Recent Trends in the Use of Forced Labor in Burma
This article directs attention to the continuing problem of forced labor in Burma, a problem that often makes the unsustainable exploitation of Burma’s natural resources possible.
For nearly a decade, the military juntas ruling Burma have resisted international pressure to stop the use of forced labor by its military (Tatmadaw) and its administrative officials. Nonetheless, the international campaign has had an effect. Over the past several years, the use of forced labor in Burma has actually decreased, especially on major infrastructure projects.
Despite this development, the International Labor Organization (ILO) states that the practice remains widespread elsewhere—namely in the country’s border regions where a majority of its non-Burman ethnic nationalities reside. The ILO’s conclusion is based upon solid evidence, including personal testimonies gathered on an ongoing basis by ERI.
The first half of this article presents testimonies from recent victims of forced labor. The second half turns attention to current efforts to stop the practice that much of the world has denounced as a contemporary form of slavery.
The five testimonies, excerpted below, were taken by ERI during the first half of 2004 and submitted to the ILO. Names have been changed and other identifying information redacted to protect people still living inside Burma from reprisals. All interviews are on file with ERI.
Despite claims from Total and Unocal that human rights abuses, including forced labor, have stopped highly militarized Yadana and Yetagun pipeline corridor, this village leader offers a quite different picture of daily life.
The current situation in our village seems quite normal, but we have to struggle hard…. Sometimes we have to pay porter fees. Sometimes soldiers order people to go with them to patrol the area. We often have to provide food for the soldiers whenever they demand it… Our village is monitored and taken care of by Total Oil Company… In [month] 2003, a group of foreigners came to our village asking us about our situation. Some of us were able to tell them some things, such as the continuation of forced labor in our village. But we have not seen any change to our village situation.
The following two excerpts are from men who were illegally conscripted into the army as teenagers. Both were literally kidnapped off the streets and forced to serve in the Tatmadaw where they regularly witnessed forced labor and other human rights abuses. In 2004, after years of forced military service, both men deserted.
During those trips, two of the porters were shot dead by [army rank and name]… Each [of the porters] received about 20,000 Kyat and the porters tried to give 10,000Kyat each to [name] to be released. But the [officer] did not accept the money. But the porters insisted and they refused to follow the soldiers. So the [officer] became angry and shot both of them. This happened between [Village 1] and [Village 2]. Many people say it, but no one said anything because it was common for soldiers to kill you if you don’t follow orders. In fact, I later learned that these two porters were not prisoners, but villagers from [Village 3].
If we didn’t follow orders to beat the villagers, our officers would beat us with wire or sometimes with their shoe. Once, a captain beat me because I did not shout at the villagers to work when they were taking a break [from performing forced labor]. The officer who saw my behavior slapped my face with his sandal and said, “Since you did not order them to work, I will hit you!” He slapped me a few more times. This also happened to other soldiers as well.
The final two excerpts are from ordinary villagers, who regularly had to perform forced labor for Tatmadaw units and to pay illegal fees extorted from them by soldiers. The villagers, no longer able to meet their own subsistence needs, fled to Thailand earlier this year.
Since the beginning of this year, every weekend, people from my village have to go and work on clearing bushes along the road and railway. One person from each household must be there. Usually we have to cut down bushes along the tracks of the Ye-Tavoy railroad and the road itself. We have to clear about [number of] meters on both sides. Sometimes the orders came from the military and sometimes through the village head… We were not only forced to work for the military, but we were also forced to do other things, such as paying a porter’s fee each month even though we don’t know what the purpose of the porter’s fee was. Our village did not have to porter last summer, but we always had to pay 500 Kyat per month… I heard many times that forced labor would stop, but I have never seen it stop. We still have to work without pay and without having the choice to refuse. Since I was thirteen years old, I was forced to work many times on construction of the Ye-Tavoy railway.
Our village is located near a larger town, so many people were not forced into labor like other villagers often are. But we still had to clear and reconstruct the road in front of our house at the orders of the military. Our work depended on the road’s condition. So sometimes we had to work on it once a month, and sometimes for two-three months at a time. Last month, just before the Water Festival, we were ordered to work on road construction between our village and [village 2]… I was forced to go and work there for three days. We were allowed to take a rest while building the road. I have to leave my house at 10 a.m. and work until 3 p.m. each day. There were about fifty villagers there, and we worked on a rotational basis. If I didn’t work, I had to pay a 1,000 Kyat fine per day… I never heard about stopping forced labor or about the 1/99 forced labor law.
III. ERI Policy Statement on the Joint Plan of Action
On 5 June 2004, the International Labor Organization (ILO) announced that it planned to re-instate sanctions against Burma should the regime fail to make significant progress towards eradicating the use of forced labor by its next scheduled meeting in November.
The ILO’s decision was based on a report presented by a committee of experts. The committee determined that the regime had failed to make any meaningful progress towards implementing the “Joint Plan of Action,” which was agreement signed by both the ILO and the SPDC in June 2003. The primary goal of the Plan was to create a framework where the SPDC could take credible and verifiable steps towards eradicating the use of forced labor in infrastructure projects in several test areas.
The report cited numerous problems. Most glaringly, three men (Shwe Mahn, Min Kyi, and Aye Myint) were sentenced to death for “high treason,” a charge that included having provided information to the ILO. The charges were later commuted to prison terms. The case, which was of questionable merit, is likely to create a climate of fear and reduce the likelihood that any one will try to hold the regime accountable for its continued use of forced labor.
