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Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) have issued a stinging new report that states that the Burmese military’s use of convicts as porters in war-zones amounts to “war crimes” and are still used by the Burmese military in their escalating conflicts with Burma’s ethnic rebel armies.
Porters, the 70-page report alleges, are conscripted from the country’s jails and used on the front lines in the on going civil war against Burma’s ethnic armies, with many also used as human shields or executed, extra judicially.
“Convict porters are the Burmese army’s disposable human pack-mules, lugging supplies through heavily mined battlefields,” said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia Director of New York based HRW.
Using civilians to walk ahead of soldiers to clear landmines has been a regular, shocking allegation that is thrown at the Burmese military, with the alleged continuation of the practice leading HRW to back calls for the UN to conduct a commission of inquiry into rights violations in the country, already 16 nations have said they would back the move.
“The barbaric practice of using convict porters has been a feature of armed conflict in Burma for at least 20 years, exposing them to the hazards of armed conflict with complete disregard for their safety,” said Poe Shan, director of the KHRG in a press release. “The army forces other civilians to work as porters as well, but since civilians often flee conflict areas, the use of prisoners continues.”
Convicts were allegedly taken at random from facilities across the country regardless of conviction and assigned “indefinitely” to army units where treatment was reported to be appalling; “The prisoners selected as porters described witnessing or enduring summary executions, torture and beatings, being used as “human shields” to trip landmines or shield soldiers from fire, and being denied medical attention and adequate food and shelter,” said the report.
One escaped porter told the report authors that; “we were carrying food up to the camp and one porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg,”
“The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no one helped. When we came down the mountain he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his clothing in the trees, and parts of his leg in a tree.”
The report called Dead Men Walking, claims that heightened conflict along the country’s borders, between the Burmese military and ethnic army’s fighting for autonomy has only increased the use of forced porters, despite promises to amend Burma’s dreadful record of human rights abuses;
“Burma’s military government promised that the November 2010 elections, the country’s first elections in more than 20 years, would bring about human rights improvements,” the report states.
But despite this the report claims that; “In January 2011, the Tatmadaw, in collusion with the Corrections Department and the Burmese police, gathered an estimated 700 prisoners from approximately 12 prisons and labour camps throughout Burma to serve as porters for an ongoing offensive in southern Karen State, in the east of the country. The same month, another 500 prisoners were taken for use as porters during another separate military operation in northern Karen State and eastern Pegu Region.”
The report claims that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has repeatedly called on the Burmese government to cease the practice, but with no sign of change.
Ms Pearson added that; “ASEAN and European Union governments should stop hoping for things to magically improve in Burma and instead strongly push for a UN commission of inquiry,” Pearson said.
“Every day that the international community does nothing is another day that the Burmese army will press more porters into deadly service.”
The report optimistically also called on nations such as China and Russia who often veto UN action on Burma to back a commission of inquiry and to; “Publicly call on Burma to immediately end the practice of using civilian porters, including convicts, in armed conflict areas.”
Critics have said that a commission of inquiry would only slow down reform in Burma with the country’s leaders more reluctant to hand over power to genuine civilian government.