'You're now on the dead list'

Reports of atrocities committed by Burmese soldiers against 'convict porters' destroy any slim hopes that the shift to a 'civilian political system' will somehow dilute the military's absolute power.

Bangkok Post, Newspaper section: Spectrum, Published: 13/02/2011

Aung is a small man, barely out of his teens. He shifts his bruised body, unable to sit or to find comfort or peace of mind. He's full of half-spoken questions. Aung's scared he might be sent back to Burma, where he was forced to work for the army after being jailed.

"I got 12 months, but it's a death sentence," said Aung. He hurts from a soldier's bullet that smashed his arm and dropped him into a coma. He's worried the testimony of the pains the Burmese army inflicted on his body will harm the family he has not seen for more than a year.

Most of all, Aung's haunted by the memory of the battlefield sounds of torn bodies and the terrifying treks he made carrying mortar shells up mountains and through minefields for 15 days.

Aung's journey to the front line started on Dec 31, of last year, 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 they both wanted to use to make charcoal.

"We exchanged punches. I hit him with a rock. The police came, he paid a bribe, I couldn't. I went to jail, he went free."

Aung drops his head and mutters that not being able to be with his wife when she gave birth to their son had added misery to his sentence.

"She was eight months pregnant when I was put in jail. Every day I thought about them. I miss them so much, I've never seen or held my baby son."

Aung had a month of his sentence to finish when soldiers took him and some other prisoners.

"No one volunteered. The guards told us we were going to the front to serve as porters for the army. Our names were on a list, we had no choice."

Aung 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. Their confused journey lasted five days. By the time the convicts got to the battlefield, their estimates of their numbers varied from between 800 to 2,000.

"The truck was crowded and there were many trucks. 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."


In Karen State, there are few all-weather roads capable of carrying heavy army trucks, weapons, munitions, rice and other food supplies to the ever-shifting front line.

International and regional humanitarian groups have compiled numerous reports on how the Burmese army creates its own operational support mechanisms to deal with this lack of infrastructure _ forcing civilian or convict porters to act as a human supply chain to the front lines.

In October 2007, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report that cited a "rare public statement" from the International Committee of the Red Cross, "condemning widespread violations of international humanitarian law". Human Rights Watch said at the time that the Red Cross was concerned about the use of convict labour to support military operations. The report noted that ''thousands of prisoners have been forced to carry army supplies, undertake construction labour, and, in a practice called 'atrocity demining', forced to walk ahead of Burmese army soldiers to trigger potential landmines.''

Aung says his life was in constant danger from landmines and crossfire as he carried heavy panniers weighing as much as 60kg up the steep mountain paths.

''I was a porter for 15 days. I was scared. We carried [panniers of] rice, large shells. If we were slow, they hit us with their guns or kicked us.''

Aung explains he was put in the firing line, used as a human minesweeper and as a pack animal to carry munitions, artillery and food supplies to the soldiers.

''Porters were ordered to walk in front of the soldiers. We were never told we were going to the front line. I was scared. I was ordered to carry 81mm mortar shells, 15 to a basket, up a steep mountain to the artillery positions.''

Aung says he was also ordered to stretcher injured soldiers from the front to a monastery at Palu.

''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.''

For years the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) has been reporting, documenting and conducting in-depth interviews with escaped convict porters that show the practice is systematic, widespread and in common use.

The KHRG reports say prisoners' testimonies tell of ''serious incidents of human rights abuses occurring as standard practice, including use of porters used to sweep for landmines, deprivation of adequate food and medical assistance to porters and the systematic extortion of civilians at every level of Burma's police, judicial and prison infrastructure.''

Aung says he saw both porters and soldiers killed and wounded. ''We used hammocks to carry three wounded soldiers. I saw a porter blown up by a landmine. We never knew if he lived or died. The soldiers told us nothing, but each day we had to walk past the blood.''

Aung says after 15 days he had had enough of being a front-line porter.

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

Aung said he saw other prisoners beaten and tortured by the soldiers. On Jan 15, Aung was told he would be carrying mortar shells to the front line the next day.