The ILO also reported receiving a considerable number of credible reports about the use of forced labor, including an incident in Toungup Township (Arakan State) where an army battalion forced over 800 villagers to construct an embankment as part of a land reclamation project. In other cases, the ILO has been provided with photographs, which document the use of forced labor in real time. Although the ILO asserts that the growing number of complaints is a sign that people have confidence that the process will work, no military or civilian personnel in Burma have been charged to date with violating section 374 of the Penal Code.
Finally, the ILO has announced that it had received nine detailed complaints alleging forced recruitment into the army. Seven of the nine were boys between the ages of 13 and 16. The details of these cases closely match those of the two deserters presented in this article (see testimonies 2 and 3). The complaints are also consistent with the findings of Human Rights Watch, which completed a major study on this problem in 2002. Yet, no significant legal action has been taken against those responsible.
Given these events, ERI remains concerned about the effectiveness of the Plan and, given official resistance to implementing it in any meaningful way, the danger it poses to ordinary citizens who participate in it in good faith.
In sum, the system of forced labor that has brought condemnation from the international community remains in tact. The people of Burma deserve better. ERI thus makes the following recommendations:
To the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC):
- The SPDC adhere to the ILO Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29), which Burma ratified in 1955. Burma’s Towns Act and the Village Act of 1907 should be brought into conformity with the Convention.
- The SPDC ratify and adhere to ILO Convention No. 105 (1957), which supplements the above Convention.
- The SPDC review criminal laws relating to freedom of nonviolent expression and association as defined in articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Laws in Burma which violate these basic principles should be reformed to make them clear, specific, and in accordance with international norms. The credible implementation of the ILO/SPDC Joint Plan of Action is not possible without these rights. Problematic laws include: Section 109 of the Burma Penal Code; the Computer Science Development Law (Law No 10/96); the 1975 State Protection Law; Articles 5e and 5j of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act; the Burma Official Secrets Act of 1923; the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act.
- The SPDC review and revise any laws, policies, and practice regarding citizenship and the right to nationality to bring them in line with international standards.
- The SPDC accede to the following international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and its Optional Protocol.
- Educational materials about Order No. 1/99, which outlawed forced labor in Burma, should be more widely disseminated throughout the country, and this information should be regularly aired on the radio and via television in Burma to educate the population. In these educational efforts, explanations about how to make complaints should be included. These explanations should be provided in all of the country’s major languages.(a) The decree as well as educational materials should be translated into local ethnic nationality languages and similarly widespread dissemination of the information should be undertaken;(b) Special attention should be made to educate the military and local authorities about the law, including how it will be implemented and enforced.
- Order No. 1/99 should be strictly enforced in line with the recommendations of the ILO’s Commission of Inquiry:(a) Violators, including military personnel and local authorities, should be prosecuted under section 374 of the Penal Code and other relevant statutes.(b) These prosecutions should be public and carried out by civilian courts.
- In light of the threats made against anyone who speaks out about forced labor, credible steps should be taken to ensure the safety of those who seek to enforce Order No. 1/99 or make complaints about ongoing cases of forced labor:(a) Those who make threats of retaliation or actually retaliate against those speaking out against forced labor should be criminally prosecuted;(b) Police and appropriate authorities should not wait for complaints of forced labor to be brought to them, but should be proactively enforcing Order No. 1/99. In fact, they are required by law to do so according to the Supplementary Order to Order No. 1/99 (October 2000);
(c) Existing mechanisms should be improved to better ensure the safety of those making complaints about forced labor. For example, anonymous tips should be permitted to assist police and appropriate authorities in learning about incidents of forced labor. Similarly, any villager who does make a formal complaint should be able to do so anonymously because of the severe repercussions they may face for making such a complaint.
To the international community:
In the absence of significant political and institutional reforms, an end to forced labor is unlikely. Should the SPDC fail to meet the ILO’s November deadline, the course of action most likely to induce a change is to:
- Continue pressure on the State Peace and Development Council to review criminal laws listed above relating to freedom of nonviolent expression and association as defined in articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
- Continue pressure on the SPDC to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy still under house arrest or in prison for political reasons.
- Strengthen the ILO’s existing resolutions on Burma to require the ILO’s constituents (governments, employees, and labor) to take concrete actions to eliminate trade and assistance with the regime that is contributing to the practice of forced labor.
- Create a credible roadmap for democratization in Burma with specific criteria, timetable and milestones for measuring progress. This roadmap will include a range of mechanisms for increasing penalties if there is not significant movement towards the goals set out in the roadmap. Similarly, the roadmap should set up precise rewards if certain goals are attained within the given timetable.
- Give protection under existing principles of refugee jurisprudence to those who face credible threats of retaliation or actual retaliation for speaking out against forced labor or for making complaints about the violation of Order No. 1/99.
For more information on the ILO, visit: http://www.ilo.org/
 Interview with Mr. Richard Horsey, the ILO’s liaison officer in Burma. Cited in Marwaan Macan-Markar, “Forced Labor Still a Problem in Burma,” Interpress Service (10 June 2004).
 Money extorted from civilians by Tatmadaw battalions to avoid having to porter for the military.
