Burma’s Convict Porters

Used as mine sweepers, pack horses and servants, Burma’s convict porters recount their efforts to escape the Army.

By Phil Thornton for
Burma’s Convict Porters
Credit: Phil Thornton

Aung is a small man, barely out of his teens. He constantly shifts his bruised body around, unable to sit comfortably. He’s scared he might be sent back to Burma, which could be tantamount to a death sentence.

Aung says he’s still in pain from a soldier’s bullet that smashed into his arm and left him in a coma. But he’s worried that his testimony about what happened to him at the hands of Burma’s army will put his young family in danger.

His journey to the frontline started on December 31, 2010, when the Burmese Army came to the jail where he was serving a 12-month sentence for fighting with his neighbour over a fallen tree.

‘We exchanged punches. I hit him with a rock,’ Aung says. ‘The police came, he paid a bribe, I couldn’t. I went to jail, he went free.’

Aung says that no one in the jail volunteered to be sent to assist the Army, but inmates were told by the guards that they were being sent to the frontline to serve as ‘porters.’

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‘Our names were on a list, we had no choice,’ Aung says. He says he was transported in a convoy of army trucks that wound its way from upper Burma to the jungles and mountains of Karen state in the east.

‘The truck was crowded and there were many trucks,’ he says. ‘Our legs were shackled, we had to squat on our haunches with our heads bowed. We couldn’t see out or talk to each other. At Pa-an, we were given blue uniforms.’

Human Mine Sweepers

Karen state is severely lacking in infrastructure – there are few all-weather roads capable of carrying heavy army trucks, weapons, munitions, rice and food supplies to the ever-shifting frontline. International and regional humanitarian groups have compiled numerous reports on how Burma’s army creates its own operational support mechanisms to deal with this lack of infrastructure, specifically forcing civilian or convict porters to be a human supply chain for its frontlines.

In a joint media statement this week, Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) said: ‘The use of convict porters is a not an isolated, local, or rogue practice employed by some units or commanders.’

Saw Poe Shan, director of KHRG, says that his group has been documenting the abuse of convict porters since 1992.

‘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.’

In their joint report ‘Dead Men Walking,’ released this week, HRW and KHRG noted that ‘thousands of prisoners have been forced to carry heavy army supplies, undertake construction labour, witness or endured summary executions, torture and beatings and, in a practice called “atrocity demining,” have had to walk ahead of Burmese Army soldiers to trigger potential landmines.’

Aung says during his 15 days on the frontline he was placed in the line of fire, used as a human mine sweeper, and forced to act like a pack animal, carrying munitions, artillery and food supplies to the soldiers.

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‘Porters were ordered to walk in front of the soldiers. We were never told we were going to the frontline. I was scared. I was ordered to carry 81 mm mortar shells, 15 to a basket, up a steep mountain to the artillery positions,’ he says. ‘When a mine exploded, I saw the body blown skywards. There was noise, screams and lots of blood. We were told to keep walking, but everyone dropped their packs and fell to the ground. They threatened to beat us for stopping, but we didn’t care, we just fell.’

David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior Burma researcher, says the practice of using convict porters demonstrates collusion between different Burmese government departments.

‘The practice is ongoing, systematic, and is facilitated by several branches of government, suggesting decision making at the highest levels of the Burmese military and political establishment.’

Aung says that after 15 days he had had enough of being a frontline porter.

‘I thought I would die if I stayed, either the soldiers would kill me or I would be blown up by a mine,’ he says. ‘A sergeant thrashed me because another porter escaped. I was beaten for not telling the soldiers. I knew I had to escape.’

Aung says he saw other prisoners beaten and tortured. On January 15, he was told he would be carrying mortar shells to the frontline the following day.

‘I knew there would be a lot of mines and lots of fighting. I didn’t want to die. I was desperate,’ he says. ‘We made a plan to escape into the jungle and get across the river to safety in Thailand.’

Aung says their escape plan relied on the soldiers getting drunk.

‘The soldiers were drunk most of the time,’ he says. ‘That night, they had a party to celebrate taking a Karen position. Around 11 pm, about 13 of us ran away. I was with my friend and we crashed through the trees and bamboo. But I soon lost contact with the others.’

By the time Aung had reached the River Moei, which separates Thailand from Burma, the soldiers had almost caught up with him.

‘We were splashing across the river hoping to get to the safety of the cornfields on the Thai side. We were told if we got to Thailand we would be safe. The soldiers kept shooting at us even though we were on the Thai side. I was hit and knocked off my feet.’

Early the next day, Aung’s friend made contact with a Karen farmer who told a Thai soldier of the escaped convict porters.

