This report looks at the issues of arrest, imprisonment and the use of convicts as military porters through the eyes of several groups of prison convicts who escaped while being forced to carry munitions and supplies for troops of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military junta. Convict labour has long been used in Burma, not only to carry supplies for Army units but also on infrastructure and tourism projects. In recent years the practice has expanded and has now even been formalised with the establishment of the ‘Won Saung’ porter camps. These camps function as holding centres for convicts where the Army can come and take porters whenever it needs them. Even disabled and sick convicts are taken to the frontlines for this work. Many of them are serving time for crimes which can be directly attributed to the crushing poverty and malnutrition that most of Burma’s population is facing. Many are serving sentences for extremely minor crimes, and there is even some evidence to suggest that quotas of innocent people are being convicted just to satisfy the regime’s need for convict labour.
Prison conditions in Burma are very harsh, with overcrowded cells, very poor health care including many deaths from AIDS, bad food and unclean living conditions, and brutal abuse regularly meted out by the guards. Being sent to work in the hard labour camps or as operations porters is even worse. The convict porters are forced to carry much more than a regular village porter. They are given no medical attention and fed starvation rations. They are constantly beaten and kicked when they falter under the heavy loads. Those too tired or sick to continue are either left behind to die or beaten to death. Sometimes they are just simply kicked off the sides of the mountains. After arriving at an Army camp they are forced to either work at the camps or to continue carrying when the soldiers go on operations against the opposition forces. The portering can go on for as long as six months or until the porters either escape or die - even if this is long beyond the end of their prison sentence. Very few make it back to the Won Saung porter camps.
In order to produce this report, KHRG human rights monitors interviewed convict porters who had fled the SPDC Army in Pa’an and Dooplaya districts of Karen State in June and July 2000. Some supporting information and corroborating interviews were also provided by the field offices of the Federated Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB). Photos of some of the convicts interviewed can be seen in the 'Forced Labour' section of KHRG Photo Set 2000-B (18/10/00). While this report focuses on the experiences of the convict porters, readers may also want to see the following KHRG reports for further information on the areas where they were used as porters:"Starving Them Out: Forced Relocations, Killings, and the Systematic Starvation of Villagers in Dooplaya District" (KHRG #2000-02, 31/3/00), and"Beyond All Endurance: The Breakup of Karen Villages in Southeastern Pa’an District" (KHRG #99-08, 20/12/99). These reports and the photo set are all available on this web site.
This report consists of several parts: this preface, an introduction and executive summary, a detailed description of the situation including quotes from interviews, an index of interviews and the full text of the interviews. Printed versions of this report are available from KHRG on approved request.
Notes on the Text
In the interviews, all names of those interviewed have been changed and some details have been omitted where necessary to protect people from retaliation. False names are shown in double quotes. The captions under the quotes in the situation report include the interviewee’s (changed) name, gender, age and village, and a reference to the interview. These numbers can be used to find the full text of the interviews.
All numeric dates in this report are in dd/mm/yy format.
Terms and Abbreviations
SPDC State Peace & Development Council, military junta ruling Burma
PDC Peace & Development Council, SPDC local-level administration
(e.g. Village PDC [VPDC], Village Tract PDC, Township PDC [TPDC])
SLORC State Law & Order Restoration Council, former name of the SPDC until
KNU Karen National Union, main Karen opposition group
KNLA Karen National Liberation Army, army of the KNU
Nga Pway ‘Ringworm’; derogatory SPDC slang for KNU/KNLA
DKBA Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen group allied with SLORC/SPDC
IB Infantry Battalion (SLORC/SPDC), usually about 500 soldiers fighting strength
LIB Light Infantry Battalion (SLORC/SPDC), usually about 500 soldiers
LID Light Infantry Division (SLORC/SPDC), 10 battalions for offensive operations
Sa Ka Ka Abbreviation for SPDC’s Military Operations Commands,
for offensive operations
Viss Unit of weight measure; one viss is 1.6 kilograms or 3.5 pounds
Bowl/Pyi Volume of rice equal to 8 small condensed milk tins;
about 2 kilograms / 4.4 pounds
Kyat Burmese currency; US$1=6 Kyat at official rate, 300+ Kyat at
current market rate
loh ah pay Forced labour; literally it means traditional voluntary labour,
but not under SPDC
ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross
Won Saung Camps created by the SLORC/SPDC to provide pools of convict porters
for the Army
I. Introduction / Executive Summary
While it is the political prisoners who receive the most attention, Burma’s prisons are full of people arrested for other offences ranging from murder to drug trafficking to breaking curfew. Many people in Burma are arrested every day and serve long sentences for offences which in other countries would merit a fine or maybe a month in jail; one of the convict porters interviewed for this report was serving a 7-year sentence for eloping with his girlfriend (Interview #8). Many of the offences are related to the poverty and desperation experienced by most of the population. These are compounded by rage and frustration among the population, caused by the feeling of helplessness in the face of repression and the commonly-held view that the rich in Burma can get anything they want and can buy their way out of any problems they may have.
Many prisoners report being convicted for crimes which they say they did not commit and for which no evidence was presented in court. People are commonly punched and kicked during arrest and sometimes tortured, and torture before trial is often used to force a suspect to admit to a crime. Courts very seldom overturn charges laid by the authorities, and judges sometimes tell suspects that if they take up the court’s time by presenting a defence, their sentence will be lengthened. Suspects can be kept in jail for long periods of time before they are convicted and sentenced to prison.
The abuse for the prisoners begins from the first day they enter prison. They are subjected to beatings and systematically humiliated in what the prisoners call the "Prison Standard." A monotonous diet of bean soup, fishpaste and rice is fed to the prisoners two times a day. They are forced to sleep almost on top of each other in the overcrowded rooms they live in. There is almost no health care for the ill except for what the prisoners can buy themselves. Scabies, diarrhoea, and communicable diseases are common. One convict described watching eight patients being injected one after another with the same needle, after which several of them died of AIDS, while another said that hypodermic needles are used and re-used for up to a month. A prisoner interviewed by KHRG who spent six and a half years in Moulmein prison saw about 50 people die in that time from what appears to have been AIDS.
Money can make the stay in prison much more comfortable. Prisoners whose families bring things from home and pay off the guards are able to sleep more comfortably, get more rice, and even avoid work. Some prisoners interviewed by KHRG said that conditions became a little better after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began prison visits in May 1999. They qualified this, however, by saying that for people without money it remains much the same. While well-known political prisoners obtain a form of protection by being known internationally, thousands of ordinary people imprisoned for political offenses (such as Article 17/1 for ‘associating with illegal organisations’) are internationally ignored, their existence not even acknowledged by any international organisation. For these people and for those imprisoned for real or imagined criminal offenses, there is no protection from the brutality.
The use of prison convicts for labour is not something new to Burma, nor is it specific to Burma. It is the horrific conditions under which the convict labourers must work which make convict labour in Burma stand out. The prison system has become an integral part of the forced labour schemes of the SLORC and now the SPDC, to the point where some of the convicts interviewed for this report believe that they and others were arrested and convicted solely for the purpose of obtaining more convicts for forced labour. Forced labour work camps, such as rock quarries and road labour camps, exist in various places throughout Burma. Convict porters have also become more common as operations porters with Burma Army units serving on the frontlines. Many die from physical abuse, lack of food and medical care, and overwork.
Convict labour has long been used in Burma for infrastructure projects, tourism projects and as operational porters for Army units. Formerly, the prisoners were taken out of the prisons and handed directly to the Army units, but since 1996 the SLORC/SPDC has created the ‘Won Saung’ to formalise and institutionalise this process. Sometimes translated into English as ‘porter battalions’ or ‘service camps’, ‘Won Saung’ actually translates more closely as ‘carrying service’. The Won Saungcome under the Prison Authority and function as holding centres for the convicts before they are taken to porter at the frontline by the Army. The prisoners are drawn from various prisons around Burma, and according to their testimonies it appears that there are quotas which each prison must provide to the Won Saung camps on a regular basis. To fill these quotas the prison authorities lie to the prisoners, telling them that their sentences will be reduced or that they will be released after a short shift of portering, and if this is not enough they even send elderly and disabled prisoners, those under treatment in the prison hospital, and those whose sentences are about to end. Most are given no choice in the matter. On leaving for the Won Saung camps, most convicts are given two blue prison uniforms (to replace their coarse white uniform), slippers, a plate, a plastic sheet and a blanket, and are told that they will be paid 100 Kyat per day for portering. However, once they arrive at the Won Saung the guards confiscate the gear, probably to sell it for their own profit. From the Won Saung camps the porters are taken on operations to the frontline. Once with the Army column, the soldiers usually tell the prisoners that no one will pay them and that they won’t be released until the soldiers rotate back from frontline areas, which can be six or more months away. Many are kept well beyond the end of their sentence, and those prisoners who survive and make it back to prison often complain to the others that they were never paid and that all the promises made to them were broken.
The convicts are usually given loads much heavier than what civilian porters are forced to carry; sometimes the loads are so heavy that they cannot get to their feet without help from the soldiers. While carrying for the Army, the porters are constantly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the soldiers when they have difficulty carrying their loads. Porters who fall out of line from exhaustion are beaten and kicked until they rejoin the column. When porters just cannot continue, they are left behind and sometimes kicked down the mountainside to an almost certain death. The straps from the baskets cut into the porters’ shoulders and backs and result in painful wounds. Despite their requests for medicine, the porters are never given any, even when they have seen the medics treating the soldiers. Food generally consists of a starvation diet of rice and fishpaste, while the soldiers eat dried shrimp, chicken and vegetables. The food and belongings which soldiers loot from villages are thrown on top of the porters’ loads, as are the soldiers’ personal packs and boots. In many cases civilian porters are taken along with the convict porters. The porters are forced to walk between the soldiers, partly to prevent them running away and partly in the hope that resistance groups won’t ambush the column if they see civilians. This doesn’t usually work, however, and one porter told KHRG he saw 12 wounded and dead soldiers and porters after an ambush in Pa’an District.
After carrying heavy loads of supplies all the way to remote Army posts, convict porters told KHRG that their treatment still didn’t improve and that they were not released as many of them had been promised. It was only then that some of the porters realised that they were going to have to porter for longer than they had left on their sentences. The convicts were put to work at the Army posts, building fences and huts and digging bunkers. They were also forced to loot paddy rice from villagers and pound it for the soldiers. Some of the porters who could still walk were taken along by the soldiers to carry their supplies while they went on patrols.
The porters were threatened throughout that if they ran, they would step on landmines planted by Burmese soldiers, or that the Karen soldiers would slit their throats. Despite their fear of this, the conditions in the camps and during portering became so bad that the porters chose to take their chances and run rather than die a slow death from overwork and starvation.
Contrary to claims made internationally by the SPDC, the use of convict porters on operations and at the frontline camps in no way lessens the forced labour burden of the villagers. The convict porters interviewed by KHRG indicated that villagers were taken to porter alongside them and to work with them at the camps. These included women and men of various ages. The convicts witnessed the soldiers stealing chickens and produce from the villagers. At one camp they were even forced to participate in the looting of the villagers’ paddy storage barns.
Rather than being seen as an alternative to civilian forced labour, the use of convicts for portering and other forced labour in Burma should be seen for what it is: an additional, unnecessary, and particularly brutal form of human rights abuse. While convict labour may have a place in some penal systems where there is accountability and freedom from physical abuse, this is not the case in Burma. Many of the convicts interviewed are serving long sentences for petty or nonexistent crimes, and would not even be in prison in any other country. Convicts or not, these are still civilians and should not be taken by force into frontline combat situations. Furthermore, keeping prisoners beyond the end of their sentences to do forced labour constitutes a two-fold violation of human rights: firstly, it is unlawful detention, and secondly, it is no longer convict labour but forced labour imposed on someone who should now be a free civilian.
II. Arrest and Sentencing
"First, they accused me of robbery. They continued to accuse me, but I said I didn’t do it, and I also didn’t complain to anyone. I denied it strongly because I didn’t do it. It decided that my name was more important than my life and if I had to die, then I would. I didn’t do it and I said so. I denied it, but they still put me in prison for a year. Their robbery accusation was not successful, so they accused me of a weapons offence. They didn’t write the article of the law on the blackboard [in the courtroom], so I didn’t understand the charge. I was put into prison under Article 393, conspiracy. Anybody can be a conspirator." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
A person in Burma can be arrested for almost any reason. While many are arrested for crimes like theft and murder, others are arrested for crimes ranging from engaging in politics to breaking curfew to stealing a bit of rice to survive. Buying and selling or using drugs is now the most common offence, but theft, murder, gambling through an illegal lottery, and breaking curfew are also common. Many of the convicts cited the difficulties they had in surviving in Burma as reasons for their crimes. One convict complained about how they are sometimes arrested for getting drunk and being loud or staying out after curfew, even though this is one of their only outlets from the pressure that poverty puts them under. In the absence of an independent judiciary, people can even go to prison simply because a person in a position of authority develops a grudge against them, or wants their land or belongings.
