These notes are intended to provide a brief summary of the systematic use of forced labour by the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta ruling Burma. For further details and supporting evidence, we suggest that the Commission refer to the other reports already submitted by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG). These supporting documents include written/typed order documents sent to villages by SLORC military units and administrative bodies demanding that villages provide forced labour under threat of retribution should they fail.
The Context and Extent of Forced Labour
Burma has a population estimated at between 45 and 48 million, though no reliable recent census exists. This population is roughly 50% ethnic Burman (Bamar), and 50% divided between at least 15 other major ethnic groups, such as the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Chin, Rakhine, Wa, Lahu, Palaung, etc. The Burmans are the dominant group in most areas of the central plains of the country, while the other ethnic groups generally inhabit their own homelands between the central plains and the country’s borders. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, and has been involved in civil war continuously from 1949 until the present, with at least 15-20 resistance armies, most of them based on ethnic nationality, fighting against occupation and repression by central governments and to achieve regional autonomy. SLORC now claims to have made ‘peace’ with almost all of these resistance groups; however, all it has really achieved are temporary ceasefires. None of the political or human rights concerns of the resistance groups, such as forced labour, have been addressed, and many of these groups are very unhappy with current conditions under their ceasefire deals. SLORC continues to use any means at its disposal to further encroach on areas controlled by resistance groups, whether or not they have ceasefire deals.
At the same time, SLORC is trying to extend its direct control, particularly over remote parts of the country currently or previously controlled by resistance groups, by implementing large-scale infrastructure development projects such as road, railway and hydro dam construction. These projects are also being carried out extensively in central Burman areas, as SLORC continues to try to improve infrastructure in order to attract foreign investment. SLORC’s logic appears to be that foreign investment will enrich both the Army and the Generals running the country, and furthermore foreign investment brings with it foreign political support and increased legitimacy, while improvements in the economy and infrastructure (even if only benefitting a small class of people) can help silence the people’s desire for political reform.
Both of the above SLORC activities - namely, the military destruction of ethnic resistance, and the development of infrastructure - rely heavily on the nationwide use of civilians as forced labour. It is our estimate that close to half the population of the country - at least 15-20 million people - are involved in some form of forced labour for SLORC on a regular basis, whether this be doing forced labour of some form, paying to hire someone to do your assignment for you, or paying a ‘fee’ to avoid forced labour. It is by far the most prevalent and widespread form of human rights abuse in Burma today, and the leading cause of internal displacement of populations and the flight of refugees to neighbouring countries.
Types of Forced Labour
It would be impossible here to list every type of forced labour for which civilians are used by SLORC authorities and troops, but it is possible to list some of the main types. The first major category is military forced labour, and the best-known form of this is forced portering. Given the lack of good roads and other infrastructure throughout Burma and the ruggedness of much of the terrain, the Tatmadaw (SLORC Army) very often moves its troops and supplies on foot. Civilian forced labour is always used to do this. Even in many cases where mules or trucks could be used, SLORC troops are in the habit of using civilians because it saves trouble and expense. Porters are conscripted in a variety of ways depending on the circumstances (for full details, see "Summary of Types of Forced Portering" (KHRG #95-13, 11/4/95), an April 1995 KHRG report already provided to the Commission). The best known form is ‘operations portering’, which occurs whenever SLORC mounts a major military operation. These operations involve up to 20,000 troops at a time, and on average two to five porters are required for each soldier in order to carry all the required ammunition, rations, heavy weaponry and other supplies. To capture the required number of civilians, SLORC troops, police, local authorities and sometimes even the fire department begin surrounding public places, such as crowded markets, railway stations and video cinemas, rounding up all able-bodied men and piling them on trucks to be taken to holding cells in local police and Army jails, from where they are combined with other captured groups and sent on to frontline units. Local town authorities swoop on houses in the middle of the night using any excuse, such as an unpaid local tax or an unregistered houseguest, to arrest all the occupants and send them off as porters. Troops surround rural villages and storm them to capture anyone who will be able to carry a load. People are often sent to be porters halfway across the country from where they were captured. Families of those captured are not notified in any way. Local authorities are assigned a numeric quota of how many porters they have to round up, and in their desperation to get the number they often take women, small children and people as old as 70. They often take 2 or 3 times as many people as required, then make money by accepting bribes to release all those they don’t need.