‘The Thai soldier helped me and took me to a hospital. He reassured me that the Burma army couldn’t hurt me anymore,’ Aung says. ‘I was shot, but I was lucky I got away. If I stayed, I knew I would die for sure.’

109 Labour Camps

Restaurant owner Win claims he was jailed on trumped up charges of heroin trafficking and sentenced to 10 years. He spent two years in one of Burma’s notorious labour camps.

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‘We were chained at the ankles while we broke rocks for roads. We worked six days a week, even when we were sick. I saw prisoners badly injured, some with broken legs, who still didn’t get treatment,’ Win says.

One Burmese man, Bo Kyi, has made it his life’s work to make sure political prisoners aren’t forgotten. A founding member and now secretary of the Association Assisting Political Prisoners (AAPP), Bo Kyi was jailed three times for a total of seven years and three months.

‘In Burma, there are 109 labour camps, 42 jails, more than 400,000 prisoners, and only 33 doctors and about 60 medics to treat them when they get sick. All prisoners, irrespective of their crimes, should be treated as humans. Animals are treated better than prisoners in Burma.’

Outside a small, bare room in a safe house on the Thai-Burma border that Win now calls home, children kick a football against a wall and play war games with plastic guns. Motorbikes roar past and dogs bark after them.

Win studies his broken fingernails, calloused hands and scars before explaining how he was taken to the front line.

‘The army came for me at 4 am on January 1. Seventy-five of us were taken from our cells and put in two army trucks. We weren’t told anything, but we guessed we were going to the frontline. I planned to escape.’

Win says the soldiers kept the convicts under guard in Palu monastery for three nights. ‘I helped carry their injured soldiers there. The monks had left. I ran away, but they caught me after a couple of hours. I was beaten and my hands were tied behind my back. They rolled a thick bamboo pole up and down my shins and told me if I ran away again, I’d be killed.’

Win lifts his trouser leg to show his white scars, painful reminders of the beating he took from the soldiers.

‘I Thought I Would Die'

Soe was given a 20-year jail sentence for murder.

‘I was drunk and fighting. I knifed a man. I escaped, but the police arrested my brother and said he would be charged instead,’ Soe says. ‘I turned myself in. I was sent to hard labour to break rocks.’

Soe, 28, worked at the quarry for five years, before he was told he now belonged to the Army.

‘They said we were no longer convicts, but were now on “the dead list.” We no longer existed. I felt sad. I was owed 71,000 kyat ($70 dollars) for my five years working in the quarry, but our pay was taken by the soldiers.’

Soe says he was forced to carry 120 mm mortars and their shells up the mountain to an artillery battalion.

‘Porters died, others lost legs,’ he says. ‘We carried them down the mountain. We buried the dead porters in 18-inch trenches, but you still saw their faces. Dead soldiers were taken by truck to Pa-an. I heard out of 800 porters, only 40 of us survived.’

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Humanitarian organization Free Burma Rangers (FBR) has 53 teams delivering emergency medical assistance to displaced communities in eastern Burma. In a report released in 2008, FBR documented a Burma army operation in northern Karen state, in eastern Burma, where 2,200 convict porters were used.FBR says its information was collected from ‘escaped porters, Burma Army deserters and villagers who have seen the bodies of dead porters.’

Win says the food he was given as a porter was rotten, and there were times the convict porters weren’t fed for two days.

‘I had enough, I decided to escape,’ he says. ‘Two of us were sent unguarded to fix a generator. We ran and hid in the jungle until it dark and then crossed the river. A monk told us the way. Once we got to Thailand we hid in a cornfield for three days.’

What Crimes?

In his March 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur for Burma, outlined a ‘pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights which has been in place for many years.’ Quintana concluded that the ‘UN institutions may consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry (CoI) with a specific fact finding mandate to address the question of international crimes.’

Human Rights Watch World Report for 2011 details the way Burmese Ambassador U Wunna Maung Lwin defied calls for an inquiry. U Wunna Maung said there were ‘no crimes against humanity in Myanmar…(w)ith regard to the issue of impunity, any member of the military who breached national law was subject to legal punishments…there was no need to conduct investigations in Myanmar since there were no human rights violations there.’

In January this year, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva examined Burma’s human rights record as part of its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Burma’s delegation, led by Deputy Attorney General Dr. Tun Shin, categorically denied state-orchestrated widespread, systematic and persistent human rights violations against the people of Burma.

Throughout the three-hour UPR review, numerous concerns, including the issue of political prisoners, treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, and impunity for perpetrators of gross human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity, were raised.

The Burmese delegation’s response was to claim the armed forces have a zero tolerance policy towards serious human rights violations, including sexual violence. ‘There is no widespread occurrence of human rights violations with impunity,’ the delegation said.

Phil Thornton is a Southeast Asia-based writer and author of 'Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border.'