"When they [the soldiers] are travelling on the path, if they see people who are smoking #4 [heroin], they arrest them under Article 15. There are a lot of people suffering from this. The people who didn’t do it have also suffered. After they were arrested, if their families couldn’t pay, they were put in prison for five years. The people who had money escaped [they were released after paying a bribe]. They weren’t taken to prison." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"The crime was gambling through a lottery [underground lotteries are popular but illegal in Burma]. It was because of selling lottery tickets. … They liked it before because I had to give 750 Kyat per week [for permission] to sell the lottery tickets. After I didn’t pay the tax for nine weeks and still avoided paying it but was illegally selling the lottery tickets, I had to go to prison." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
"Nobody knew that I was in love with that girl. Then I eloped with her. My friend went to tell her mother and stepfather to make a wedding for us, but when they knew we were here, they came to arrest us. Her parents accused me. I was not so friendly with the village secretary, so the chairman was called and they interrogated him. My weak point is a good point for him [the village secretary didn’t like him so he arranged it so he would go to prison]." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
Arrests are usually accompanied by physical abuse whether the suspect resists or not. Suspects are punched and kicked by the police, especially if they ask questions or protest their arrest. This is regardless of the severity of the crime. After the suspect is arrested they are often tortured into admitting their guilt. KHRG interviewed a man from northern Shan State who was arrested for robbery, but because the police couldn’t find any evidence against him, he was forced to put his hands behind his neck and walk on his elbows and knees, had his hair pulled out, was repeatedly hit in the head with a 2-inch by 4-inch plank, and was denied food for 3 days to get him to admit to the charge. He had been with his wife and nephews at the time of the robbery, so he did not confess. In response, the police charged him with conspiracy to commit a crime and he was sentenced to a year in prison anyway. Others have been punched, beaten with sticks, or had sticks rubbed or pressed on their shins, a particularly painful form of torture. One prisoner from Moulmein Prison told KHRG that he was held upside down and placed in electrified water every day for a week until he confessed. Suspects can be held in jail for months before going to court while the crime is ‘investigated’. This is often just a delaying tactic to get as much money out of the suspect’s family as possible. When the case is heard in court there is usually no evidence presented, sometimes even when the person was caught in the act. Persons under the suspicion of using or selling drugs are often convicted whether there is enough evidence against them or not. Under the legal system as practised in Burma, the suspects are all guilty until presumed innocent. If a suspect speaks up in court to contest the charges, he is usually still convicted and the sentence is lengthened as a punishment for defending himself.
"When they arrested me, they asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I told them I was from xxxx. They asked me what time it was. I told them it was still very early, but they didn’t agree. They punched me and asked me, ‘Why are you still out now?’ I explained to them I was leaving the teashop, but they didn’t believe me. They punched me there on the road and took me to xxxx jail." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison who was sentenced to a year for ‘being out after dark’ (Interview #3, 7/00)
"I went to the jungle from the town [to his village]. I went by Trology [small Chinese paddy-ploughing tractors used to pull carts]. I didn’t drive. Six of us went into the jungle because we had our homes in the jungle [near their fields]. Sometimes we carried rice and food when we went back and forth between home and the jungle. The Trology broke down on the path, so I slept on the path that night. In the early morning, an Army unit came and found us and arrested us on a drug charge. They were soldiers from Battalion #204. I forgot the name of the commander. … They arrested us and tied us up, then they interrogated me, ‘Is it true or not? Are you going to cook #4 [manufacture heroin]? We received information that you are cooking #4.’ We told them that it was not true. We disagreed with them. They beat us. They tied our hands behind us with iron chain for two days and two nights and beat us. They didn’t feed us rice or anything. They didn’t even allow us to drink water. They tied us with an iron chain and beat us with a stick. They took a big stick like this and pressed it on our shins [rubbing up and down or pressing on someone’s legs with a stick is a common form of torture used by the Army and Police]. … They pressed our legs but we told them it wasn’t true. When we became dizzy and lost consciousness, they sprayed us with water until we regained consciousness. We still told them it was not true. We answered them truly. They did that for two days and two nights." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"It was a conspiracy case, Article 393. One of my cousins has a worker who accused me of doing something, but really I didn’t do it. I was working honestly and truly. My father was sleeping in the village and my wife and nephews and I had come to sleep in the jungle with a couple of bullock carts [to gather wood]. It was about a mile north of the village. We didn’t know anything while we were sleeping. In the morning, my wife went to the market and my nephews and I were sawing firewood. When we were sawing, two soldiers and a policeman came to arrest me. The policeman was from N--- and soldiers from #114 [LIB]. The policeman was B---, I know him well. … They tortured me. We had to go by the prison regulations. When they interrogated me, I had to put my hands on my neck and walk on my knees and elbows. My knees and elbows were seriously bruised afterwards and it took a month to go away. The investigating officer pulled out my hair about 30 times. My head became badly swollen. I couldn’t lay my head down and sleep for three or four days. He also hit my head with a 2"x4" board about 30 or 40 times and my head was swollen. They order the other prisoners to torture us and we couldn’t eat for three days, we could only drink water." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
"They tortured me. They kept me upside down and they put me in electrified water. When the water hit me, I fell down. They did it to me for 10 minutes. After they shocked me, I was unconscious. They interrogated and beat me. They did this to me for a week, every day. Later, after I couldn’t suffer it anymore, I admitted my guilt. It was the corporal who tortured me. I don’t know his name, but he had two chevrons. After that, on August 28th 1993, they passed judgement on me. I was sentenced to 10 years at hard labour in Moulmein Prison." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison, sentenced to ten years for theft and murder (Interview #1, 7/00)
III. Life in The Prisons
"When I stayed at the prison, I looked at the brick buildings every day and thought about when I would leave those brick buildings. On this day I met those brick buildings and on the next day I also met those brick buildings. Sometimes I felt in my heart that I wanted to cross over [the wall] and run from those brick buildings. I felt that until I didn’t want to stay anymore." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
From the first day the new prisoners are made aware of their new environment. There is something of an initiation to the prison, called the ‘Prison Standard’ by the prisoners. The rules of the prison are taught to them. The prisoners are forced to sit or squat with their heads lowered and not look at the guards’ faces. If they look up or move they are beaten and kicked. This is done multiple times for 15 to 20 minutes each time. They are also subjected to humiliating exercises such as putting their hands behind their heads and walking on their elbows and knees. Prisoners with long sentences are ordered to beat the new prisoners. It is common in Burmese prisons to give some of the prisoners positions of power over the others. The prisoner in power will push the other prisoners harder so he himself will get better treatment. The prisoners are not given mosquito nets or blankets and are only issued one prison uniform consisting of a shirt and longyi (Burmese sarong) made out of coarse white cloth.
"When we entered we had to sit and we couldn’t look up at their faces. If we looked up at them, they would beat and punch us. The first time I looked up, one of them kicked me in the jaw with his leg one time. When I got to the cell, the one who waited at the door kicked me in. He wasn’t a jailer, he was a prisoner who waits at the door." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"They beat me. I don’t remember how many times they beat me. They were the same prisoners as us. They were the ones with long sentences." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
The prisons in Burma hold from 700 to 10,000 prisoners each. The offences for which they have been sentenced range from minor ones such as breaking curfew or eloping to serious crimes like murder. Drug offences are the most common. Except for the political prisoners there is almost no separation among the male prisoners according to how violent or bad their crime was. Women and men are kept in the same prisons, although in separate areas with no contact between them. Some of the prisons also have areas for adolescent and child prisoners. Political prisoners are only kept in certain prisons and are moved about often to disrupt contact among them and to make contact with their families very difficult. At those prisons where there are political prisoners, they are kept in separate areas and the regular prisoners have no contact with them. Another class of prisoners, the 17/1 prisoners, are held in various prisons and not kept separately. These prisoners are imprisoned under Article 17/1 for ‘contact with illegal organisations’. This makes them political prisoners, but they do not fit the conventional picture of urban dissidents; most of them are ordinary townspeople or villagers who have been charged with supporting opposition groups in some way such as providing food or intelligence, or failing to provide such support for SPDC forces. In the prisons, they are treated as criminal rather than political prisoners. Deserters from the Army are also held in the prisons and kept in the same conditions as the other prisoners. Most prisoners are kept in large, overcrowded rooms, with the single and double cells reserved almost exclusively for political prisoners. Each prison building has two or more rooms with 50 to over 200 prisoners in each room. The rooms have walls of bars and floors of concrete and usually a raised wooden platform where prisoners who are able to bribe the guard for the privilege may sleep. In some prisons, the convicts serving long sentences and those with communicable diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis are kept separately. There are workshops and fields within the walls where the convicts work, and also ill-equipped clinics.
"There were no political prisoners. They sent them to Mandalay Prison. They didn’t keep them at Lashio Prison. They kept 17/1 [these are prisoners who have been imprisoned for association with opposition groups, making them political prisoners]. Now they are called the ‘Kywe Gaw unit’. Many of them were arrested. The Kywe Gaw soldiers are also fighting the Army. After the fighting, the SPDC soldiers went to arrest the Kywe Gaw troops who were separated [the soldiers who had become separated after an attack] and put them in prison. … They are Shan. They are not from Taunggyi. They are from Tang Yan. They are the same as the Karen soldiers here. They have not surrendered. They are very popular and are still fighting [they are probably soldiers of Shan State Army (South) which does operate in the area of Tang Yan and do not have a ceasefire with the SPDC]." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"There were many students in the prison from the  uprising. They had been imprisoned since the student uprising. There are many men and women, but nobody can see them. They are kept separately. They are not kept the same as with the other offenders. They keep the women upstairs. … They kept them in a special room. They can’t go anywhere and are kept fully covered [they are kept inside where no one can see them]." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
The prisoners are woken up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and given time to wash and worship. At 7 they are then required to polish the floors with coconut husks. Before eating, they are allowed to sift the rice to get rid of husks and stones and then eat at 8 or 8:30. Work then begins at 8:30 and lasts until 11 a.m.; this differs in some prisons like Moulmein Prison where it is from 9 to 10 a.m. The prisoners begin work again at 1 and work until 3 or later. Dinner is finished at 5 p.m., after which the prisoners return to their rooms. There is time during the day for limited forms of exercise.
"In the morning when we woke up and had finished washing our faces, we had to wipe the floors. After that I had to choose the rice [sifting the rice and picking out the husks]. In the evening we had to move all the old excrement from the toilets and put it on the plantation." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
Most of the prisoners described the food as being bad. While some said that in past years there was so little rice that they regularly went hungry, most said that the quantity of plain rice they now receive is sufficient, and that this may have occurred as a result of visits to the prisons by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since May 1999. The prisoners have to sift the rice themselves to get rid of husks and stones before it is cooked. The morning meal consists of bean curry [yellow mung beans in a soupy broth] and raw fishpaste with rice. The evening meal is Ta Ler Baw, a type of rice gruel with various vegetables in it. These are the standard meals, but there is some variation between prisons; for example, dried fish curry is served in Pakokku Prison on Mondays and the prisoners at Moulmein eat morning glory, aubergine and a broth with spinach leaves in it. Some of the prisoners complained that the food is dirty and that it is cooked without oil. There is enough drinking water, but it is not always boiled.
"Eating was a problem in the prison. We had to eat the standard prison food. They fed us half a milk tin of cooked rice. If a farmer ate it, he would have gotten only three mouthfuls. They also fed us Ta Ler Baw [a type of rice soup with whatever vegetables are available] curry." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"For the morning meal we had bean curry and in the afternoon they fed us rice curry soup [a type of rice porridge using whatever is at hand]. They did not cook it with oil because there were a lot of people so they just cut the vegetables and cooked it for us. They gave us all the same amount of rice, but for some people it was not enough. Some people could get enough if they gave money, but you can’t get enough unless you give money." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"For food they provided bean curry with a few bean seeds in it with raw fishpaste. In the afternoon we did get morning glory and roselle leaves as a soup with raw fishpaste." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
The prisoners are able to exercise and play caneball. They are also able to write and receive letters. There were mixed reports about whether they were able to get and read books. The overcrowded conditions make sleep difficult. The prisoners were forced to sleep up against each other on mats on the concrete floor with their legs across each other. Sometimes it is so crowded that they are unable to sleep on their backs and are awakened whenever someone rolls over. There is usually a raised platform in the cells where those prisoners with money are able to get better and less crowded places to sleep. In some of the prisons they are even allowed to sleep in beds.
"The people who didn’t get money from home had to sleep gathered together. We had to sleep 10 people in a six foot space." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"If we had money, we could sleep well, but if we didn’t have money, we had to sleep in the middle of the cell. When we slept in the middle, the other prisoners’ legs were on our necks and our legs were on theirs. We were laid one next to the other. Sometimes we had to sleep on our sides, we couldn’t turn face up or turn around." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
"If you have money, you can have a different place to sleep, but for prisoners who do not have money, they have to sleep in the corners, uncomfortably. The prisoners who had money could go up to sleep in beds. The main thing is money, so the people who have money keep us where they want us to be." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
The prisoners are allowed to bathe once a day using 7 or 8 bowls of water. This is not enough for some of the prisoners and the piece of soap given is too small. Previous to the ICRC’s visits, the prisoners were allowed to bathe only every two days and had to pay 1,000 Kyat per month for the privilege. In Pakokku Prison, they are only allowed to bathe once a week, which is a recipe for disease in such a hot climate and unsanitary conditions. In order to go to the toilet, the prisoners must go in a jar which is then thrown into a hole in the floor. From there it is taken out to the fields each day as fertiliser.
"We did not have a chance to take a bath for seven or eight days. Once a week. The bath water wasn’t clean." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
The overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene make the prisoners especially susceptible to communicable diseases, scabies and lice. The poor diet can bring on diarrhoea, from which deaths have been reported. Other common health problems are ringworm, abscesses and stomach pains. The sick are not treated properly and are commonly given only 2 tablets of some medicine, usually paracetamol, to take. When the prisoners at Lashio Prison are deemed by the wardens to be unfit for more work, they are sent to Lashio hospital. The sick prisoners are shackled for the journey and shackled to their beds once they arrive. The prisoners are able to buy medicine for themselves, and one inmate in Lashio Prison was able to buy enough to give to the other prisoners. It was mentioned that this was the only medicine they were given. One prisoner with asthma was given only 1 tablet of paracetamol and one of aminophaline, which didn’t help. His family had to buy food for the prison officials in order to give him medicine. It cost them 3,000 Kyat for the three months he was in hospital. Information about HIV and AIDS and how it is transmitted is not common knowledge among the prisoners. Their blood is never checked by the authorities, and prison hospitals use their needles for a month without boiling them. A prisoner in Moulmein Prison witnessed the doctors using one needle to give injections to eight scabies patients one by one. He said the scabies only got worse. During his 6½ years in the prison, he told KHRG he witnessed patients being taken out of the hospital when they were near death and were nothing but skin and bones with shrunken eyes and wounds which looked like leprosy. These are the classic signs of the last stages of AIDS. He told KHRG that at least 50 prisoners died in Moulmein Prison from this condition during the six and a half years that he was there.