Once at the frontline, operations porters are assigned to units and given a load to carry over the mountains. The soldiers generally carry nothing except their personal weapon and a small personal kitbag, while each porter is forced to carry 30 to 50 kilogram loads in woven bamboo baskets which rip the flesh off of their shoulders and backs. They generally have only the clothing in which they were captured. They are given little or no food, often just one or two handfuls of rice per day, and are often forbidden to drink water en route because the soldiers say it will slow them down. They are not paid in any way. They are often sent in front of the column as human minesweepers and used as human shields; in some cases they are even forced to switch clothing with the soldiers in order to draw enemy fire. In battle they are forced to stay with the soldiers, and many are wounded or killed. Those who are wounded or fall sick are generally not treated but simply left behind. Medicines are reserved for the soldiers. While carrying, if porters are slow they are usually kicked, prodded with bayonets or beaten to keep them moving, and if they collapse and cannot continue they are left behind, often after being beaten unconscious. In especially sensitive areas, they will be executed by cutting their throats, kicking them down a mountainside or tying them and throwing them in a river in order to prevent them from giving information if found by resistance groups. Soldiers open fire on any porters trying to escape, and if captured after escaping they are tortured or executed in front of the others as an example. They are usually kept as porters for the duration of the operation, which can be three months or longer. Many escaped operations porters testify that by the time they escaped, half of the original porters had died. Even if the operation ends, they are just told they are free to go and given no assistance to get home, even if it is halfway across the country. They generally have no money for the trip, and even if they go they face the possibility of re-arrest along the way for having no travel papers, so many end up as internally displaced people far from home or as refugees.
Villagers must also do what is known as ‘permanent portering’; their village must provide a certain number of porters to each local Tatmadaw unit at all times on a rotating basis. For example, if a village has 50 households and is located within an hour’s walk of 3 Army camps, they will have to send about 5 porters to each of these camps. These porters are not paid, must take all their own food, and are kept at the camp for 5 to 7 days, after which they must be replaced by rotation. This form of portering occurs in both conflict and non-conflict areas. When not busy carrying supplies for the troops, these villagers are used for other camp labour (see below). Troops on the move or on patrol will also capture villagers seen on the path or in their fields and use them as porters, even if it is only to carry their personal bags. In towns, being arrested and sent to be a porter is often used as a punishment by local authorities, whether for non-payment of a tax, having an unregistered house guest, or simply because the local ward chief has a personal grudge against you.
Other Military Forced Labour
There are many forms of military forced labour besides portering, and all of these forms are on the increase as SLORC expands its Army and establishes new Army camps throughout the country in both conflict and non-conflict areas. Many townships which used to have 3 Army Battalions now have 10 or more, and many villages which used to be within walking distance of one small Army camp now have to do forced labour at 3 or 4 camps at once. Whenever a new Battalion moves into an area, the nearby villages are forced to collect and provide most of the building materials for the camp, then at least one person per household (sometimes more) is forced to go to do forced labour building the barracks and bunkers, digging trenches and erecting fences. Once the camp is established the villagers must go on rotating shifts to constantly maintain the Camp buildings and defences; usually one person per 10 households must go for 5 days, then replacements must be sent by rotation. They are not paid and must take their own food. When additional labour is required on an ad hoc basis, written orders are issued to the village and the entire village must drop all their work and attend. Villagers must also stay at the Camp on standby to carry messages to other Army units and to carry written orders to nearby village leaders.
In many areas rotating labour must also be sent as Army camp servants; women are often specifically demanded for this labour cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, carrying water, cutting firewood, sewing, etc. The women doing this labour in the camps live in constant fear of rape, and are often forced to massage or sing to the Army officer before being raped at gunpoint. They are then threatened that they will be killed if they tell anyone.
In areas where there is any possibility of conflict, villagers must do sentry duty at Army camps; often most or all of the soldiers sleep, leaving only unarmed villagers as sentries with orders to wake them up if anything happens. Villagers must also clear roadsides of scrub and trees for anywhere from 5 to 100 metres on each side of military supply roads in order to decrease the chance of ambush. In such areas, villagers must stand sentry along roads and railways, with 2 to 4 villagers posted every 200 metres along the route. If anyone is seen on the road, they are supposed to send a signal up the line by beating on bamboo sticks. If they do so, the troops come and usually beat them - either for sending a ‘false’ signal, or for sending a ‘true’ signal but not capturing the intruder. In the morning in and near conflict areas, village women and children are often specifically forced to sweep roads with branches to detect landmines. Once this is done, men are sometimes forced to drive bullock carts, weighted either with stones or with women and children, over the road in case there are still mines. If a mine explodes, the village is then punished for allowing the mine to be laid.
In areas where bullock carts are the main form of transport, a specified number of bullock cart owners must be on standby at all times for immediate use if required by the local Army unit. In areas where boats are used, boat owners must be on standby. In areas where there are motor vehicles, these and their drivers can be commandeered at any time for military use without compensation. Once taken, the car, cart or boat is often not returned or returned seriously damaged.