 Portering is the most dangerous form of forced labor, requiring people to carry very heavy loads of food, water, and ammunition to front-line combat areas for Tatmadaw military units. Porters are also harassed and physically abused by troops. When porters fall ill and/or become injured, they are often abandoned or killed by Tatmadaw troops. To help hide the extent of this practice, the Tatmadaw frequently offers prisoners convicted of crimes a reduction in their sentences if they serve as porters, hence the term “prisoner-porters.” It should be noted that many of the prisoner-porters were not in fact criminals, but people who were arrested on false charges and were unable to pay a bribe to be released.
 See conclusions to Internal Labour Conference, “Special sitting of the Committee on the Application of Standards to examine developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29).” The report was presented during the 92nd Session (Geneva, 5 June 2004) and is available at http://burmalibrary.org/docs/ILC2004-SS-Conclusions.htm (downloaded 18 June 2004).
 See Addendum to International Labour Conference, Committee on the Application of Standards, “Special Sitting to Examine Developments Concerning the Question of the Observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). The report on decision by the Supreme Court of Myanmar was presented during the 92nd Session (Geneva, Jun3 2004) and the letter from His Excellency, Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, reproduced therein. Both are available at http://burmalibrary.org/docs/ILC2004-capp-d5-add.doc (downloaded 13 June 2004).
 This section makes forced labor a criminal offence: “Whoever unlawfully compels any person to labor against the will of that person shall [be] punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
 Human Rights Watch, “My Gun Was As Tall As Me: Child Soldiers in Burma,” (New York: HRW, 2002) available for download at http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2002/burma/.
 For a fuller description of these laws, see Amnesty International, Myanmar: Justice on Trial (London: AI, 2003), 35-47. The report is available for download at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA16/019/2003.
Appendix: Full Testimonies
Interview Number : 007(2004)
Interview Date: January 2004
Interview location: N/A
Name: Haw Paw Lit
Place of Birth: 28
Occupation: Farmer/village secretary member
Marital Status: Married
Family Information (Name and Age(s):
Township: Ye Pyu
Village Tract: [redacted]
Keywords: Forced Labor, Portering
I came here to visit some of my relatives who live in the camp. I cannot stay for long since I am a member of the village secretary committee.
There are about [redacted] households in my village. Most of the villages in this area depend on betel nut and cashew nut farms. I work on my own betel nut plantation, which is about three acres. Each year I produce around 1 million betel nuts for the market and when I sell them I receive about 4-5 million Kyat. Sometimes villagers work for themselves and sometimes they have to work for the military. There is an army base [redacted] in our village. They do not have an outpost but they stay at the train station. There are about twenty soldiers that are led by a second battalion commander. This group is not usually based in our village but they came this time to repair the railroad. There are two other active battalions in this area: [redacted] and [redacted]. They are providing security for both the gas pipeline and the train tracks that pass through this area.
The current situation in our village seems quite normal but we have to struggle hard for our families to survive. We have to pay fees for teacher in our village and sometime we have to pay portering fees. Sometime the soldiers order people to go with them to patrol the area. We often have to provide food for the soldiers whenever they demand it.
We have one middle school that was built by a large company in our village. We don’t have enough teachers in the village. We only have six teachers in the school and four of them receive their salaries from the government, but the other two teachers receive their salaries from the villagers themselves. Each teacher receives 15,000 Kyat each month and each household had to provide 100 Kyat and four kilograms of rice each month. Even though some households do not have any children that attend school, they still give money to the teachers. Otherwise, our village could not have a school. In the village we also have a loan credit program. We can borrow money for up to six months and the amount is limited. The highest amount given is 50,000 Kyat. After six months the committee will collect their money back.
There is also a clinic in the village but they don’t have a doctor working full-time. The company hired the doctor fifteen days a month. The doctor’s name is [redacted] and he is from [redacted]. Most of the time the clinic doesn’t have enough medicine, so we don’t receive the medicine that we need to recover from illnesses.
Sometimes the soldiers ordered us to work for them. The last time they ordered me to work for them was when they wrote us an order to give them rice and a chicken. The written order was from the officer and I had seen the letter itself since I work as a member of the village secretary committee. We didn’t respond to the written order. The official sent two of his men to collect the villagers that they had ordered.
Often when the soldiers were patrolling around the area they ordered our village head to provide porters or guides for them. The soldiers took people for one to two days at a time. Whenever the soldiers heard news about opposition groups, they would patrol our area. So sometimes they patrolled every week or sometimes only two to three times per month. Those villagers that were ordered to go with the soldiers were not given any payment. These villagers had to go with the soldiers and carry their supplies. They were not given any food. They had to walk up upstream and climb mountains. [redacted] from LIB [redacted] provided security for the railroad and would often lead the group who live near [redacted] which is about [redacted] miles or [redacted] hours on foot from our village. The last time that our villagers were forced to go with the soldiers was in [redacted].
Our village was among [redacted] villages where Total Company was monitoring. The foreigners came to our village almost every day, but we were unable to speak to them freely since their translator was always at their side. Even the village head was unable to speak to the foreigners freely. Even if we say one thing to the translator, the translator may tell the foreigner something different. In [redacted] 2003 a group of foreigners came to our village and asked about the situation in our village. Some people explained the reality in our village and that things had not changed. We told them about the continuous forced labor in our village. But we never heard anything back from the foreigners.
Now we also have to provide taxes for our betel nut to the government. The officer from [redacted] came to our village last month to collect these taxes and I had to pay 2,500 Kyat for my plantation. We all had to pay this tax; we could not refuse. There were some people who did not pay this tax. The officer told us that those who did not pay the tax this time will have to come to [redacted] to pay it in person.