"There were sick people, but they didn’t treat them. They gave them only one or two tablets [of medicine]. When the prison officials thought they couldn’t work anymore, they were sent to the Lashio hospital. When they were sent to Lashio hospital their feet were shackled. They were also shackled to the bed in the hospital, they couldn’t move." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"I had to get treatment in the hospital for over three months when I stayed in prison. We had to buy the medicine ourselves and treat it. People from my house brought it. The prison gives a ticket, but they don’t give medicine. If we go and ask for medicine for five days, they give us one tablet of Para [Paracetamol]. I got only one tablet of Amino [Aminophaline]. The one tablet of Amino didn’t cure my disease. I got better when I got an intravenous injection. I got a ticket from them and the people from my house bought the injection and gave it to me. When I came to porter, I had 8 more phials of Amino intravenous injection [to take]. To get the injection, we had to buy food for them [the prison officials]. … The price for the medicine was over 3,000 Kyat for the three months. … The doctor from the hospital gave it to me. I only had to buy the medicine and the needle. We used our needle only one time. They used their needle for a month. They didn’t boil it after giving the injections. … Now, for scabies, they gave one phial of 200,000 units [I.U., International Units] to 6 people. For 8 people, they used only one needle. They injected them one by one. … The disease didn’t get better, it got worse. The prisoners who were almost dead were taken outside the hospital. They couldn’t walk. They had only skin and bone left and their eyes were shrunken. The wounds got worse and the scabies became like leprosy. There were both children and older people [suffering from this]. [The symptoms described here are also those of the final stages of AIDS. With the reuse of needles and the high rate of HIV infection in Burma it is very likely that many of the prisoners are infected.] … When I was in the prison, about 50 prisoners died. They died from that disease." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison who suffers from asthma (Interview #1, 7/00)
"Yes, some got sick. Diseases like stomach pain and diarrhoea were common. They did not give medicines for that. If you were sick they kept you to die. Some people died there also." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
The prisoners are ordered to work in the prisons and sometimes it is a condition of their sentences. The new prisoners wipe the floors and carry the excrement from the toilets to the fields. At Moulmein Prison they are forced to take it by hand even though a cup is provided for the purpose. Once they have done this for a while or pay a bribe to get out of it, they are moved up. They are then usually detailed to work in the prison fields growing fruit and vegetables. Aubergine, chillies, cabbages, radishes, gourds, potatoes and spinach are grown there. Some of the produce is cooked and given to the prisoners, but much of it is eaten or sold by the guards. Other prisoners are detailed to do masonry work on the buildings or to work as blacksmiths making shackles. Weaving, wood carving and typing in the prison office are also done. Prisoners who have been in for a long time act as foremen and no longer work. A convict from Meiktila Prison complained that prisoners who could not pay a bribe had to peel 3 to 4 viss [4.8-6.4 kg/10.8-14.4 lb] of garlic each day, totalling 800 to 1,000 viss [1,280-1,600 kg/2,880-3,600 lb] of garlic per day for the whole prison, in what is clearly a commercial venture for the prison management. He said they often had to work into the night to finish it, and that their fingernails sometimes rotted and fell out from peeling so many cloves. A convict from Pakokku Prison says each prisoner was forced to roll 2,000 joss sticks per day and to pack 5 bowls [7.8 kg / 17.23 lb] of beans into small bags for a local fried bean merchant. In both cases they had to work until finished and were beaten if they were unable to fulfil the quota. The work is all unpaid, although they are sometimes given cheroots. Products and produce made by the prisoners are sold by the prison authorities with none of the profits going to the prisoners. Prisoners with more money are able to bribe their way out of most if not all of the work. It also seems that the prisoners who were taken away as porters within weeks of their arriving in the prisons were not forced to do any work while at the prison.
"When we first arrived in the prison we had to wipe the floor. It was one hundred feet around. We had to wipe it going and coming 20 times. After we finished wiping, they gave us a chance to rest outside. They forced us to wipe for three or four days. Then they chose people whom they forced to carry Main La, we had to carry it. It is the excrement pot. Some people had to carry the excrement pot 14 or 15 times. Some people only carried it two times. When we carried the excrement pots, they gave us cheroots. Some people exchanged their cheroots for curry to eat. Some people collected the cheroots and sold them. Then they found things to get to cook curry." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"When the new prisoners are brought in they know nothing. When they [the older prisoners] ordered us to work, we couldn’t do it. They ordered us to take the Main La [excrement] by hand. When we go to the toilet, we have to pass into a jar, then throw it into a hole. It is then taken from the hole and thrown on the plantation [the prison garden]. We have to take it with our hands. Really, they have a cup, but they need the money, so they forced us to do it by hand [they want people to bribe them to get out of this work]. If we don’t take it by hand, they beat us. If people from home come, the older prisoners ask for money and they have to give. The older prisoners don’t need to work. … They gave us work. We worked in hill fields and plantations growing spinach, potatoes, aubergine and cabbage. We worked in the morning from 7 to 9 a.m. and later from 1 to 3:30 in the evening." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"[T]hey ordered us to peel cloves of garlic. We have to peel them with our fingers and some people’s nails rotted and fell out. … We did not get money, but they did, 8 Kyat for one viss of garlic [the prison authorities sold it or contracted the work from merchants outside]. They did not give money, but instead beat us more. Each day we had to peel 800 or 1,000 viss [1306.4 kgs / 2,880 lbs or 1,633 kgs / 3,600 lbs] of garlic, so it is a lot for the prisoners. The prisoners who can give money don’t have to do it. The prisoners who can’t give money have to do 3 or 4 viss [4.899 kgs / 10.8 lbs or 6.532 kgs / 14.4 lbs] each every day and some times they have to do it at night. If you can’t finish, they rush over to beat you, so we are tortured in the prison like that also." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
Bribery is common in the prisons. Prisoners are forced to pay money for water to bathe in, to get enough rice to eat, to obtain medicine, to get a decent place to sleep and to get out of work. The families of the prisoners have to bring things for the guards whenever they come to visit. These bribes amount to 2,000 or 2,500 Kyat each time. The money is given according to each person’s position in the prison. If the families bring nothing, the prisoners are beaten after the family goes home. The families are not told about this. For some of the prisoners, the distance is just too great for their families to come regularly to the prison. These prisoners are often beaten and some have even died due to lack of food or medicine because their families were unable to come to pay the bribes. If the family never comes, the guards accuse the prisoner of being ‘useless’ and beat him; possibly because they think no one cares about him, and possibly because he is useless to them in terms of profit. The prisoners lose either way, because if their family comes then the guards often beat them and accuse them of not sharing whatever the family gave them. Forgetting the prison rules can also bring on a beating by the guards. When talking to the guards, a prisoner must stand with his legs tight together and his longyi [sarong] tucked between his legs, his head bowed and hands folded in front of his crotch. This is also the way they must always walk. To drink water or go to the toilet, the prisoner must first call out to the guard to get permission. This is done even though the drinking water and the toilet are in the cell.
"Yes, they beat us. They would beat you whether your family came to see you or not. If your family did not come to see you in prison, they thought you were aimless and useless so they beat you for that. If people from our house came to see us, they accused us because our families didn’t give them [the guards] money for cigarettes or for the security guards, so they beat you again for that. … We had to give them money according to their position in the prison. If you did not give, you would not have an easy life in the prison and they would beat you horribly. The families had to give, but for me, my family has nothing so what could they give? If we did not give things we were beaten, but our families don’t know about it. The guards only tell what they want to tell." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had for a number of years asked the SLORC for access to the prisons, and withdrew from Burma in 1995 because of the regime’s lack of cooperation on this issue. Permission was finally granted by the SPDC, and the ICRC re-established itself in Burma in 1998 and began prison visits in May 1999. The prisoners interviewed for this report witnessed the visits by the ICRC to Lashio, Moulmein, Mandalay and Pakokku prisons in 1999 and 2000. The prisoners were informed ahead of time that they were going to be visited, however they were not told it would be by the ICRC. In most cases they were told that they were to be visited by ‘leaders’ or even ‘tourists.’ New uniforms were issued to some of the prisoners and the prisons were cleaned. At all the prisons, better than usual food was prepared and protective covers put over it (to keep flies off). On the day of the visit, the prisoners were ordered to queue up. They were ordered to sit quietly, look forward and smile rather than the usual submissive squatting with their head lowered that they are usually required to perform. At Moulmein Prison, the prisoners were queued up in the buildings and told to remain inside while the ICRC delegates, whom all the prisoners recognised as white foreigners, inspected the prison from the outside and did not enter any of the buildings. At Moulmein it was only the prisoners serving long sentences who were questioned. The ICRC delegates called the prisoners out separately and interviewed them privately. At most of the prisons, the prisoners were warned that if they said anything bad about the prison they would be severely punished. The warden at Lashio prison, however, whom the prisoners described as "kind", told them to tell the ICRC whatever their problems were and promised that there would be no punishment afterwards. The prisoners at all the prisons described the situation as very bad to the ICRC. After the visit, there were some improvements in food and bathing water, but in most respects the treatment was the same as before, at least for those without money. The covers for the food and the new uniforms were taken back. The Lashio warden apparently kept his word, but at other prisons, the prisoners were punished by the wardens afterwards for their candour with the ICRC. According to one of the convict porters, one Chinese prisoner at Mandalay Prison was so severely beaten after the December 1999 ICRC visit that he was still in hospital when they came back again in April 2000. At least one Military Intelligence officer accompanied the ICRC throughout their inspections. A prisoner at Pakokku Prison who recognised the agent was paid 1,000 Kyat by him and told to say nothing.
"They told us to tell them [the ICRC] truly. The big warden came to tell us himself. ‘They will come to ask you questions. Tell whatever has happened to you. If you tell it all, they will tell the higher leaders and you will get to eat well.’ The jailer from Lashio told us to tell like that. … He told us, ‘Tell everything you want. We won’t do anything back to you. When they go back, we won’t do anything to you. If you propose it, you will get to eat well. Now they feed you as you all know [badly]. If you propose it to them, they will feed you well.’ … When the ICRC organisation came, we asked for clean water to drink. Before, we had to take a bath every two days with six cups of water. Then after ICRC came, we took a bath every day with eight cups. … Before they came to check, we didn’t get enough rice in prison. They fed us a little with paddy, grain and stones in it [very low grade rice with unhusked bits and small stones still in it]. They fed us like they feed pigs. After they [the ICRC] came to check, they fed us enough in Lashio Prison. We could choose our rice [sift it and take out the husks and stones]." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"They came to check it, but I didn’t know who they were. They were English [white foreigners are commonly referred to as ‘English’] and Burmese. The young men and women foreigners came. The young women were wearing trousers and had long hair, they were tall. They were not the same as the Burmese, their skin was white. They [the prison officials] kept us in a room, Building 4. We had to queue up. We could see them [the ICRC representatives] walking below us. We had to stay in the building. I wasn’t seen by them when they came [he wasn’t questioned]. … They didn’t ask anything. They didn’t enter the building. They looked over everything from the outside and walked around. They questioned the prisoners who had been in prison for many years. They kept the prisoners with long sentences separately. I don’t know what they asked. … It was a little better on that day. After they left, it was the same as before." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"They fed us better rice and we could take a bath comfortably. Before the ICRC came, only the people whose families came from home could take a bath well [with enough water]. If they wanted to take a bath they had to give 1,000 Kyat. They had to give 1,000 Kyat per month. At that time we also had to buy rice to eat. The people whose families didn’t come were very thin and hungry and many people died. After the ICRC came, the prisoners didn’t die from hunger. They treated us better, but if the family from home didn’t come and give money, they didn’t treat us better." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
IV. Portering for the Army
Choosing the Convicts
"If we could give 5,000 or 10,000 Kyat, we didn’t need to go. In two more months I would have been released. I was to be released after ten months because they had decreased my sentence. I just needed to stay there for two months to be released, but they sent me here." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
Convicts are taken from prisons all over Burma to porter for the Army. Convict porters interviewed by KHRG reported prisoners taken from Meiktila, Pakokku, Mandalay, Yamethin, Myingyan, Moulmein, Insein and Lashio prisons to porter for the SPDC’s military units. Most of them had been sentenced to short prison terms for offences that would be seen as minor in most countries. Prisoners with sentences of five years or less are chosen first, but when the quota of convicts can’t be met, the prisoners with sentences of ten years or less are chosen to make up the numbers. Political prisoners are not included, as the authorities are too fearful of their organising power and the chance that they may escape; however, as mentioned above, Article 17/1 political prisoners (sentenced for ‘association with illegal organisations’) are considered as criminal prisoners and are therefore sometimes taken. Longer serving prisoners are also not taken because of the higher likelihood that they would try to escape. Those in prison for deserting the Army are often sent, though, and a convict from Lashio prison stated that there were about 20 of them in his group. The deserters for the most part do not dare to run away, although in some instances they were the first to run. This may be because the soldiers with the column, many of whom would like to desert themselves, treat them better than the other convicts, though we have no definite confirmation of this. The convicts interviewed by KHRG said that they had no option of refusing to go and could not protest, but 5,000 to 10,000 Kyat bribes in Meiktila and Mandalay prisons could change the warden’s mind. Physical fitness does not appear to be a requirement, as one group included a one-eyed prisoner, prisoners who were partially paralysed and several suffering from acute hernia conditions. One of the prisoners interviewed had been in the prison hospital for three months for asthma prior to being taken and still hadn’t finished his medication. The length of sentence remaining is also not considered and many of the prisoners only had a month or two left on their sentences. Since the convicts are forced to porter for as long as six months, their sentences would have been finished long before. Interviewee "Than Htun" (Interview #2) had only two months left on a one year sentence which had already been reduced to ten months.