Military Commercial Interests
In many areas, particularly where there is no conflict, the main activity of local and regional military units is making money for themselves. This is done mainly through direct extortion of the local population, but also through forced labour. One means is by extorting ‘fees’ from villagers to avoid forced labour (though often after collecting ‘porter fees’ the Army still takes the villagers as porters), and other means involve setting up commercial projects and then using the villagers as forced unpaid labour on them. Many Army units confiscate all the best farmland around their camp, then force the local villagers to do forced labour growing rice or cash crops for them. The villagers usually have to provide or pay for the seed, then do all the labour involved in farming, then after the harvest the crop is simply taken by the Army officers and disappears. The villagers receive nothing. In some cases these crops appear to have been sold on the local market for personal profit of the local Army officers, while in other cases they are handed over to SLORC authorities at higher levels, apparently to meet export demands. In forested areas, villagers are also regularly ordered to cut and haul prime quality hardwood logs to local Army camps or sawmills, where other villagers or sawmill owners are then forced to cut the logs into timber without compensation. The timber then disappears to market with all profit going to local military officers, while orders are issued forbidding the villagers to cut any trees for their own use. Many military officers nationwide have also established brick-baking kilns at Battalion camps. The villagers are forced to cut and deliver all the wood required to bake the bricks, while the rank-and-file soldiers are forced to bake bricks for 8 or 10 hours a day in addition to their normal military duties. The officers then sell the bricks on the market for 5 Kyats each and pay no compensation to anyone.
Other similar projects have included large scale fish farming, sugarcane and rubber plantations. In these cases, thousands of acres of land are confiscated at a time, and then villagers are forced to do labour over several years digging fishponds or clearing land and planting rubber trees. These large scale projects are generally coordinated by SLORC authorities at the State or national level, and the produce may largely be intended for export, particularly as ‘countertrade’ goods (‘countertrade’ is the process whereby foreign companies buy agricultural goods from SLORC agencies in order to convert their Burmese currency profits into exportable agricultural produce). Ironically, many of these forced-labour farming and other projects have been showcased in the SLORC-controlled media and to international agencies as ‘community income generation projects’.
Infrastructure Development and Maintenance
SLORC has embarked on a nationwide program of building roads, railways, bridges, hydro dams, airports and other infrastructure, partly to strengthen military control over remote and rugged areas and partly to attract foreign investment. Virtually all of these projects are being implemented entirely by the unpaid forced labour of the local population. The SLORC media parades these projects, showing photographs of thousands of subsistence farmers "eagerly contributing" their labour and giving exhaustive statistics on the number of earth pits they have dug and the number of rocks they have broken. SLORC has now coined the term "self-reliance basis" to refer to projects where the local people have to pay all the costs, provide most of the materials and do all the forced labour. All contributions are forced under threat of retaliation.
The most common infrastructure forced labour is road building and maintenance. In virtually every township of the country there is at least one road which is being built, improved or maintained by forced labour, ranging from local roads such as the Le Nya - Boke Pyin and T’Gu - Ta Po Hta roads in the far south of Tenasserim Division, to the networks of military access roads being built to consolidate SLORC control in recently occupied areas of Karen State, such as Dooplaya and Pa’an Districts; the Ye-Tavoy car road in Tenasserim Division and Mon State, over 100 miles long; improvement of military access roads in the Kengtung-Kun Hing area of Shan State where over 600 villages have been forcibly relocated; development of the Rangoon-Pegu highway; construction of a new Mandalay Ring Road for tourists; and new trade roads to the borders with India and China. In addition to roads, since the early 1990’s construction of new railways with forced labour has been going on non-stop; some of the major projects are the Loikaw - Aung Ban railway (Karenni and Shan States, completed 1993), the Kalaymyo-Gangaw-Pakokku-Chaung U railway (Sagaing Division, Chin State, Magwe and Mandalay Divisions, ongoing), and the Ye-Tavoy railway (Mon State and Tenasserim Division, ongoing). Bridges must also be built to support these projects. Large and small hydro dams are being built throughout the country with forced labour, though when they are finished the electricity usually only goes to Army facilities and local businessmen who can give large payoffs to the Army. Even airports have been built with forced labour, most notably the new "International Airport" at Bassein in the Irrawaddy Delta.
