Volume VIII. No. IV. July-August 2005
Chin Human Rights Organization
The Forced Labor Pandemic
Human Rights Situations:
Abuse of Religious Freedom
• Local Christians Forced to Attend Opening Ceremony of Buddhist Pagoda
• Burmese Troops Extort Money from Villagers
• Army Officer Sells off 1000 Round Bamboos Forcibly Collected from Civilians for Personal Profit
• Mass Forced Labor Exacted to Construct New Military Camp
• Villagers Forced to Renovate Army Camp
• Military Authorities Compel Civilians to Supply Wood Planks for Construction of Hospital
• SPDC Forced Primary School Children to Porter
• Army Officer Sells off 1000 Round Bamboos Forcibly Collected from Civilians for Personal Profit
• 30 Villages Forced to Contribute Sand to Renovate Army Camp
• SPDC Forced School Children and Civilians to Labor at Government’s Tea Plantation
Opinion: Indo-Burma Relations
A Cause Betrayed
Has the World’s Largest Democracy Turned Its Back on the Cause of Democracy in Burma? (Chinland Guardian)
• MITHUNS SACRIFICED TO GREED
The Forest Ox of Burma’s Chins
The Forced Labor Pandemic
Forced labor is still a pandemic plaguing Burma’s impoverished communities, in spite of repeated claims by the military regime that the practice no longer exists.
In western Burma’s Chin State alone, no less than 40 cases of forced labor have been documented since the beginning of this year. Thousands of civilians from mostly rural communities participated in forced labor requisitioned by military officers from local army units stationed at villages to the highest chain of commands, Tactical Command I and II, responsible for the administration of the whole Chin State under Northwestern Divisional Command.
At the conclusion of the meeting of the International Labor Organization Governing Body in March of 2005, the agency monitoring the situations of forced labor in Burma noted “grave concern” and concluded that Burma’s ruling military regime still lacks a serious political will to address the issues of forced labor in the country.
A major impediment to ‘eradicating’ the use of forced labor in Burma is the culture of impunity with which military commanders and personnel operate, especially in militarized zones. In Chin State, a region that has been increasingly militarized during the last few years, government troops regularly requisition forced labor from civilians in their areas to construct or renovate military camps and outposts and forced people as young as those in primary schools to carry army rations and supplies.
Requisitions for forced labor are not just the case of junior officers and army unit commanders exercising power in violation of directives from the top prohibiting the use of forced labor by army personnel, nor are they isolated incidents as has been portrayed by the military regime. Many of the forced labor incidents involving mass civilian populations are a result of direct requisition orders by Tactical Command No. 1 and No. 2, the highest military authorities in Chin State.
Reported incidents of forced labor in Chin State have gone up in the past year and increased militarization is one key factor. The expansion of army presence in southern Chin State with the establishment of Tactical Command II is largely responsible for increased use of forced labor by the army. The ongoing construction of trans-national highway between India and Burma is also responsible for significant portion of reported forced labor incidents. Many incidents of forced labor can be attributed to infrastructural development projects associated with the naming of two new Townships in Chin State, Rih Township and Ruazua Township. Another major source of forced labor requisition is the regime’s Tea Plantation Project. Hundreds of acres of private lands have been confiscated and tens of thousands of civilian populations are being regularly forced to work at the ‘tea plantations.’
The regime’s purported criminalization of the use of forced labor has not been paralleled by realities documented on the ground. In fact, forced labor has become a pandemic that is ravaging the livelihood of already impoverished communities in Chin State. The fact that forced labor is regularly requisitioned by the highest authorities clearly indicates that not only is the use and practice of forced labor still condoned but those responsibly for exacting compulsory labor do so with impunity.
Exposing the practice of forced labor in wherever, whenever and whatever form they occur in Burma is what will keep the regime in check. Chin Human Rights Organization is committed to providing reliable information of human rights situations in western Burma regions. We are thankful for the continued supports we receive from concerned individuals, groups and organizations around the world. CHRO is particularly grateful to the National Endowment for Democracy for supporting the works of CHRO for the last several years.
Human Rights Situations
Local Christians Forced to Attend Opening Ceremony of Buddhist Pagoda
5 July 2005, Aizawl:
On 8 June, 2005, Colonel San Aung, Chief of Chin State’s Tactical Command No. 2 based in Matupi town of southern Chin State forced more than 300 local Christians to attend the opening ceremony of a new Buddhist pagoda in the area.
The pagoda, named Maha Thandi Thuta Aung in Burmese, was erected on Tingvil hill just outside of Matupi Town where the Burma Army Tactical Command No. 2 is stationed. Construction of the pagoda was started in May and civilians in the area were prohibited from going near the site during the construction.
“Invitations” to attend the opening ceremony were sent out to all government employees from various departments and community leaders, with Colonel San Aung and his wife Daw Htay Htay Lwin acting as hosts of the event.
A local resident told Chin Human Rights Organization that military authorities are also planning to construct another Buddhist pagoda on top of mount Bol where a giant Christian cross was demolished earlier this year by direct orders of Colonel San Aung.
Burmese Troops Extort Money from Villagers
20 August 2005, Aizawl:
Company commander 2nd Lt. Aung Kyaw Than from Light Infantry Battalion 268 (based in Falam) is demanding Kyats 5,000 from each village in the vicinity of Vuangtu village of Thantlang township. The officer is commanding in charge of an army camp based out of Vuangtu village and the money was meant to pay for renovation of his camp.