A prisoner from Lashio Prison said a common belief among the prisoners was that the SPDC was arresting and convicting people simply to get more porters; that people caught using drugs and those with long sentences had been convicted for real, while those with 3, 4 or 5 year sentences were only under suspicion but had been convicted and sentenced anyway, just to get more convicts to use as porters because there was a lot of fighting in Karen State. Although this needs to be investigated further, there is some evidence to support this claim. Many of the prisoners sent to porter from Lashio had only been imprisoned for a few days to a little over a month before being sent to porter. They were not incorporated much into the regular work schedule in the prison. This raises the appalling question of whether the SPDC is actually arresting people on fabricated charges and sending them to prison just to send them out as forced labour.
"They were mostly drug cases, the cases under suspicion and the people who were trading it who were arrested. The people who were selling drugs were arrested for real. Those people were imprisoned for many years and they had really done it. As for us, we were imprisoned for 3, 4 or 5 years, but they had only accused us. They had no evidence. … The people in prison were talking and they said that they [the SPDC] need people on this side [in the Karen State] because battles occurred very often in Karen State. So, they accused us and put us in prison. Then they called us [to come as porters]. I heard they needed porters in Karen State. That is why they accused and arrested us. The prisoners were telling each other that." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"There were 150 prisoners. They chose the prisoners who had sentences less than five years, but they didn’t get enough people. When they chose people who had less than 10 years, they were able to get the 150 people they wanted." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"There were many deserters but they didn’t run [they didn’t escape later]. The corporals who ran from the Army were imprisoned for at least two years. That is why they didn’t run. I didn’t hear that they ran. Mostly, it was the civilian porters who ran away. The deserters didn’t dare to run." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"Many people wanted to go. When they called us they said if the sentence was for one year, it would be reduced by four months. They told us, ‘We are releasing you from prison.’ After they said that, we were confused. We thought they had released us, but later it wasn’t true." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
The prisoners were lied to from the beginning about the conditions in which they would be working. The prison authorities announced to the convicts that the time remaining on their sentences would be reduced by 1/3 to a half if they went as porters, or even that they would be released after a month or two of portering. One prisoner said that this was specified by the SPDC. After that announcement, going to porter was actually a popular decision. A convict interviewed from Moulmein Prison was told that by portering his ten year sentence would be reduced by three years. With time already served, this would have made him eligible for release. On other occasions, the prison authorities told the prisoners they were being released. Other prisoners were told that they would be released when they arrived at the camp of the unit they were assigned to. Some of the prisoners even felt that it would allow them to do something for their nation. The prisoners were afraid of being sent to the hard labour camps such as rock quarries, which are notorious for the high death rate of prisoners. The prison officials played on this and told the prisoners that going to porter would be much better than being sent to the hard labour camps. However, once the portering work began the reality soon became apparent. When the convicts finally arrived with their heavy loads at the remote military camps, the officers told them that they had to stay there for as long as the soldiers had to, whether it was for one week or eight months. For some of the porters, this was much longer than they had left on their sentences. The prisoners with long sentences who survived the long shift without escaping were sent back to prison. Some convicts have been issued release papers when they returned to the Won Saung [convict porter holding centres; see the section below]. One convict reported that after carrying for six months, five porters were granted release papers.
"They decreased it by half. If the sentence was for three years, they reduced it to one and a half years. I was imprisoned only this one time so I don’t know if it is true or not. The convicts and deserters who ran away from the Army never came back. Now we have run. Only the people who are not clever go back to the prison. On the path there were about 100 prisoners given as convict porters. Only two people went back [to prison]." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"I had to stay for two years in prison because of the crime I was punished for. I had already stayed there for 15 or 16 months by the time they collected porters for the Army at Meiktila Prison. Some prisoners who could give bribes didn’t go, but for the prisoners like me who can’t give bribes, they [the prison officials] said they would reduce our sentences to make it like one year instead of two. They told us if we came here [to the frontline Army camp] they would release us, and we wanted to be released as quickly as possible. We thought that coming here was for our nation so we followed them." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"They said they would release us if we went. If we had been sentenced to 10 years, then our sentence would be reduced by 3 years. It was specified by the SPDC." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
The prisoners were also told by the prison officials and the Army that they would receive 100 Kyat per day while they were portering. When they arrived at the Won Saung and met other prisoners who had already portered and came back, they were told that not only had the porters not received the money, but they had been lucky to survive. When the soldiers were asked about the money, the reply was, "Who will give it to you?"
"When the soldiers came to get us at Pa’an, Won Saung, we heard they would give us money. They [the soldiers] told us. They said, ‘You will get 100 Kyat per day. If you go to work, you will get 100 Kyat per day.’ Yes, we heard them say this. Later, some people who had gone to porter and got sick came back and were staying at the Won Saung. We asked them and they said, ‘We didn’t get it. We were lucky we didn’t die.’ He [the man they asked] said the people who had been put in prison for many years fled. If they hadn’t fled, the soldiers would have sent them back to prison. We didn’t think they were going to force us like this. They said they would release us, but they called us and forced us to porter. They just pretended. They called only the prisoners who had had their case seen at a court of law. That is why we thought they would release us all. But, it wasn’t true. Finally, we had to come, porter, and meet these problems." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"I heard the other prisoners talking to each other and say they would give us 100 Kyat per person. When we arrived into the soldiers’ hands, I asked the soldiers and they said, ‘Who will give it to you?’ They said they were going to reduce our sentences. Mostly we were going to die while portering." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
The Won Saung
"They took out about 400 prisoners, but not all of them were from Meiktila Prison. Some were from Yamethin, Myingyan, Mandalay and Meiktila. They gathered us together from those prisons and took us. They sent us to the Won Saung Army camp. All of us were sent there. There were over 400 people at that time. They then divided those people among each company from the battalions, 25 people for each company." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
The Won Saung camps were created in 1996 as a way of institutionalising a process which had been going on for decades. Previous to their establishment, Army units would request prisoners directly from prisons or labour camps to act as operations porters. Operations porters are taken to carry for Army units on frontline operations. The establishment of the Won Saung camps, which translates as ‘service to carry’ camps, allows the Army to collect and distribute convict labourers to its units more efficiently. Quotas are given to the prisons, which must then send prisoners to the Won Saung. From the Won Saung they are then parcelled out to the battalions to be used on operations and in the frontline camps. They have also been sent to work on projects such as the Cement Factory in Myaing Galay, which is 80% operated by the Army. There are reportedly six Won Saung camps with one each at Myitkyina, Loikaw, Thaton and Mergui and two at Pa’an. The sign in front of Won Saung #1 reads, Won Saung 1 A’Kyin Oo See Hta Na, or Won Saung 1 Prisoner Control Headquarters.
The convicts are sent by what they themselves describe as "pig trucks" from the various prisons to the Won Saung. About 30 prisoners ride on each of the trucks, which are kept covered throughout the journey. There are three to six guards on each truck. The prisoners are fed meals in plastic bags twice and one canteen is given for water in each truck. The convicts are shackled throughout the journey with iron bars weighing 3 to 5 kilograms (7 to 11 pounds) and chains and are never allowed out of the trucks. To use the toilet they must go in the plastic bags from their meal and throw it out of the truck when they finish. When necessary they spend the night at other prisons along the way. In the case of the prisoners from Pakokku, they had to wait at Meiktila Prison for 45 days before continuing.
"They called us from Lashio to here in Karen State to go as Army porters. We left from Lashio on May 24th. We started leaving on May 24th and slept one night in Mandalay on the 24th, then on the morning of the 25th we went to Toungoo Prison. We slept one night in Toungoo Prison and came to Pa’an from there. We slept two nights on the way. They sent us with big blue trucks. We arrived at Pa’an, Won Saung 1. They left 50 prisoners in Thaton and the rest, 100 prisoners, they took to Pa’an, Won Saung 1.… They shackled our feet with iron chains and took us by truck. The car looked like a pig truck [trucks commonly used to transport pigs in Burma]. They closed the door and took us. There were 22 prisoners in each truck. There were no soldiers guarding us, there were three guards from the prison. They didn’t allow us to go to the toilet. They gave us one plastic bag for each of us and the one who had to go asked for it from them and we had to go inside. After we finished we had to throw it out, beside the car road."- "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"When we left from Lashio they put our feet in chains. Some were heavy and some were light. The lightest weighed about 2 viss [3.266 kgs / 7.2 lbs] and the heaviest weighed about 3 viss [4.899 kgs / 10.8 lbs]. They chained us because they didn’t want us to flee on the way. We were chained for six days. They didn’t unchain us when we slept. When we arrived at the Won Saung and the soldiers called us, the police unlocked them." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
The prisoners are left shackled when they arrive at the Won Saung. At Pa’an Won Saung 2, they are locked into two buildings and fed rice, salt and bean soup. Upon leaving the prisons, the prisoners are issued 1 blanket, 1 tarpaulin, 1 standard flat plate, 2 sets of prison uniforms and a pair of slippers made from car tires. The uniforms issued are blue rather than the usual white worn by prisoners in the prisons and at the work camps. Everything except one uniform and sometimes a blanket is confiscated by the guards at the Won Saung when they arrive (the guards probably sell these items for profit). The prisoners are told that it will be returned to them when the soldiers arrive to take them as porters, but it never is. On one occasion, an Army Major coming to get his porters became angry and asked, "If you don’t give anything to them, how are they going to walk and sleep?" It was still not returned. This concern is rare and it is likely that the Major was only concerned with how well the porters would be able to carry, because the convicts in this unit were still treated horribly when they began portering.
"Lashio Prison gave us one blanket, one tarpaulin, the standard flat plate and slippers. They also gave us two sets of prisoner’s uniforms. They were not the ones we had worn in prison. They gave us blue uniforms when we went out [prisoners in Burma usually wear white uniforms]. … The warders at Pa’an Won Saung 1 confiscated it all." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"After the night when we arrived at Pa’an Won Saung, they [the camp guards] confiscated it. The people from the Won Saung, the jailers, took it. They told us they would give it back when the soldiers came to call us, but when the soldiers came, they didn’t give it back to us. The soldiers and the Major who came to call us were angry. They asked, ‘If you don’t give anything to them, how are they going to walk and sleep?’ But they didn’t give it back." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"They gave us a tarpaulin, blanket and two sets of clothes at Lashio Prison. When we got to the Won Saung, they took our tarpaulin and our new clothes, we just got the blanket. The leader from the Won Saung confiscated it." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
"When we left the prison, they gave us slippers and blankets for when we were portering. When we arrived at Pa’an Won Saung, they confiscated it all. They said they would give it back to us when we left, but they gave us nothing when we left." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
The prisoners interviewed from Won Saung 1 in Pa’an reported that 150 prisoners had been sent from Lashio Prison with 50 of them being dropped off in Thaton, probably to the Won Saung there. There were also 100 prisoners from Mandalay, 30 or 40 from Moulmein and 90 or 100 from Insein Prison in Rangoon. There were about 300 prisoners in all at Won Saung 1. At Won Saung 2 there were about 400 prisoners with 30 from Pakokku, 120 or 220 (different accounts vary) from Mandalay, 50 or 80 (different accounts vary) from Meiktila, 50 from Yamethin, and 50 from Myingyan. There were already 30 prisoners at Won Saung 2 working at the Cement Factory at Myaing Galay. There were over 400 convicts at Won Saung 2.
"In Won Saung 2 they took 30 prisoners from Pakokku, 50 prisoners from Meiktila, 50 from Yamethin, 50 from Myingyan and 120 people from Mandalay. They gathered them together and sent them to the different Army units." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"They collected the porters from the prisons and sent us to Won Saung 2. They had previously sent the Pakokku prisoners to Meiktila Prison. We stayed there for a month and then they sent us to Won Saung 2 army camp. Then the Army arrived to take us to be porters. Then we had to go with them. In Won Saung 2, there were 400 prisoners from Mandalay, Pakokku, and Yemathin. We stayed there for two days." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison, describing Won Saung 2 at Pa’an (Interview #11, 6/00)
Most of the prisoners stayed in the Won Saung for only a day or two before being taken to porter, when they were finally unshackled. Burmese Army battalions are divided into companies of between 80 and 100 men with around 20 porters for each company. Each company is then subdivided into three platoons of around 30 men with three to seven porters assigned to each platoon. The convicts interviewed for this report portered in Dooplaya District for Light Infantry Battalions (LIB) #706, 708 and 710 of Military Control Command #4 (which is based near Rangoon in Taikkyi), and in Pa’an District for Infantry Battalion #81 and Light Infantry Battalion #202 of Light Infantry Division #22 based in Pa’an.
"From Moulmein. They sent me to Pa’an Won Saung 1 on May 24th 2000. They took us with the prison trucks. We went on the Zathabyin road, but I didn’t see anything because they covered the truck fully with a tarpaulin. We stayed there for 3 days and on the fourth day, May 28th, we left there together with the soldiers by truck to Kya In Seik Gyi. We slept one night in Kya In Seik Gyi. At first we slept in the teaching school, but later there were many people so they separated us and kept us outside the village. In the morning we had to start to carry. … There were prisoners from Moulmein and Rangoon. There were about 30 or 40 people from Moulmein and 90 or 100 from Rangoon. … They took all 500 or so prisoners from Pa’an Won Saung 1. They took everyone at once. They were leaving from the night until daybreak. I went at daybreak. Most of the prisoners had left by then. There were 40 prisoners in our group. After we arrived at Kya In Seik Gyi, they divided us into groups of 6 or 7 people." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"In the whole group there were 80 soldiers. They divided into three smaller groups, and in our group there were 15 soldiers. The other groups had 30 or more than 30 soldiers with them. Just only three porters were with my group." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
"Day by day the process was that we worked and they didn’t feed us enough. When we thought about escape, they threatened us like, ‘Don’t run forward because on the other side [of the river], in Thailand, are the Nga Pway [‘ringworms’, slang for KNLA] and they will kill you by slitting your throats with a very sharp, small piece of bamboo.’ We were afraid of that so we stayed another two or three days. Later, when we compared staying there until we died from being tortured like this to being killed like that, we started to run." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
Convict porters are used almost exclusively for frontline operations. They are not normally used for general labour around the camps, that is what villagers are for. The convicts were taken from the prisons for major offensives against the bases of the opposition forces. Now that there are no longer many fixed bases to attack, the convicts are still taken by the operational soldiers, but on patrols in the jungle. In many ways this is even more dangerous as there is no frontline. Although they are convicts, they are still civilians, but this places them directly in the line of fire.
