From Prison to Front Line: Analysis of convict porter testimony 2009 – 2011

Published date:
Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Over the last two decades, KHRG has documented the abuse of convicts taken by the thousands from prisons across Burma and forced to serve as porters for frontline units of Burma's state army, the Tatmadaw. In the last two years alone, Tatmadaw units have used at least 1,700 convict porters during two distinct, ongoing combat operations in Karen State and eastern Bago Division; this report presents full transcripts and analysis of interviews with 59 who escaped. In interviews with KHRG, every convict porter described being forced to carry unmanageable loads over hazardous terrain with minimal rest, food and water. Most told of being used deliberately as human shields during combat; forced to walk before troops in landmine-contaminated areas; and being refused medical attention when wounded or ill. Many saw porters executed when they were unable to continue marching or when desperation drove them to attempt escape. Abuses consistently described by porters violate Burma's domestic and international legal obligations. If such abusive practices are to be halted, existing legal provisions must be enforced by measures that ensure accountability for the individuals that violate them. This report is intended to augment Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, a joint report released by KHRG and Human Rights Watch in July 2011.


KHRG has documented the use of convicts as forced labourers attached to combat units of Burma's state army, the Tatmadaw, since 1993.[1] The use of these convicts, mostly as porters carrying equipment for soldiers and officers, has been acknowledged by Tatmadaw and prison authorities to the International Labour Organisation (ILO),[2] which continues to call for the immediate termination of the practice.[3] The maltreatment of convict porters, and the legality of their use in frontline military operations, have also received considerable attention from international organisations including Amnesty International;[4] the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has denounced the persistent use of detainees as porters for the armed forces;[5] and, most recently, Human Rights Watch, which called attention to ongoing violations of humanitarian law perpetrated against convict porters.[6]

This report provides analysis, and full transcripts, of testimony from 59 former convict porters interviewed by KHRG between January 1st 2009 and January 31st 2011. This testimony and analysis is meant to serve as supporting evidence for a joint report released by KHRG and Human Rights Watch (HRW) in July 2011, which summarises findings in this report, as well as additional independent research by both KHRG and HRW.[7] KHRG and HRW's joint report focuses on the abuse of approximately 1,700 convict porters during two separate, ongoing Tatmadaw operations. Research by KHRG and HRW indicates that the Tatmadaw has been using at least 700 prisoners since January 2011 in an offensive against Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) forces in southern Karen State. Tatmadaw units conducting operations against KNLA forces in northeastern Bago Division and northern Karen State, meanwhile, have been using another 500 porters since January 2011, augmenting an additional 500 prisoners used in the area during 2010.

Following this Introduction section, Section II of this report details the process by which porters were transferred from prisons across Burma to frontline conflict areas and includes a list of 24 prisons, from 13 government-delineated States and Divisions, that interviewees reported to have been involved in their transfer.

Section III: A then outlines the abuses porters described being perpetrated by soldiers and officers of the Tatmadaw, in violation of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) expressed both in treaties to which Burma is party[8] and in customary IHL, which is binding on all states.[9] Fifty-seven of the 59 porters interviewed reported serious violations of international humanitarian law, including: failure to protect porters from dangers arising from military operations;[10] execution of porters;[11] refusal or failure to care for wounded or sick porters;[12] and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment, such as corporal punishment.[13]

Section III: B details further abuses that constitute serious breaches of Burma's own domestic legal standards; these violations make clear that, while domestic legal standards are necessary, they are inadequate if the protection they purport to afford is flouted in practice. All 59 porters interviewed by KHRG reported serious mistreatment, including being denied food and water and forced to carry unmanageably heavy loads over difficult and hazardous terrain with minimal rest, food and water.

Finally, Section IV of this report outlines the conditions faced by convict porters who escaped from service on the front line. Appendix 1 provides full transcripts of all 59 interviews.

The testimony analysed for this report, coupled with 18 years of documentation by KHRG and other organisations, offers conclusive evidence that the use of convicts as forced porters by the Tatmadaw is a systematic practice involving both civilian and military officials across Burma, and that widespread abuse of porters occurs as a result this practice. Five facts support this conclusion:

(1) Prisoners reported that they came from a wide variety of prisons. Porters interviewed by KHRG were recruited and sent to conflict areas via a total of 24 different prisons or 'yeh beh' prison labour camps, as detailed in table A.2 below. Based on this information, it is not possible that a limited number of prison officials operating out of one or two prisons are responsible for the transfer of convicts to frontline areas.

