Myanmar military forcing prisoners to act as human shields in military conflict

By: Jessica Ties
Impunity Watch, Asia

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – Myanmar is facing criticism for their use of prisoners as tools of war. The Myanmar military has forced inmates to act as porters and human shields on the battle field while those who attempt escape face possible torture and execution.

Prisoners in Myanmar, dressed in blue, are forced to serve as porters for the Myanmar military (Photo Courtesy of Reuters).
Prisoners in Myanmar, dressed in blue, are forced to serve as porters for the Myanmar military (Photo Courtesy of Reuters).

Porters are forced to carry the military’s equipment through areas believed to be heavily populated with landmines and are also forced into the direct line of fire to prevent military forces from being hit by bullets.

In a statement by Human Rights Watch, former porters have “described witnessing or enduring summary executions, torture and beatings, being used as human shields to trip land mines or shield soldiers from fire, and being denied medical attention and adequate food and shelter.”

One escaped porter illustrated the experience by stating that he and other porters “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.”

Karen Human Rights Group, which is based in Myanmar, and Human Rights Watch conducted interviews of former porters who had fled from the battlefield. These interviews are used in a report, titled “Dead Men Walking”, about the use of convict slave labor. According to the interviews, the inmates are chosen at random from prisons across the country. While some of those chosen have been convicted of serious offenses, others have committed only minor crimes such as brawling.

The use of inmates for acts of war has been a systematic practice in the country and dates back to as early as 1992. In January approximately 1,200 male prisoners were forced to serve as porters during two military operations which were carried out with the support of the army, the police and prison authorities.

For decades the Myanmar military has fought against various ethnic armies who are seeking autonomy. In addition, the report calls for an investigation into the military and the ethnic rebel groups for not only forcing civilians to become porters, but also for recruiting child soldiers and using landmines in conflict.

The use of porters has been ignored by the new civilian led government in Myanmar despite the call of inquiry that has been supported by 16 countries including the United States and Britain.

Human Rights Watch has stated the use of convict slave labor constitutes a war crime and is demanding that the United Nations launch an investigation into the use of prisoners in Myanmar.

For more information, please see:

AFP – Rights group slams Myanmar use of convict porters – 13 July 2011

Asian Correspondent – ‘Dead Men Walking’: Burma’s convict army porters – 13 July 2011

MSNBC – Rights group: Myanmar uses ‘convict slave labor’ – 13 July 2011

Reuters – Myanmar army turning prisoners into war zone porters: groups – 13 July 2011

Author: Impunity Watch Archive

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