Last year, Yezaw was arrested over an unpaid restaurant bill. One evening in May, he and a group of friends met for dinner in the central Burmese city of Mandalay and 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, the 20-year-old was charged, taken to court and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Reeling from the apparent unfairness of the charge, Yezaw, now 21, said he hadn’t imagined what was to happen next. At the start of this year, he was transferred to eastern Karen State, close to the Thai border and, along with dozens of other prisoners, handed a dark blue uniform. For three months, he was forced to carry supplies for the Burmese military, enduring punishing jungle terrain, meagre rations and regular beatings for the smallest of infractions.
The skinny student from Mandalay was just one of hundreds of convicts who were rounded up for porter duty during the Burmese military’s offensives in Karen State following last November’s national election, when rebels seized the border town of Myawaddy and attacked army units.
Yezaw’s story is echoed in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), entitled Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma. The report estimates 700 prisoners from 12 prisons and labour camps across the country were transferred to Karen State to perform military labour during this year’s fighting. The report documents how civilian prison authorities, in collusion with the military, selected prisoners for porter duty ‘without any clearly stated criteria’ and forwarded 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 (Burmese army) battalions engaged in operations against ethnic Karen armed groups,’ it states.
The report, based on HRW and KHRG 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 sent ahead to detect 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 potential war crime.
In an interview on the Thai border, Yezaw, a dark-skinned youth in blue jeans and a t-shirt, says he remembers 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 says he recalls thinking as the prisoners were pushed into covered trucks and driven away. After three days on the road, Yezaw joined a group of about 30 porters attached to a Tatmadaw unit fighting DKBA rebels in rugged country close to the Thai border.
Yezaw says there were repeated instances of mistreatment by the Burmese troops. 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, occasionally enlivened with some chunks 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 soldiers beat them and even hit them with their guns,’ he says. On one occasion, he says, all the porters were beaten after two of their comrades successfully escaped; the soldiers said that the other porters should have reported the escape plan. ‘We were beaten every day. There was no day where they didn’t beat the porters,’ he says.
The Dead Men Walking report claims that military 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 to KHRG how other porters were shot, had their throats cut, or were thrown over steep cliffs by soldiers.
Unique among the horrors faced by porters in Yezaw’s unit was being forced to detect the many landmines strewn in conflict areas. Using a long bamboo stick with an attached fork, porters would sweep the ground looking for concealed mines. ‘If we knew where a landmine was, the prisoners had to take it out,’ he says. Given the amateurish tools at their disposal, accidents were common. ‘I saw two men die because of landmines,’ Yezaw says. ‘With one there was an explosion, and I couldn’t even see the body.’
Rights groups say the Burmese military’s use of forced civilian labour has been established policy for at least two decades, as the Tatmadaw has sought to quell a range of revolts along the country’s unstable ethnic periphery. According to the Dead Men Walking report, the 1990s saw civilians taken from cities, towns, and villages to be used as porters on ‘combat operations or by local officials for development and infrastructure projects.’ The use of convict porters dates to as early as 1992, though recent years have seen a sharp increase in the proportion of prisoners being forced into military duty, as locals have fled conflict zones.
‘The Tatmadaw has increased the use of convict porters in the frontlines. In 2006, the number increased very quickly, because they didn’t have the chance to use villagers like before,’ says Poe Shan, KHRG’s programme director. During field trips in northern Karen State the next year, Poe Shan says he came across the dead bodies of convict porters who had been executed and abandoned by Tatmadaw units.
David Mathieson, Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, describes the use of convict porters as a ‘tried and true method’ of cheaply supplying remote units. ‘They’re disposable,’ he says of Burma’s large prison population. ‘It’s a terrible thing to say, but if you have a large common criminal population and you have a logistical need in the military for human porters, that’s how they solve that problem.’
Rights groups also say the continuing practice shows how little has changed since last November’s election ushered in a new ‘civilian’ government in Naypyidaw. ‘Some people thought that the election would be an opportunity for the people in Burma…but in the area where we work it is quite difficult to say that the situation is changing,’ says Poe Shan of KHRG. ‘Instead, the situation is getting worse.’
Earlier this year, Burmese officials admitted to the UN Human Rights Council that inmates are used as army porters, but insisted they are volunteers and face no combat. But the report describes the treatment of porters as a clear case of war crimes, and called for a UN investigation. Mathieson says abuses against convict porters would be a crucial part of a potential probe, providing evidence not only of the depth, extent and longevity of abuses in Karen State, but of their continuation beyond last November’s elections.
The use of convict porters showed an element of pre-planning and organization that Mathieson describes as ‘chilling.’ ‘This isn’t something isolated to the borderlands. Someone fairly high up made the decision to clear these prisons: this shows collusion at a high level with civilian and military officials.’ Above all, the recent use of convict porters showed that despite Burma’s supposed transition to ‘disciplined democracy,’ civilian authorities – including the Burmese Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the prison system – were still subordinate to the military that has ruled the country since 1962.
One night in March, Yezaw and a group of fellow porters escaped to Thailand while their unit’s troops were drinking to celebrate a minor battlefield victory. But for the young man whose youthful overindulgence in far-off Mandalay led to harrowing experiences in the jungles of eastern Burma, an uncertain future lays ahead—the familiar limbo of exile shared by tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in Thailand. ‘I dare not to go back to Burma,’ Yezaw says, ‘so I will just stay here.’
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected].