Why Being Forced into Military Labor Can Be a Death Sentence for Convicts in Burma

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Free Burma Ranger /AP

A group of porters carry goods for Burmese soldiers in a village in Karen state in this undated photo released by Free Burma Ranger

Yay Zoe was not yet midway through an 18-month sentence in Miektila prison in central Burma when he found himself among some seventy inmates assembled for transfer. He assumed he was destined for one of the government's many labor camps. Authorities, however, felt he would be more useful to them elsewhere: he was bound and trucked to the country's eastern border, where he was forced to serve as a porter for soldiers fighting ethnic-minority forces. The backbreaking duty of carrying mortars and rice sacks all day with meager provisions of food and water was the least oppressive part of his ordeal. The 21-year-old said he was regularly beaten by soldiers and forced into veritable suicide missions. On three occasions, he was ordered at gunpoint to spearhead patrols through a minefield by prodding the ground with a bamboo stick. "Whenever I touched a landmine, I was forced to dig it out with a knife. My hands trembled because I assumed I was about to die."

Yay Zoe, whose real name is withheld to protect his identity, also said he witnessed six fellow porters die: two were caned to death after attempting to escape; one was flung off a cliff after his deteriorating condition prevented him from hauling goods; and three met their end from landmines, either dying on the spot or receiving a gunshot to the head immediately thereafter from a soldier who figured a maimed porter was simply a burden. In March, after three months under constant threat of death, Yay Zoe seized upon a chance to escape. "There were only two options," he recalled earlier this month in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the border with Burma. "If I stayed, I would die. Or I could take a risk and flee. I chose to flee."

He and nearly thirty others broke out on an evening when the soldiers commanding them fell into an alcohol-induced stupor, giving the convict porters a brief window to sprint off before they would be fired upon. When they reached a camp of the Karen National Union, one of the myriad ethnic armies the government is trying to eliminate, they negotiated safe passage by explaining their circumstances.

Yay Zoe's independent account is much like the dozens recorded by Human Rights Watch and Karen Human Rights Group in "Dead Men Walking", a report released today documenting the Burmese government's pervasive and systematic use of civilian inmates as porters in frontline battle, where they are subjected to brutality and deadly encounters on a daily basis. The report is based on interviews conducted in Burma and Thailand with 58 prisoner porters who escaped since 2010. They had been serving sentences ranging from one year to more than 20 for a range of petty and serious crimes, from minor financial disputes to murder. (Yay Zoe says his sentence stemmed from an incident in which he was accused of misappropriating his girlfriend's motorbike by the girl's father.)

The report says the use of convict porters traces at least as far back as the early 1990s, but it focuses on a large-scale episode in January. According to the report, that month members of the army, prison authorities and police collected an estimated 1,200 inmates from prisons and labor camps across the country and shipped them to the country's eastern borderlands to serve as porters for soldiers fighting ethnic independence fighters. The army's more commonly targeted source of porters — ethnic minority civilians living in the combat zone — had already taken refuge in jungle hideouts or fled by the thousands to the Thai border in order to avoid abuse.

The report, which calls for an immediate inquiry by the U.N., is a pointed challenge to the contention by Burma's rulers that the country is advancing along a "roadmap to democracy" that has delivered human rights reforms. Last year's elections, the supposed fifth of seven steps along the roadmap, was widely characterized by analysts as a sham milestone because, though it was the first poll in more than twenty years, it was held as thousands of political prisoners remained jailed and many opposition leaders were banned from participating. The winning Union Solidarity and Development Party is comprised mostly of military officers who resigned their army posts in order to stand election and whose campaigns were underwritten by the army's burgess and intimidating authority. "Serious abuses that amount to war crimes are [still] being committed with the involvement or knowledge of high-level civilian and military officials," says the report.

"This is the case of the army needing hundreds of people who could disappear at any time," says David Mathieson, the researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch who co-authored the report. The report contends that the coordination required to regularly collect and ship hundreds of inmates from prisons across the country to serve the army is clear evidence the practice is institutionalized and approved by high-ranking officials in the government. "There's someone in the [army] who calculates the number of porters needed as a ratio to the number of troops they are serving," says Matt Finch, a researcher on Burma with the Karen Human Rights Group, which conducted many of the interviews for the report. "They are put on a list and then they are functionally dead."

That assertion was independently verified by a 31-year-old former state army soldier who deserted in March and now lives in Mae Sot. Serving as an army clerk in the northeast, the soldier, who requested anonymity when being interviewed by TIME, says he regularly received letters in coded language indicating that his unit would receive a new consignment of convict porters. A regional army command would forward him the orders, which originated from an office in Naypyidaw, the government's secluded and sheltered administrative seat.

He says soldiers were never given an explanation for why inmates were serving them but the rationale was easily understood. "The government didn't want to waste soldiers but they didn't care if they lost criminals," he says. The former soldier's account echoes convict porters' testimonials in the new report: they were regularly beaten, used as human shields against landmines and enemy fire, and executed once injured.

The Burmese Defense Services, or "Tatmadaw", is one of the largest and most notorious armies in Asia, with more than 300,000 personnel. Since the departure of Britain as colonial administrator in 1948, a range of ethnic-minority armies have battled the Tatmadaw, insisting their right to self-rule was part of independence. In the past two decades, the Tatmadaw has confined resistance groups to the borderlands, where terrain is rugged and without roads. Its counterinsurgency strategy has focused on controlling civilian populations in ethnic areas, denying armed resistance groups access to human and material resources from villages. Rights groups have documented frequent brutality by the Tatmadaw against local communities, including attacks on civilian populations, forced relocation, torture, rape and extrajudicial executions. Residents in ethnic areas are also often press-ganged to porter, even as the broader use of forced labor has declined throughout the country since the mid-1990s, when millions of Burmese were conscripted to work on major public infrastructure projects.

Since 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has questioned the Burmese government about its use of convict porters, and in 2007 the Red Cross estimated thousands of convicts were forced to porter for the army each year as part of an "institutionalized and widespread practice." The government has claimed it would review the issue but, says Steve Marshall, with the ILO's office in Burma, "to date there is no indication the practice has been suspended." As recently as March 2011, at the U.N.'s Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Burmese government has acknowledged that inmates are used as army porters but insisted they serve voluntarily and face no danger.

It's an assessment that does not jibe with the observations of a 22-year-old former state soldier who lives in Mae Sot. He defected in April after his own father and uncle were killed by the Tatmadaw. "To trigger landmines before we entered a dangerous area, sometimes dogs were used," the soldier recalled. "Other times we just used the porters."