We often have to give money to the Burmese soldiers so that they can buy food. We also have to give them leaves and bamboo materials for their outpost. In September 2003, the authorities ordered our village to provide people for the military. Thirty people from our village would have to serve in the military. But many people in our village did not want to give our villagers to the military, so we paid the authorities money to exclude our village from this process. Each household had to pay 150 Kyat. This happened just before I came here, so I don’t know whether this worked or not.
In January 2004, one officer from [redacted] who is working on the railroad ordered me to provide him with a truck to travel in from [redacted] village. At the time, nobody was at the village secretary office, so I had to arrange it by myself. I could not find a truck so I had to give him a wooden bull cart I have to use the village secretary bull cart and give it to the officer on the same night. It took nine to ten hours by bull cart to get to [redacted] village. Nobody received any payment for this and we could not refuse.
I had to porter for the military often when a large company was constructing the pipeline. I had to porter many times and sometimes it took me about seven days, and I had to travel very far from my village. I remember the troops who I was forced to go with were LIB [redacted] and [redacted]. I also had to carry soldiers’ supplies from the village to the sentry post where the soldiers were providing security for the pipeline. I did this several times.
Interview Number : 008(2004)
Interview Date: May 2004
Interview location: Thai- Burmese border
Name: Soe Htoo
Place of Birth: [redacted]
Occupation: Former SPDC soldier
Marital Status: Single
Family Information Name and Age(s):
State/Division: Pegu Division
Village Tract: [redacted]
Keywords: Forced labor
I arrived here a few days ago after I escaped from the Burmese army. I came with two other friends as well. We spent one night in the jungle before we met KNU soldiers. We were treated well by the soldiers here. Not like how the officers used to order us. We were always told that Karen soldiers would kill us if we were ever captured.
I have six brothers and two sisters back home. I am the third child. Our family business was selling items and it was not so bad because we were able to survive. I joined the military for about seven years when I was about seventeen years old. I was forced to join the military and become a soldier. I was picked up by a man who I had never met. He took me to the police office, and when I arrived at the police station, they forced me to join the military. The same night I was sent to Rangoon with four other people for military training. All of them were my friends and their names are [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. Two of them are younger than I am, and the other friend is the same age as me. We were accompanied by one sergeant, who led us to the train.
The next day we arrived in Rangoon at the [redacted] recruitment center. While at the recruitment center, I was thinking of trying to escape but it was too late because they already cut our hair in a military style so it was hard to run away. I was also shy and scared of escaping. Again because of the military haircut they could easily find and recapture us. While we were at the recruitment center, we were asked to state the reason we joined the army. If we didn’t tell them the decision to join was our own and were not forced, they threatened to lock us up. So, I was forced to say that I willingly joined the military by myself. This occurred in [redacted] 1998. We were held at the recruitment center for a month before being sent to the military training center.
In [redacted] 1998, I was sent to [redacted] training camp in [redacted] town. I had to attend the training for four and half months. During this training we were given food that was not good such as rice that was not well cooked, chili or fishpaste that was not fresh. Some people tried to escape during the training but some were recaptured and were severely punished. When I was in the training camp and also in the training recruitment center, I never wrote to my parents because it was so difficult. In addition, whenever I thought of writing to them I wanted to cry. Again when I saw my friends’ parents visit them, they were crying so I didn’t want my parents to cry. The worst thing that happened was even though I wrote to my parents, the letters never arrived. Most of the time the officers in charge of the mail never sent out the letters nor did they deliver the letters that were sent to us.
After the training, I was sent to artillery training for another two and half months at [redacted]. After that, I was sent to Artillery Battalion [redacted] based in Tavoy. It was early 1999 when I arrived to [redacted] in Tavoy where the battalion was located. When I arrived to the base, there were about 55 soldiers in the camp.
In mid-2000 was the first time that I was sent to [redacted] for the front line. It took about seven months trip to reach the base in [redacted] hill. This was the worst time that I have ever experienced. When we first traveled to [redacted] there were about 40 soldiers and 20 porters, who were from the prison. We left our base in May of 2000. We slept at [redacted] village for one night at IB [redacted] head quarters. When we got to [redacted], we joined with additional troops to become about 200 soldiers and 50 porters taken from prison.
Most porters were forced to carry ammunition and army supplies for the soldiers. Each soldier had to guard two porters. So I guarded two porters. I didn’t know their names but one of them was over 40 years old and the other porter looked about the same age as me. All I knew was that most of the porters were paid some money to follow us. The porter that I had to guard had to carry mortar shells. We put the load in the middle and asked them to carry one in the front and one in the back. Both of the porters who I was guarding were from Insein prison. We were working in the jungle for about five days. The load they carried consisted of two shells of 120 MM each. Sometimes I helped the older porter because he was very tired.
During those trips two of the porters was shot dead by [redacted] because these porters were trying to give him half of what they earned to be released. Each person received about 20,000 Kyat and the porters tried to give 10,000 Kyat each to each officer in order to be released. But the officers did not accept the money. These porters insisted and refused to follow the soldiers, so the Lance Corporal became angry and shot both of them. This happened between [redacted] and [redacted] villages. Many people saw it but no one said anything because it was common for soldiers to kill you if you didn’t follow their orders. In fact I later learned that these two porters were not prisoners, but villagers from [redacted] village.
