Convicts abused as slave labour

Faced with international condemnation for its use of civilians as forced labour, the Myanmarese military regime has been raiding the country’s prisons to force convicts to perform slave-like work in army camps, even resulting in their deaths, say rights


Just how extensive this practice — where convicts are “treated like pack of animals, constantly beaten, and killed as soon as they are no longer usefuL” — is only now coming to light following a temporary halt of Rangoon’s military offensive in the eastern Karen state, says a human rights group.

“The Myanmarese military has used more convict porters and labourers during its advance in the Karen state that began in November 2005 than during previous years,” Stephen Hull, lead author of a recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), said. “The military advance has not stopped, only slowed down due to the monsoon rains.” According to KHRG estimates, the prisoners are grouped into a 300 to 500-strong labour teams for the back-breaking work to carry heavy loads for the army, which includes ammunition, food, soldiers’ personal gear and ‘’villagers’ belongings looted along the way (by Myanmarese troops).” During the previous year, the convict labour forces were “about 50 per battalion,” says Hull.

“Some of the larger military columns have approximately 300 troops and as many as 400 convict porters; the total number of the convict porters in the three northern Karen districts right now is difficult to estimate, but probably lies between 3,000 and 5,000,” states Less than Human: Convict Porters in the 2005-2006 Northern Karen State Offensive.

At the worst of times, the convict labour force, kept in shackles when not on the move, is driven to walk ahead of military patrols to serve as “human shields or minesweepers,” it reveals. “Soldiers routinely kill convict porters, at times leaving a trail of bodies along the route of their patrol. In other instances, soldiers execute porters after torturing them as a form of exemplary punishment because the victims had attempted to escape.” The military offensive launched by Rangoon to take hold of areas that have been held by Myanmar’s oldest ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. Over 20,000 Karen villagers have fled their homes due to the military onslaught that began nine months ago.

The ill treatment of prisoners in Myanmar is not limited to convicts forced to serve as porters for the army. The suffering is equally bad in the 50-odd labour camps and 43 prisons spread across this South-east Asian nation, says a ranking member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a group of former political prisoners in Myanmar. “In some labour camps the prisoners have been beaten to death after falling down, exhausted from overwork,’’ AAPP’s Bo Kyi said. “The prisoners are not given medical care if they work in the quarries and get malaria. They die.”

Convicts forced to work as porters for the military are still to receive international sympathy, states the KHRG report. It fears that “there is a danger that the SPDC’s use of convict porters may be viewed internationally as a legitimate alternative to the forced conscription of villagers for portering duty.” — IPS