(Including details on conditions in Mandalay Prison)
An Independent Report by the Karen Human Rights Group
Manerplaw, November 13, 1992
The following account was given through an interview in Burmese with a porter recently escaped from the SLORC’s current offensive in the northern Karen area of Saw Hta. He was serving a criminal sentence in Mandalay Prison when he was taken to Saw Hta as a munitions porter, so his description includes details of his arrest and imprisonment, conditions in Mandalay Prison, and his life as a porter. At the time of the interview he was still suffering from an open gash on the back of his head inflicted by a beating with a G3 rifle butt. On arrival, he also had severe bruises on his back caused by other rifle butt beatings.
His name has been altered and several details of his address and arrest have been omitted in order to protect his family from SLORC retaliation.
Name: Myint Aung Sex: M Age: 24
Address: Lashio Township, Northern Shan state.
Nationality/Religion: Burmese Muslim
Occupation: Truck driver’s assistant
Family: Single, lives with his parents, brothers and sisters
My boss had made a deal with a businessman in Mandalay to take a few of the hides from his cows and buffaloes to sell near the China border, but along the way the SLORC police caught us and said we were breaking the law against selling hides. The SLORC has a law that says everyone must buy a license if they want to own a cow or buffalo. How much it costs depends on how much money you have. Businessmen have to pay a lot for each cow or buffalo they have, but for poor villagers there is no way they can pay to buy a license, so really all the cows and buffaloes owned by villagers are illegal, according to the SLORC. Then when you kill one of your animals you must sell the hide to the SLORC at their fixed price so they can control the hide business. The black market price is much higher, but it you sell a hide to anyone but the SLORC you can go to prison. In Burma they’ll even send you to prison it you sell a bag of peanuts to somebody else illegally.
The police wanted to arrest my boss because he was the driver, but he has a wife and children to take care of, so I went in his place. The police took me to Mandalay Prison, and locked me up there for 4 months while they "investigated the case". They always use this trick to delay things, so they can get as much money as possible from a prisoner’s family. I was lucky in prison – I was never beaten because my parents paid them money. My parents had to pay many times, 200 Kyat each time.
After 4 months they took me to court in a prisoner truck. It was a truck with a narrow window all around with bars. It was very crowded, with many of us packed standing inside, and each of our hands tied to the two prisoners beside us. At the court I was sentenced to one and a half years by a man appointed by the SLORC. Although he wasn’t a soldier. I just had to stand and listen in the courtroom. The police were in the court and they had seen the hides. Because they had this evidence against me, they gave me no chance to say anything. If you say anything maybe you’ll get an even longer sentence. In the court, you’re a criminal, so it’s your job to just be quiet and go to jail.
Then they took me back to Mandalay Prison, and that’s when my sentence began. In the prison I was luckier than most of the prisoners. If you can’t pay money they give you all the rotten jobs, like polishing the floor with coconut husks. But my boss paid the warden 2,000 Kyat so I got jobs that weren’t so bad. The work you get always depends on how much you can pay. Every thing about your life in the prison depends on how much you can pay the guards and the warden.
I was kept with 200 prisoners in a cell about 50 feet by 30 feet. It was very crowed. The cell had walls of bars and a concrete floor and was divided into two levels by a wooden platform. The new inmates have to sleep underneath on sleeping mats on the concrete floor, unless they can pay the guards for a place to sleep on top. At 7 a.m. they opened the cell and we were taken out for morning work. They assigned each of us a job as we went out like working in the prison garden or cleaning the toilets. Then at 10 o’clock we got food. At 10 o’clock we could also take a bath in the prison courtyard. We each had 2 shabby prison shirts and longyis [sarongs]to wear, so we could rinse one out when we had a bath. At 12 o’clock they locked us back up in the cell. Then in the afternoon we had to work again.
We were fed one bowl of rice in the morning and one bowl in the evening. In the morning it came with some very watery yellow bean soup and in the evening with an index-finger size lump of terrible quality fishpaste. The food was never enough but we couldn’t ask for more, so we were always hungry.
There was some drinking water in the cell, but it hadn’t been boiled. If you wanted to drink you had to call out to the guard, "This is Maung Myint Aung, I’m thirsty, I want to drink". You can only drink if he calls back that it’s okay. You have to do the same before you can go to the toilet or do anything. Anyone who forgot these rules was tortured and beaten on the back with sticks by the guards. There are many rules like this they teach you when you come to prison. When talking to a guard you must stand with your legs tight together and your longyi tucked between them, your head bowed and your hands folded in front of your crotch. You must always walk that way too. And if a guard tells you to sit cross-legged, you had better sit with your legs exactly as he says. Anytime anyone broke any of these rules he was beaten severely with sticks. I saw it every day.
The toilets in the cell were terrible. They were just 4 pots, and after using one we had to go empty it in a big hole in the courtyard. When the hole was full we had to fill it in and dig another. There was no water at all at the toilet, and no paper of any kind is allowed in the prison for any reason. So after using a pot we had to clean ourselves with our own urine or our longyis. Because of this and the dirtiness of the cell and the unboiled drinking water, many prisoners got very sick with stomach diseases like cholera and dysentery. Some also got malaria. There is a place called the "prison hospital" but it’s just a name: there’s no medicine or anything, it’s just a place to lie and be sick, so nobody wants to go. In the few months I was there 3 or 4 prisoners in my cell died of stomach diseases and were taken to be cremated by the guards. There are 5,000 people in the whole jail, men, women, and old people. Every day 2 or 3 of them die of disease. I know because they had to carry the bodies past our cell to go and burn them.