During the seven months that I was there, I witnessed soldiers kill many porters. About as many as twenty porters were killed. Some were shot dead by soldiers, about five stepped on landmines then left behind to die, some were stabbed to death by soldiers with bamboo sticks and some died due to an illness. Some of the porters who stepped on landmines asked the soldiers to shoot them dead or requested lethal medicine to put them out of their agony. Most of the porters who died from an illness died in the [redacted] military camp because of lack of medicine. Some soldiers stabbed porters to death by taking the sharp side of a bamboo stick then order the porter to stand in water as deep as his knee. Then the soldier ask the porter to sit down and allows them a few minutes to pray until the soldier steps on the porter’s body until they die and lets the water wash them way. I have seen it a few times and I don’t know who the soldiers are because there are many from other battalions too. But, the soldiers who dare do this kind of thing are usually very rude to other people. I have seen this happen in a few places on our way to [redacted] as well as at the [redacted] military base.
When we arrived at [redacted] the porters had to build the military camp such as new huts for the soldiers, new barracks and digging up the ground to lay down a communication line. While the porters were building the military camp, they were poorly treated. They were given a little food but they usually had to buy everything themselves. Although the porters receive money for their work, they had to hide their earnings from the soldiers. Both of the porters who I guarded remained alive until the day we left the area. I say this because among 50 porters who started at the military camp, only about thirty are still alive. Many of them died and a few escaped.
I was ordered to maintain security at [redacted]. Since our base was close to the border, sometimes we cut bamboo and sold it to a Thai buyer who came looking to purchase products. I left the base in 2001.
After I was at the base in [redacted] for a few months, I was transferred to another battalion. It was Artillery Battalion [redacted] and this new base was located near [redacted] village. I was involved in surveying and measuring land areas of the villagers’ land. It happened in May 2001. I don’t know if the villagers received any compensation for this or not. I saw the villagers had to build a new building for the battalion. Some villagers had to build new huts while some others were cleaning, digging a trench and building fences. I saw villagers from [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. They had to build different buildings for officers and for soldiers including a storage room for keeping arms, food and other supplies.
Each day I saw about fifteen to twenty villagers come to this area. They also brought their own food and tools for the entire day. They did not stay at the camp, but arrived in the morning and went back in the evening. We collected bamboo and wood to construct buildings from villages such as [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted] village. We cut and collected bamboo and wood near the road. I don’t know if they were paid for this or not. This happened until early July 2001.
After I returned from Rangoon I had to go to the gas pipeline region. The area is close to [redacted] near mile marker [redacted] and also close to [redacted]. It was close to LIB [redacted] base in that area. The reason I was there was just to maintain security and sometimes we had to repair a heliport. I also stayed in [redacted] for one month. We were based along the [redacted] border for about two months before coming back to the main battalion.
Artillery Battalion [redacted] was formed in April 2001 and lead by commander [redacted] and second commander [redacted]. During my stay in the battalion the soldiers often had to work as well. Each day we had to search for firewood in a group of four to five individuals and were ordered to collect a large amount of firewood in one day. Sometimes we had to clean up the battalion area and sometimes we had to cut bamboo. These tasks were a part of the income for the army and often we were ordered by our officers to do it. I remember once given an order to send a letter from my sergeant to a village head telling him to give him a bike. I don’t remember when it happened but it was at the time when we stayed near [redacted].
In August 2003 I was sent to attend a medic training at [redacted] in [redacted] township. I attend the training for about one month. Sometime the officers punished us if we didn’t finish the work tasks on time. Most of the time, our second commander [redacted] hit us with his shoe and sometime with a wire. Whenever we made a mistake our officer would severely punish us. We were not allowed to attend ceremonies or festivals.
In April 2004, four other soldiers and I were sent to the front line in [redacted]. First, we arrived to [redacted] then to [redacted]. We came alone with the truck to [redacted] village. When we arrived at [redacted], we joined IB [redacted], which was waiting for us there to go to [redacted]. There were about forty soldiers from IB [redacted] including the four of us. We came alone with two villagers from [redacted] including the village secretary. The villagers had to come with us because the strategic commander from IB [redacted] had joined the troops. We arrived to [redacted] on April 21, 2004.
When I arrived to the area some buildings and fences were already built but we had to build even more and then carry supplies from a nearby village. Every day we were forced to do it and sometimes we could not rest. Twice a day we went to [redacted] to collect supplies for the camp. We could no longer bear this kind of treatment and work, so every day we were looking for way out. Sometime in April we had to go to [redacted] to collect food and on the way we escaped from the camp. Now I have arrived to Thailand under the KNU control. My two friends and I slept one night in the jungle and then walked for another two days to get to the border. We didn’t bring our guns because even though we were soldiers we just had 60 ammunitions but not a gun. They just keep guns at the officer’s hut. If we go out, sometimes they just give them out to the sergeant. They are afraid that we will escape with their guns.
Interview Number : 011(2004)
Interview Date: May 2004
Interview location: Thai-Burmese border
Name: Min Min
Place of Birth: [redacted]
Occupation: Former SPDC soldier
Marital Status: Single
Family Information (Name and Age(s):
State/Division Shan State
Village Tract: [redacted]
Keywords: Forced labor
I arrived in Thailand a few days ago with two of my friends. We escaped from our battalion while we were carrying food supplies. We arrived safely to the Thai border but we had to spend two nights in the jungle. I came from artillery battalion [redacted] and our battalion headquarter was based in [redacted] township. But we escaped from the military camp, which had been newly set up one month ago near the [redacted] border point. My serial number is [redacted], and I joined the army in April 2001.