The order came into effect on August 4, 2005 and 11 villages were required to bring in the money by August 15. These villages were warned of severe punishment if they failed to come up with the money by the deadline. Some villages had to borrow the required cash from well-to-do businessmen in their community, while others simply divided up the required amount among all the households in their villages. Some villages are having a hard time coming up with the money and are yet to send in the money, said Chairman of the Village Peace and Development Council from XXX village, whose community was affected by the army officer’s order.
Money was extorted from the following villages of Thantlang Township, northern Chin State.
Tluangram (A), Tluangram (B), Belhar, Lulpilung, Vomkua, Salen, Tikir (A), Tikir (B), Hmun Halh, Sialam and Banawh Tlang villages.
Army Officer Sells off 1000 Round Bamboos Forcibly Collected from Civilians for Personal Profit
5 July, 2005, Aizawl:
On 10 June, 2005, Company commander Captain Myo Nwe from Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 289 stationed at Shinletwa Village of Paletwa Township, southern Chin State sold off more than 10,000 round bamboos he collected from 9 villages in the area to buyers in Sittwe (Ayekyap). All proceeds were kept for his personal benefit.
During the last week of May, Capt. Myo Nwe summoned a meeting of Village PDC Chairmen from the 9 villages at Shinletwa army camp where he ordered each village to bring him designated amount of round bamboos at the latest by June 5, 2005.
One village PDC Chairman, whose community was affected by the Captain’s order complained, “Forcing us to cut the bamboos for his personal benefit seems to be meant only to deliberately afflict our community. He said the bamboos were for renovation of the army camp.”
The following is the quotas of round bamboos for each village to contribute:
Salaipi Village = 1,000, Ma U Village =1,500, Saiha Village = 1,800, Pamu Village = 2,000, Da Thwe Village = 1,500, Khung Ywa Village = 1,000, Shwe Letwa Village = 1,500, Mara Hla Village = 2,000 and Pa Thein Village = 1,500 round bamboos.
Mass Forced Labor Exacted to Construct New Military Camp
August 2, 2005, Aizawl:
Major Tin Moe, patrol column commander from Burma Army Infantry Battalion 304 (under Chin State’s Tactical Command No. 2 based in Matupi) temporarily stationed at Dar Ling village of southern Chin State’s Matupi Township requisitioned compulsory labor to build a new military post at Dar Ling village. More than one thousands civilians from 20 villages in the area have been working at the site since the first week of July, 2005.
The forced labor incident was reported to Chin Human Rights Organization by Mr. XXX, Chairman of the Village Peace and Development Council, XXX village of Thantlang Township.
Starting form 11 to16 July 2005, the village headman and 50 of his villagers were forced to dig a 150-feet long drainage measuring 3 feet in width and 4 feet in depth.
Another 50 civilians and members of the Village PDC from Khuapi village were forced to supply 4,000 round bamboos. Each stick of the 4000 bamboos has to be 10 feet in length. The work to collect the bamboos lasted from 9 to 16 July, 2005.
From 16 to 21 July 2005, for a total of 5 days, 50 civilians and members of the Village PDC from Hlung Mang village (Matupi Township) were forced to dig trenches and bunkers for the army camp.
Civilians from Fartlang village (Thantlang Township) were compelled to supply 50 sticks of wood measuring 10 feet in length. Civilians from other villages engaged in other works such as fencing and building barracks, digging trenches and bunkers, and collecting woods and bamboos.
The work occurs on a daily basis and all workers are required to supply themselves with food and tools for the job. The work starts at 5:00 am in the morning and lasts until 6:30 in the evening. Workers are given breakfast break at 11:00 am and dinner at 7:00 p.m. The work was projected for completion in the month of July and workers are not exempt from working on Sundays, said xxx, Chairman of the Village PDC from XXX village, Thantlang Township.
“The expansion of military establishment in our areas only brought hardship to the local people who rely on farming for our survival. Now that the new army camp is only 5 miles away from our village, it is predictable the kinds of hardship we will have to keep up with,” complained the Chairman of PDC from XXX village.
“The patrol column commander has already ordered us to raise chickens, pigs and other livestock. He might even call us for another round of forced labor. He said that we cannot ignore his order because it is our civic duty to comply with army orders. Many people from our village are already fed up with the perpetual forced labor and are contemplating to escape to Mizoram across the border,” he added.
Villagers Forced to Renovate Army Camp
5 August 2005, Aizawl:
Platoon Commander 2nd Lieutenant Win Zaw Oo from Light Infantry Battalion 289 based in the town of Paletwa in southern Chin State exacted forced labor from civilians living in an around Shinletwa village to renovate army camp stationed at the village. The work started on 16 July, 2005 and lasted until 19 July.
90 civilians from Salanpi, Saiha and Ma U villages were ordered to report themselves at the army camp one day prior to the day the work was to begin. All the forced laborers were ordered to bring with them their own tools and enough rations for five days. Workers were made to gather twigs and round bamboos needed to fence the army camp.
Lt. Win Zaw Oo, in his requisition warned severe punishment for non-compliance with the order.
