Jan 27, 2011

Burma: Escaped Prisoners Testify

Recently revealed testimony presents the scope of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese junta including the use of prisoners as human minesweepers. 

Below is an article published by The Irrawaddy:

As the United Nations Human Rights Council prepares to meet in Geneva on Thursday to review Burma's rights record, the latest evidence coming out of the country suggests that its ruling junta remains one of the world's worst perpetrators of human rights abuses.

In recent interviews with The Irrawaddy, escaped prisoners who had been used as porters by the Burmese army in its recent campaign against a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU) described a variety of abuses, including the use of porters as human minesweepers.

The prisoners, who had fled to territory controlled by the KNU after being taken from prisons around the country to serve as porters for Burmese troops, said that the army had sent hundreds of other prison inmates to the conflict zone in eastern Karen State.

The seven escaped prisoners, who originally came from Tharawaddy, Insein and Hpa-an prisons, said that they had all been summoned by prison authorities on the morning of Jan. 1 to report for unspecified labor duties.

“We were a group of 50 prisoners. They came at around 3 am and called out our names from a list of prisoners who had been selected for labor duty. But at the time, we didn't know we were going to be sent to the war zone as porters,” said Soe Thein, 30, a prisoner from Tharawaddy Prison.

“At first we were sent to Hpa-an Prison [in Karen State], where we stayed for two days before prison authorities transferred us to LID [Light Infantry Division] 22. Then we realized that we were going to be used as porters for the army,” he said.

The prisoners said they were initially taken to Light Infantry Battalion 201, under the command of LID 22, and then transported by military trucks to Kamar Mung and then Kalai Hti, close to the front line of the fighting.

“We were ordered to carry fiberglass boats, fuel, rice, ammunition and other military materials from Kalai Hti to a village near the bank of the Salween River,” said Soe Thein.

They said that after crossing the Salween, they continued carrying food and ammunition, including RPG shells, to military outposts in the Manerplaw area along the Moei River, on the Thai-Burmese border. It was in this area that they were forced to walk across minefields ahead of the advancing Burmese troops.

“We had to go together with the mine unit in front of the other soldiers if there were any suspected minefields along the way,” said Ko Htay, who was taken from Insein Prison.

“Fortunately, I wasn't hit by a landmine, but I saw three other porters who had been injured by landmines during my three weeks in the war zone.”

An estimated 600 prisoners have been sent to the conflict area since the beginning of January. They came from Insein Prison in Rangoon Division; Tharawaddy, Prome and Paungde prisons in Pegu Division; Thayet Prison in Magway Division; Meikhtila Prison in Mandalay Division; Hpa-an Prison in Karen State; and Thaungsoon prison labor camp in Mon State.

“I fled from the Burmese army with two other prisoners at night while the soldiers were sleeping. We were in the jungle for one day and then met KNU troops,” said Soe Thein.