Convicts in Myanmar are used as disposable pack-horses by the military, facing terror and death on jungle battlefields
Yezaw’s journey to hell began with an unpaid restaurant bill. Last May, after the end of his university exams, the 21-year-old met a group of friends for dinner in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar. Celebrating and drinking freely, they quickly ran up a tab they couldn’t pay. After his girlfriend’s father – a lawyer – accused him of stealing her motorbike to cover the debt, Yezaw was charged, taken to court and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Yezaw – who gave a pseudonym to conceal his identity – was transferred early this year to eastern Karen State near the Thai border. For three months, along with dozens of other prisoners, he was forced to carry supplies for Myanmar’s military, enduring infernal jungle terrain, meagre rations and regular beatings for the smallest of infractions.
The skinny student from Mandalay was just one of hundreds of garden-variety prisoners who were press-ganged into porter duty after last November’s national election, when Karen rebels seized the border town of Myawaddy and launched offensives across Karen State. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) estimated that at least 700 prisoners from 12 prisons and labour camps across the country were subject to such treatment during the recent offensives.
The 70-page report, entitled Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, documents how civilian prison authorities, in collusion with the military, selected prisoners for porter duty “without any clearly stated criteria” and sent them to conflict areas in a series of coordinated sweeps.
“The men were a mix of serious and petty offenders, but their crimes or willingness to serve were not taken into consideration: only their ability to carry heavy loads of ammunition, food and supplies for more than 17 Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] battalions engaged in operations against ethnic Karen armed groups,” it stated.
The report, based on interviews with 58 convict porters who escaped to Thailand, claims that porters used during offensives between 2009 and 2011 endured “horrific abuses” at the hands of the Tatmadaw, including summary executions, beatings, torture and the practice known as “atrocity demining”, where porters were forced to search for landmines with inadequate equipment and next to no training. HRW and KHRG describe the practice as a “wilful deferment of military obligation onto a vulnerable civilian population” – and a possible war crime.
In a recent interview on the Thai border, Yezaw, a dark-skinned youth in blue jeans and a t-shirt, recalled the day when the authorities at Meiktila prison, some 127 kilometres from Mandalay, included his name in a roll-call of around 70 fellow prisoners. “I thought that we were being sent to a labour camp,” he recalled thinking as the prisoners were loaded into covered trucks and driven away. After three days on the road, Yezaw joined a group of about 30 porters attached to a military unit fighting Karen rebels in rugged country near the Thai border.
Yezaw said mistreatment was the norm. On some days, porters had to re-supply a mountain outpost, marching at breakneck pace for four hours and then digging holes to store the ammunition before returning in the evening. The group was given a small meal of rice twice a day; on special days they received a chunk or two of papaya.
“They didn’t give us water, so we were thirsty but we couldn’t drink. When some people couldn’t carry any more, when they didn’t have energy, the SPDC [government] soldiers beat them and even hit them with their guns,” he said. On one occasion, he says, all the porters were beaten after two of their comrades successfully escaped, on the grounds that they failed to report the escape plan. “We were beaten every day. There was no day where they didn’t beat the porters.”
Dead Men Walking claims that regulations, including one 1999 law banning the use of forced labour by the military, are simply ignored in conflict zones. “Matthew,” an ethnic Chin porter quoted in the report, described how other porters were shot, had their throats cut, or were thrown over steep cliffs by soldiers.