I was born in Shan State, in [redacted] town and I have six brothers and sisters. I am the eldest son in my family, when I left my younger sister was only one month old. My parents work as traders so they travel a lot and I had to look after my brothers and sisters. I had to go to school by bus because the high school that I attended was about four to five miles from our house. I had to wake up early in the morning and make a snack, then I had to rush to school. After I made snacks my younger sister and brother took them to shops nearby. One evening when I was returning from school on the bus, I was approached by a man from our town named [redacted]. He is a military sergeant and works at a recruitment center for new soldiers. [redacted] stepped down from the bus, then he pulled me and my friend [redacted] out of the bus. Several other people including students were on the bus. Nobody helped us because there was nothing suspicious-looking happening as we exited the bus. I don’t even know whether people noticed or not. [redacted] forced us to go with him and he took us to artillery battalion base in [redacted].
We were detained in the battalion for a night and the next day they flew us to Rangoon. We went on an army flight with about twenty other people, all of them from the army. When we arrived in Rangoon we were kept in [redacted] recruitment center for another two days, then we were sent to [redacted] division training center. We were trained at No. [redacted] and the training took about four and a half months. There were about 250 new people there and many of them were middle aged or even as young as I was. At that time I didn’t think about running away because I had never been to Rangoon before and I was afraid of being recaptured by the army.
We were sent to training camps by train and by boat then we took a truck to get to the military training camp. When we arrived at the training camp, they put us in a building where we could not escape. Even if we needed to use the toilet, the guard went with us.
In the training camp we were forced to wake up at 4am to take care of personal things such as making our beds, then we had to train. They gave us small rations of food, which included different ingredients, such as pieces of rocks in the rice. If we complained to the head cook, they would just add more rocks to the rice. Each morning we had to do military exercises then they fed us breakfast of tea and fried rice. Then we continued training from 11am to 12pm. In the training camp I remember the trainers’ names, such as [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. There were about 250 people so they divided us into four platoons and each platoon included about 60 people.
During the training I was afraid of escaping as I saw several people who tried to escape but they were recaptured and severely punished. The way they punished people was they ordered each fellow friend to beat that person one time. So since there was about 250 people, if one person tried to escape and if he was recaptured, then he was severely hit 250 times by fellow friends as well as trainers. During the beatings, we were ordered to not beat softly. If we beat softly the trainer would beat us ten times harder.
During the training we also had to do many things such as planting beans. Each day we were forced to dig up the soil and plant seeds. If we did not finish, the trainers shouted at us. I never had contact with my parents because I didn’t know what to say but it didn’t matter because I never had the chance to contact them. Usually, whenever we sent a letter to our parents or if a letter from our parents arrived, we never received them because the official in charge of the camp destroyed our letters and any communication with our families. My parents never visited me because they were always busy. I don’t know whether they knew that I was at this training center or if they thought that I joined the military.
After I finished training, I was forcibly sent to [redacted] for another two and half months to attend an artillery training. We practiced how to shoot artillery and cannons, such as 76MM.
After I finished the artillery training ten people from the same training were sent to [redacted] township. Before we departed the officer told us that we would fly to [redacted], so everyone got excited because most people had never been on an airplane. But actually we ended up going by train and bus. It was in the beginning 2002 when we arrived at the [redacted] railway station. We were told that the battalion base in [redacted] was not ready yet. We were sent to artillery battalion [redacted] this time.
When we arrived at the [redacted] railway station there were about 130 soldiers waiting there already. We were ordered to clean up the area to build an outpost. At the area where we were going to build an outpost, we saw two huts in a small area of land, which had already been cleared. I don’t know who did cleared that land, but we learned that it was done by an engineer group from the military, which does construction for the army. So as soon as we got to the area we had to clean up the area, dig the roots of the tree and build huts for us to stay.
At this new camp I tried to escape once. I escaped to Rangoon, but I was recaptured at the bus station. I was put in a holding cell for two months and after that I was sent back to my battalion. When I returned they placed me at the headquarter column but later they moved me to column no. [redacted]. Again I tried to escape again at [redacted]. However I was recaptured again and this time I beaten badly by an official named Captain [redacted], who is the commander of column no. [redacted]. Not only did the officer beat me but also the sergeant and soldiers on duty at that time. In total, about ten people severely beat me. After they beat me, I was shackled by my wrists and ankles. I also was forced to clean up the camp as a punishment while I was in the holding cell.
The soldiers confiscated land from villagers in that area in order to set up our new battalion. There were rubber plantations and cashew nut plantations near [redacted] village in [redacted] township. I don’t know whether the villagers were compensated for their land, but I don’t think they got anything. The villagers came and collected their plantation products but each year they had to pay 1 million kyat to be allowed to do this.
The soldiers collected taxes from the villagers and often stole their cashew nuts and rubber from the plantations. The plantation owners and villagers were not allowed to say anything about it. I also collected cashew nuts in that area to make some money and some soldier did this too. Most of the plantation owners wanted to sell their land near the military base camp but nobody was interested in buying that land.