(2) Porters reported that they came from, and were tried and imprisoned in the following 13 of the 14 government-delineated States and Divisions in Burma: Kachin State, Shan State, Sagaing Division, Chin State, Arakan State, Irrawaddy Division, Yangon Division, Mon State, Bago Division, Karen State, Karenni State, Mandalay Division and Magwe Division.[14]Based on this information, the policy of sending prisoners to frontline areas appears to be country wide, rather than regionally specific.

(3) Porters reported abuse by soldiers and officers from a total of 20 distinct Tatmadaw units, including Infantry Battalions (IB) and Light Infantry Battalions (LIB), detailed in Table A.3 below. Abusive treatment of porters while in frontline areas was not the product of isolated acts by a limited number of perpetrators, but of the actions of multiple individuals across different parts of the Tatmadaw's order of battle, operating independently of one another and in geographically distinct areas.[15] This strongly suggests that ill treatment is not isolated in scope or the result of abusive acts by only a few individuals; rather, abuse is fostered and permitted by a system that places porters in conflict areas, fails to punish perpetrators of abuse and declines to investigate the death or disappearance of prisoners who do not return from portering service.

(4) Porters reported experiences consistent with testimony gathered from other porters interviewed separately but during the same time period, as well as with previous documentation by KHRG and other organisations dating back to the early 1990s. This collectively large data set means that it is not possible that analysis has been unduly influenced by one or two egregious cases, or misled by potential biases or inaccuracies in individual porter testimony. To verify the consistency of testimony, see the full transcripts of all 59 interviews analysed for this report in Appendix 1.

(5) KHRG did not use a standard questionnaire to interview porters. Incidental consistencies in testimony thus further illustrate the widespread and systematic nature of abuses and highlight the fact that abuses perpetrated against convict porters are not the result of isolated practices of individual soldiers or commanders. For example, only ten porters who had been on the front line for more than ten days were asked directly whether they witnessed killing of porters by Tatmadaw soldiers or officers; general questions about porter's experiences in frontline areas nonetheless prompted a total of 34 interviewees to report specific incidents in which porters had been killed because they were shot during an escape attempt or executed because they were unable to carry loads anymore. In the absence of a standard questionnaire, unprompted consistencies in the testimony of porters from a wide variety of prisons and geographical regions, concerning service in a number of different battalions, should be read as strongly indicative of both the veracity of testimony, and of the widespread and systematic nature of abuse of convict porters.


KHRG field researchers interviewed 59 former convict porters over the last two years, between January 1st 2009 and January 31st 2011. Interviews took place in militarised areas of eastern Bago Division and Karen State and, in a small number of cases, adjacent areas of Thailand. Forty-eight of these were interviewed between January 1st 2009 and March 3rd 2010 and reported that they had served Tatmadaw battalions active in upland areas of eastern Bago Division and northern Karen State. These areas correspond to locally-defined Nyaunglebin, Papun and Toungoo districts. An additional eleven porters were interviewed in January 2011; of these, two reported that they had served battalions active in locally-defined Toungoo District, while nine reported that they had served Tatmadaw battalions fighting in southern Karen State in areas that correspond to locally-defined Dooplaya District.[16]

All 59 interview transcripts are available in Appendix 1. Interviews have not been edited or otherwise modified, save for censoring of information that could put escaped porters or their families at risk. In most cases, this has entailed censoring the names of people and home villages; in cases where details of sentencing processes are sufficiently specific to identify a person, these have been censored as well. It is normal practice for KHRG to censor names and replace them with three dashes, for example "Saw Poe" changed to "Saw A---." Because this testimony is being released to supplement a joint report with Human Rights Watch, in this case real names have been replaced with pseudonyms that are consistent with those used in the Human Rights Watch report.[17]

Interviews for this report were not conducted using a standard questionnaire. KHRG trains people from Burma to monitor human rights conditions, and KHRG reporting aims to present the perspectives of individual interviewees, allowing them to raise issues that they consider to be most important and to express their individual concerns. Researchers are trained to use a basic set of interview guidelines, but do not use standard questionnaires; rather, they are given the flexibility to ask questions they feel are relevant. This means that a given question or issue may or may not be raised in every interview.

This also means it is not possible to quantify exactly how many porters witnessed or experienced a particular kind of abuse; some may have witnessed or experienced things that were not mentioned in a given interview. Wherever possible, KHRG has attempted to quantify the number of interviews in which a given issue was raised; quantitative data in sections II, III and IV of this report should not, however, be interpreted as comprehensive. Thirty-four interviewees reported the killing of porters by Tatmadaw soldiers, for example, but this does not mean the other 25 did not witness or experience similar incidents. Rather, it may mean that the issue was not discussed in their interview. In the case of the 34 porters that reported killing of porters, only six were directly asked about whether porters were killed. The other 28 interviewees who reported killing of porters chose to do so without being directly asked about such incidents, when they were asked by the interviewer to recount their general experiences or to describe how they felt about their treatment on the front line. As for the 25 porters who did not report killing of porters, a total of 18 were not asked any questions about it. Only seven porters responded in the negative to a direct question about killing of porters, and three of these were on the front line for less than ten days.

