'You're now on the dead list'
Reports of atrocities committed by Burmese soldiers against 'convict porters' destroy any slim hopes that the shift to a 'civilian political system' will somehow dilute the military's absolute power

Published: 13/02/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum

Aung is a small man, barely out of his teens. He shifts his bruised body, unable to sit or to find comfort or peace of mind. He's full of half-spoken questions. Aung's scared he might be sent back to Burma, where he was forced to work for the army after being jailed.

"I got 12 months, but it's a death sentence," said Aung. He hurts from a soldier's bullet that smashed his arm and dropped him into a coma. He's worried the testimony of the pains the Burmese army inflicted on his body will harm the family he has not seen for more than a year.

Most of all, Aung's haunted by the memory of the battlefield sounds of torn bodies and the terrifying treks he made carrying mortar shells up mountains and through minefields for 15 days.

Aung's journey to the front line started on Dec 31, of last year, when the Burmese army came to the jail where he was serving a 12-month sentence for fighting with his neighbour over a fallen tree they both wanted to use to make charcoal.

"We exchanged punches. I hit him with a rock. The police came, he paid a bribe, I couldn't. I went to jail, he went free."

Aung drops his head and mutters that not being able to be with his wife when she gave birth to their son had added misery to his sentence.

"She was eight months pregnant when I was put in jail. Every day I thought about them. I miss them so much, I've never seen or held my baby son."

Aung had a month of his sentence to finish when soldiers took him and some other prisoners.

"No one volunteered. The guards told us we were going to the front to serve as porters for the army. Our names were on a list, we had no choice."

Aung was transported in a convoy of army trucks that wound its way from upper Burma to the jungles and mountains of Karen State in the east. Their confused journey lasted five days. By the time the convicts got to the battlefield, their estimates of their numbers varied from between 800 to 2,000.

"The truck was crowded and there were many trucks. Our legs were shackled, we had to squat on our haunches with our heads bowed. We couldn't see out or talk to each other. At Pa-an we were given blue uniforms."

HUMAN MINESWEEPERS

In Karen State, there are few all-weather roads capable of carrying heavy army trucks, weapons, munitions, rice and other food supplies to the ever-shifting front line.

International and regional humanitarian groups have compiled numerous reports on how the Burmese army creates its own operational support mechanisms to deal with this lack of infrastructure _ forcing civilian or convict porters to act as a human supply chain to the front lines.

In October 2007, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report that cited a "rare public statement" from the International Committee of the Red Cross, "condemning widespread violations of international humanitarian law". Human Rights Watch said at the time that the Red Cross was concerned about the use of convict labour to support military operations. The report noted that ''thousands of prisoners have been forced to carry army supplies, undertake construction labour, and, in a practice called 'atrocity demining', forced to walk ahead of Burmese army soldiers to trigger potential landmines.''

Aung says his life was in constant danger from landmines and crossfire as he carried heavy panniers weighing as much as 60kg up the steep mountain paths.

''I was a porter for 15 days. I was scared. We carried [panniers of] rice, large shells. If we were slow, they hit us with their guns or kicked us.''

Aung explains he was put in the firing line, used as a human minesweeper and as a pack animal to carry munitions, artillery and food supplies to the soldiers.

''Porters were ordered to walk in front of the soldiers. We were never told we were going to the front line. I was scared. I was ordered to carry 81mm mortar shells, 15 to a basket, up a steep mountain to the artillery positions.''

Aung says he was also ordered to stretcher injured soldiers from the front to a monastery at Palu.

''When a mine exploded, I saw the body blown skywards, there was noise, screams and lots of blood. We were told to keep walking, but everyone dropped their packs and fell to the ground. They threatened to beat us for stopping, but we didn't care, we just fell.''

For years the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) has been reporting, documenting and conducting in-depth interviews with escaped convict porters that show the practice is systematic, widespread and in common use.

The KHRG reports say prisoners' testimonies tell of ''serious incidents of human rights abuses occurring as standard practice, including use of porters used to sweep for landmines, deprivation of adequate food and medical assistance to porters and the systematic extortion of civilians at every level of Burma's police, judicial and prison infrastructure.''

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