These large-scale projects tend to wreak havoc on the local communities and lead to large flows of internally displaced people and refugees. Estimates are that over 300,000 people have been used for forced labour since 1993 on the Ye-Tavoy railway, while in 1993 the SLORC media reported that a total of 800,000 people had contributed labour on the Loikaw-Aung Ban railway. Generally each household has to contribute one person for forced labour shifts of 10 to 15 days at a time. Villages are often divided into two groups which alternate work shifts, so that at any one time half of the families in the village have one family member at the worksite. At the same time, the villagers have to pay "fees" to support the project and do all their other forced labour obligations such as Army camp labour, leaving them with little or no time to earn their own livelihoods. They are not paid for the forced labour and must provide all their own food and tools. They usually have to sleep at the worksite in unsanitary conditions, but if they get sick no medicine is provided; if they are lucky they are allowed to go home and come back later to complete the unfinished assignment, but those who say they are sick are often beaten for ‘pretending’ and forced back to work.
On large projects SLORC authorities generally assign each village a work quota, such as a given length of road embankment, to be completed within one work shift of 5 to 15 days. They are not allowed to go home until the work is completed to the satisfaction of the local military. Guards often patrol while they work and scold or beat anyone who is not working hard enough. The work is brutal, building and smoothing embankments up to 5 metres high with nothing except hoes and bare hands. In monsoon season, embankments often collapse and bury villagers alive.
On some sites bulldozers and other machinery are available, but the local military usually lets it sit idle while the villagers do the work so that the officers can sell the fuel on the black market. If these machines are absolutely required for a certain stretch of embankment (for example, to cut through a mountainside) the village assigned to that stretch must usually pay to ‘hire’ the machine and pay for all required fuel. If any money is provided to pay labourers, it is just kept by the local military officers. Engineering decisions on these projects are often made by local military officers with no engineering experience. Even if authorized engineers are present, their plans are often overridden by the local military officer and they cannot dare object. Furthermore, villagers doing forced labour do not do good work; they often fill embankments with sticks and scrub covered with a fine layer of dirt when no guards are watching, just to finish their work assignment sooner so they can go home. As a result of all of these factors, completed roads, railways and other infrastructure are constantly falling apart, and when this happens the villagers are forced to rebuild it. For example, in the first rainy season after its completion there were at least 5 derailings on the Loikaw-Aung Ban railway due to subsiding embankments, killing over 20 people. Most of the roads constructed by SLORC wash out every monsoon season, and all villagers in the area are called out to rebuild them every November to January.
Cleaning up Towns
Another form of forced labour, particularly prevalent in provincial towns, is weekly local cleanup work, such as sweeping streets and clearing grass along roads and streets. Local town ward elders are responsible for arranging work gangs from among the townspeople, who must do a day’s labour often under the guard of armed soldiers or police. The type of work depends on the locale; for example, civilians are also used for forced labour cleaning up the lake at Pa’an or clearing the weeds out of Inya Lake in Shan State. In many towns, house owners are also forced to rebuild their house facades to meet SLORC standards of modernity; for example, replacing wood with concrete, leaf roofing with corrugated zinc sheeting, and building brick front walls with iron gates. Anyone who fails to comply loses their house to the military.
As SLORC attempts to increase its legitimacy and foreign capital, it has also been trying to attract tourists, particularly during ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’. Forced labour has been and continues to be used to develop tourist infrastructure and tourist sites and to improve appearances along tourist routes. Major infrastructure projects aimed at tourism have included the international airport at Bassein, where an estimated 200,000 people were used for forced labour between 1992 and 1994, ongoing improvement of the Rangoon-Pegu highway, the Kengtung-Tachilek road in Shan State, and the new ring road around Mandalay. Leading up to and during ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ new forced labour projects were constantly being conceived by regional and national military commanders; for example, the local military commander in Myawaddy, central Karen State, decided that more Thai tourists could be drawn to the waterfall at Than Ma Ya Taung, and as a result all villagers in the area had to commence forced labour on a new road. After SLORC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe visited Nga Saw beach in the Irrawaddy Delta, he declared that it should be developed for tourism and villagers were immediately forced to commence constructing a road from the Bassein River westward 40 kilometres to the beach at Nga Saw.
For two years leading up to ‘Visit Myanmar Year’, people in the area of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, were forced to work building a ‘Buddha Museum’ to attract tourists. To those who worked on it, the museum became known as the ‘Dukkha Museum’, which means ‘Museum of Suffering’. On its completion, SLORC authorities throughout Rakhine State began confiscating precious antique Buddha images from temples for inclusion in the Museum. In Sittwe and in Lashio (northern Shan State) there are reports that hotels belonging to relatives of SLORC Generals were built partly with forced labour. In Mandalay, over 20,000 local people were used as forced labour to clean out the moat of Mandalay Palace in preparation for ‘Visit Myanmar Year’. Once this project created local unrest and was documented in the international media, SLORC stopped using local people and brought in convicts to do the work - which was still forced and unpaid.