The loads that convict porters are now forced to carry are much heavier than what porters, whether villagers or convicts, have been made to carry in the past. Porters are normally forced to carry only mortar shells, or only rations, or only equipment, with the normal load for an adult male being about 20 kgs. or 44 lbs. However, the porters interviewed for this report described a typical load for a convict porter as eight 81mm mortar rounds, 4 mess tins full of fishpaste and salt, and the soldier’s personal gear. The total load is about 49 kgs. or 108 lbs. They all said that they were unable to stand up without the soldiers holding the load up for them while they stood up into it. As they walk the soldiers add to the loads by tossing their personal gear, boots, and packs in the porters’ baskets, as well as any food or other things looted from the villages they passed through. One ethnic Karen porter was made to carry seven shells when the others had to carry five, because he was Karen and the soldiers said it was his ethnic group which was causing the problems. The soldiers usually carried nothing but their weapons. The porters were unable to complain about the weight of the loads. When one of the porters asked a soldier if his load could be lightened, the reply was no and that if the porter couldn’t carry it, he would get the butt of his rifle. The porters were often beaten for being unable to carry or for stumbling under the weight. It wasn’t long before the porters’ shoulders were bruised and cut from the coarse straps and their backs rubbed raw from the rough bamboo baskets. All of the porters required medical attention for this after they escaped and were found by villagers and the KNU.
"We had to carry big weapons. The shell looked like a banana bud but longer [60mm mortar rounds]. There were 12 rounds and each one weighed about 50 kyat tha [816 grams / 1.8 lbs]. My load was over 30 viss [48.99 kgs / 108 lbs]. It was not easy to stand up. Since I began carrying it was not easy to stand up. I could sit myself. Other people didn’t have to hold me, I made myself fall down. When we stood up, they had to lift the load for us. We also had to carry about 5 bowls of rice [7.815 kgs / 17.225 lbs]. They said it was our own rations. They gave 5 bowls to each of us [to carry]."- "Myint Thein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #6, 7/00)
"I had to carry 12 bombs [Rocket-Propelled Grenade rounds]. I don’t know their name, but they were very big and round. It looked like a banana flower and the tail was very long, about a cubit [45.72 cm / 18 in]. I think it was nearly 40 viss [65.32 kgs / 144 lbs]. I couldn’t stand up. They had to lift it for me." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"The weight was over 40 or 50 viss [65.32 kgs / 144 lbs or 81.65 kgs / 180 lbs]. … How could we carry that?! They also put their boots and bags in our baskets to carry for them. We could do nothing even though we could not carry it, because they beat us and told us that even if we died it didn’t matter to them. … We had to carry rice, oil and all their rations, but they carried nothing themselves except their guns. At first I had to carry their weapons and rations. It was two big boxes of bullets and they said it was 20 viss [32.66 kgs / 72 lbs], but I don’t think so. Even if the load was 20 or 30 viss we had to carry all of it and if we asked them to lighten it for us, they didn’t do it. They said they couldn’t do it and that we could only get the butt of a gun, so they started to beat us with the butts of their guns." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"I had to carry bombs, but I don’t know what they are called. It is quite long and I had to carry 6 rounds of that kind. I also had to carry shovels, knives and their personal property like cookers, jars and pots. They selected a special porter who had to carry rice and food for them." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"They had some big weapons, very big. It looked like a blowpipe [a large mortar, probably 120mm]. They carried them on bullock carts which they demanded from Kya In Seik Gyi village. They also carried very big bombs and rice sacks. The column demanded 2 or 3 bullock carts. The villagers were not happy to go [the bullock cart owners have to go along to drive the carts]." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
The food given to the porters was only the bare minimum to keep them going and in many instances not even that. The soldiers generally ate well: beans, raw fishpaste, dried shrimp and dried fish. They were also able to buy things to eat. When the soldiers passed through the villages they stole chickens and pigs to eat. The porters were forced to cook chicken curry for the soldiers, but were given none of it. The convicts portering in Dooplaya were given one milktin of rice for three people, whereas a person performing the heavy work which they were doing would normally require one milktin just for himself. The porters were sometimes given raw fishpaste and beans, but no curry. Some of the porters were unable to eat due to their exhaustion. In some of the units, the porters’ rations were weighed out on a small scale. They were given 2 serving spoonfuls of cooked rice and ½ a milktin of beans with a thumb-sized dab of fishpaste. The porters knew that it was not enough to give them the energy they needed. They all said they were not full, but were told not to come back for more. Occasionally vegetables found along the way like bamboo shoots and dogfruit supplemented this diet. The situation for the porters in Pa’an was even worse. When they arrived at the Army camp, the soldiers had run out of rice, so they were forced to loot it from nearby rice barns belonging to villagers. They then had to pound and sift it and cook it for the soldiers. While the soldiers ate this rice, the convicts were fed only boiled rice soup with no salt. They were given one small tin in the morning and one in the evening. The porters also had to serve the soldiers and wash their plates afterwards. Water was also a problem. The soldiers did have canteens with them, but they didn’t let the porters drink from them. In some instances they were not even allowed to drink from the streams they passed through.
"They gave us two spoons of rice [big spoons used for serving rice], half a milk tin of beans and a thumb-sized dab of fish paste. After they gave it to us they said, ‘Go, go, go to your huts and don’t come back again. Don’t come back to get more.’ We didn’t have time to ask for more and it didn’t belong to us, so we didn’t dare ask for more." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
"They fed us separately and there was not enough. After one plate of rice we couldn’t get any more. There was only 1 milk tin of rice [a condensed milk tin] for three people. They fed us sometimes with raw fishpaste and sometimes with beans. They cooked for themselves in their mess tins. For us, they put it in an aluminium pot for each group of seven people. We ate little, but they ate well." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"They fed us well, but we couldn’t eat. We were so tired that we couldn’t even eat anything during the three days. They put the rice on a scale and gave us one or two spoonfuls of rice [big spoons used for serving rice] and beans and to those who like it, they gave fishpaste. We got 1/3 of a milk tin of rice. It was not enough for us and we didn’t have much energy. They ate separately from us. The soldiers ate better than us. I don’t know why. They would fry dried shrimp and dry fish from their camp. As for us, we had to eat beans and fishpaste." - "Myint Thein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #6, 7/00)
"We only had boiled rice. They didn’t put salt in the rice, they just boiled it. It was tasteless. They fed each of us just a small tin of that boiled rice. They fed us one time in the morning and another time in the evening. … The rice we pounded, we also had to cook for them. After we cooked rice for them, if they asked us to put the rice in their bowls, we had to do that also. They just washed their hands and ate. After they ate, we had to wash their bowls, gather them and put them in the right place. They were very rude because at that time we were in their hands so we had to fear them and couldn’t stay without fearing them. If we didn’t fear them they slapped our faces and we couldn’t speak anything against them. We had to do what they said and stay where they let us stay. ... They stole the chickens to eat. Even if they had asked, those Karen people could not understand or speak Burmese, so they just caught the chickens, cooked them and ate them. We had to cut and cook them for the soldiers, but we could not eat it [the chickens]." -"Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"We had to walk up and down the mountains and we had never climbed or walked like that before. They had good food for themselves and they took villagers from every village we entered. They killed pigs and chickens in the villages also. They ordered us to cook and they had good curries for their meals, but for us, they fed us only rice and it was not enough. We had to remain like that." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"In our platoon I saw the soldiers eat chickens two times in the villages. They ate one chicken before they arrived at Myint Kyaw village. When we were climbing up this mountain, there were some houses on the way and we saw two chickens in a house. They caught only one and there was nobody in the house at that time. … They just ate them and did not give us any to eat. … We had to cook for them." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"On the way, when we were carrying, we were tired and thirsty, but we didn’t have water bottles with us, so we asked them for water. They didn’t give it to us and they also swore at us. They did not beat us, but they shouted at us and didn’t give it." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
Medicine is not available to convict porters. Half a tablet is given for a serious fever and sometimes nothing at all. Most of the porters said that no medicine was given at all, not even when they tried to pay for it. Medics accompanied the soldiers, but no medicine was given. The porters saw the medics giving the soldiers two tablets of some medicine every day and assumed they must be anti-malarials. KNU medics who heard about this say that they were more likely vitamins or methamphetamines to keep the soldiers going. A sergeant told one of the porters, "This is not for you, if you want to die, you die. We already see you as dead people." The convict porters were continually told that the medicine was only for the soldiers and that the soldiers saw them as dead people anyway. On occasion the porters were able to get medicine from villagers or in monasteries the soldiers stayed in. Many of the porters became dehydrated from sweating and lack of water and fell down unconscious. Other porters suffering from wounds on their shoulders and backs, sore legs and fevers, fell out and were just left along the trail to die by the soldiers, albeit after relieving them of their basket and distributing the load to the remaining porters.
"They provided medicines for themselves, but not for us. When we went to ask for it when we got hurt or had injuries, they didn’t give it to us. In the night time they smeared themselves with medicine [a balm] and when we went to ask for some, they shouted at us, ‘This is not for you. Die if you need to die, that is fine as long as my soldiers don’t die.’ They just used those medicines for themselves and never gave any to us. … We asked but they didn’t give it to us. If we asked them they shouted at us and they said, ‘What do you want? This is not for you. This is for our soldiers and rationed.’ They just said that and didn’t give us any. They thought if we would die, then just die, it was only good if their own soldiers didn’t die. We asked one or two times and they didn’t give it to us, so we didn’t dare to ask again because we were afraid that they would beat us again. Both of my legs were swollen and hurt but I had to endure it." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"The soldiers also left some people along the way because they couldn’t go on anymore, such as the people they had beaten and their arms were broken. We don’t know the people whose arms were broken, but there were two of them and they were from Meiktila Prison. The soldiers had beaten them with the butts of their guns. If people collapsed on the mountain, they beat them. … We carried medicine for the soldiers who got sick. One of their Saya Gyi [‘Big Teachers’, i.e. senior officers or Non-Commissioned Officers] told us, ‘This is not for you, if you want to die, you die. We already see you as dead people.’" - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"I tried to buy it from them. I said, ‘If you can’t give it to us for free, could you give me those pills for 50 Kyat.’ That man said, ‘Don’t you mention 50 Kyat, even if you paid 100 Kyat I wouldn’t give them to you. I wouldn’t even give you them for 1,000 Kyat, because they are not for you, it is for us.’ There were no medicines in the villages either. The villagers smeared our wounds with traditional medicines, and when we arrived at a monastery, the monk gave us 2 bottles of liquid medicine to smear. I felt better after that and we thought we would be better when we arrived at the camp, but we started to leave in the early morning and all my wounds were reopened. I could not walk and travel so I had to smear the medicine on to keep me going." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
At first the soldiers and porters took rests of an hour or more on the paths, but the farther they went into KNU territory, the shorter the stops became. The porters were only allowed to rest when they had to wait for the slower members of the column to catch up. Once the slower ones caught up, they continued moving. A longer stop was taken for lunch, but that didn’t mean the porters could stop working. They were detailed to fetch water, look for firewood and vegetables and cook for the soldiers. In the evening, the columns stopped for the night, although sometimes they did continue walking well after nightfall. The porters once again had to look for firewood and vegetables, fetch water and cook for the soldiers. The porters were not allowed to stop and urinate or shit on the path, only at the rest stops. Then they were allowed to go one at a time, but some units made them shit in a plastic bag where they sat and then throw it into the forest. They also sometimes had to urinate where they sat. For sleep the porters were grouped together with the soldiers usually sleeping all around them in a perimeter. There were also soldiers stationed as sentries, although this was more for the soldiers’ security than for the porters. The soldiers had tents or slept under plastic sheeting, but the porters could only put some leaves on the ground. When it rained, the porters had to sit in the rain and try to sleep. When they entered villages, the soldiers forced the villagers out of their houses and slept in them. The porters were allowed to sleep under the houses. During rest stops and at night, the porters’ loads were kept separately from the porters.
