass killings occurred between October 1991 and December 1992 and that the overwhelming majority of victims were ethnic Karen.
However, significantly, some witnesses report that although an order was given for the physical removal of Karen survivors from Bogalay township after the massacres, the surviving population refused to move and the authorities backed down. When asked about the extraordinary low percentage in the UN commissioned study of Karen still living in Bogalay and surrounding townships, Karen survivors assert these figures are based on bogus government figures, and that the real number of Karen surviving in the area is proportionately higher. Thus, paradoxically, it is Karen survivors who contest the low surviving Karen population and contradict the assertion that the massacres were followed up by widespread forced eviction.
15.35 LEGAL CONCEPTUALISATION OF THE DELTA MASSACRE
The numbers directly and indirectly killed were clearly considerable or substantial. The nature of the immediate killing, a military operation involving helicopters, gunboats, and infantry assault under the direction of South Western Command expresses systematic, widespread, indiscriminate physical destruction; the subsequent torture, interrogation, and then imprisonment involving starving, working to death and denial of basic resources necessary for survival specifically inflicted on the Karen prisoners, are expressive of discriminatory intent to destroy an ethnic group of mainly Karen males in Bogalay township.
The attack differs from many other examples of killing because it involved, firstly, killing en masse, and secondly, selective killing. The indiscriminate nature of the initial phase of killing is an indication of killing en masse; while the subsequent arrests, torture, starvation and working to death is an example of selective killing with a high percentage of middle aged Karen men amongst the victims.
However, because of the inaccessibility and difficulty of carrying out research in the area, it is difficult to know what the long term effects have been on the surviving Karen population of Bogalay and on the wider delta region as a whole. If it has been unable to survive, as the UN survey suggests, then the killings may have had the effect of permanently destroying the Karen population of Bogalay and some surrounding townships, and thus the killings could be described as mass killings leading to the destruction of the wider group in the municipality (ICTY, Kristic Judgement) or the limited geographic zone (ibid.) of the wider delta.
However, the UN figures may be incorrect, because some Karen witnesses claim they may be based on Junta figures which deliberately play down Karen numbers. Some Karen witnesses state that the Karen community has, in fact, survived in the area, and that the inhabitants successfully defied an order to relocate. Thus it is difficult to ascertain exactly the longterm effects on the Karen Bogalay community and the wider Karen delta population resulting from the events occurring around and subsequent to September/October 1991. Moreover, the current independent researcher working in the area reports that many Karen left the area before the events of 1991, thus indicating that Operation Storm may not be solely responsible for the apparent absence of Karen living in the township.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Junta is reported to have issued an order for all Karen to leave the area subsequent to the mass killing expresses the intention attempt to destroy the Karen population in the municipality, and possibly the wider region as well. That it was not able to implement the alleged expulsion order because of the threat of mass resistance may not negate an intention to attempt to destroy the Karen community.The immediate mass murder, the subsequent torture and infliction of fatal conditions on prisoners, and the order for the population to move, appear to express, in fact, an intention to permanently destroy the Karen in the geographical area of Bogalay and surrounding townships.
In conclusion, we can say the actions express an underlying intention to attempt to destroy the group of Delta Karen in the municipality of Bogalay township; the mass killing of Karen civilians generally, both directly and indirectly, may express a substantial step (The Rome Statute requirement) was taken to destroy a distinct entity of the Karen people, namely the Karen men of the township.
If however there is insufficient evidence tio show that the attack was an attempt to destroy the Karen community in Bogalay township and the wider Delta region, it nevertheless meets the criteria of the Crime against Humanity of Extermination; part of the Karen group was killed directly, through mass killing, and indirectly, through starvation, denial of medical services and overwork in a systematic and widespread manner.
The fact that the initial motive might have been to destroy resistance is immaterial: the Moslem enclave of Srebrenica was also a center of armed resistance to the Serbs, but that did not stop the killing its male citizens from being judged an act of genocide. The systematic killing of survivors of Bogalay township, through starvation and overwork in prisons throughout Burma, expressed an intention over and above that of suppression of resistance. The conditions inflicted, and the methods used in the discriminate and deliberate killing of Karen prisoners while in jail express an intention to destroy them on the grounds of their ethnicity.
- Eric Johnston, 25 January 2012 -