PHOTO SET 2002-A: Forced Labour

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PHOTO SET 2002-A: Forced Labour

Published date:
Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Forced labour is probably the most systematic and prevalent abuse committed by the SPDC against villagers throughout Burma. Village heads are ordered to provide labourers for building roads and other infrastructure, portering for the Army, constructing and maintaining Army camps, performing sentry duty at Army camps and along roads, farming for the Army and many other jobs. In addition, villagers must also use much of their time filling the constant demands from SPDC Army camps and authorities for large quantities of bamboo, roofing thatch, stones and gravel, logs, planks and other materials. Some of these materials are used for the construction and maintenance of roads, SPDC Army camps and other SPDC projects, while the rest is sold on the market for the personal profit of the Army officers. Villagers are not provided with tools or food to complete the work and are often treated brutally, some dying as a result. The labour takes them away from their livelihood and leaves them very little time to farm their fields or to earn a living. Whatever little money the villagers are able to get must be given to the SPDC to avoid having to go for the labour so they can do their own work. Village heads often receive demands from many different Army camps and SPDC authorities for various kinds of labour at the same time. Many villagers try to strike a balance by paying the 'fees' to avoid some of the labour while still regularly going for other forms of forced labour.

Forced labour is probably the most systematic and prevalent abuse committed by the SPDC against villagers throughout Burma. Village heads are ordered to provide labourers for building roads and other infrastructure, portering for the Army, constructing and maintaining Army camps, performing sentry duty at Army camps and along roads, farming for the Army and many other jobs. In addition, villagers must also use much of their time filling the constant demands from SPDC Army camps and authorities for large quantities of bamboo, roofing thatch, stones and gravel, logs, planks and other materials. Some of these materials are used for the construction and maintenance of roads, SPDC Army camps and other SPDC projects, while the rest is sold on the market for the personal profit of the Army officers. Villagers are not provided with tools or food to complete the work and are often treated brutally, some dying as a result. The labour takes them away from their livelihood and leaves them very little time to farm their fields or to earn a living. Whatever little money the villagers are able to get must be given to the SPDC to avoid having to go for the labour so they can do their own work. Village heads often receive demands from many different Army camps and SPDC authorities for various kinds of labour at the same time. Many villagers try to strike a balance by paying the 'fees' to avoid some of the labour while still regularly going for other forms of forced labour.

On November 1st 2000, the SPDC claims to have issued an order outlawing the use of forced labour and prescribing punishment for any soldier, officer or official who continues to demand it. In September 2001 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sent a High Level Team (HLT) to Burma to evaluate the SPDC's claim. Their findings showed that although the order had been distributed in some areas, its dissemination did not reach many others and forced labour was still widespread. All of the photos in this photo set were taken after the order was issued, most after the HLT's visit. They show that the order and the HLT's critical report have not had much of an effect on the ground.

It is extremely difficult and dangerous to take photos of forced labour, and these here should be seen as a small sampling. For every photo presented here, thousands more could be taken if it was possible to safely do so. The forced labour shown in these photos and described in the captions is consistent with the hundreds of interviews conducted by KHRG throughout Karen areas in 2001 and 2002, and the texts of thousands of SPDC written orders which are sent monthly demanding all forms of forced labour. Some of the interviews can be seen in reports recently issued by KHRG. The translations of several hundred SPDC orders demanding forced labour can be seen in "Forced Labour Orders Since the Ban" (KHRG #2002-01, 8/2/2002), "SPDC & DKBA Orders to Villages: Set 2001-A" (KHRG #2001-02, 18/5/2001) and other previous order sets published by KHRG. See also Photo Set 2001-A and other previous KHRG photo sets and regional reports for additional pictures and information on forced labour.

The photos in this section have been divided into three subtopics: Non-portering , Portering and Convict Porters . Each subtopic contains an explanation of the photos therein.

1) Non-Portering

This section contains photos related to many forms of forced labour, such as digging irrigation canals (Photos # A1 through A5 ), building and maintaining roads and bridges (Photos #A6 and A7, A8 through A11 , and A12 ), and maintaining Army camps (Photos # A13 and A14 , A15 ). There are also many photos involving forced labour cutting bamboo or making thousands of thatch shingles and delivering them to Army camps (Photos # A17 and thereafter). Orders are issued to village heads demanding hundreds or thousands of these at a time. Villagers spend days cutting, processing and delivering them to the Army camps by the deadlines specified in the orders, or the village elders are arrested. They also regularly receive orders to cut and haul logs and planks to Army camps (Photos # A38 and thereafter) under similar conditions. Some of these materials are used for construction (which the villagers are forced to do as well), and some is sold by Army officers and SPDC officials for personal gain. The villagers never receive any compensation for their time or the materials. Logging has been practiced in Karen areas for a long time under the colonial administration and later under the KNU. When the SLORC/ SPDC took over much of the remaining forest area in 1995 and 1997 the officers were quick to learn that they could make huge sums of money selling logs. Demands for logs from villagers rapidly increased and since 1995/97 large areas of Karen State have been deforested.