There are also political prisoners in the jail, but I never saw them because they were kept separately. I asked one of the people who brought the food about them, and he said they’re treated the same as we were.
One day near the end of September the guards told us to be ready, because in 2 or 3 days they‘d come and call us. That’s all they told us. Later we were each given one plastic sheet, a pair of flip-flops and another set of prison clothes. The next morning on September 28, the army came and took 325 of us away on army trucks. When this happened we knew they were taking us to be porters, but we didn’t know where. We were part of a truck convoy of prisoners from Mandalay, Myingyan, and Meiktila prisons. There were about 50 of us in the back of each truck, crowded together sitting with our legs drawn up. We traveled like this night and day for 3 days without ever stopping to get off the truck, except twice a day for just one hour for meals. They took us all the way from Mandalay to Pa Zau Town [near Papun, in northern Karen State].
In Pa Zau they gave us loads we had to carry to Saw Hta. I had to carry eight mortar shells about this big [Myint Aung indicated roughly the size of an 81mm mortar shell]. My load weighed at least 17 viss [27 kg.]. Others had to carry shells, rice, salt, food or other things. It took us over 20 days to march over the mountains to Saw Hta. Sometimes along the way we stopped for 2 or 3 days, and during these times we had to dig trenches and bunkers and do other work for the soldiers.
I saw 6 Battalions altogether: #114, 115, 117, and 54 were ordinary soldiers, and #18 Burma Regiment, plus #55 which had artillery. I was with #117 Battalion. I don’t know how many porters there were altogether, but I saw about 400 villagers being used as porters as well as the prisoners. I didn’t see any women.
It was much worse than being in prison because at least in prison we got meals regularly. As a porter we never knew when we would get to eat. When we did get food it was 2 milk tins of rice per day and some yellow beans and salt, which was nowhere near enough after carrying loads over mountains all day. The soldiers drank coffee and ate really good food, but they never shared with us. Even when they made us make shelters for them, they’d never let us stay in the shelter when it was done - we just had to stay outside on the ground. They treated us like dirt, but we had to call them all "Saya" [‘Teacher’, a term of honour and respect].
Whenever it was time to rest, they gathered 10 to 30 of us in a group on the ground and put guards around us. So many porters have escaped before that now they’re careful to make sure no one can escape. Many of us got sick. I saw 2 porters die of cholera, and I had malaria attacks four times. Two of the four times they gave me medicine – one tablet of g quinine. [Note: the prescription for quinine to treat malaria is 6 tablets per day for 7 days, making a full course of 42 250–mg. Tablets. Giving just one tablet is utterly useless.]
I always saw the soldiers abusing porters. I was beaten many times before reaching Saw Hta. Six times they beat me in the back with their rifle butts and knocked me down, just for being too tired and weak to keep up under my load. Each beating, they pounded me in the back about 5 times. Once they smashed me in the back of the head with a rifle butt. I fell down and felt dizzy, weak and sick There was a lot of blood pouring from my head, but still they made me get up and go on. They didn’t give me a bandage until evening. The wound still hasn’t healed, even now.
Most of the times when they beat porters they used their rifle butts. I didn’t see them kill anyone, but some were beaten unconscious and left behind. I saw the soldiers leave behind 30 or 40 men like this, and I’m sure they’re dead because the soldiers left them beaten unconscious, alone, with nothing.
By the time our group arrived in Saw Hta the SLORC soldiers were already there. They’d killed and eaten all the animals the villagers had left behind. We only got a few of the vegetables that were still left. I was in Saw Hta for more than 10 days working for the soldiers. Two times I had to carry wounded soldiers back to the 54 Battalion position at Reh Hta. It was a 15 hour walk from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., carrying them over mountains and across rivers with guards watching us all the way. Once I saw 29 wounded soldiers the porters had to carry, together with 14 others who could walk by themselves.
I only saw one battle, and the porters had to go forward with the soldiers. Ten porters were wounded, and were carried back with the wounded soldiers. I saw some other porters try to escape, but they were caught and beaten much worse than I was ever beaten. They might have died from the beating, but I didn’t see. Then once when the soldiers asked me to carry something, I said I had to go to the toilet, went into the bushes and ran away. It was 4 in the afternoon and that night I ended up sleeping on the river bank. I wasn’t even afraid of being shot if the SLORC soldiers saw me or of drowning in the river, because after all that time being abused I felt like even death would be better than taking any more. The next morning I tied 4 bamboos together with my longyi and floated across the Salween River. Later I found a Karen soldier, who gave me food and brought me here. For me, staying here is like being in heaven compared to before. The SLORC is terrible, but the Karen people are good - they saved my life, and they don’t even know me. For now I don’t even want to go back, because the SLORC would only arrest me again.
I think about my family, though. The prison guard told them I was going as a porter, but they must think I’m dead by now. Mostly I worry about my sisters, that one of them could marry a soldier. That would be terrible - my whole family hates the SLORC. Everybody hates the Army.