Often our soldiers stole villagers’ property. Once I remember two of our soldiers went to a villager’s farm and stole coconuts. Late at night the soldier climbed up the coconut tree and another soldier waited on the ground. Suddenly, the owner’s son and his two friends saw the soldiers stealing their coconuts. The soldier on the ground ran away but the other soldier in the tree could not escape.
The owner’s son and his friends beat that soldier then let the soldier go. The next day Captain [redacted] found out about what happened. He and the soldier who was beaten approached the owner’s son and his friends and beat them very hard. This happened sometime in 2003. There were about 130 soldiers and some of the soldiers’ families lived in the battalion compound. But currently in the past two years there has only been about 70 soldiers in the whole battalion because many escaped from the army.
When I was at the army base we often saw villagers who worked for the military. I don’t know if they were paid all the time, but I knew that most of the time they were not paid and they had to bring their own food when they worked.
Around May 2003, our battalion fence was rebuilt and the grass in the army compound was cut by the villagers. The villagers came from [redacted] village. Our battalion commander [redacted] ordered the village head to come and meet him. At that time that I remember about twenty villagers came to clean our army compound. Sometime the captain ordered us to guard and watch them while they worked. If we didn’t guard or watch the villagers then we were ordered to go into the jungle to collect firewood.
A few times I shouted or threw pieces of rocks at the villagers if they did not work. I was forced to do that or else my officer would shout at me. Sometimes the villagers wanted to take a break but we were ordered to force them to keep working. Usually our work started as early as 6 or 7am, we would take a break at 12pm and start working again at 1pm and finish at about 5-6pm. I never beat the villagers but I saw some soldiers who often beat the villagers.
Once I saw [redacted] hit the villagers because he claimed that the villagers were not working hard. This happened around June 2003. If we didn’t follow orders to beat the villagers, our official would beat us with a wire or sometimes with their shoe. Once I was beat by the captain because I did not shout at the villagers to work when they were taking a break. The officer who saw my behavior slapped my face with his sandal and said, “Since you did not order them to work, I will hit you!” He slapped me a few more times. This also happened to other soldiers.
Since 2002 when I arrived at the military base, I have witnessed villagers being forced to work for the soldiers. Most of the time I saw children ages thirteen to fourteen and older people ages 40-50 involved in the work. Usually, they had to bring their own food and tools. They had to work even when it was raining and they were not allowed to take a break.
While we were at the military camp we were ordered to patrol the area around the village. Usually six people went to patrol but the generals only allowed us to bring two to three guns because they were afraid that we might escape with the guns.
In early 2004 a group of ten from our artillery battalion was assigned to go to [redacted] located near the border. We left our base in February and went to [redacted] near [redacted] by truck. Then we traveled to [redacted]. When we arrived there we were escorted by another ten local troops from IB [redacted]. We slept there overnight and the next day we traveled to [redacted] by an ox cart and the villagers pulled us in the ox cart. There were two ox carts arranged for us and it took about three hours to get to [redacted]. We had breakfast in [redacted] and left our baggage and ammunition boxes there. Local troops told the villagers to take our things by boat as we continued to travel on foot.
We slept overnight and worked for two days to reach [redacted]. When we arrived at [redacted] we met with LIB [redacted] but our belongings were not there yet. We had to wait another day for our belongings to arrive. There were about twenty villagers followed by the sergeant from IB [redacted] at that base in [redacted]. The boat arrived only to [redacted] and from [redacted] to [redacted] there were about three to four hours to walk.
Among the porters I noticed that some of them were young around ages twelve to fifteen. At [redacted] there was only one fence and two small huts. So we had to build new huts for us to stay in as well as a place to cook. We also have to make a dugout place for the soldiers to shoot from. We also carried food supplies from [redacted] to the new military campsite.
The new camp was intended to be for an artillery base but until we escaped there were no long range, large cannons there yet. We could not rest. Each day twice a day we had to go down to [redacted] to collect supplies for the camp. I could no longer bear this hard work every day so we were all looking for way out.
Finally in April we were forced to go to [redacted] again to collect food and on the way I escaped from the military camp. I reached the Thai side of the border under the Karen National Union (KNU) control and I could finally live peacefully. The general had told me earlier that if we were captured by the KNU, the KNU would kill us, but I found the situation to be totally different. My last words would be that whoever is in the military, I want them to escape freely and I hope many people would be free from being forced in the military.
Interview Number : 009(2004)
Interview Date: May 2004
Interview location: Thai-Burmese Border
Name: Htun Aung Gyaw
Place of Birth: [redacted]
Occupation: Daily worker
Marital Status: Single
Family Information (Name and Age(s):
Village Tract: [redacted]
Keywords: Forced Labor
I came here to visit my friend and my relatives and also to look for a job. There are about 50 households in my village and most people who live in this area are dependent on daily work and physical labor, some own farmland and some own plantation land. Our village head is [redacted]. Currently there is no military base in our village but we often have seen soldiers come into the village. They come to look around the village and sometimes looking for food.
The nearest military base outpost is about an hour walk from my village. The military bases are LIB [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. Most of the villagers do not own land so they usually depend on daily hired labor. People are busy with their work in order for their families to survive. In my family, my parents are old and my older brother and sister are married with their own families so I have to work for my parents. I am the youngest person in my family.
Since the beginning of this year, every weekend people from my village have to go and work on clearing bushes along the road and railway. One person from each household must be there. Usually we have to cut down bushes along both the Ye-Tavoy railroad and car road. We have to clear about six or seven meters on both sides of the road.
