Male and Female Porters and Human Shields at Burma’s Frontline
August 2, 2011
Story of male porters
“They kicked and punched my back and face, leaving my nose bleeding. Sobbingly, I apologized and explained that even though I’m wearing a soldier’s vest, it does not mean I’m a Karen rebel soldier. But they never stopped kicking my back,” said Saw Kyaw Tho.
Saw Kyaw Tho is a 41-year-old Karen man, living in Ah Pa-lon village, Kya-inn-seikyi Township, Karen State. He farms and cuts broom grasses for a living.
The outbreak of post-election fighting between Burmese government troops and the Breakaway DKBA Brigade 5 has led to many local residents in Kya-inn-seikyi Township being forced to serve as porters and human shields for the government troops.
Recently gathered reports by HURFOM reveal that in the Kya-inn-seikyi Township alone, 14 local villagers – made up of 9 men and 5 women – were used by Infantry Battalion No. 32 to serve as porters. Among them were three women and one man are under the age of 18, which is considered underage by the International Labor Organization (ILO). On June 21, 2011, HURFOM also collected accounts of 15 villagers, both men and women – consisting of 9 villagers from Myaing Thar-yar village and 6 villagers from Ah Pa-lon village, Kya-inn-seik Township – forced by government troops to serve as porters and to walk in the frontline as human shields.
According to Saw Kyawe Tho, the men of Column No. 1 led by Lieutenant Colonel Aye Min-Oo, under command of Light Infantry Battalion LIB No. 373, came to arrest him and fellow villagers in Ah Pa-lon village again. The troops ordered everyone they met to porter.
“I did not dare say anything. I just did what they said. Actually, I’ve been forced to porter many times by now,” said by Saw Kyawe Tho.
Saw Kyawe Tho had not been feeling well and was preparing to take a nap after taking some medicine when he was arrested. Besides having to carry a basket of 40Kg-weighted heavy artillery shells, he had to walk quickly to keep up with the troops while protecting them as a human shield.
“They [the Burmese troops] just walk up in the middle, and if attacked, we are definitely shot first,” he said.
The rope of the basket dug into his shoulders, and Saw Kyawe Tho had to take off his shirt to put under the tiny rope. After seeing the soldier’s vest he had been wearing beneath his shirt, the troop officer accused him of being a Karen rebel – though without proof – and ordered his men to beat him up. He was beaten severely and left on the ground, bleeding and unconscious.
“I replied to them that I’m just an ordinary Ah Pa-lon villager, who works on the farm and cuts broom grass [for a living]. But they didn’t believe me and began punching me right away.”
Saw Kyawe Tho spent three days recovering from his injuries at his friend’s house, in Mae Sa-lee village. He returned to this house on June 10 after other villagers, who were forced to porter and walk ahead of the Burmese troops of Column No.1, under LIB No. 373, had already returned.
“Knowing that I was near Mae Sa-lee village, I got up, tried to get some strength, and I walked to Mae Sa-lee village to see my friend Saw Aung-ngwe Thein. I stayed at his house for 3 days, getting medical care.”
This is not Saw Kyawe Tho’s first time to be arrested and forced to serve as a porter and human shield.
“By now, I’ve been arrested to porter more than 10 times already. And, I’ve been beaten up by Burmese government troops three times: the first time was about 2 years ago, the second was in 2005, and this is the third. I was also beaten up by the soldiers from Ah Nan-kawin village base, Military Strategy No. 3. At that time, my jaw was broken.”
Life in Ah Pa-lon village is very difficult. The villagers are forced to porter and face torture and death from Burmese government troops. Still, there is one option for them to escape from this trouble: go abroad or cross over to Thailand to search for better jobs and a safer life.
“Everyone works for a living in this region. Sometimes you are forced to porter. If you are lucky, you come back. If not, you die,” said Saw Kyawe Tho.
Despite all of Saw Kyawe Tho’s experiences with Burmese government troops, he does not want to move out of his village to another region or to go abroad like other villagers do. Rather, he considers what he has suffered as fate.
Story of female porters
Naw Moe Moe was 7-months pregnant when she was arrested in Myaing Thar-yar village. Previously her husband has been forced to porter several times. She said the men of Column No.1 led by Lieutenant Colonel Aye Min-Oo, under command of LIB No.373, ordered her and the other detained villagers to squat in a group while soldiers gathered more villagers to be porters.
“My son and I were on the way to our crop field when I saw my neighbors, Father Mu-thu, his son, and Sister Hla Myit crouching in a group. I did not know they had already been arrested. Then, soldiers came to me, grabbing my hands, and forced me to crouch next to Sister Hla Myit. I pleaded with them not to arrest me because I’m pregnant. But it did not help. My son got so frightened that he started crying,” said Naw Moe Moe.
Naw Moe Moe is 39 years old and she is Karen, residing in Myaing Thar-yar village, Kya-inn-seikyi Township, Karen State. Worried over why her husband had not come home for lunch, she went with her son to the crop field to find him. The two were then arrested and forced to porter by the men of Column No. 1, led by Lieutenant Colonel Aye Min-Oo, under command of LIB No.373 on June 5, at 1:00 PM. At the time, besides being 7-months pregnant, she had two young children. Her son, who was with her at the time, is only 6 years old.
“Holding my son with me, I prayed that nothing would happen to us on the way. The Burmese soldiers wanted us [the women] to guide and walk ahead of them. Other porters had to walk beside them while carrying supplies. The soldiers walked in the middle,” continued Naw Moe Moe.
Naw Moe Moe, her son, and the other female porters walked ahead of the soldiers for approximately one mile. At which point, she and her son – but not the other female porters – were allowed to go back home after she had apologized to the Lieutenant Colonel Aye Min-Oo, asking him to sympathize with her situation.
However, upon reaching the entrance of their village, Naw Moe Moe’s arm was struck by pieces of a mortar shell that come from the direction of the Burmese troops. The mortar shell had soared downward and landed 40 yards to the right of her and her son. Her wound did not heal easily even though she had her arm operated on. Rather, it festered and she came down with a fever for 3-4 days. Her young son still remains in shock, waking up at night to cry, as he was so frightened by the experience.
“It was very loud. I felt it hit right here in my arm – that was the arm covering my son. It hurt badly and I could see it bleeding. The medic told me that there are three pieces of mortar fragments in my left arm,” Naw Moe Moe said.
It is a hard and perilous life in Kya-inn-seikyi Township, where both Myaing Thar-yar village and Ah Pa-lon village are located. Villagers face the ever-present danger of being pressed into the service of Burmese soldiers as porters and human shields. And since most of the villagers depend on their daily wages, working for the soldiers with no pay only increases their hardship. But if they are lucky, they will return to their homes safely; if not, they may be beaten severely or killed.
The ongoing armed conflicts in Burma, especially where the ethnic minorities live, seem to be without an end. Rather, at the moment, fighting between the government troops and ethnic armed groups has intensified, particularly in Kachin State, Shan State, and Karen State. Consequently, the practice of using of local villagers, and even prisoners, as porters and human shields by Burma’s government troops has yet to cease.