Who Gives the Orders
The origin of orders for forced labour depends on the specific project or military application, though there is an understanding among all levels of SLORC authority, military and otherwise, that they have the power to conscript civilian forced labour for any purpose at any time with complete impunity. Orders for forced labour as local porters, at Army Camps and on local development projects are usually issued by local Battalion or Camp Commanders; these orders are usually written or typed, then sent to village elders by villagers who are doing forced labour as military messengers. Some orders specify the nature of the forced labour, the number of people required, and a threat against any elder who fails to comply, while others simply summon the elder to come immediately to the Army camp to receive his orders directly. In most villages and every town ward, SLORC authorities appoint a Ya Wa Ta (Village Law & Order Restoration Council, or VLORC) committee, often against their will. On receiving the orders, the committee members are responsible for conscripting the required quota of labourers, under the direct or implied threat that they will be arrested and tortured if they fail to do so. They are then usually required to accompany the forced labourers and supervise their work. If the work is not done to the satisfaction of the authorities, the committee members will be the first to be arrested and seriously punished, and in serious cases the village may be shelled or burned. For this reason, SLORC units often do not even post guards on forced labourers, knowing that the villagers are too afraid of the consequences if the work is not done properly.
Similar orders are issued by the local and regional SLORC authorities, the LORCs (Law & Order Restoration Councils); particularly the Township LORC (Ma Wa Ta) and District LORC. These generally demand infrastructure and maintenance labour, though they can also be for porters and other military forced labour; similarly, the local military units often issue the orders for forced labour on infrastructure development. Technically, the LORCs are non-military, but most Chairmen of Township, District and State-level LORCs are military officers, and LORCs are always subservient to the local and regional military commands. As a result, there are no clear lines between which authority gives which forced labour orders, and villagers often end up doing double-shifts or overlapping forced labour as a result.
Local military officers and LORC authorities constantly order forced labour for their own local purposes and projects. For large-scale military offensives, orders come down from higher levels such as the Regional Military Commands and the State-level or national SLORC. For example, for a major military offensive in Karen State orders may be issued from Rangoon to Regional Military Commands or State-Level LORCs as far away as Shan or Rakhine States, ordering them to provide a certain quota of porters and arrange for transport. Those authorities will then divide the quota and send orders on to each Township LORC and/or Battalion Commander, assigning each a quota of their own and directions for transporting the porters to gathering points. The Township or Battalion will then issue orders to each Village Tract chairman, who must then divide the quota among each village, and finally a village chairman may be told that he must send 10 porters to a certain location on a certain date or face arrest and torture. No exceptions or excuses are accepted, because the village tract and township officials face similar punishments if they fail to meet their own quotas. A similar chain of command occurs in conscripting forced labour for large infrastructure projects.
On the receiving end, the ordinary villager or townsperson constantly receives orders from all directions demanding their forced labour. In some cases they can avoid it by paying bribes or hiring others to go in their place, but not always, and no one can afford to continue constantly paying these bribes for long. Moreover, in addition to all these official orders from all directions, the ordinary person also knows that at any time he or she can be grabbed in the field or on the street by the simplest rank-and-file soldier and dragged off to do whatever forced labour he has in mind.
Urban, Rural, and Conflict Areas
There are differences in the implementation of forced labour between urban, rural and conflict areas. In urban areas, while a large amount of forced labour occurs the conditions tend to be less brutal than in the rural areas. Furthermore, the majority of urban people manage to avoid forced labour by paying ‘fees’ to local SLORC authorities. This is possible because there is a cash economy in the cities, unlike the subsistence farming economy in rural areas, so urban people tend to have more money on hand; though at the same time, using this money for forced labour fees takes away the money they desperately need for food and other basic commodities. Other factors are SLORC’s fear of uprisings in urban areas and the visibility of urban areas to foreign visitors, both of which lead SLORC to conduct urban forced labour under less brutal conditions and to bring forced labour in from surrounding rural areas and prisons. For example, it was the outcry among Mandalay residents and the international coverage which led SLORC to stop using Mandalay civilians as forced labour cleaning the palace moat and switch to convict forced labour.
Over the last two to three years, parallel to SLORC’s drive to increase tourism, there has been an increasing tendency to bring rural villagers into urban areas to do forced labour rather than using urban residents. This has only increased the already unbearable burden on the rural villagers who make up 85% of Burma’s population. Fewer rural people have the money to pay bribes to avoid forced labour, and rural villages also have to face much harder working conditions because they are out of sight of the rest of the world and less able to mount an uprising. In rural areas, it is not uncommon for guards to beat a villager unconscious on a roadbed for ‘pretending to be sick’, then leave him lying there, whereas they would be unlikely to do so in the middle of a town or city. One escaped porter recently testified to KHRG that many captured porters try to escape while in transit through Rangoon because they know the guards won’t open fire on them there, whereas in the countryside they would be immediately gunned down.