Military Authorities Compel Civilians to Supply Wood Planks for Construction of Hospital
17 August 2005
On 10 July, 2005, Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel Kan Maw Oo of the Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 269 based in Tiddim Town of northern Chin State ordered residents living in villages across the Township to supply wood planks to construct a new Civil Hospital in the area.
Laitui village has more than 500 households. Each household was forced to supply 2 wood planks of 8’x6″x2″ cubic feet. The planks are to be brought to the site of the new hospital by the first week of September. “Our family had to buy the mandatory 2 planks for 2500 Kyats out of our pocket,” explained a villager of Laitui.
Burma’s military junta started the construction of the new hospital in Tiddim early this year. The hospital is to accommodate 50 beds and two buildings are to be constructed. Civilian residents in the areas have been adversely affected by extortion of money and demands of wood planks as a result of the new hospital. Prisoners from hard labor camp in the area have also been extensively used for the hospital construction.
SPDC Forced Primary School Children to Porter
8 August 2005, Aizawl:
On 15 July 2005, commander of Lailenpi army camp Sergeant Tin Soe from Burma Army Infantry Battalion 305 based in Matupi, southern Chin State, forced underage primary school children to carry army rations and supplies.
The army rations were on their way to Laienpi camp from Sabawngte army camp. Civilians from villages along the route were forced to carry the rations from one village to the next. But when the supplies reached the village of Mala, most villagers were out working in their farms and the supplies had to be left there overnight because there were no adult persons in the village to carry the loads on to the next village.
Arriving in the village the next day, Sergeant Tin Soe and his troops immediately summoned U Hla Oo, Secretary of the Village PDC and demanded explanations why the rations were still in the village. Sergeant Tin Soe punched him in the face and demanded that U Hla Oo arrange for 18 persons to carry the supply loads within one hour.
The Sergeant dismissed U Hla Oo’s explanation and pleas to have the supplies transported as soon as the villagers arrived back in the village from their farms. Unsatisfied, Sergeant Tin Soe slapped him in the face and said that he will find people to carry the loads himself. Searching for people, he found 10 primary children and 5 government servants and forced them to carry the supplies.
Half way through the journey, two of the youngest children became too exhausted to carry on any longer. Fortunately, they met with 5 Lailenpi villagers making their way back from Mizoram to buy household goods. The five villagers then had to substitute the 10 boys.
The ration loads carried by the ten boys included 10 tins of rice, 10 bottles of cooking oil, 10 viss (15 kgs) of fish paste and 5 viss of dried chili. They traveled a 12-mile distance before being substituted by the 5 villagers.
30 Villages Forced to Contribute Sand to Renovate Army Camp
8 July, 2005, Aizawl:
Company Commander Major Myo Win, stationed at Tibual camp from Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 268 (Battalion based in Falam Town) requisitioned sands from 30 villages in Falam Township to renovate an army camp at Tibual village. Beginning in the first week of June, 2005, each of the 30 villages was ordered to send in 10 tins of sand.
In his order, Major Myo Win set the deadline for each village to bring in the sand at the end of July and warned that any village that didn’t meet the deadline would face severe penalty. As a result, some villages were compelled to gather sands from Tio river (A river dividing international boundary between India and Burma), a distance of three days travel by walking. Civilians from these villagers had to transport the sands on horseback. Villages whose communities were too far off from Tio river had to buy the sand for 1000 Kyats per tin from communities that are closer to the sandbank at Tio river.
In a similar incident, on May 5, 2005, Chin villagers were forced to contribute 1 tin of sand per household to construct a Buddhist pagoda at Sabawngte village.
The 30 villages whose communities were forced to contribute sands were;
(1)Tah Tlang, (2)Thing Hual, (3)Tikhuang tum, (4)Tlangkhua, (5)Aibuk, (6)Leilet, (7)Sing Ai, (8)Zawngte, (9)Thing Cang, (10)Phung Zung, (11)Khaw Lung, (12)Bawm Ba, (13)Tiah Dai, (14)Lung Tan, (15)Zan Mual, (16)Da te ti, (17) Hmawng kawn, (18)Khaw Thlir, (19)Phun te, (20)Sa ek, (21)Sial lam, (22)cawng hawih, (23)Khua mual, (24)Hmun luah, (25)cawh te, (26)Lian hna thar, (27)Lian hna hlun, (28)Hai heng, (29)Khuang Lung, (30)Lung Dar Village.
SPDC Forced School Children and Civilians to Labor at Government’s Tea Plantation
25 July, 2005, Aizawl:
U Sai Maung, Chairman of the Township Peace and Development Council for Tiddim Township issued an order requiring Tiddim residents to participate in compulsory labor to work at government’s tea plantation. Workers included ordinary civilians, students and government servants. They are expected to contribute labor for government’s tea plantation once every month beginning early this year.
Each governmental department in Tiddim administrative center was assigned one acre of tea plantation. Government employees from these departments are required to plant tea, pluck off weeds, gather twigs, and roof plantation beds. Supervised by local village PDC Chairmen, those failing to show up for work were fined 500 Kyats for each absence.
On paper, Light Infantry Battalion 268 based in the town was also expected to work at the plantation. However, the Battalion warded off responsibility by forcing civilians to work on their behalf. A civilian who was forced to burden off the army’s work testified to Chin Human Rights Organization.
