Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/MYANMAR: SLAVE LABOUR RIFE, SAY DEFECTORS.
From: Melanie Orhant (email@example.com)
Date: Sun Nov 11 2001 - 10:20:06 EST
27Dec00 MYANMAR: SLAVE LABOUR RIFE, SAY DEFECTORS.
By Daniel Pedersen in Mae La, Thailand.
Despite strong international criticism, the military is still using
villagers in Karen state as porters and forcing them to build roads and
pagodas and grow food against their will and without pay.
Two soldiers from Burma's armed forces claimed during an interview on the
Thai-Burma border that operating in Karen state without porters would be
Htun Htun, 19, and Kyaw Khaing, 17, fled their unit, Light Infantry 549, on
They are now in Mae La, Thailand's largest Karen refugee camp - home to
more than 36,000 people - and hope to find work in Thailand.
If they are successful they will be the newest arrivals of a growing body
of people thought to number as many as one million working illegally in the
The two defectors walked for seven days through mountainous jungle until
they encountered members of the Karen National Liberation Army's (KNLA)
seventh brigade - a day later they were delivered to Mae La camp.
To have failed in their flight to freedom through hostile territory would
have meant indefinite imprisonment and the prospect of working for nothing
on state projects.
Prisoners, when used as labourers, are routinely chained together at the
ankles, they receive less food than civilians and are treated far worse.
Mr Htun Htun said conditions for porters and forced labourers had in recent
months become far more strict.
The ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, was
deeply concerned escapees might make their way to Thailand and convey their
experiences to the international media.
But, surrounded by a hostile population and being seriously undermanned,
troops had little option but to engage villagers as porters, he said.
"We were told not to talk about it (the use of porters) on the radios any
more, but we were using them every day," he said.
"Porters carried everything for us - without them we could not move. When
you see a lot of people moving through Karen state together you know they
are porters, you don't see the military, soldiers travel behind them using
them as screens against landmines and ambushes," he said.
The pair estimated two to three porters from every 100 died while lugging
ammunition or military equipment.
Some were killed by landmines, others shot by KNLA troops because they were
thought to be Burmese soldiers.
"From a distance it's impossible to tell the difference between soldiers
and porters, because the civilians always wear soldiers' backpacks," he
According to the two defectors, the number of porters being used is vast, a
single battalion sometimes uses as many as 1,000 at a time.
Mr Htun Htun's battalion consisted of 178 soldiers - it was seriously
undermanned, there was supposed to be 777.
This year Light Infantry 549 had regularly used more than 1,000 porters at
a time, he said.
"We divide into groups of about 50 and bring up the rear and flank, we tell
them (the Karen porters) that they're supposed to show us the way, but
really we're worried about landmines and the possibility of an ambush," he
Working conditions for the junta's soldiers were also poor, said Mr Kyaw
"We began work at 6am each day on an empty stomach and worked until noon,
then we were given a plate of rice and a spoonful of soya beans, but there
was always a lot of rocks in the rice. At night we were given the same
"There was never enough food and a lot of us were always sick. The official
wage was 4,700 kyat a month but really we got about 2,000 kyat because they
took money out for food and haircuts and that sort of thing."
Using the junta's official exchange rate, the monthly pay for soldiers is
adequate, about US$783 calculated at six kyat to the US dollar.
But in reality the exchange rate is about 350 kyat to the dollar, meaning
the soldiers received about US$5.70 per month (HK$44) after expenses were
deducted from their salaries.
SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST 27/12/2000
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