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MYANMAR: Military porters "worked to death"

BANGKOK, 13 July 2011 (IRIN) - Convicts forced to serve as porters for the military are subject to torture, execution, and warfare, says a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).

"The military uses the porters as human shields to draw fire from the opposition, to trip land mines, and to walk ahead to be shot first in an ambush," David Scott Mathieson, co-author of the report and HRW's senior Asia researcher, told IRIN.

Since January, up to 1,200 civilian convicts have been drawn from 12 prisons and labour camps throughout Myanmar to serve as porters for the army in conflict-ridden southern and northern Karen and eastern Pegu states, the report, Dead Men Walking, released on 13 July, stated.

"The horrendous conditions of portering are systematic, widespread, and constitute a war crime," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of HRW. "The Burmese government is unwilling to end abuses such as portering, and there is an urgent need for international investigations."

Civilians flee

While the military's use of civilian "human pack mules" has been going on for the past two decades as part of counter-insurgency tactics against ethnic militias, rounding up prisoners has only been widespread since 1999, and is mainly done before major military offensives in a "chillingly systematic practice by the army", according to HRW.

Prisoners are used because civilians run from villages when the military arrives. "Civilians flee the area to avoid being taken as porters," Pearson said.

When 20,000 refugees flooded into Thailand after the offensive launched in Karen state earlier this year, many cited fear of being forced into portering as a reason, according to the report.

"Porters are given little food and no medical care," said Poe Shan, director of the KHRG.

One porter's leg was blown off in a land mine and he was left to die, said an interviewee cited in the report. "The soldiers left him... when we came down the mountain he was dead," said one escaped convict.

Abuses increase after elections

While human rights groups hoped for fewer abuses against civilians after the November elections brutalities continue to be meted out by the military junta, activists say.

"It is scandalous that the human rights situations have gotten worse after the elections," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator for the political advocacy NGO Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

"Now in 2011, after the elections, there are the same abuses as in the 1990s," said KHRG's Poe.

And until there is a change in the country's human rights situation, refugees will continue to flow into the surrounding countries, warned Stothard.

"War crimes in ethnic areas have always been a push factor for asylum seekers and refugees into Thailand. Portering is just one example of the whole range of war crimes being perpetuated by the military," she added.

Human rights groups, along with the UN Special Rapporteur, continue to call for a UN commission of inquiry into human rights violations, such as portering.

"There is an urgent need for an international investigation," said HRW's Pearson. "The brutal mistreatment of convict porters is just one among many systematic abuses," she said.

Burmese government officials were unavailable to comment on the report.

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Copyright © IRIN 2011
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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