The Township authorities gave orders to teachers working at schools in Tiddim to instruct their students to collect manures. According to the order, each student is required to bring in one Viss of manure (about 1 ½ Kgs) to the Township PDC office on a designated deadline each month.
The State Peace and Development Council arbitrarily designated Chin State as a tea plantation area in 2002. With the slogan of “Chin State Shall Become a State of Tea Abundance,” the military regime has been forcing local people to work in the project. The tea plantation in this area is located at two miles from Tiddim Town.
Opinion: Indo-Burma Relations
A Cause Betrayed
Has the World’s Largest Democracy Turned Its Back on the Cause of Democracy in Burma?
Ram Uk Thang
( CG Editor’s Note: In the wake of India’s renewed offensive against Burma’s pro-democracy opposition groups, notably the Chin National Front sine July 2005, many activists based in India are increasingly frustrated and are helplessly feeling that their cause has been betrayed by the world’s largest democracy, a country they have always looked to for support. The uncertainty and disappointment brought about by the storming of Camp Victoria, CNF’s military headquarters by the Mizoram Armed Police on July 21, has many Chins raised though questions. Mizos and Chins consider themselves ethnically and culturally closely related. The following article takes on a unique angle on Indo-Burma relations in the wake of India’s recent military operations against the Chin National Front.)
India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, a country of diverse cultures and civilization. With such a prestige, India stands on the side of those supporting the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. As a regional and emerging world power, India has a unique responsibility to support democracy and freedom movement in countries across the regions of Asia.
From the time of the first government of independent India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru through the era of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, successive governments of the Congress Party of India has taken a principled stand to support freedom movement in Asia and around the world. It was through this noble foreign policy that India quickly threw its support behind the movement for democracy in Burma in 1988 when thousands of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were butchered and exiled by Burmese Armed Forces. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress Party of India wholeheartedly and unreservedly supported those working to restore the respect for human rights, dignity and democracy in one of India’s most important neighboring countries. India showed its continued support for the cause of freedom and democracy in Burma by awarding the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding to Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 and Rajiv Shmirti Parashka award in 1996.
However, it is very unfortunate that the current administration of the Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi has chosen to foster economic and security engagement with Burma’s military junta at the expense of those working to restore fundamental freedom, human rights and democratic governance in Burma, a stance that has completely diverted from the legacy of the predecessor Congress government. Concerned by China’s growing economic and military influence in its neighbor and simmering insurgencies in the North East, India has signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Burma, a bilateral agreement that would increase trade and security cooperation between the two countries. What does this mean in practical terms? India has essentially chosen to embrace a pariah state in pursuit of short-term economic interests, thus effectively walking away from its longstanding traditional policy of putting principle above all other considerations.
In this context, it is inconceivable that the world’s largest democratic country has turned its back on the movement for freedom and democracy in Burma. The recent attack on the headquarters of Chin National Front, a major opposition force in Burma’s democratic movement has brought deep disappointment and frustration to those still struggling for the reinstatement of a civilian democratic government in Rangoon. India should be mindful of the fact that in choosing to side with the military junta, it is dealing with an illegitimate regime that is responsible for displacing nearly half a million of its citizens to Thailand, India and Bangladesh and internally displacing more than a million people inside the country. Burma’s military regime still imprisons more than 1300 political prisoners including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of opposition parties. For more than one decade, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization have repeatedly condemned the regime’s systematic practice of forced labor and violations of fundamental human rights. The UN General Assembly, proposing a Tripartite Dialogue, has passed resolutions after resolution urging the Burmese military regime to enter into a political dialogue with pro-democracy oppositions led by the National League for Democracy and representatives of Burma’s ethnic groups. To this end, Secretary General Kofi Anan under the power mandated by the General Assembly has been endeavoring to restore human rights and civilian democratic rule in Burma through his Special Envoy Razali Ismail and Special Human Rapportuer Mr. Paul Sergio Pinheiro. The growing friendly relations with Burma’s military junta and India’s recent attacks on Chin National Front, a major player in Burma’s democratic movement, is seriously undermining the international effort to bring about democracy and respect for human rights in Burma.
Where are the ideals of human rights and dignity that are affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Where is the principle and visions of democracy? And where are the security and safety of the oppressed people? Does might still determine right? These are the questions that immediately come to mind in light of India’s unprincipled actions.
Mizos and Chins are blood brothers. It was only in 1947 that we became separated into two different countries. The only difference that lies between us is the fact that those integrated into India call themselves Mizos while those concentrated in Burma call themselves Chins. We share the same ancestry, history and culture. It is said that blood is thicker than water. And because we are bound by our blood no one can set us apart.
On June 21 this year, amidst pressure from the Central Government, the Mizoram Armed Police stormed and destroyed the Headquarters of Chin National Front, a group that has been fighting against Burma’s military dictatorship for the rights of Chin people and restoration of democracy in Burma. This was very unfortunate! If only people would realize the sad fate of the Chin people who have been victims of oppression and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Burma Army. The suffering of Chin people is the suffering of Mizo people because we are one and the same people. The movement of the Chin people today is a movement for democracy and human rights. And it is in India’s long-term interest to have a democratic country in its neighbor as well as in the regions of Asia. On the contrary, it was very unfortunate that the government of Mizoram had ordered that attacks on Chin National Front. It is troubling to think that this incident might leave a black spot in our history.
