Burma’s army continues to use prisoners as porters in ethnic insurgency areas, in another violation of international humanitarian law.

BANGKOK — “The soldiers told us if we were alive tomorrow we would be lucky,” said Tun Tun Aung, a prisoner originally from a town near Mandalay who, along with 29 other convicts from Meiktila priso, was press-ganged into front-line duty by the Burmese Army in December 2010.

He said there were about 1,000 prisoners in Karen State when his group arrived there, whereupon they were divided up into smaller units to carry bombs for the army. “We were never given food or water,” he said, recounting the arduous daily trek up mountains and through jungle, in the ever-dangerous region where Karen rebels have fought the Burmese Army since 1948.

His story is one of 58 separate accounts by Burmese convicts recorded by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) in a new report, “Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma,” which was released today at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The document – based on accounts given by convict porters who were reportedly coerced into duty but later managed to escape – outlines cases of torture, beatings and summary executions.

Since elections held on Nov 7, 2010, fighting has increased between the Burmese Army and ethnic militias in Karen, Shan and Kachin states, which are home to sizable ethnic minorities, making it likely that the numbers of convict porters has gone up as well.

The report says that convicts are often forced to walk through heavily mined areas ahead of soldiers, and were pushed—unarmed and defenseless—to the front line when the army engaged with militia groups.

Another former convict porter, Maung Myint described a gruesome scene that is far from unusual on the front line: “We were carrying food up to the camp and one porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg. The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no-one helped. When we came back down the mountain we saw he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his clothing in the threes, and parts of leg in the trees.”

According to Poe Shan, a researcher with the KHRG, the practice of using convicts as army porters is not new, with evidence dating back to 1992 of prisoners being forced to work on the front lines in ethnic minority areas, where the army has long battled militia groups.

Myint Aung was serving a sentence in Mandalay Prison when he was taken to Karen State in 1992 to serve as a munitions porter. Then, as now, it appears that prisoner-porters were press-ganged into work along with local villagers.

“I don’t know how many porters there were altogether,” said Myint Aung, in an account provided by the KHRG, “but I saw about 400 villagers being used as porters as well as the prisoners.”

In a similar account, now almost two decades old, to those given to the KHRG and HRW in 2010 and 2011, Myint Aung said that “I saw the soldiers leave behind 30 or 40 men, and I am sure they are dead because the soldiers left them beaten and unconscious, with nothing.”

Convict porters are part of a broader problem of forced labor involving the army in Burma, which the International Labour Organization has had some recent success in countering. Burma’s military stands accused of deploying child soldiers as part of its long-standing “Four Cuts” strategy in restive ethnic minority regions, which tries to deny food, funds, intelligence and recruits to ethnic militias, but has resulted in hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority people fleeing their villages across the border to Thailand, or hiding out in the jungle.

In 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which recently regained some access to prisons in Burma after a five-year denial by the Burmese authorities, accused the Burmese government of “major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law,” adding that “every year thousands of detainees have been forced to support the armed forces by serving as porters.”

The press-ganging of prisoner-porters is more evidence of war crimes in Burma, according to HRW’s Elaine Pearson. She said that “Burma’s is the world’s longest-running armed conflict, and the practice of forcing convicts to work as porters and human minesweepers is more evidence that a Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma is necessary.”

The proposed inquiry was first mooted by United Nations human rights point man on Burma, Argentinian lawyer Tomás Ojea Quintana, in early 2010, and to date has attracted support in principle from 16 countries.

If implemented, any such inquiry could potentially be used as part of a war crimes case against Burma’s military rulers, though it is likely that Burma’s allies China and Russia would oppose any such process via the UN Security Council, where both are permanent members.

Note that pseudonyms and approximate locations used by HRW/KHRG to protect the identity of interviewees. These have been replicated here.

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