Rural areas also face much stronger retaliation for failure to comply with forced labour orders; arrest and torture of village elders is routine, while shelling or burning of villages and execution of villagers are not uncommon. In conflict areas conditions are worst of all, because there is a much higher demand for military forced labour in addition to other types, and because all villagers are treated as ‘suspected enemy’ and are tortured or even executed on the slightest provocation. However, it is important to note that military forced labour is not confined to conflict areas alone; portering and camp labour occur everywhere the Army is based, which is everywhere in the country.
Women, Children and the Elderly
Women, children and the elderly are used extensively for all forms of forced labour. When SLORC troops swoop on a village or a market to capture porters, they tend to take only the able-bodied men (SLORC generally considers ages 15 to 65 to be ‘able-bodied’), but if there are not enough they will take whomever they can catch, ranging in age from 12 to 70. In many villages in or near conflict areas, all the village men live in hiding outside the village to avoid random torture or arrest as porters by SLORC troops, while the women, children and the elderly stay in the village to try to protect their home and belongings from looting soldiers. When troops storm a village looking for porters and only find women, they are angry and generally arrest the women accusing them of being ‘wives of rebels’, physically abuse them and/or take them as porters. Furthermore, some Battalions deliberately take at least some women as porters during military operations. These women are forced to carry loads almost as heavy as the men and are beaten as the men are, but then during the night they are generally kept separately from the men and raped at gunpoint by any soldier who desires them.
For Army Camp labour, most units will take either men or women for work such as building bunkers and erecting fences, but women are often specifically demanded for servant labour such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. They are generally forced to stay at the camp during their multi-day shift and many are raped or otherwise sexually abused and harassed. SLORC soldiers tend to prefer young unmarried women for both portering and camp labour. Once raped, these women are afraid to tell anyone because they fear that it will destroy their chances for marriage. Those who become pregnant from rape during forced labour often die or permanently injure themselves trying to induce or give themselves abortions.
SLORC Army deserters have often explained to KHRG how they are ordered by their officers to go to villages and come back with a certain number of people for forced labour, and how if they do not get that exact number they are beaten and tortured by their officers. As a result, they frantically grab whomever they can get to make up the quota, even small children and people in their 70’s. When written orders are sent for forced labour, able-bodied men often dare not go because they are afraid they are more likely to be tortured or abused, so women, children and the elderly go in their place. On most infrastructure projects, the forced labourers range in age from 8 or 10 up to 70 (for more details on child forced labour, see "The Situation of Children in Burma", a May 1996 KHRG report already provided to the Commission). When each village or each family is assigned a certain quota of work, many families decide to go as a group, complete with small children and grandparents, to try to finish their assignment more quickly. It is not uncommon to see a 12-year-old girl lifting paniers of rocks onto the heads of her 7- and 8-year old brothers to be carried up the slope while father digs earth and mother breaks rocks. Many families also face a dilemma when faced with multiple demands for forced labour during crucial times in the farming cycle, so they choose to send their children for forced labour so that the parents can continue working in the fields. They have little choice, because if the crop fails the entire family will starve. As a result, if you look at forced labour sites on roads or railways, in hot season you will see a mixture of young and old men, women, and children aged 8 and above. At the same worksite in rainy season, when the rice crop is growing, you will see almost exclusively women and small children. It is in rainy season when the work conditions are the most brutal, and when embankments collapse burying people alive.
On many worksites in Burma, convicts in white or blue uniform can be seen doing forced labour with heavy shackles attaching their ankles to their waists. There is a misconception among some casual visitors to tourist areas in Burma that most forced labour is done by convicts, which is far from true. The vast majority of forced labourers are ordinary villagers and townspeople, though a sizable number of convicts are also used. The reason for the misconception is that SLORC deliberately uses convicts instead of ordinary civilians on many urban projects and those which are visible to tourists.