This report emphasises presenting the perspectives of the individuals interviewed by KHRG researchers, rather than a focus on individual incident. As such, specific reports of particular incidents were not verified according to normal KHRG procedure. Rather, interviews were compared and, where many porters reported similar experiences, those experiences have been detailed in the sections below and, where relevant, analysed in light of relevant legal protections. The fact that separate interviews with 59 men yielded descriptions of similar experiences should indicate that their testimony can be assessed to be highly credible. While individual biases or exaggerations may be possible within the testimony of a given interviewee, the size of the data set analysed for this report should prevent undue influence or distortion of data leading to significant inaccuracies in the overall analysis and conclusions drawn from porter testimony. The consistency between testimony in this report and documentation by KHRG and other organisations over the last 18 years further supports the credibility of information provided by interviewees about their experiences as porters.

Profile of Interviewees

Fifty-five interviewees reported that they were imprisoned for crimes including: murder; the sale of drugs; the use of drugs; the transportation of drugs; burglary; assault; incitement to murder; illegal economic activity; breaking open government rice stores during the 1988 protests;[18] demonstrating during the 2007 protests; and having a girlfriend who was not of age.[19] One former convict porter did not report the crime for which he was imprisoned, while a total of three interviewees reported that they were arrested arbitrarily,[20] while waiting for the bus, while walking at night and while in the market, and that they were sent to porter within a week of their arrest and without any formal conviction or sentencing process.[21] The 55 porters who reported conviction for a crime stated that they had been serving sentences ranging from two to 45 years before they were taken to porter. A breakdown of porters' crimes and sentences, where reported, is given in Table A.1 below.

"They arrested me when I was waiting for the bus to get flowers to sell on the roadside. First, they told me to go with them just for a moment. After that they tied me up with rope, then they sent me to Toungoo prison. … I had to stay in there for six days. After that SPDC soldiers came and took us by trucks. ...They took us to their military camp. ... Their camp is in Toungoo town. They took us to IB #62 camp. The next morning they told us to go porter."

- Min Win, 23, (January 2010, Papun District)

"They put me in the prison for five years because I could not pay them money. If we could pay money, even if it was for the crime of murder, they would let us go free from the crime. The judge in Pakkoku is Ma Khin Oh Tin. We can pay her money. She looks only for money. She does not consider any laws."

- Htway Thu, 28 (January 2011, Dooplaya District)


[1] "Porter testimonies: The SLORC's Saw Hta Offensive," KHRG, January 1993. See especially Less than Human, KHRG, August 2006 and Convict porters: The brutal abuse of prisoners on Burma's frontlines, KHRG, December 2000.

[2] See the International Labour Organization report of 1992, in which the ILO liaison officer writes "On the question of prisoners being used as porters, the L.O. ad interim stressed that this should not be seen as an acceptable alternative to the use of civilians." See also ILO, "Developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)," Geneva, 285th Session, GB.285/4, November 2002, para. 27, p.10. According to Richard Horsey, ILO representative to Rangoon between 2002 – 2007, "the fact that the increased and more systematic use of prisoners as porters in 1999-2000 stemmed from a specific policy decision was confirmed by the Director-General of the Prison Service in a meeting with the ILO on 13 May 2002." Richard Horsey, Ending Forced Labor in Myanmar: Engaging a Pariah Regime, Routledge, 2011, Conclusion, p.233, footnote 2 (parentheses in original).

[3] A high-level ILO mission to Burma in February 2011 conveyed to the authorities that the use of convict porters to carry military supplies in conflict areas was "unacceptable" and should be ended. In March 2011, the ILO Governing Body reiterated the call to put an end to the practice in the conclusions adopted as part of its discussion of Burma's compliance with the Forced Labour Convention. See ILO, "Developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)," Geneva, 310th Session, GB.310/5, March 2011, para. 26, p.5; and ILO, "Decision on the fifth item on the agenda: Developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)," Geneva, 310th Session, dec-GB.310/5, March 2011, para. 5.

[4] Crimes against humanity in eastern Myanmar, Amnesty International, June 2008, Section 3.4, p.20

[5] "Myanmar: ICRC denounces major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law," International Committee of the Red Cross, June 29th 2007, News Release, 82/07

[6] "Burma: Q & A on International Commission of Inquiry," Human Rights Watch, March 24th 2011.