"When they made camps [along the way], we had to find firewood and cook rice. We also had to search for vegetables for them. When they slept, we didn’t have a tarpaulin, so we had to sleep in the rain." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"At first, we would get time for a break after walking two or three hours. After we came to this area it wasn’t the same. We couldn’t take a break, just carry up and down, up and down over the mountains. If we could not walk and joined them late, they ordered their soldiers to wait for a while, but we did not have a break time [once the porter group caught up with the rest of the soldiers, they just continued walking]. … When they were sleeping they had some guards for their security. We couldn’t urinate when we wanted to or shit as we wanted to. They stopped us and were oppressive like that. If we wanted to urinate, we had to do it in the place where we were sitting. As for shitting, we had to do it in a plastic bag and throw it in the forest the next morning." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"They stayed in the monastery also and slept together with us. We only had a good place to sleep that night. On the other nights they slept in tents, but we had to stay in the rain and when we arrived at the camp we had to sit down and cross our arms because of the rain. The water came up under us and spread out on the ground, and above us the drops of rain always fell down and all of our clothes got wet. They did not let us change our clothes or start a fire to warm ourselves." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"They forced us to fetch water. Always they were travelling. That is all the daily work. When we took a rest, they cooked rice. If they asked me to find firewood, I had to find it. If they asked me to take this or take that, I had to take it. If they asked me to fetch water, I had to run and fetch it." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
For most of the porters, they had never walked or climbed mountains like that before, and especially not with the loads they were made to carry. General treatment of porters is usually bad and for convict porters horrific. The degree depends on the unit, with some worse than others. Some of the units treated the porters well at first and allowed them to eat together, but they gradually grew farther and farther apart. The soldiers began groaning about having to feed the porters and no longer allowed them to eat with them. The beatings also became worse the longer the trip lasted. The convicts who portered in Pa’an district were constantly told by the soldiers, "We see you as dead people." The soldiers constantly referred to the convicts using the Burmese pronoun kaung which is used only for animals. The soldiers told an ethnic Karen convict porter in Pa’an District that it was because of his Karen people that the soldiers had to face problems. They swore at him and told him it was better if he died, and forced him to carry more than the other porters. This is despite the fact that he lives in Mandalay and comes from a part of the Irrawaddy Delta where there has been almost no KNU activity for more than 30 years.
"I arrived one day at the Byu Ha Gone [Strategic Command Hill camp] and then the next day I had to continue portering. We couldn’t take a rest. When we arrived on that day, they went to go and find the enemy, so we also had to follow them. I had to carry the basket with the rice pot and rice in it. … After we had walked three or four days, the basket had become heavy and my back was bruised in two places from the basket. If there was rain in the night, we had to sleep in it. If there were mosquitoes, we had to sleep with them. I couldn’t sleep. I was not happy to remain there, then I fled." - "Maung Sein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #10, 7/00)
"Saya Gyi [senior officer or NCO] Sit Kyu controlled the convict porters. He had three chevrons and one star. He is a Sit Kyu. He is not a sergeant and not a sergeant major yet [he may be a Deputy Warrant Officer]. He said, ‘If you are faithful, you can do it. It is very important that you must be faithful to us.’ Later they didn’t deal with us on the same level. Slowly and slowly we were becoming farther and farther apart. They weren’t interested in feeding us. At first they fed us but later they were groaning about it. Later, we couldn’t eat together with them." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"My back is broken and split like this because I had to carry a lot of shells and because I am a Karen. If other people had to carry five shells each, I had to carry seven shells. They told me it was because of my Karen people that they had to face problems and they said, ‘Nga Loe Ma, Nga Pway, better to die!’ [‘I fucked your mother, Ringworm’, ringworm being the derogatory term used by the SPDC Army for the KNLA or KNU] I had to face problems even though I have no contact with the KNU, so I could not tolerate it anymore and I thought if we have to die, we will. Three of us then ran down the hill and passed through some very thick brush and crossed this river [the Moei River, border with Thailand]." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
On the paths, one porter walked between each of the soldiers while some of the soldiers went ahead without their packs. Villager and convict porters are often forced to walk between the soldiers as a deterrent to ambush by the opposition forces. They are also often forced to walk ahead of the column as human minesweepers. When battles did occur, the porters put down their baskets and tried to stay behind the soldiers. One of the columns an interviewee was in was ambushed and six soldiers and six porters were either killed or wounded. The porters were not allowed to look and therefore do not know how many of the casualties were porters and whether they were convict or villager porters. When the columns arrived at their base camps, they usually rested for a night and then forced the porters who could still walk to accompany them on operations the next day.
"They put a soldier between two of the porters while they were walking. Some of the soldiers went ahead and didn’t carry their backpacks with them. For us, we had to follow the group that went ahead of us and if we could not follow them they beat us with the butts of their guns, kicked us with their boots and slapped our faces." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"There was no fighting, but some people stepped on landmines and some of them died. Some were soldiers, but some were civilians. They said six soldiers died, so I think six porters died also. They said 12 people stepped on landmines and six people had died and another six were still alive. I don’t know how many people died because we didn’t see it, we just saw them carry back some people afterward." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
From the first day the convicts are forced to go with the soldiers they are subjected to verbal abuse, threats, and physical abuse. It is the Sergeants and Sergeant Majors who are in charge of the porters who inflict or order most of this abuse, often walking along with sticks hitting any porters who are going too slowly. Most of the abuse was directed at the porters for not being able to carry their loads. Porters interviewed by KHRG say they were sworn at and called names, sometimes with a slur on their ethnicity. Some porters were sworn at and slapped just for asking the soldiers their names.
"We couldn’t ask their names because if we asked their names they scolded us and asked us why and slapped our faces. They shouted at us, ‘Ma Aye Loe [Motherfucker]. Do what we order and what you need to.’" - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
Threats were used by the soldiers as a deterrent to the porters escaping. The threats were given by the officers as well as the soldiers. The convict porters were told that if the Karen soldiers found them when they escaped they would slit their throats with a sharp piece of bamboo. The porters were also told the soldiers had planted landmines all around and they would probably step on one if they tried to flee, and that even if they made it to Thailand, they would be killed there too. Fear of these things made some of the porters stay for a few days longer, but the conditions in the end made many of them take the risk. Occasionally the convict porters had contact with local Karen villagers who were doing forced labour as porters or at Army camps, and who told them that no harm would come to them if the Karen soldiers found them - that on the contrary, the Karen soldiers would probably help them.
"They threatened us, like: ‘If you run to escape, the Karen Nga Pway will kill you and we also will shoot to kill you if you run. Ma Aye Loe Dway! [Motherfuckers!] Be careful with yourselves, you don’t need to think about going to run.’" - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"I was afraid. The Burmese soldiers told us this when they took us: ‘Don’t you escape. If you escape and the Karen soldiers capture you, they will cut your throats.’ They said that. They told us that because they didn’t want us to flee. They gave us this speech when they took us from Won Saung 1." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"They threatened us that if we ran to escape, we would step on landmines and if we met the Nga Pway [KNLA], they would slit our throats with a very sharp piece of bamboo. And if we ran to Thailand and arrived there, you would be assassinated also. Their column commander told us that. I don’t know his name." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"They told us, ‘Do not run. If you run to Thailand, the Nga Pway [KNLA] stays there and if you run, you will step on a landmine on the way and die. If you meet the Nga Pway, they will also slit your throat and you will die.’ They threatened us like that and they told us, ‘If you run you can’t go back to your house, you will die on the way or be killed.’ It was a Bo Gyi [captain] who threatened us. He was Burman and about 45 years old." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
All of the convict porters interviewed for this report said that had witnessed or directly experienced the soldiers punching, kicking and hitting the porters with sticks and rifle butts. The officers pretended they didn’t see this abuse. In some cases, when the officers passed in front of the convicts they were beaten and kicked more by the privates. A few of the porters suffered broken arms from the abuse and were left behind. A porter from Moulmein was hit for falling down, then when he told the soldier that he had just come out of hospital, he was hit three times in the back for it. Sometimes the beatings were so severe they led directly to the deaths of the porters. One porter in Pa’an district was hit in the forehead with a rifle butt so hard that it cracked his skull and he fell down the steep mountainside. When the officer asked what had happened, the soldiers lied and reported that he had fallen down the hillside because he was exhausted. When interviewed by KHRG, the porter who witnessed it pointed out that with such heavy loads on their shoulders, a tumble down the mountainside could easily break a porter’s whole body. Sometimes the beatings were not the only cause of death. A Chinese convict from Lashio Prison named Yun Chin Chan died after he had fallen down in Dooplaya district. He had told the soldiers that he could carry no longer and was kicked and hit in the head with the butt of a rifle. The soldiers then sat and watched him die. Later, they used his death as a threat to push the other convicts on. Another convict porter named Nandah Min Hteh Naing, a 19 year old from Say Gu in Magwe Division, was so exhausted he could no longer walk or breathe so was beaten and then kicked off the side of a mountain and left for dead. An interviewee, "Than Aung", fell down and couldn’t continue. His basket was taken from him and he was kicked and hit in the back with rifle butts. When the soldiers saw that he couldn’t continue they stepped on his neck three times. He lost consciousness and was left behind as dead by the soldiers. Some nearby villagers who found him saved him.
"Before we reached Kyaikdon I couldn’t walk anymore. We were not so far from a village. My cheek was trembling badly. I told them I couldn’t carry anymore and I fell down with the basket of mines. They picked up the mines, the basket and me, then kicked me with their feet. When they saw I was tired, they pounded me on the back with their gun butts and I turned face up. They took off my basket and put it beside me. It is still painful when I am talking. They stepped on my neck three times and they kicked my buttocks many times. They left me like that. I don’t know if they thought I was dead and left me, because I lost consciousness and later I remembered nothing. I had been left there." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"They said he fell down, but some porters said the soldiers had beaten him with the butt of a gun. The sergeant told the battalion commander he collapsed off the top of the mountain and his forehead was cracked, but really they beat him and it was broken. Because as we were carrying everything on our shoulders, if we collapsed accidentally off the mountain, our entire body would be broken also, not only our forehead." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"He was a Chinese sent from Lashio. I don’t know his name. He was a drug offender, but I don’t know his sentence. At first he was also carrying. He carried whatever they forced him to carry, but he couldn’t do it. They kicked, punched and beat him. Later, when he couldn’t carry any longer, they kicked his head and beat him with a gun. He fell down and was shaking. They tried to force him to carry but he couldn’t. When they couldn’t force him to carry at all, they kicked him with their heels. I passed him at that time. We asked the porters who came behind us, ‘Is there a young brother who fell behind?’ They said he was dead. The porters said it to each other, I didn’t see it." - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
"When he couldn’t walk anymore, they beat him and he fell down. … They beat him with the butt of the gun and kicked him. They beat him on the head and back. They did nothing for him. He died when they beat him. They hit him with a gun and he died. When we passed him he hadn’t died yet, but some time after we passed him he died. …The porter’s friend and the soldiers told us. The soldiers said it themselves. They told us, ‘If you can’t carry like that one, we will beat you to death as we did to that one.’ They told us like that. ‘Go ahead and reach the destination. Really, if you can’t carry, you must follow as you can. You can’t live without following.’ His name was Yun Chin Chan. He was Chinese. He was our friend. I knew him when he stayed in prison. He was from Lashio, Section 5. … Before we were sent to prison, we were friendly with each other. I had been to his house one or two times, but I don’t know his mother or father. I was put in prison before him." - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"For the first one or two days they could carry, later they couldn’t. Even we young people couldn’t carry the loads. They said we were close to our destination and forced us to continue. I saw at least five porters on the path [who had fallen out]. The porters who couldn’t carry anymore were put in Kyaikdon jail. I saw one of the porters on the path [who couldn’t carry], he was Chinese and also from Lashio Prison. When I passed him, he hadn’t died yet, but he was laying face down and trembling. I didn’t see them give any medicine. They just sat and watched. When I asked another porter group that came behind us about him, they said he was dead. They were not in the same group as us, but I asked them because he [the dying porter] was in our group." - "Phone Shwe" (M, 34), porter from Lashio prison (Interview #7, 7/00)
"I fell down and they left me. When I was feeling better, they grabbed me to stand up. They picked me up and ordered me to walk again. They beat me with a gun three or four times near my shoulder. Another time they beat me on this place and it became swollen. They beat me a little when I couldn’t stand up. They kicked my buttocks two times and then punched me on the temple. When I arrived at the mountains I couldn’t carry anymore, my feet were bruised. When I couldn’t follow, they kicked my buttocks and I just had to suffer and keep going. We slept one night and the next morning I couldn’t walk, so they ordered me to go on the bullock cart. … We couldn’t worry about whether it was painful or not, we still had to carry. The loads were heavy and we walked slowly. They said, ‘Hey, you are slow. Hey Kaung [a pronoun used with animals and not humans], walk quickly.’ Then they hit us, ‘Daung, Daung, Daung’ [making the sound of being hit]." - "Myint Thein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #6, 7/00)
"On the first day, when we were climbing up. Nobody could climb and carry. We had to climb for a long time. Nobody could climb the hill. Even me, I had to climb on my hands and knees. It was not a car road. It was very rough. He [a Burmese soldier] said, ‘You can’t carry and go.’ Then he kicked him, ‘Dine’ [making the sound of the man being kicked]. I don’t know if he fell down or not. They kicked him off the side of the mountain. I think he is dead. He was about 45 or 50 years old. It was when we left Kya In Seik Gyi and were climbing up [into the mountains]. … The commanders pretended as though they didn’t see it. … They didn’t say anything. They also didn’t say anything when the soldiers punched us. They didn’t say anything when the soldiers reviled us, ‘Nga Loe Ma Tha [I fucked your mother]’. The soldiers reviled us more in front of them. When the officers passed in front of them, the soldiers reviled and kicked us." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"When I was walking in the night time, there was no light and I fell down. He [one of the soldiers] didn’t lift me, he kicked me. He pulled the basket and it fell out of my hands. He told me, ‘Your body is very big, but you are not useful.’ I told him, ‘No, Saya, I came out of the hospital not so long ago.’ He then hit me three times on the back and my back hurt. I still have the wound [he then showed his wound]. When I carried the basket, it was very painful. I had to suffer and carry it in the night." - "Myo Myint" (M, 30), convict porter from Moulmein prison (Interview #1, 7/00)
"I got that wound [on his back] from the rubbing of carrying the basket. They also kicked us with their boots so my wound became worse and worse. If I could not carry and fell down on the ground, they ordered me to sit up and hit my wounds so they split even more. … The soldiers kicked me. They kicked me five or six times like that and hit me with a big piece of bamboo and the butt of a gun also. They hit me with a piece of bamboo on my feet and my knees. I can’t count how many times they hit me because they beat me continuously. It was not a very big piece of bamboo. They beat us when we couldn’t carry the load. Sometimes they ordered us to climb down the mountain very quickly and if we couldn’t they kicked at our bottoms. Sometimes we fell face down and got injured from that also. They hit me five times with the butt of their guns on the way. They hit me on the back of the neck. I became unconscious, but suddenly they pulled us to move. … He is a sergeant. I don’t know his name, but he had three chevrons. He is also the one who hit me with the bamboo." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"We had a person die because of exhaustion. His name was Nan Dah Min Hteh Naing. He was Burmese from Say Gu and also a prisoner. He was so exhausted when he was climbing Ka Ler Ma Mountain. He couldn’t breathe or walk. They beat him and kicked him down into the valley. He died." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
"Before, I tried to be patient and work for them [the SPDC soldiers] as I could and they said they would release us when we arrived at their Army camp, so I worked for them for two days at their Army camp also. I did everything they asked me to do. … They had ordered us to cut bamboo and when they started to patrol on their operation to fight the rebels [KNLA], they asked us to carry paddy and heavy things. They were staying at the top of the hill and carried nothing themselves, and if we couldn’t carry they beat us. After we arrived at the top, they kicked us with their boots and beat and swore at us and asked us to dig holes in the ground and to pound the paddy for them. After that we had to boil the rice and had a small tin of boiled rice to eat, but they ate the rice which we had pounded. That is why we ran, we knew we were going to die soon and we couldn’t tolerate it anymore." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
The convicts interviewed for this report had to carry for anything from 3 to 10 days to arrive at the frontline bases of the Army columns they had been assigned to. Many of them believed they would be released or sent back once they arrived, but the ordeal didn’t end when they arrived at the Army camps. At the camps, the convicts were forced to do labour around the camps such as cutting and carrying bamboo and wood to make fences around the camps, cleaning the camp, building huts, digging bunkers and trenches, and washing clothes. This work was done every day. The porters at the Operations Headquarters camp at Azin (in Dooplaya District) had to work from 7 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 to 4 p.m., or sometimes as late as 11 p.m. The convicts sometimes worked alongside villagers who had been conscripted to do forced labour at the camps. The porters were often scolded or beaten when their work wasn’t satisfactory. The porters in Pa’an were forced to loot paddy from rice barns belonging to villagers. When they asked the soldiers about it, they were told that the rice had been ‘donated’ to the Army. They were then required to dig a hole and pound it, then sift it and cook it for the soldiers. The porters were only given a small tin of boiled rice porridge. The porters in Pa’an district said that some of the convicts had become sick from portering, and when they died at the camp the soldiers just threw them down the mountainside. The soldiers took those porters who were still able to walk to go on operations in the area, and treated them just as badly as they had on the initial forced-march to the camp. By this time many of the convict porters had already been left behind on the trail or in camps, had died or had simply fled.