Convicts are regularly used for forced unpaid labour as porters, on major infrastructure projects, tourism development projects, and at rock quarries. They include both criminal and political prisoners, though most political prisoners are not used for forced labour because SLORC is afraid they will escape from the worksite. Prisoners serving relatively short sentences are preferred to prisoners serving longer sentences because it is thought they will be less likely to attempt escape. Thus, those doing forced labour are often those who are in jail for ‘non-crimes’ such as curfew violations, selling goods without a SLORC license, or cursing at a SLORC soldier. In many cases when used as operations porters, convicts are held and continue to be used as porters well after the expiration of their prison sentences. Convicts doing forced labour are generally treated much more brutally than ordinary civilians and are routinely used in very dangerous work, such as blowing up rock faces or digging at cliffsides, in which many of them are killed. They are beaten and otherwise abused on the slightest provocation, given far from adequate food, and medical treatment is virtually nonexistent for them should they fall ill. Escaped convict labourers have testified to KHRG that the sick are accused of pretending until they are about to die, and only then are they sent to a prison hospital, which very few survive.
Forced Labour and Forced Relocations
One of SLORC’s main tactics in suppressing opposition and controlling the population is to conduct mass forced relocation campaigns, in which all the villages in a geographic area are ordered to move to SLORC-controlled camps or roadsides within 3 to 7 days, after which any man, woman or child seen in their village is shot on sight. In many cases, forced labour has been one of the main reasons for forced relocations. For example, in 1992 over 20,000 people of 76 villages in Karenni (Kayah) State were ordered to move to SLORC-guarded camps near Pruso and Deemawso within 7 days or be shot on sight. This relocation was partly motivated by a drive to suppress Karenni armed opposition in the area, but also by the need for forced labour on the Loikaw-Aung Ban railway construction. Immediately on arrival at the camps, the villagers were marched long distances to begin work on the railway line without food or compensation. In general, whenever SLORC troops conduct a forced relocation campaign (and they are conducting several mass forced relocation campaigns right now) and get villagers to sites under their control, those villagers are immediately used almost constantly for forced labour. The troops look on them as people who have nothing to do, so they use them every day in Army camps, building roads, farming for the Army, and even building fences around their own relocation site to keep themselves in. In most cases, the villagers have only the food they brought with them and no way of obtaining more, yet no food or compensation is given to them for the labour.
Destruction of the Village Economy and Communities
Villagers throughout Burma have to face all of the many kinds of forced labour described above, and when this is combined with the other systematic human rights abuses they have to face, such as extortion, regular looting, forced conscription to the Army, arbitrary arrest, rape, torture, and executions, the burden becomes unbearable. Many villagers cannot grow a crop if they do all the forced labour demanded of them, so they pay to avoid the labour or hire people to go in their place, but after paying repeatedly they no longer have any funds. They sell their livestock and valuables piece by piece to continue paying, but eventually all of that is gone and they are still ordered to do forced labour. If they fail to go they face arrest, but if they go they cannot work to survive, so they flee. Many villagers encountered by KHRG have gone through this situation, and many villages in non-conflict areas have lost 20% to 50% of their population as a result. Those who flee end up in the villages of their relatives, who also face the same problem and cannot support them, so many of them end up as beggars in towns or transient labourers. Others end up in hiding in the forests or fleeing to neighbouring countries to be refugees. If not for forced labour for SLORC, they would still have their land. People in urban areas, drained of all their finances by paying bribes to avoid forced labour, end up fleeing to neighbouring countries to seek low-paid labour as illegal immigrants.
In our experience, over 90% of the new refugees arriving from Burma in neighbouring countries are not fleeing fighting, they are fleeing systematic and unilateral SLORC abuses in their home village or town; and when asked why they fled, most of them give forced labour as the first reason. This is also true in areas where SLORC has made ceasefire deals with opposition groups; in many of these cases, such as the Palaung and Pa’O ceasefires in Shan State, the number of refugees fleeing the area has increased after the ceasefire deal because SLORC immediately sends many more troops into the region to consolidate control, and in the absence of fighting these troops spend all their time initiating infrastructure projects and money-spinning schemes which all involve the forced labour of villagers. The villagers cannot see any benefit out of SLORC’s ‘development’ programs. Once the road is finished, they have to stand sentry on it and rebuild it every year. Once the dam is finished, the power goes to the Army camp and to well-connected businessmen. Once the railway is finished, more troops move into their area, and they have to do new forced labour at Army camps. As long as people live in villages, which are stationary and vulnerable, SLORC will only continue to use them for more and more forced labour. The village is the fundamental community in Burma, but under SLORC, and particularly because of forced labour, it is no longer a viable concept.
The SLORC Response
As with other human rights abuses, SLORC’s primary response to the issue of forced labour is to say that it simply does not exist. Articles in the SLORC-run media constantly describe the efforts of thousands of volunteers ‘eagerly contributing’ their labour for months at a time, without mentioning that these ‘volunteers’ are subsistence farmers who do not have the free time to ‘eagerly contribute’ their labour. Similarly, SLORC claims that porters have to be unemployed young men and that they are paid for their work. However, there are no unemployed young men in subsistence farming villages, and no wages are paid. There is voluminous evidence, including SLORC documents, to show that the claims of voluntariness are false.