For 20 years from 1966 to 1986 the Mizo National Front had led an armed struggle for Mizoram statehood and liberation of the Mizo people. During these years, it is common knowledge as to how staunchly and wholeheartedly the movement was supported by Chin people living in Burma and Bawm people living in Bangladesh. The mere fact that we are separated by artificially created international boundaries did not deter us from standing together in times of importance and hardship. Rather, we were reminded of how intimately close people we were!
Many people were elated and encouraged when the MNF was elected to lead the Mizoram Government. For those in hardship, the election of the MNF was greeted with a deep sense of optimism. And it is a fact that in the minds of our people the international boundaries do not exist between us. We’ve always counted on the fact that as brothers we will stand by each other’s side in times of joy and hardship. We are to feed each other when one is hungry and provide shelter when another is in need of refuge. That is what family is all about. Unless we take care of each other in times of need and hardship, the only thing we can accomplish would be distrust, frustration and disappointment.
It is high time we reevaluate how we treat each other as family members. We have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether driving away those in need of our help is really consistent with our tradition and values that we dearly hold close to hearts. Are we to be satisfied that people in need of our help are left to die? Blood brothers risk their lives for each other and help one another in time of hardship. It is upon us to be able to notice the kinds of divisive strategy employed against us and be aware of how that would affect us negatively for our collective interest. Let’s act together and help each other. For we are a people characterized by our love for peace, a people who can show to the world we are for peace.
MITHUNS SACRIFICED TO GREED
The Forest Ox of Burma’s Chins
A Report By Project Maje
This report is a brief summary of information about the mithun, a type of domesticated bovine found in the Himalayan foothills of South/Southeast Asia, particularly addressing its situation in the Chin State of Burma. The spelling “mithun” (accurate in terms of pronunciation) is used here for the bovine species Bos frontalis, although “mithan” is also a common spelling, and “mythun” is another spelling in use. This name probably came from Assamese dialects. The Chin people, one of the Zo ethnic groups, who live in western Burma, call these animals “sia.” Mithuns are also known as “gayals” in India.
This report is by no means a comprehensive or scientific document on mithuns. It is inspired by accounts of mithun confiscation and commercialization of mithun raising in the Chin State. It is intended as an alert about the present situation of this particular mammal in this particular area. Under Burma’s military dictatorship, the Chin people have been subjected to numerous human rights violations, including religious persecution. Most Chins are Christians, with Animist traditions. Their relationship to the mithun has strong elements of remaining Animist culture. The Chins’ mountain forest environment has been in jeopardy in recent years, as Burma’s military regime carries out logging and unsustainable harvest of forest products, and promotes plantation agriculture.
What is a Mithun?
The mithun is generally understood to be a domesticated, smaller version of the gaur. Mithuns and gaurs are related to other great Asian bovines: the banteng of Indonesia and the elusive kouprey of Cambodia. Gaurs are found in remaining forest areas of South and Southeast Asia, from India to Vietnam. The much more limited area of mithun habitat has included Bangladesh’s Chittagong/Bandarban Hill Tracts, Burma’s Arakan and Chin States, Northeast India, and Bhutan. Mithuns are normally found at elevations from 2,000 to 9,000 feet, in forested areas. Of course, the forest habitat for gaurs and mithuns has been disappearing rapidly in recent decades.
Looming as high as 7 feet tall at the shoulder, gaurs usually have dark bodies, white legs, and curved horns. Gaurs feed on forest leaves, young plants and grasses. The entire gaur population of the world was estimated at 13,000 to 30,000 in 2000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Species (IUCN) which rates the gaur as “vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species; the US Government classifies the gaur as “endangered.” A gaur calf was cloned in 2001 but died soon after birth.
A mere 50,000 mithuns were found in India in a 1983 survey; the Burma mithun population was probably similar; both populations may be decreased significantly since then. Mithuns average about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and have similar coloring to the gaur, but less curved horns. Both gaurs and mithun’s have a distinctive ridge along their backs. Mithuns are normally browsers rather than grazers, eating forest leaves and young plants, instead of requiring pasture land like other bovines. In a kind of part-time domestication, mithuns have usually been “kept” by releasing them into forests for feeding during the day (with or without human supervision.) While some mithuns become feral and stay in the forest full-time, most communities would bring them back to the village for the night. Traditionally, Chin mithun owners would keep the animals beneath their stilt-houses at night.
Unlike the rather fierce gaur, which can fight off tigers and avoid humans, mithuns are extremely docile and appear to seek human contact, particularly if salt is involved. According to Chin statesman Pu Lian UK, whose family had kept mithuns:
“They like salt very much and that makes them very easy to rear. They know their master’s voice. If their master makes a usual way of shouting loud to call them to come to him, all of the herds will run to the voice. They will graze in some thick forest and will all get together to one spot where they are usually fed salt regularly like in the evening.”
Mithuns in Traditional Chin culture
The mithun has played an important cultural role for the tribal peoples of the India/Burma frontier mountains, including the Chins and Nagas. For the Chins, the mithun is a totem or icon of ethnic identity. The Chins use the expression “As gentle as a mithun,” and according to Frederick J. Simoons in “A Ceremonial Ox of India” the definitive work on the traditional role of the mithun, Chins also have mithun metaphors for beauty and strength.