"They forced the prisoners a lot. They didn’t do it themselves. If it was heavy, they forced us to do it. We couldn’t live without doing it. They said, ‘You are imprisoned. Why can’t you do it? The nation feeds you rice freely.’ Some people complained to them, ‘You are not feeding us enough rice but you are forcing us to work a lot.’" - "How Nan" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #4, 7/00)
"When we arrived at this Army camp [Pu Lu Dtu Army camp] we didn’t have huts, but they had tents with them. They gave us a very small piece of plastic sheet and we had to cover ourselves with that while sitting together in the same place. We had to sit with bent heads in the rain until morning arrived. … If our wounds became worse and we asked for medication, they said, ‘Die if you have to, but we do not have medicine for you. We only have enough for our soldiers. We see you as dead people.’ … There were some sick people who were staying on the top of the hill [at the Army camp]. They threw the dead down the hill." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"They oppressed us and forced us to work under duress. We did not have enough rice and they forced us to work every day. We had to get up in the morning at 5 a.m. and work. After working for a while, we had to queue up at 7 a.m. After queuing up, we had to work again. When we ate, we only got one plate of rice to eat. It was only one mouthful, a handful, and it was not enough for us." - "Myint Thein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #6, 7/00)
"They said they would release us as soon as they arrived at their Army camp, but when they arrived there, they said, ‘If we have to stay for 6 or 8 months, you also have to stay with us and you can go back when we go back.’ I just had two months left before completing my punishment but now I’d have to stay for 6 or 8 months there, it would be extra. As for the extra time, it would be better to run and escape because staying there I was starving and had nothing to eat or drink and my wounds on my back were very painful. Because my back was cut and very painful, I thought it better to run, so I organised some friends and three of us ran to here." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
After all the abuse, the starvation diet and the overwork the convict porters come to see only two options for themselves. They can either work for the soldiers until they die of exhaustion or starvation, or escape. Many of the porters choose the second option. One interviewee related that so many of the porters had been left on the path, died, were left at camps because they were unfit, or had run away that by the time his unit went to patrol the frontline, there were only one or two porters left in each platoon, where there were six or more before. Despite the soldiers’ best attempts at intimidation, the convict porters fled to the Karen villages and were in turn handed over to the Karen resistance forces. They say that they were treated well by the villagers and the KNLA, and that they were given clothing, food and medicine. When interviewed, all of them displayed wounds where their backs and shoulders had been rubbed raw by the coarse bamboo straps and baskets, and on their legs from falls, beatings and the undergrowth. A KNLA officer who had seen some of the interviewees when they arrived commented that they had been very thin and weak and all of them had wounds. He also said that the SPDC units had called the local village heads and warned them that the convict porters were very dangerous and would rob the villages, so they should kill them or arrest them and send them back to the Army camp. All of the porters said they wanted to return to their homes. Although some were afraid of being arrested again, they did agree that this is where they wanted to go.
"I had walked for 10 days and my legs had become big and swollen. Then I went to tell the medic to treat them. I asked them for medicine. ‘Saya, my shoulder is bruised, my feet are very swollen and I can’t walk.’ He told me, ‘Hey, Kaung! [a Burmese term used only for animals] No, you have to walk. Smear it when you arrive there.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t. I must smear it now.’ Then they kicked me. They pushed me from behind and forced me to go with the basket. Then I tied my legs with rope tightly and carried the basket. I put the basket on my back and picked it up. At that time a soldier said, ‘Hey, get up, get up, get up, let’s go.’ I told him, ‘Don’t you see here? Saya, I can’t continue going.’ He said, ‘The Colonel will come. Get Up.’ Then I got up and he told me to walk quickly. I said, ‘I can’t walk anymore.’ He said, ‘No, you can’t stop. Walk until you can’t.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Nga Lo Ma Tha [Fuck your mothers]. You have only one of me to force. The other people have fled.’ And I fled." - "Hla Shwe" (M, 26), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #8, 7/00)
"The news I heard when I was in prison before I came here was that they [his wife and children] have to beg from other people’s houses for leftover rice and rice soup. I had thought that it would be better if I could be released, so I didn’t care what happened to me and agreed with them to go to the place they sent me. The Army and the officials said as soon as we arrived here after carrying loads for them, they would release us. When we came here [to the Army camp] they told us that if they had to stay for eight months then we also had to stay for eight months. We could go back when they could go back. They didn’t release us to go back, but tortured us and gave us only boiled rice without salt in a small tin. They beat us and we didn’t have any medicine to heal our wounds and we could not sleep very well. If it rained, the plastic sheet they provided for us was not enough to cover ourselves and they didn’t make a hut for us. We just had to sit like that. It was also not easy to urinate or shit. We thought that it was the same as being dead, and it would be better to escape, so we made up our minds and ran to here. Every time I think about my family, I see my troubles and that my children are faced with troubles too, so I thought, if I have to die, it is better to die after I have had some good rice. … So, because I could not be happy for my wife and children and I am tortured with many problems, I hope that if I will die I will go back and die in the place where my wife is. After I thought about that, I started to flee through their landmines. They had threatened us before like, ‘We have planted landmines and if we capture you again we will shoot you.’ Even though they threatened us like that, I did not change my mind and just ran to escape. … We didn’t care whether the Nga Pway [KNLA] killed us or not, so we struggled to run here." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"When we were there, we thought only that we would die, so we planned that we would leave them, but we didn’t tell them. We thought, if we are going to die, we don’t want to die in their hands, so we will come to die here. Before, if they killed us, we would beg and bend down on our knees in front of them, but later, we couldn’t beg them. If they wanted to kill us, just kill us. After we decided that we fled here." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
Treatment of Civilians
"The soldiers did not care about the age. They even saw an old man with two children and they ordered the two children to stay away and pulled the old man to go with them. Those children were left there crying. It was in one of the Karen villages. That old man was about 60 years old, but they took him as a guide to show the way and ordered him to carry two backpacks. They thought that if they are comfortable, then that is fine for them. They shouted at the children to leave the old man, so the children were afraid and crying. When they arrived at their camp they released him. We felt sorrow for them [the two children] when we came." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
The use of convict porters does not mean an end to forced labour for the local villagers. Although the convict porters from Dooplaya district said no civilian porters accompanied them, the soldiers did commandeer bullock carts from Kya In Seik Gyi town and took them and their drivers along. The bullock carts were used to carry the soldiers’ rations, rice sacks, equipment and heavy weapons like 120mm mortars. On occasion they were also used to transport porters who could no longer walk. The villagers were obviously unhappy about this and the convicts didn’t see any money change hands for the service. The soldiers forced the bullock cart drivers to drive their bullocks in a much harsher manner then they otherwise would have done. The ropes tied through the bullocks’ noses were broken from pulling at them so hard. The soldiers displayed no sympathy and instead told the drivers that if the bullock was going to die, to just kill it and eat it.
"When they couldn’t drive their bullock up a hill, the soldiers behind them said, ‘Drive like you mean it.’ Sometimes the nose harnesses [ropes through the bullocks’ noses used to pull them] broke, but the bullock still didn’t go. The Burmese forced them to work, they forced them to drive. They said, ‘If it is going to die, kill it and eat it.’" - "Than Aung" (M, 28), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #3, 7/00)
The convicts who portered in Pa’an district said that many civilian porters were also taken. A convict who portered for Infantry Battalion 81 said there were 200 soldiers in his column, 25 convict porters and 25 villager porters. Some of the convicts said the villagers were dropped off in each village they passed through and new ones taken, and others said the villagers were taken for the duration of the trip. Most of the villagers were men, but a large number of women were also taken. They described how one old man of about 60 was taken from his two young grandchildren to act as a guide. The soldiers shouted at the children and told them to leave the old man. When the old man tried to protest to the soldiers in Karen, they just pointed their rifles at his head. They made him carry two of their packs and just left the children behind. He was later released at their camp. The women were reportedly not abused, but this is very much dependent on the unit and its officers. This particular officer had ordered his men not to touch the women and they were allowed to sleep together in a separate place with soldiers guarding them. The civilian porters were ordered to carry bags of rice and an electric generator. This did not lighten the loads of the convict porters.
"Yes, they also captured people from the villages. They were mostly men. They had also called women to go with them and at one time they had over 50 women with them. There were 25 or 30 women with them from the villages and they were ordered to carry rice bags. At the monastery where their Byu Ha [Operations Command] camp is, they released them." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"They captured 7 or 10 women that time, but I was not with them, so I don’t know exactly. They had to carry loads in big sacks and some people had to carry them with their sarongs on their heads [they hung the sarong from their head and used it as a sling on their back]. Some of the men had to carry, like your age, my age, and some were old men. They couldn’t stay [in their villages] without going, they forced and pulled you. They swore at those people like, ‘Nga Loe Ma Tha!’ [I fucked your mother] and said, ‘If they do not go then beat and kill them.’ Their commander spoke like that." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"Women did not carry, but they took two old women to escort them to show the way. They were from Myint Kyaw village. I don’t know their names. They were very old already. If I estimate their ages, they were about 60 years old. They were called in the village. Later, they released them." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"They took some villagers from one village and then when they arrived in another village, they took porters from that village and released the other porters. If they saw 4 or 5 villages on the way, they took people from those villages. They took 10 or 15 villagers for a section. Including us, there were 18 porters." - "Thet Htoo" (M, 29), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #11, 6/00)
The convict porters generally saw the SPDC soldiers to be undisciplined and capable of anything, especially where the villagers were concerned. Coming from central Burma, where abuses against villagers are not committed so blatantly, they were outraged that the soldiers would walk into the villages and begin to demand everything from the villagers including chickens, pigs, rice, and people. They witnessed the soldiers scolding and shouting at the villagers, beating the villagers, stealing their chickens, ducks and jackfruit, and eating their food. The convict porters say that they also heard that the soldiers had burned down some of the villages they had passed through. At Azin Strategic Command Camp in Dooplaya District, the convict porters also worked alongside the villagers who had been ordered to perform forced labour at the camp.
"We took a rest one time in a village, but I don’t know its name. The soldiers didn’t do anything to the villagers, they just rested in the village and cooked. Some soldiers demanded chickens and ducks and some stole them. They cooked them and ate the jackfruit." - "Myint Thein" (M, 20), convict porter from Lashio prison (Interview #6, 7/00)
"After we passed through the villages, we heard that the soldiers burned them down. After we fled, that man [indicating another porter who fled later] told us they had burned down the villages. I don’t know the names of the villages, but they are just on the other side of this hill. There are some small houses they burned down." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"We slept 4 or 5 nights on the way here [to the Army camp] by sleeping in a monastery and some houses. If the soldiers went in to sleep in a house, the owners had to move out to make space for them to sleep. They slept comfortably, but the porters had to sit down and sleep. After that we slept two nights in that Army camp [Pu Lu Dtu camp]." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"We have never liked this government because they don’t have good behaviour like our parents. They are the high leaders but they oppress the grassroots people, so we can’t agree with this government. We don’t like their policies also because they do what they want to do. They think they have power and weapons and they will do what they want and demand from the people what they want, beat as they want and kill as they like. They have this policy of no sympathy for other people, and we can’t agree with the policy." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
Living conditions for the vast majority of Burma’s people are bad and getting worse. Years of economic mismanagement have destroyed the economy. Despite the SPDC’s claims to great agricultural achievements, malnutrition is widespread. The villagers are not allowed to plant what they want when they want. SPDC agricultural policies go against everything the villagers know about their crops and what can be grown in their soil. Quotas on the crops which are grown severely limit what the villagers can eat or sell from their fields. Villagers must buy rice or other produce on the market to fulfil unattainable quotas which they must hand over to the authorities. Government services are almost non-existent in the villages. There is almost no electricity or running water. Most villages do not have a clinic, and the nearest hospital is at the township seat. The clinics and hospitals have no medicine; patients’ families have to buy medicine outside, and must also pay for all the costs of treatment. If there is a school it is usually only a monastery school or a primary school. To go to high school, children often have to travel long distances to the cities, and fees must be paid to send children to school. Forced labour for the military and the authorities takes people away from work they must do to survive. In addition, people have to pay money to avoid forced labour and many other forms of extortion to all levels of the military and SPDC authorities, and these fees can add up to more than anyone can make.