SLORC attempts to use the argument that all of this labour is ‘loh ah pay’, or voluntary labour, and that it is contributed by a Buddhist tradition whereby villagers make religious merit by contributing money if they can, and labour if they cannot. It is true that there is such a tradition in Burma, but it applies to working to build, maintain and support local monasteries and pagodas, and to village elders gathering their villagers to do a day’s work to benefit the whole community, such as cutting back the scrub along the path to the next village. There is no concept whatever in Burma of contributing one’s labour to a faraway ruler in Rangoon in order to build a highway or a railway 50 kilometres from your home, to carry heavy loads for soldiers or to build their camps. SLORC also attempts to use the argument that the ancient Burmese kings used people for labour, thus making it an acceptable tradition. Many countries in the world were ruled in the past by regimes that used slave labour, but that hardly makes it an acceptable practice today, particularly when a previous government in Burma has signed ILO conventions guaranteeing that such practices will no longer be used.
While claiming that all labour is voluntary, SLORC often contradicts itself in international fora and its own media by admitting that forced labour does exist, but claiming that it is only used where necessary and only by government agencies, or claiming that the people have to be forced to work at first, but once they realise the value of the project they are glad they were involved. Our extensive interviews with hundreds of victims of forced labour indicate that this is not the case.
SLORC is currently trying to create the impression that they are cutting back on the use of forced labour. The SLORC-run media regularly shows Tatmadaw soldiers doing labour on roads and railways with villagers looking on. However, villagers have testified to KHRG that while doing forced labour they have seen groups of soldiers come with television cameras, take the villagers’ tools, film themselves working for 5 minutes, and then leave the villagers to get back to work. This testimony seems to be confirmed by close observation of the media pictures, which generally shows the soldiers’ uniforms to be immaculate while the villagers are visibly sweaty, tired and covered with dirt. There have also been claims that forced labourers on infrastructure projects are now paid. This has been confirmed in a few cases, but only on projects in central locations which are exposed to foreign visitors, and even in these projects the amount paid has only been 20 to 40 Kyats per day, which is less than half the normally low rate for day labour and is not even enough to feed one person. As a result, no one wants to do this work and the labour is still forced. Furthermore, pay has only been provided on a small handful of projects. Away from areas visited by foreigners, no pay is given to forced labourers.
In late 1995, SLORC Secretary-1 Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt told Professor Yozo Yokota, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma, that he had issued ‘secret directives’ to local commanders to stop all use of forced labour. He never explained to the Rapporteur why it was 3 weeks after that before he could hand over a copy of these directives, nor why such directives should be ‘secret’. Since that time, the amount of forced labour used throughout the country has only increased, and we have obtained no word from deserting SLORC soldiers or any other source of the existence of any such directive, leading us to believe strongly that the ‘secret directives’ were simply a fraud intended to divert the Rapporteur.
Finally, SLORC claims that all evidence proving the use of forced labour in Burma is concocted by political groups with the aim of overthrowing the SLORC regime. However, the vast majority of this evidence has been collected by independent local and international human rights organisations, the United Nations Special Rapporteur and other United Nations bodies, and humanitarian relief non-governmental organisations, none of which are politically oriented. Those providing the evidence are usually villagers who are victims of forced labour, whose only concern is trying to find a way to help their family survive and who have no intention of plotting to overthrow the SLORC.
Background Note on Karen Human Rights Group
The Karen Human Rights Group is a small and independent group operating in parts of Burma which are not under direct control of the SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) military junta. Our aim is to help villagers in rural Burma to get their story to the outside world by translating their stories and testimonies for worldwide distribution. We have been working since 1992 interviewing villagers, the internally displaced and new refugees, gathering SLORC order documents which are issued to villages, and combining this with supporting photographic and other evidence of the human rights situation in rural areas.
We document the situation in any and all parts of Burma whenever firsthand information is available, though our background and limited resources lead us to focus most of our activities in southeastern Burma, particularly Karen areas. Though KHRG often operates in or through areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) and other opposition groups, we are independent and apolitical. KHRG’s actions and reports are in no way controlled, restricted, or censored by the KNU or any other group or organization. Our commitment is not to any organization, but to the villagers whose voice is far too often ignored.
Our reports and other evidence are currently distributed to international human rights organizations, various bodies of the United Nations including the Commission on Human Rights Thematic and Special Rapporteurs, the United Nations political envoys to Burma, various governments, relief organizations, Burma activist groups, academics, journalists and others worldwide.