When Sai Tun Nyan, MP from Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) tried to raise the issue of civilians being used as human shields to clear landmines in northern Shan State in the State Parliament (Hluttaw) it was rejected. But in doing so he also automatically opens the issue of forced portering which is closely linked to the topic that he has been trying to highlight.
Reportedly, his proposal was accepted by the State Hluttaw Speaker but he was not allowed to discuss it during the three-day parliamentary session after the Shan State government office asked for its removal from the agenda.
“I submitted a proposal objecting to the forced use of civilians as guides in military affairs in the Shan State on May 10. No armed group should force villagers to work as their guides. It shouldn’t be allowed. This issue doesn’t exist in other countries across the world. If I can discuss a little about it in the Hluttaw, it would be a starting point for public security,” Sai Tun Nyan told the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), on June 1.
Although according to rules and regulations, MPs have the right to discuss the proposals in the Hluttaw after they have been accepted by the Hluttaw Speaker but his proposal was turned down since it was concerned with the military, he continued.
“I didn’t name the Tatmadaw [in my proposal]. I only wrote any armed groups. Both the government and the Hluttaw are still afraid when it comes to the military. Now, the government office said it won’t allow discussions on military affairs so in my opinion, the Hluttaw is still under the government and the government is still under the military. This shouldn’t happen at all,” he stressed.
The use of civilian porters by the Military, Myanmar Army or Tatmadaw is common in areas of armed conflict in Karen, Karenni, Shan and Kachin States or decades. For the time being forced portering are happening more in Kachin and Shan States, due to the Tatmadaw ongoing military offensives, as in other ethnic states where the ceasefire arrangement seems to be holding. But part of Chin and Arakan (Rakhine) States are also affected by forced portering due to the on and off skirmishes between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw.
Porters are often used to transport military rations and supplies. Monthly or bi-monthly military camp rations are delivered by truck to central locations and then distributed to baskets, which the villagers are made to carry to the various military camps in the area.
Furthermore, as the soldiers are under pressure to reach their desired location on time and are fearful of attack, “operation porters” are often treated very harshly. In addition, operation porters are required to carry heavier loads than normal porters, sometimes as much as 30 viss (49 kg.) for men and 20 viss for women (33 kg). They are given little opportunity for rest, little food and water and no accommodations. Illness, as a result of such harsh conditions, is common among operation porters, as are beatings and mistreatment by the Tatmadaw, according to the “Eastern Pa’an District: Forced Labor, Food Security and the Consolidation of Control,” report of Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), March 2004.
In addition, it is not unusual that the porters also have to do cores such as the construction of new military camps involves the building of barracks and bunkers, digging trenches, erecting fences, cutting firewood, carrying water, cooking cleaning, delivering messages to other military camps and clearing the ground in and around the camps.
The forced porter victims are not just the ethnic population in conflict areas but also convicts from various prisons from across the country, according to the Amnesty International (AI).
In January 2011, an estimated 1,200 male prisoners were forced to serve as porters during two large military operations, with the support of police, prison authorities and the army, the report found, adding that most prisoners were selected at random.
Reportedly, serious offenders as well as people convicted of minor crimes were included such as brawling and fraud, with sentences ranging from a year to more than 20 years.
“Using convict porters thus becomes a cheap, expendable, and easy solution to logistical challenges,” according to the AI report of June 2011.
Rights groups have repeatedly called for a Commission of Inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the Myanmar military. But neither Myanmar’s former junta nor its new civilian-led government have acknowledged such crimes have taken place and the international community’s demands for human rights reforms have been ignored, said the report. Perhaps, the government would still like to maintain the posture of President Thein Sein, who had vowed in 2012 to end forced labor, including forced portering, which he promised to eradicate within three years.
Human shields and minesweepers
Amnesty International’s research, titled “All the Civilians Suffer – 2017”, found that the Myanmar Army’s most egregious violations since late 2016 have overwhelmingly occurred in northern Shan State. Soldiers there, particularly after skirmishes with an ethnic armed group, have subjected civilians from ethnic minorities to arbitrary arrest and torture and other ill-treatment. During intense fighting in the town of Mong Koe in late November 2016, the Army arbitrarily detained dozens of civilians from ethnic minorities and used them as human shields along the inner perimeter of a hilltop base; several were killed and others seriously wounded by gun and grenade fire.
The same report wrote, “Continuing a practice that dates back decades, Myanmar Army soldiers often force civilians to act as porters or guides, which, in addition to being forced labor, is associated with torture and puts civilians at risk of being hit by crossfire. As four Kachin men forcibly guided Myanmar Army soldiers in November 2016, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) attacked the unit. The soldiers blamed the four men for signaling their position, beating them brutally and, for three of them, using a shaving blade to slice their faces.”
The recent report of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), May 15, 2018, also wrote, “Villagers rescued from Lai Nawng Khu, Hpakant township, on May 6 and 7, have given terrifying accounts of how 152 people, including 64 children, were blocked when fleeing through the jungle by Burma Army troops of LIB 424, who then used them as human shields and minesweepers. They were made to trek through the jungle single file, interspersed with Burmese troops, causing a villager in front to be injured by a land mine. After being forced to stay near a military base for four days, they were forced back to their village, where they camped in the village church for 17 days, while the troops stayed in their homes, looting their food and property, and wearing villagers’ clothes to ward off Kachin Independence Army (KIA) attacks. Before being released, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were told by the Myanmar Army not to stay in IDP camps.”
Even monks were reportedly among a group of civilians used as human shields by the Myanmar Army during an operation to deliver supplies to front-line troops in Shan State in September 2011, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
The monks were forced to accompany soldiers in the volatile Kehsi Mensi district of Shan State in eastern Burma, which has seen heavy fighting in recent months as government forces battle the opposition Shan State Army (SSA). They were among a large group of men and women taken from Wanhpein village, according to a local there.
“About 35 men and women, as well as monks from the monastery in Wanhpein, were taken along by the army – there are around 40 monks and novices residing at the monastery and only seven monks, a lay-disciple and the abbot were left,” said the local.
Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) rights violations
While many civilians see the ethnic armed groups as protectors from the Myanmar Army, they also violate international humanitarian law. Armed groups forcibly recruit civilian men, women, and children, and demand sacks of rice or money from villagers already struggling from the conflict’s impact on livelihoods. Civilians from villages across northern Shan State described how people flee when rumors of conscription arise. These practices appear to have worsened in 2017, likely in response to the pressure many armed groups feel from the Army’s offensive and from the poor prospects of the country’s peace process, according to the recent AI report.
“It is quite usual for our Shan armed groups to use civilians as guides. If they are lucky and there is no fighting, the local person is allowed to return home. This practice has been widely used by many of the armed groups in Shan State. But, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) uses it the most,” Sai Htun Nyan told the media.
Thus using civilians as guides by the EAOs in the areas that they are not well-acquainted is also wide spread, although forced portering are less likely to happen.
In short, forced portering and the closely related usage of the porters as guides and human shields are human rights violations and must be treated as such.
It is also equally essential to see this type of human rights violation in par with those like making use of rape as a weapon of war, employing child soldiers, contesting for natural resources monopoly, and including land confiscation from the local population by the powers that be.
This in turn push us to the point that the ongoing armed conflicts in ethnic states have to be stopped at all cost, so that measures to reduce and redress the physical and mental woes that have been sapping the energy of the whole country and its people for decades could be finally addressed.