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

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

''Most of the time the soldiers were drunk and that night they had a party to celebrate taking a Karen position. At about 11pm, about 13 of us ran away. I was with my friend and we crashed through the trees and bamboo. I soon lost contact with the others.''

By the time Aung had reached the Moei River, 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. My friend helped me to the cover of the cornfield. I bled all through the night. Next day I could not stand and I had a fever.''

Early the next morning 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 Burmese army could not hurt me any more. I was shot, but I was lucky I got away. If I stayed, I knew I would die for sure.''

Interviews with five more prison porters and two Burmese army deserters for this article add weight to Aung's testimony that the porters were beaten by soldiers, fed poorly, tortured and forced to sweep for land mines.


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.

''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 and still not getting treatment. The food was little, rice and some swamp vegetable. If I didn't work hard enough, the guards beat me. It was vicious. While I was there, three prisoners died, two under rock falls and one by sickness.''

One Burmese man, Bo Kyi, has made it his life's work to make sure political prisoners are not forgotten. He is concerned about the abuse of convict porters. A founding member and now secretary of the Association Assisting Political Prisoners, Bo Kyi was jailed three times for a total of seven years and three months. ''In Burma there are 109 labour camps and 42 jails with 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,'' said Bo Kyi.

His main focus is political prisoners, but he also lashes out against the abuse of convict porters.

''I accuse this regime of crimes against humanity. There's enough solid documented evidence on current political prisoners, past political prisoners and the abuse of convict porters. Prisoners who escape are often beaten to death as a lesson to other prisoners. They do not get proper funeral rites and are often buried with their chains on.''

Outside the small bare room in a safe house on the Thai-Burmese border that Win now calls home, children kick a football against a wall and play at war with plastic guns. Motorbikes roar pass and dogs bark after them _ normal weekend sounds.

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

''The army came for me at 4am on Jan 1 _ 75 of us were taken from our cells and put in two army trucks. We were told nothing but guessed we were going to the front line. I planned to escape.''

Win says that when they arrived at the front line it was chaos.

''There were about 400 prisoners going up and down the mountain in a continuous procession. The mortars were firing all the time. I was scared of the soldiers. They told us not to leave the paths and if we did get blown up by a mine, they would shoot us.''

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

''I was sent back to the front. We had to carry a 120mm mortar up to the top of the mountain. It took three porters to carry the barrel, two porters to carry the metal plate and two more for the legs.''

Win points to a plastic electric tea urn and says the mortar shells were about the same size.

''I could only manage to carry two at a time.''

Now 45, Win says he was not nearly the oldest convict porter.

''I saw some as old as 55 and others as young as 15.''


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. I turned myself in. I was sent to hard labour, breaking 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 [about 2,100 baht] for my five years working in the quarry, but our pay was taken by the soldiers.''

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

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

The humanitarian organisation 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 Burmese army operation in northern Karen State in which 2,200 convict porters were used.

FBR document that ''the Burma army used over 2,200 porters in this offensive and over 265 have been reported dead, many of whom were executed.''

FBR's information was collected from, ''escaped porters, Burmese army deserters and villagers who have seen the bodies of dead porters''.

Win says the food was rotten and there were times the convict porters were not fed for two days.

''I had enough. I decided to escape. Two of us were sent unguarded to fix a generator. We ran and hid in the jungle until it was 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.''

Convicts interviewed for this story say they do not expect their plight is worthy of investigation. Most feel it is enough that they have escaped.

But abuses by the Burmese army have not gone unnoticed. Groups such as KHRG, FBR and HRW have built up an impressive amount of documentation _ eyewitness accounts, army orders and photographic evidence to support calls for a commission of inquiry into Burma's human rights abuses.


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

The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2011 details the denials from Burmese ambassador U Wunna Maung Lwin to calls for an inquiry. U Wunna Maung said there were ''no crimes against humanity in Myanmar with 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 United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva examined Burma's human rights record as part of its first Universal Periodic Review. Burma's delegation, led by deputy attorney-general Tun Shin, categorically denied state-orchestrated widespread, systematic and persistent human rights violations against the people of Burma.

During the three-hour review, many 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,'' and that ''There is no widespread occurrence of human rights violations with impunity.''

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