2) Portering

The use of civilians as forced labour porters by the SPDC Army in rural areas continues to increase as the Army expands and spreads its control to more areas. Villages often receive orders to carry supplies and munitions to outlying Army outposts. When units rotate in and out of these posts, as they do every few months, entire villages are called to carry out the loot of the departing troops and carry in the supplies of the incoming troops. Army columns on operations or patrols often require one porter for every two soldiers or sometimes one or two porters for each soldiers if it is a longer term patrol. For carrying supplies up to army camps the ratio of porters to soldiers can be as high as four or more porters per soldier, a column of 100 soldiers would require up to 400 villagers. In order to get this many people, Army camps send out orders to all surrounding villages to provide several 'permanent porters' on a rotating basis. To supplement this, soldiers routinely grab any villagers they encounter on paths, in fields or in villages and force them to go with the column (see Photos #A61 and A62, A67, A68 and A69). Men often flee the villages when columns are reportedly nearby out of fear of being taken as porters or accused of being supporters of the opposition groups, so the soldiers take the women and children instead. In many rural areas, especially in areas where villages have been displaced and the people are living in hiding, the previous two methods do not guarantee enough porters. To make up the difference, the SPDC has begun rounding up porters in the towns and villages of central Burma, sometimes pressganging men from cinemas and teashops or tricking them through promises of work, especially at railway stations. There has also been a marked increase in the use of convict porters (see 'Convict Porters'). Both these methods were previously used as a prelude to a large offensive, but are now used even for routine operations at the frontline.

Villagers portering for SPDC Army units are forced to carry loads of up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) in rough bamboo baskets that rub the skin off their backs, with burlap straps that cut their shoulders open (see Photos #A57 and A69). Villagers who go for a shift of a few days as a 'rotational' porter or carry supplies up to Army outposts for a day are not usually treated too brutally and are able to bring along enough food. Many villagers, however, are ordered to go for one or two days of portering but are then forced to carry for ten or fifteen days. Villagers who are forced to go for longer periods of time or are taken from their houses or fields with no warning are not prepared for the hard labour, abuses, poor diet and sleeping on the ground in the open. They quickly become weak and get sick and begin to fall behind, at which point the soldiers kick them and beat them to 'encourage' them. When a porter reaches the point of exhaustion where he collapses, he is beaten and kicked and then left to die alone on the trail, or sometimes executed. Very little food is provided to porters and medical treatment is almost never given, even to those who are wounded in fighting. Porters are often forced to walk in front and among the soldiers to set off landmines and to discourage ambushes. Villagers wounded by landmines or in ambushes are seldom given medical aid and are usually left on the path or in a village (see Photos #A70, D47 through 50). Villagers, for good reason, view portering as the most feared form of forced labour.

3) Convict Porters

The expansion of the SPDC Army means an increased need for porters, a need that cannot be met by simply forcing villagers, especially in areas where all the villagers are in hiding. The SPDC's answer to the problem is to take more villagers from central Burma and expand the use of convict porters and make it more systematic. This also enables the SPDC to deflect some criticism of its use of villagers for forced labour by claiming that it is using convict labour which is more acceptable internationally. Convicts were often taken from prisons in the past when the Army was about to mount a large offensive and needed to quickly get a large number of porters. In the last few years, however, more and more convict porters have begun to appear with columns on routine operations in Karen areas. They come from prisons as far away as Lashio, Minggyan and Pakkoku. The photos below show just a few of the convicts who have escaped. Their crimes range from 'hiding in the dark' to possession of drugs to theft. No matter the crime, once they are sent to the Army as porters the sentence is the same; work until they escape or die.

It is important to remember that many of the 'convicts' would not even be in a prison in another country. Some of the convicts below were arrested for participating in an illegal lotteries. These small-scale lotteries are common in many countries in Southeast Asia. In neighbouring Thailand the crime amounts to a fine of a few thousand Baht or about a month in jail. Another common 'crime' is 'hiding in the dark', a vague form of conspiracy charge applied randomly to those out at night or even in broad daylight. Other people are arrested on charges of drug possession, even when there is no evidence. Arrests for these and other trivial offences are increasing.

Many of the accused are only kept in the prisons for a few days before being sent to the frontline, while others have been arrested and sent to porter without ever appearing before a judge and officially sentenced. the stories of these convicts raise the serious possibility that many of Burma's poorest citizens are being arrested by SPDC authorities simply to acquire a ready pool of convict labour. Whatever crimes the convicts may or may not have committed, they are still civilians and should not be placed in a potentially life-threatening situation such as portering for a frontline combat unit.

The old practice of sending convicts directly from the prisons to the battalions has been formalised by the creation of various 'Won Saung' or porter-gathering camps. Prisoners are brought from all over Burma to these camps where they are held until an Army unit needs more porters. Won Saung camps have been identified in Pa'an in central Karen State and at Thaton in Mon State. Convict porters are treated much more brutally by the soldiers than villager porters. They are fed very little, given almost no medical treatment, and carry much heavier loads than the villagers. Escaped porters have described conditions which made it apparent to them that they would have been worked to death if they had not fled.

For more information on convicts and forced labour, see the report "Convict Porters" (KHRG #2000-06, 20/12/2000).