Mithuns have not been used for plowing, as upland hill cultivation traditionally did not use draft animals. In recent years buffaloes have been introduced to Chin State for plowing in valley wet-rice growing areas. Mithuns also have not been used by the Chins for dairy purposes, although their milk is rich in butterfat content. The only Chin utilization of mithuns has been for meat. In particular, the mithun was of great importance in traditional Chin life (and for neighboring Naga and other tribal societies) as a sacrificial animal.
Mithuns, especially those with the most purebred gaur-like dark coats, were traditionally the ultimate sacrificial animal, required for a series of Feasts of Merit. Mithuns were sacrificed for the most important spiritual/medical needs, or to celebrate slaying of important wild beasts or human enemies. Following its ritual killing, the meat of a sacrificed mithun would be shared in the village. Mithuns were also slaughtered for meat outside of sacrificial use, and have continued to be used this way following the conversion of most Chins to Christianity. Mithun meat is still an important feature of Chin weddings and Christmas celebrations. It is said to be the most delicious form of beef, with a marbled texture.
Mithuns have traditionally been a form of currency among the mountain people, exchanged for goods, friendship or alliances, and used to pay fines, ransoms, tributes, and bride-prices. Sworn oaths were sealed in mithun blood. A herd of mithuns was a traditional sign of personal or village wealth. Frederick J. Simoons wrote of the Central Chins in mid-20th Century:
“No matter what other animals a man may own, his wealth is judged by the number of his mithan… Mithan must be sacrificed by a man to attain the highest social status. The birth of a mithan is celebrated as is the birth of a child… The theft and slaughter of a mithan are among the most serious of crimes…”
In present-day Chin society, even with its Christian influence and growth of towns, the mithun continues to be of importance. According to Pu Lian Uk:
“They are mostly kept in rural villages, not much in the town. But town people are starting now rearing the mythuns in herds outside the town like in Thantlang, Mindat and Matupi towns. Mr. X. from X. is an example. He made a fencing area in which the mythun could take shelter at night outside the town. The herds of their mythuns know the voices of him and his wife. He gave them proper names like “Black” or “White” or any name. If one of the mythuns’ name is called shouting loud, all the herds run to the voice as the mythuns know that the voice will be for serving salts. It seems not so difficult to keep them in herds in this way.”
“Mythun ownership once was very common for any ordinary people. But since its usefulness is just only for meat, people where wet rice fields are cultivated keep buffaloes rather than mythuns as buffaloes could be used for plowing the wet rice field… At the same time mythuns could destroy crops in the agriculture land, for which the owner is to be fined for t he cost of the crops being destroyed by his mythuns. So, its keeping has no longer been as common as before. But still many villages keep mythuns. We should say that it still is kept quite common enough in many of the villages throughout the Chin State. Any ordinary person could rear it as they wish.”
Traditional mithun-keeping has apparently been mostly sustainable with less damage to forests than could be caused by herds of goats, sheep or cattle. As long as the numbers of mithuns and the amount of forest have remained in balance, the effects appear preferable to those of livestock which require clearing of pasture land. The mithuns were a reason to preserve the forests. For the Chins, mithuns have been a beneficial link between the forest wilderness and the village settlement. A Chin veterinarian writes:
“My opinion about Mithun raising in traditional method is it will not cause significant damage on the forest. The traditional raising method with normal scale (not too many Mithun) is actually beneficial to environmental conservation.”
Unfortunately, the possession of this one limited form of wealth by the Chins, an impoverished people, has not gone unnoticed by Burma’s military regime. The Chin State is one of the most remote, isolated regions of Burma, and access to data on the status of Chin-owned mithuns is very limited. Still, there has been at least one report of widespread confiscation of mithuns by Burma’s military forces in Chin State, which is consistent with the pattern of livestock confiscation in other regions in Burma.
The confiscation of cattle, buffalo, and other livestock by the troops of Burma’s regime is a widespread practice, intended either for the immediate feeding of undersupplied troops, or for commercial gain by the military establishment. The US Department of State’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” notes that the Burma regime’s military units “routinely have confiscated livestock.” A commentary by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF Monthly Report, November 2003) states:
“Roaming Burmese soldiers taking a few chickens, killing a few pigs and shooting a few head of cattle here and there in the rural areas of Shan State may not seem very important compared to the other more severe kinds of human rights violations such as killing, rape, torture and forced labour, etc. However, if it happens frequently, it does cause a lot of trouble for the villagers and in many cases even badly affects their very livelihood.”
Pu Lian Uk writes about this abuse:
“Confiscating cattles in herds has been a routine work of Burmese military armed forces and police and it seems as if there is no place to make complaint as the military regime is betray fing the citizens. There is no way to correct things if the watcher and caretaker violates what it watches and take care of. People just suffer their losses silently with tears being left with nothing. Of course those cattle confiscated are usually accused of being smuggled out of the country.”
Pu Lian Uk comments about confiscation of mithuns under the guise of anti-smuggling enforcement:
“They confiscate when mythuns are likely to be sold out to foreign land. It is confiscated under the law of custom and duty to prevent exporting without giving duties. They are not confiscated if they are not sold to foreign countries which mostly is from Western Chin State, to Mizoram in India. It is also much valued there as it is valued by the Chins on Burma side. But the worse thing under the military regime is the mythuns are just confiscate with hout proper trial. They just confiscate all the animals without allowing the victim to pay the fine for the worth of his case according to judicial procedure.”