"Yes, we have human rights abuses in our village also. The way they abuse our human rights is we don’t have freedom to work. Because we are rural workers, the produce we get from our farms, like sesame and beans, we have to sell to them [the SPDC]. We can’t sell it to other people. We also don’t have much right to sell our produce outside the village because they ask us as they want [the SPDC officials take whatever they want and there isn’t much left to sell]. Sometimes, if we don’t have as much produce from our farms as they ask, we have to buy it from somewhere else and sell it to them [the SPDC]. We can’t stay there without giving it to them. When the season is good to plant groundnuts [peanuts] we can’t plant groundnuts because we have to plant what they order us to plant. The seeds they want us to plant are not good and there is not much product so we can’t get as much as they want, we have to buy it to fulfil the quota. We can’t plant what we would like to plant." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
"We have a lot of people who can’t go to school. The people who have money can send their children to school, but for the poor families, they can’t send them because the school fees are very expensive. Each student has to give 1,000 Kyat to go to school per year. For food fees like oil and a bowl of rice it is 200 or 300 Kyat to buy food to live, so we do not have extra money and it is not easy to send somebody to school. A lot of children can not be sent to school and over 1/3 of the children don’t go to school. Most of the people can’t send their children to school, but some people can afford it. … People go to the hospital, they say it is a private hospital. A lot of people have died there if they did not have money [to pay for the treatment], but the people who do have money can live. It is because they do not really treat them, they just go here and there and do not take care of the people until they are near to death and then they just inject some medicine. A lot of people who do not have money have died." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
"In our village we do not exactly have school fees, but sometimes money is demanded for sports, the teachers and parents organisation and many other kinds of things. They do not ask very much, but they ask for fees like that all the time. They asked 50 or 100 Kyat per time. They collect it in the village. It is for sports and donations for the school. During a month, they demand it 15 times. … For the development of our village, they only built a bridge and a dam. They haven’t done anything else. We have never had them develop things like health care." - "Aung Myaing" (M, 37), convict porter from Pakokku prison (Interview #9, 6/00)
The people living in the towns and cities are not much better off. They also must pay ‘fees’ for many things. Inflation is rampant in Burma and the prices for food and commodity goods are rising fast. The wages are not. Many people subsist on daily labour. While many Burmese have seen the SPDC’s new bridges and roads, they have not seen any development projects related to health, education or social welfare. Many of the convicts interviewed felt that they are part of a massive poor population which is being kept down by the small minority who are rich. To be rich in Burma almost always means some association with the SPDC. The grinding poverty and frustration caused by the lack of any economic freedom, human rights or political rights is what leads many Burmese to drink or drugs, fights and crimes of passion - or to take a chance transporting a bag of amphetamines or stealing and selling a bicycle. Under the SPDC, even being out after dark is treated as a crime, and once arrested the courts are merciless in handing out long prison sentences.
"I am a ground digger. When people want to build a building, I have to dig the holes for the posts. I got 300 Kyat per day for it and it is just enough for a day. I never have extra money because goods over there are very expensive. For one bowl of rice it is 170 or 180 Kyat. We have to buy rice and other food to eat so that money is really not enough for us. The price is going up so we can only afford a little bit of food for ourselves. … When we stayed in the town all the civilians had to work to afford meals and if we were tired from working and drank alcohol and got rowdy and made noise, the police would come and arrest us. They sent us to court and sentenced us to jail. Sometimes when we were late in coming back from work and it was dark, they accused us of Maung Yake Koe Muh [‘hiding in the dark’] and then arrested us again. All of the civilians have to face problems and we have to work hard jobs to earn money, so sometimes we get tired and come back late from drinking. Like me, I am a ground digger and sometimes I drink alcohol, then they said I was drunk and annoying people so they took me to the police station and sentenced me to jail. The police arrest us and send us to jail and when we arrive at the jail, they send us to work camps and order us to do what they want us to do." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"For us, as the other man said [see above quote from "Than Htun"], if we have nothing to eat so we work until dark, they arrest us. If you can give money, they release you, but if you can’t give money they accuse you of Maung Yake Koe Muh ['hiding in the dark']. They put us in prison for a month or two. Some people who do not have food just steal things to get food. I think if the situation keeps going like this other people will have problems like this also. … We get money each day with each job. Some people have more property, but for the people who have nothing, they have to find food each day to eat or work and cook themselves. Some people don’t have enough food. … I climbed toddy palms to get the juice. [Toddy palm wine is sold as a mildly alcoholic beverage.] For climbing the toddy palms I got 150 or 200 Kyat a day, but the owners of the toddy can make 400 or 500 Kyat as profit. Because we hire ourselves we only get 150 or 200 Kyat and it is just enough to eat for one day, but no way to get rich or better our family’s situation. … A bowl of rice is about 200 Kyat [a bowl of rice is 1.562 kgs / 3.445 lbs, there are 8 bowls in a big tin]. A viss [1.633 kgs / 3.6 lbs] of chicken is 500 Kyat, a viss of pork is 500 Kyat and a viss of beef is over 400 Kyat.’’ - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
With the mounting international pressure on the SPDC to end civilian forced labour, the SPDC claims to be placing increased reliance on convict labour. To support the labour camps and to provide porters for the Army there needs to be a constant stream of new convicts coming into them. There is already some evidence to suggest that the SPDC is arresting, convicting and sentencing people on trumped up charges to fuel this forced labour machine (see above under ‘Choosing the Convicts’). Prisoners in Lashio are under the belief that they have been arrested on fabricated drug charges because the Army needs porters to fight the KNLA, a belief supported by the fact that many of the prisoners sent to porter at the Won Saung camps were convicted without any evidence at all to short sentences, then sent to the Won Saungcamp almost as soon as they arrived in prison.
"If I give my thoughts freely about the SPDC, I don’t think they rule the country peacefully and with equality. They do not have pity on the people and do not act like parents towards us. Why do I speak like this? Because they are Thu Min Thu Kyin [‘their government for themselves’, the government helps only itself]. When they call the civilians, they don’t need to oppress them. If they need help, they just have to ask for help, but instead of asking, they torture, abuse and make problems for the civilians. They live, eat and sleep in very good conditions but we do not get good food to eat, just boiled rice, and we were beaten and made to carry very heavy loads. We want to ask them to have pity in their hearts, sympathy, see our needs and to change their rules and laws." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
While it appears that ICRC’s prison visits are having positive effects, conditions in Burma’s prisons remain overwhelmingly terrible, particularly for criminal prisoners and Article 17/1 political prisoners. Much attention has been given to the plight of the ‘urban dissident’ type of political prisoners, but little attention has been given to the thousands of other prisoners. Many people and organisations hesitate to stand up for convicts, believing that they have done something to merit some punishment; however, as seen above, this is often not the case in Burma. The prison food is not enough and of poor quality. Sanitary conditions are deplorable, and prisoners are even forced to handle their own excrement as a method of humiliation. Medical care is almost non-existent and what is available is expensive. Many prisoners receive no treatment at all until they are dying. Lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS and repeated use of unsterilised hypodermic needles by doctors appears to have resulted in a very high infection rate among the prisoners, and convicts speak of significant numbers of deaths from what appears to be AIDS. Deaths from treatable diseases are also common in the prisons, yet even these conditions are much better than those in the hard labour camps where the mortality rate is very high.
"If they capture me again, this time I have already decided I will fight them. If the police arrest me, I will beat the police and if the Ya Wa Ta [the old term for Village LORC, now called Village Peace and Development Council] wants to arrest me, I will beat them also. Even if they carry guns, I have decided not to just allow them to arrest and abuse me like that, I would rather die right away. I decided that if my village will become better and I have to die for that, I am happy to do that, because the police or the Ya Wa Ta arrest people with invalid reasons and I have decided to do something against it." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)
Under certain conditions, labour can be a valid part of a prison sentence; provided that the labour has been given by the courts as part of the sentence, that safeguards exist to protect the physical well-being of the convict workers, that work not be exacted from those who are too ill or unfit to perform that work, and that proper medical and other care is provided for anyone hurt as a direct or indirect result of the work, for example. Convention 29 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that convict labour is not to be considered as forced labour "provided that the said work or service is carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority and that the said person is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations" (Article 2), though it also goes on to say in Article 18 that "Forced or compulsory labour for the transport of persons or goods, such as the labour of porters or boatmen, shall be abolished within the shortest possible period." However, in Burma none of the required conditions or safeguards exist. Those interviewed by KHRG testified that even the physically disabled, the young and the elderly were taken, and that some patients were even dragged from the prison hospital to be sent as porters. The convicts taken to porter are exposed to malnutrition, beatings, overwork and summary execution if they can no longer work. Little or no treatment is given to the sick. They are taken into war situations, used as human shields and mine detonators, and are sometimes killed or wounded from landmines and ambushes. Furthermore, they are kept as porters for the duration of military operations, which often goes well beyond the end of their sentences. Once the duration of their sentence has passed, they are no longer convict porters: they are free civilians who are being unlawfully detained and used for forced labour, in violation of Burma’s domestic laws and its commitments through ILO Convention 29, the Geneva Conventions and other international conventions.
"I have to go back whether they arrest me again or not, because if I stay here, one day I will die. I can’t be happy or provide for my family because my wife’s health is not good and she has heart disease. My eldest son is just 12 years old, the next one is 8 years old and my daughter is 5 years old and all of them have to beg from other people to eat. They can’t go to school and had to leave school because their mother has heart disease and she doesn’t have any relatives in the town she moved to." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
The convicts are treated much more brutally than village civilians who are forced to labour as porters, but this does not mean that civilians are treated well; as can be seen in many other reports by KHRG and other organisations, many are killed or disabled for life from portering, while their families go hungry or have to flee their villages. The SPDC has come under mounting international pressure to stop the use of civilian forced labour. In June 2000, the International Labour Organisation enacted Article 33 of their constitution calling for its member states and organisations to review their agreements and contracts with the SPDC with an end to pressing the regime to put an end to forced labour. For several years now, one of the means the SPDC has used to try to escape this pressure is to claim that civilian forced labour is being replaced with convict labour, both as porters and on infrastructure projects. Today more and more convicts are being used on infrastructure and tourism projects and as porters for the Army, being treated little better than animals. However, this has not reduced the demands for forced labour placed on the civilian population; instead, as can be seen in other KHRG reports, forced labour is on the rise throughout rural Burma. The SPDC has simply expanded its forced labour pool to include more convicts along with the civilians. This allows the regime to extend its control by implementing more and bigger infrastructure projects, and to support its ever-expanding Army. The Army has almost tripled in size since 1988 and has more than tripled its number of bases and outposts throughout rural Burma, resulting in an ever-increasing demand for both civilian and convict forced labour. Villagers are still taken to porter, sometimes right alongside the convict porters. They are also still conscripted to work at the Army camps and on infrastructure projects, many times also with convict porters. In cases where convict labour is used, it allows the SPDC to allocate the civilians to a different project; and it is usually the convicts who are given the worst assignments on the most dangerous projects. The establishment of the Won Saung convict porter camps has further institutionalised the process, and indicates that the SPDC has every intention of continuing along its current path, treating the entire population as little more than a pool of forced and unpaid servants. For all of these reasons, the issue of convict labour in Burma needs to be taken much more seriously internationally and added to the human rights agenda, so that the SPDC can be pressed to stop this terrible abuse of its people.
"Their behaviour and attitude was awful and they never had pity or a sympathetic heart. They [the Army] say the Army was founded by civilians, but they are not of the civilians because they only know how to oppress the people and to use their anger. They are carrying guns, so they want people to stay under their hands and do whatever they demand without thinking and eat what they provide without question. They always behave like that so we can’t do anything about it. … Really, they [the Burmese soldiers] are very bad and only have the attitude to oppress and torture us because they have guns in their arms. They never think about how to feed people, just how to force us to work. They kept us like cows and dogs, but the people here [the Karen resistance and villagers] do not divide us by our skin or appearance. They just deal with us as their siblings and eat, sleep and live in equality and they have good hearts." - "Than Htun" (M, 46), convict porter from Mandalay prison (Interview #2, 6/00)
"I can say I don’t like them, because according to our situation they should be people we can rely on. But really they oppress and abuse the civilians who do not have many ways to improve their standard of living. If they keep doing this, I don’t think it will benefit our situation, so if they would change some things, I think it would be better. I say this because some people have property and some don’t, and also some people have food and some don’t. We don’t need to divide the muscles on our backs and chests [we don’t need to divide our strength], we just have to help each other and be sympathetic to each other. If we deal with this problem and solve this problem, I believe that all our Buddhist people will be fine. But if we keep going like this, I don’t think that it will be easy, and there will be a lot of fighting and arguments." - "Naung Soe" (M, 21), convict porter from Meiktila prison (Interview #5, 6/00)