Friday, September 30, 2011


"Karen National Army guerrillas who are fighting the Burmese army for greater autonomy and an end to what they describe as ethnic cleansing." (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Burma's Convicts Become Unwilling Pawns in a Long and Bitter Civil War
By Esmer Golluoglu
The Guardian, September 30, 2011
"The scars on their shoulders and backs give it away. Its leaders may suggest otherwise, but Burma is a country riven by the world's longest running civil war. And the pawns are the Burmese convicts forced to work as porters on the frontlines. Made to carry heavy supplies, they are regularly beaten and used as human shields against landmines. Those who have escaped form a growing underclass of refugees on the Thai border, where they eke out a meagre living and face deportation at any time. 'I work for a day, eat for a day but I am now free,' said Thay Utoo Ong at the secret location where he and three others met the Guardian. 'With the army, I had to carry 35kg of water on my back for 13 hours every day, without food or water. I knew I was going to die if I stayed ... I would either starve to death or be shot dead. In January, the 32-year-old was one of 1,200 convicts taken to bolster a military offensive against ethnic insurgents. Many were subjected to torture or summary executions, or placed directly in the line of fire, recounted Maung Nyunt. 'One porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg; he was screaming but the soldiers left him there,' he added. 'When we came back down the mountain he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his leg in a tree.' Since 1948 the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, has been fighting a civil war against armed groups including the Karen, whose members want greater autonomy and an end to what they describe as ethnic cleansing.
Tens of thousands of civilians, historically press-ganged to work as military porters, fled to Thailand, forcing the army to use prisoners instead. 'These are petty criminals with no understanding of the conflict or desire to be a part of it,' said David Mathieson, a researcher with US-based Human Rights Watch. Alongside Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), Mathieson has written a report that documents nearly 60 testimonies. It says prisoners have been used this way since 1992. The report also stresses the army's continued use of teenage soldiers, such as Nyew Sing, 18, who was abducted from the streets of Rangoon in 2009 at the age of 17, and escaped in March. 'I was leaving a [Buddhist] festival when a plainclothes policeman offered to drive me home,' said Nyew Sing. 'But he took me to an army recruitment centre where I was held in a dark room for two weeks with other [young] guys, then sent to the frontlines.' Nyew Sing only realised his battalion would be fighting insurgents when 'the convict porters arrived'. He said: 'I was put on night sentry duty and told by my officers to shoot any porters trying to escape. Then they said: "If you try to escape we'll shoot you."' The report describes the army's repeated use of young people and convicts, as well as rape, torture and extrajudicial killings, as 'abuses that amount to war crimes ... committed with the involvement or knowledge of high-level civilian and military officials'. The UK and 15 other countries have backed calls for a UN-led inquiry. However, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), of which Burma is a member, has remained silent. [...]"
[n.b. It is notable that the fact that the victimized porters are exclusively male (this has been going on for decades) is not once mentioned in the article; instead we see the usual displacement strategies: "civilians," "young people and convicts," etc.]

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