It is within the context of widespread livestock confiscation by Burma’s military that the following account by Pastor Satin Lal from Falam, Chin State (recorded in the Project Maje report Ashes and Tears) is of particular concern:
“About the livestock in Chin State. One of the unique animals that we can see in the Chin State is the mithun. From one mithun we can get 200 viss of meat. About 300 kilograms. All the mithuns were bought by the military and they sold them into the foreign country. If our own Chin people sold these animals into the border area, into India, we would be arrested and put into the jail for five to six years. Because they sold those animals, those who had connection with the [government] military, sold all those mithuns to another country, now there are hardly any left, and almost extinct. Each household used to raise the mithun. It was one of the symbols of the Chin people, and one of our wealths. We killed that animal only when we celebrate a big ceremony, as in ancient times.”
Control and commercialization
Some cross-border or interethnic trade of mithuns has existed for several decades; according to Simoons, back in 1966 the Chin-related Baums of Bangladesh were raising mithuns in order to sell the meat to Muslim Bengalis of Bangladesh. However, this trade was always quite limited, with most mithuns raised only for village consumption. Commercialization of mithun raising for trade in meat is mainly a recent development. Beef-eating Northeast Indian Christian or Buddhist ethnic groups or Buddhist Burmese are potential markets; mithun meat could be canned or dried meat for further overseas export. Such ventures would require a major departure from the traditional scale and method of mithun-raising, but Burma’s military regime appears to be promoting this type of commercialization in Chin State.
A report from the regime’s Myanmar Information Committee, “Information Sheet 28 July 2003: Development of Agriculture, Livestock Breeding in Chin State” shows the regime’s interest in commercialization of mithun raising (its mithun population figures are of questionable veracity):
“Raising of domesticated wild ox: So far, there are 32,491 domesticated wild oxen. Over 58,000 domesticated wild oxen will be raised under a three-year plan from 2003-2004 to 2005-2006. The State has made arrangements to render assistance in loans and prevention and treatment of disease.”
A visit by Burma’s Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, to Chin State in 2003, has heightened concerns about the commercialization of mithuns. From reports in the regime’s “New Light of Myanmar,” November 27, 2003, “Prime Minister inspects development projects in Chin State”:
“Chairman of [Tonzang] Township Peace and Development Council U Khin Maung Oo reported on regional development projects including education, health and transport sectors of the region, arrangements for growing 840 acres of tea and breeding of domestic wild oxen and requirements.”
“[In Tonzang, Khin Nyunt stated that] domesticated wild oxen thrive well in Chin State and thus the government is providing loans for the region.”
“Chairman of [Tiddim] Township Peace and Development Council U Sai Maung Lu reported on location and area of the township, population, national races living in the region, agriculture, the raising of domesticated wild ox, education, health, communication and generating of hydroelectric power. Chairman of Chin State Peace and Development Council Col. Tin Hla gave a supplementary report.”
“[In Tiddim, Khin Nyunt] said due to transport difficulty in Chin State, the government has spent a large sum of money on development of roads linking townships in Chin State and plain regions, growing of tea and raising of domesticated wild oxen. He said local people are to cooperate with local authorities, social organizations, and departmental officials for successful implementation of the tasks… The Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries has already made arrangements for raising of domesticated wild oxen and other livestock breeding tasks which are marketable in neighbouring countries. Therefore, local people are to change livestock breeding on manageable scale to commercial one gradually.”
It seems significant that these reports from Burma’s regime avoid using the name “mithun,” perhaps because it is an ethnic term rather than a word from the Burmese (dominant) language. Instead they refer to “domesticated wild” livestock, something of an awkward oxymoron. This may be part of a plan to separate an ethnic people from a “resource” as is common in many areas of Burma under the military regime, which has also replaced indigenous place names, substituting new Burmese-sounding versions of towns and rivers.
The Chin veterinarian comments: “I think it is almost impossible to raise Mithun for commercial scale by traditional way. That is not only because of possible damages to environment, but also because of the profit return and the investment (money, time, market, transportation, etc.) are not balanced.” The Burma regime appears to be promoting a large-scale shift from small, family-owned forest-ranging herds of mithuns for local use, to commercialized herds for export use.
The Burma regime’s emphasis on a scheme for changing a traditional, sustainable way of raising mithuns to a government-controlled, commercialized, export-oriented system is of concern due to the regime’s proven disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples, lack of environmental protection, and short-term profit obsessions. Current regime efforts to convert forest hillsides to tea plantations in Chin State give rise to similar concerns. While mithun raising may be undertaken on a commercial or export basis in the future, it is doubtful that given existing conditions in Burma, it will be much more than the Burma army’s confiscation of one of the local people’s few sources of wealth for trade to neighboring countries or the lowlands. Additionally, this commercialization of mithun raising by the non-Chin central Burma regime may be viewed as at best an interference, and at worst a severe cultural humiliation.
