Rampant Abuse of Prison Labor Shows Need for UN Inquiry
July 13, 2011
Convict porters are the Burmese army's disposable human pack-mules, lugging supplies through heavily mined battlefields. Press-ganging prisoners into deadly front-line service raises the Burmese army's cruelty to new levels.
Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) - The Burmese army's abusive treatment of convicts who are forced to serve as porters under dangerous front-line conditions constitutes war crimes, Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group said in a joint report released today.

The 70-page report, "Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma," details abuses against convict porters including summary executions, torture, and the use of the convicts as "human shields." The military should stop forcibly recruiting prisoners as porters and mistreating them, and those responsible for ordering or participating in such treatment should be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group said.

"Convict porters are the Burmese army's disposable human pack-mules, lugging supplies through heavily mined battlefields," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Press-ganging prisoners into deadly front-line service raises the Burmese army's cruelty to new levels."

The Burmese government's longtime failure to investigate abuses by its forces should prompt concerned governments to support a United Nations-led commission of inquiry into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma, the organizations said.

The report is based on 58 interviews with escaped convict porters used in military operations in Karen State and Pegu Region from 2010 to 2011. Convict porters described witnessing or enduring summary executions, torture and beatings, being used as "human shields" to trip landmines or shield soldiers from fire, and being denied medical attention and adequate food and shelter.

"We were carrying food up to the camp and one porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg," one escaped porter said. "The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no one helped. When we came down the mountain he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his clothing in the trees, and parts of his leg in a tree."

The porters interviewed were men ranging in age from 20 to 57, including both petty and serious offenders. Prison authorities selected prisoners for portering duties in groups of 30 to 150 men per facility seemingly at random from prison facilities throughout Burma, including labor camps and maximum security and local prisons. The prisoners were transported to staging areas with between 500 and 700 prisoners, who were then assigned to individual Burmese army units. Once transferred to the front lines, they remained there indefinitely, working under inhumane and dangerous conditions without payment. None of the prisoners interviewed had volunteered for the service.

"The barbaric practice of using convict porters has been a feature of armed conflict in Burma for at least 20 years, exposing them to the hazards of armed conflict with complete disregard for their safety," said Poe Shan, director of the Karen Human Rights Group. "The army forces other civilians to work as porters as well, but since civilians often flee conflict areas, the use of prisoners continues."

Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group said that the use of convict porters is not an isolated, local, or rogue practice employed by some units or commanders, but has been credibly documented since as early as 1992. Burmese authorities have previously admitted the practice occurs, but claimed that prisoners are not exposed to hostilities.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has raised the issue of convict porters with the Burmese government since 1998, yet the problem persists, particularly during major offensive military operations. Despite commendable work by the ILO in reducing forced labor in central Burma, forced labor by the Burmese army in ethnic conflict areas against civilians and convict porters has not been reduced, Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group said.

"Recent accounts from former convict porters show that the Burmese army's abusive tactics have not changed since last year's sham elections," Poe Shan said. "The brutal treatment of porters is just one facet of army atrocities against civilians in ethnic conflict areas."

The Burmese government has used brutal counterinsurgency practices against ethnic minority populations since independence in 1948. These include deliberate attacks on civilian villages and towns, large-scale forced relocation, torture, extrajudicial executions, rape and other sexual violence against women and girls, and the use of child soldiers. Ethnic armed groups have also been involved in abuses such as indiscriminate use of landmines, using civilians as forced labor, and recruitment of child soldiers. These abuses have led to growing calls for the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into longstanding allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma.

Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group found that serious abuses that amount to war crimes are being committed with the involvement or knowledge of high-level civilian and military officials. Officers and soldiers commit atrocities with impunity. Credible, impartial, and independent investigations are needed into serious abuses committed by all parties to Burma's internal armed conflicts, the groups said.

Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group urged the 16 countries that have already voiced support for a UN-led commission of inquiry to include the establishment of such a commission in the upcoming UN General Assembly resolution on Burma.

"ASEAN and European Union governments should stop hoping for things to magically improve in Burma and instead strongly push for a UN commission of inquiry," Pearson said. "Every day that the international community does nothing is another day that the Burmese army will press more porters into deadly service."

Accounts from Escaped Convict Porters:
All names used are pseudonyms

"On December 20, 2010 they [prison authorities] called out people's names one by one [at Pya Prison, in Pegu Region]. They ordered us to line up and said that we were going to porter. I didn't know what ‘porter' is. I had never heard. [The police] carried 25 people in a truck. They covered the truck with tarps. We couldn't see anything outside. Sometime we couldn't breathe very well. We had to wear prisoner uniforms and they shackled our legs in pairs."

- Escaped convict porter "Kyaw Min," January 2011

"I ran away with two other prisoners at about 10 at night. On the way, we were caught by soldiers from another unit, at about 1 a.m. These four soldiers beat us with big sticks, all over our bodies. The soldiers tied my hands behind my back, and tied up my ankles and stretched my legs out straight. One of the soldiers took a thick bamboo pole and rolled it hard up and down my shins for an hour. There were five or seven soldiers at the time, they were very drunk. The soldiers wanted to know why we left, and we told them we were scared. They got angry and said, ‘Don't you love your country?' One sergeant came and yelled at me, ‘If you try to escape again, I will kill you!'"

- Escaped convict porter "Tun Mok," February 2011

"The young boy told them [Burmese soldiers], ‘If I run you will shoot me.' They said, ‘No, we won't kill you. You can run.' They ordered the guy to run. Just as he walked down to the gorge, they shot him in the back. And they told us, ‘You guys see what happens? If you can't climb up, we will kill you.' We were afraid."

- Escaped convict porter "Matthew," January 2011

"The soldiers told us at night that there was a lot of fighting on the mountain, and that if we were alive tomorrow night we would be lucky. We are all dead, I thought. Alive or dead, it's the same thing here. So 15 of us planned to escape. We walked through the river to the Thai side. We heard the sit-tha [Burmese soldiers] yell, ‘Don't run! Don't run!' I turned around to look and was hit with the first shot. They shot at us four times I think. The bullet hit my right shoulder and broke my arm. It knocked me down onto the ground. I first felt dizzy, everyone else just ran."

- Escaped convict porter Tun Tun Aung, February 2011