[7] Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, Human Rights Watch and KHRG, July 13th 2011.

[8] Specifically the Geneva Conventions 1949, which are directly binding on Burma as a ratifying party; of particular relevance is common Art. 3, which applies to situations of "armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties".

[9] For guidance, KHRG referred to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Customary International Humanitarian Law (IHL) database, which catalogues the 161 rules of customary international humanitarian law.

[10] ICRC Customary IHL database, Rule 1: The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants; Rule 22:Principle of Precautions against the Effects of Attacks; Rule 24: Removal of Civilians and Civilian Objects from the Vicinity of Military Objectives; and Rule 97: Human Shields. The ICRC Customary IHL database affirms these as rules of customary international law, applicable to non-international armed conflicts.

[11] Common Art. 3(1) Geneva Conventions 1949: "... the following acts are and shall remain prohibited ... (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder"; ICRC Customary IHL database, Rule 89: Violence to life.

[12] ICRC Customary IHL database, Rule 110: Treatment and care of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked. Rule 110 states that the wounded and sick 'must receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition'. Also relevant are Rule 87: Humane Treatment; and Rule 90: Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. The ICRC Customary IHL database confirms that the principle of collecting and caring for the wounded and sick, the principle that civilians be treated humanely, and the prohibition on cruel or inhuman treatment are rules of customary international law, applicable to non-international armed conflicts.

[13] ICRC Customary IHL Database, Rule 87: Humane Treatment; Rule 90: Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment; and Rule 91: Corporal Punishment. The prohibition against corporal punishment is also expressed in the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 32; the ICRC has affirmed the principle that civilians be treated humanely, the prohibition on cruel and inhuman treatment, and the prohibition against corporal punishment as norms of customary international law applicable to non-international armed conflicts.

[14] Note that after the November 7th 2010 election in Burma, government-designated geographic areas previously referred to as "Divisions" were re-designated as "Regions"; see Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Chapter 2, Article 49. For the sake of consistency with previous KHRG reports, the states and divisions listed above are in some cases referred to by names that differ from current government designations; for example, "Karenni State" above refers to government-designated "Kayah State."

[15] Convicts portering for Tatmadaw units active in operations against the DKBA and KNLA in southern Karen State, for example, are under the authority of the South Eastern Command based in the capital of Mon State, Moulmein; porters with units active in northeastern Bago Division and northern Karen State are commanded by the Southern Command, based in Toungoo Town, Bago Division. Poor transport infrastructure and lack of contiguous road networks, as well as obstacles posed by a patchwork of control by different non-state armed groups in various degrees of conflict with the Tatmadaw, means that cooperation between units under the South Eastern Command in southern Karen State and those under the Southern Command in northeastern Bago and northern Karen state is logistically impossible.

[16] Human Rights Watch interviewed an additional 12 convict porters that escaped from operations in Dooplaya District during February, March, and June 2011. While full transcripts of these interviews are not included in Appendix 1, selected quotes from the interviews are contained in the report Dead Men walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, HRW and KHRG, July 13th 2011.

[17] To read the joint KHRG-Human Rights Watch report, see Dead Men walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, July 13th 2011.

[18] Laing Oo, 43 (January 2011, Dooplaya District). Although this is noted as a distinct crime for the purposes of this paper, Laing Oo told KHRG that he was not a political prisoner and had only been charged with burglary; he reported that he had been sentenced to serve 22 and a half years in prison.

[19] Zaw Htun, 32 (January 2010, Papun District). Zaw Htun did not specify the Section of Burma's Penal Code under which he was imprisoned. Section 375, Rape, defines rape as 'sexual intercourse with a woman … with or without her consent, when she is under fourteen years'; Section 493, Offences related to Marriage, allows for the punishment of 'any man who by deceit causes any woman who is not lawfully married to him to believe that she is lawfully married to him, and to cohabit or have sexual intercourse with him in that belief'.

[20] KHRG has previously reported that, under Burmese criminal law, a crime that roughly translates as 'hiding in the dark' is frequently used to arrest civilians deemed to be loitering at night. See Less than Human: Convict Porters in the 2005-2006 Northern Karen State Offensive, KHRG, August 2006. However, it could not be confirmed that this was the charge levelled at the three porters in question; all three reported that they were taken to porter immediately after their arrest, without any formal conviction or sentencing.

[21] Shwe Aung, 44, and Min Win, 23, reported that they were sent directly to Toungoo prison, where they stayed for six days before being sent to an army base and picked up by a Tatmadaw battalion. Hla Min, 24, reported that he was sent straight to an army base without any detention in a jail or prison.