Sometime the orders came from the military and sometimes came through the village head. Most of the time the village head has to go to the military outpost and meet with the officers. Then he will tell us to do certain tasks but sometimes the military comes by themselves and give orders directly to the village head. I have seen the military come into the village and force us to work. The last time I saw them meet with the village head was in late December 2003 when one officer and two other soldiers came to the village to force people to work for them. Again it was for clearing the sides of the road. This time we worked for three days to finish the work. We have to clean both the railway and car road. We had to do it often whenever the bushes grew long along the side of the road.
Last year I was also forced to build a military sentry post, which was located near Kay Tae bridge. We had to build a hut, a fence around the compound and dig a communication line for the sentry post. It took us about one week to finish everything. I had to go for one day since we did the work by rotation. Each day there were about seven to ten people. The order came from the military and the village head asked each section to tell us.
While we were cleaning the roadside we were closely monitored by soldiers or officers. Usually one officer or soldier with guns were ordering people what to do. The soldiers or officers did not yell at us but we had to finish our work while they monitored us. Once two of my friends and I finished work early while the others continued. But a guard followed us and ordered to return and work more. He yelled at us and ordered each one of us to give him a chicken. This happened in the early part of this year when we had to clear the road. This was located between mile marker [redacted] from our village. Our village and other nearby villages such as [redacted] village were forced to work.
We were not only forced to work for the military. But we were also forced to do other things, such as paying a porter’s fee each month, even though we don’t know what the purpose of the porter’s fee was for. Our village did not have to porter last summer, but we always had to pay 500 kyat per month for the porter fee.
We also have to pay for other fees when soldiers ordered us to go to [redacted] to dig up the soil but we don’t know the purpose of that work. Our village head was forced to collect money from the villagers of about 2,000 kyat per household. Then I was ordered to give that money to the soldiers.
I heard many times that forced labor would stop, but I still have never seen it stop. We still have to work without pay and without having the choice to refuse. Since I was thirteen years old, I was forced to work many times on the Ye-Tavoy railway construction. The longest period of time that I had to work was for about fifteen days. I remember that I had to bring my own food and tools, and I had to go in place of my parents or siblings.
We were also forced to pay porter fees and give money to the military so that they could begin to grow saplings such as mango trees, betel nut trees, cashew nut trees and chili plants. A month before I came here, soldiers went to each household to demand that they provide them with five sapling trees.
Interview Number : 010(2004)
Interview Date: May 2004
Interview location: Thai-Burmese border
Name: Win Aung
Place of Birth: [redacted]
Occupation: Daily Worker
Marital Status: Married
Family Information Name and Age(s):
State/Division: Mon State
Village Tract: [redacted]
Keywords: Forced Labor
I came to Thailand to look for a job since it is not easy for me to find work in my village. I came to Thailand with my wife but we left our daughter with my parents in our village. I arrived in Thailand several weeks ago, but I have not tried to go into the city to look for a job yet. On our way to Thailand we were arrested by the Thai police. Five of my friends and I were released but my wife and six other friends were detained and held by the Thai police. So now I am waiting for them. I am not sure when they will be released.
There are about 1,000 households in my village. Most people in our village survive by daily labor activities such as working on rubber plantations, growing rice and working in the saw mill. When I lived in my village, I worked on a farm and sometimes I worked at the saw mill. The income was just enough for our daily survival.
Our village is located near a larger town, so many people were not forced into labor like other villagers often are. However, we still had to clear and reconstruct the road in front of our house at the orders of the military. Our work depended on the road’s condition, so sometimes we had to work on it once a month and sometimes for two to three months at a time.
Last month just before the water festival we were ordered to work on road construction between our village of [redacted] and [redacted] village. It was less than one mile long but it is a new road connecting the two villages and this road passes through rice fields owned by some farmers in my village and other plantations.
People told me that children used the road to go to school. I was forced to go and work there for three days. We were allowed to take a rest while building the road. I had to leave my house at 10am and work until 3pm each day. There were about 50 villagers there, and we worked on a rotational basis. If I didn’t work, I had to pay 1,000 kyat per day.
We were forced to dig into the ground and then level the ground to become a road. We also were ordered to build two small bridges that passed through a stream. Our section leader ordered us to do this, but I do not know where the original order came from. The road passed through some rice fields and plantations, but the landowners were never compensated or given money for losing their land.
In 2002 we were forced to build a road in our village right in front of my house. First we dug up the ground and leveled out the area, then we had to break rocks into small pieces and lay them on the road. After that, we had to lay tar over the small rocks to make the road smooth. It took us several days to finish this even though the area was just located in front of my house because we had to collect all of the materials ourselves. Every month we had to pay 250 kyat for a porter’s fee.
Once I was forced to attend a military training in our village. We were forced to pick up the ballot and whoever won they had to attend the training. We had to attend the training for about two months twice a week. We were paid 500 kyat per day during those training days and that money were collect in the village. Each household was ordered to give 400 kyat for this training. We had to be at the military training from 1-4pm each day. There were about 50 people there. The trainer was from a place close to the military base in [redacted].
I never heard about stopping forced labor in Burma or about the 1/99 forced labor law.
As I already mentioned about the situation in our village it was not easy to find a job and we could only earn 1,000-2,000 kyat per day, which is only enough for a family for one day. This amount of money does not allow us to save for our future. So now, I have come to Thailand to find a job, but I was arrested in Thailand, and my wife is still held by the Thai police.