It is also possible that incompetent tampering with the breeding of mithuns may place them at risk. Some previous efforts to breed mithuns for commercial purposes have lacked success, according to the Chin veterinarian:
“I would like to share some information from a Vet.’s point of view. Since from 1996, the regime ordered local livestock and breeding department to raise wild Mithuns in the herds. Then, they brought some Mithuns (approx. 30) from Chin State to Yangon [Rangoon, Burma’s capital] to perform research on Artificial Insemination (A.I.) and Embryo Transfer (E.T.) in order to achieve, the final target, foreign currency. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen the way they expected. When they did A.I. to female Mithun with the semen of domestic or imported dairy bull, conception was failure all the time. And again, abortion was occurred when they tried E.T. to female Mithun.”
The danger of changing forest-browsing free-range mithuns into a type of artificially bred, artificially medicated, feedlot-raised super-cattle can be seen in the global epidemics of “mad cow” bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other food-animal diseases. Mithuns have proven especially susceptible to contagious foot and mouth disease. Such commercialization efforts may cancel out the natural advantages of the forest-ranging mithuns. As scientists from India’s National Research Center on Mithun have written:
“Since mithuns are free-ranging bovines and graze in isolation in the open forests, they are naturally quarantined from some of the contagious diseases. However, th bey may be affected by many of the diseases of domestic as well as wild ruminants, in the grazing-browsing areas. Such incidences have become more frequent with increased deforestation and more and more land coming under crop cultivation and human habitation.”
Rampant logging and encroaching tea plantations are now threatening the normal forest home of the mithuns, showing how fragile is the ecological relationship between humans, animals, and remaining forest in Chin State. In the regime’s new order, mithuns can be removed from the forest, and the forest cut down, just as villagers can be relocated from their ancestral homelands.
Combining health/breeding risks with the possibility of excessive export for slaughter, and natural habitat destruction, the regime’s commercialization schemes may actually endanger the mithuns rather than (as claimed iby Khin Nyunt) increasing these numbers. One need only look to the dwindling teak groves of Burma to see how decimation has happened to a once mighty and thriving tree species.
In his best-selling history book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Jared Diamond lists the fourteen large mammals domesticated by humans. The mithun is one of the fourteen, and is the rarest of them, being counted in the tens of thousands rather than in the millions like all the others. Although the mithun population on the India side of the India/Burma frontier may be stable or even increasing, those on Burma side appear to be at some degree of risk. In the worst-case scenario, the mithun could be eligible for being the first large domesticated animal to face extinction.
At present, science has to resort to attempting to clone a gaur in hopes of species survival. Will the gaur-related mithuns of Burma suffer that fate as well? And with their mithuns gone, how effectively will the Chins survive as a culture? There may be other kinds of meat, but when a people’s relationship with nature is destroyed, much of its identity is irrevocably lost.
1. The international community must raise its awareness of issues relating to the threatened Chin people of Burma, particularly natural resource extraction/destruction and human rights violations. The proposed Western Burma to India gas pipeline (of corporations Daewoo and ONGC) poses a special peril to the Chins and their land, as a possible pipeline route may be secured by the Burma military. Chin refugees in precarious situations in India and Malaysia need international support. The little-known situation of the Naga people of Burma also requires increased research and publicity. The Chins and Nagas have important cultures which are under grave pressure from Burma’s military regime, including imposition of changes to sustainable mithun raising.
2. A complete end to abuse of ethnic nationality people of Burma must be an unwavering condition of any political process in Burma. These abuses include a wide array of human rights violations, with confiscation of livestock a serious crime against civilians throughout Burma.
3. Commercial schemes for raising mithuns must not be undertaken without the full, informed, equitable and democratic assent and participation of the local people who have traditionally raised mithuns. To do otherwise may endanger mithun survival and is a cultural crime against the Chin and Naga peoples of Burma.
4. The preservation of forests remaining in northwest Burma, and particularly those in Chin State, which are habitats for mithuns, must be an urgent priority for the international community. Wood and wildlife products from Bu ârma should not be imported by any other countries. Environmental preservation in partnership with local people must be an intrinsic part of Burma’s political process, and the present unsustainable military/commercial resource extraction must cease.
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Thank you to Pu Lian Uk, Salai Kipp Kho Lian, “Chin veterinarian,” and the Chin Forum Information Service: www.chinforum.org.
Board on Science and Technology for International Development, National Research Council, “Little-Known Asian Animals with a Promising Economic Future” National Academy Press, Washington DC 1983.
Diamond, Jared, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” W.W. Norton, New York 1999.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, 2003. www.redlist.org
Lehman, Frederick K., “The Structure of Chin Society” University of Illinois Press, Urbana IL, 1963.
Myanmar Information Committee, “Information Sheet 28 July 2003: Development of Agriculture, Livestock Breeding in Chin State”
New Light of Myanmar, On Line Edition, November 27, 2003 “Prime Minister Inspects Development Projects in Chin State”
Project Maje, “Ashes and Tears: Interviews with Refugees from Burma on Guam” 2001. www.projectmaje.org
Rajkhowa, S., Rajkhowa, J., Bujarbaruah, K.M. “Diseases of Mithun (Bos frontalis): A Review” Veterinary Bulletin, April 2003. www.animalscience.com
Shan Human Rights Foundation Monthly Report, November 2003. www.shanland.org
Simoons, Frederick J., with Simoons, Elizabeth S., “A Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History” University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI 1968.
United States Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2003. www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27765.htm
Vumson, “Zo History” Mizoram, India 1987.