Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) [advocacy websites] said Wednesday the Myanmar military is committing war crimes [press release] by forcing convicts to serve as porters on the front lines. In a report [text, PDF] entitled "Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma," HRW and KHRG argue that convicts imprisoned in Myanmar are tortured and forced to participate in dangerous military operations and act as "human shields" to protect soldiers or trip landmines. The convicts are randomly selected to serve as porters in the military government's counterinsurgency against the country's ethnic minority and receive no compensation for their work. Vignettes from escaped prisoners provide insight into the dismal front-line conditions and ill-treatment by the Myanmar military. Wounded porters are often abandoned, and prisoners who try to escape are executed, the report alleges. Poe Shan, director of KHRG, said the conduct is ongoing and constitutes only one component of military abuses:
The barbaric practice of using convict porters has been a feature of armed conflict in Burma for at least 20 years, exposing them to the hazards of armed conflict with complete disregard for their safety. The army forces other civilians to work as porters as well, but since civilians often flee conflict areas, the use of prisoners continues. Recent accounts from former convict porters show that the Burmese army's abusive tactics have not changed since last year's sham elections. The brutal treatment of porters is just one facet of army atrocities against civilians in ethnic conflict areas.The rights groups alleged that the conduct violates international humanitarian and human rights law, called for an independent, impartial investigation into the alleged abuses and urged the international community to support a UN commission of inquiry.
Continued ethnic violence in Myanmar presents "serious limitations" [JURIST report] to the government's transition to democracy, according to Tomas Ojea Quintana [official profile; JURIST news archive], the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar. In May, Myanmar began releasing close to 15,000 prisoners, but many human rights groups claim the government is still holding many more political prisoners. Quintana urged Myanmar's military government to release 2,202 political prisoners [JURIST report] last December. Quintana called for the release of the "prisoners of conscience," many of whom, he says, suffer from health problems as a result of the harsh detention conditions. Quintana claims the release is necessary to promote democracy. In March, Myanmar underwent a transfer of power [BBC report] from a military regime to a civil system after holding its first elections in 20 years. However, critics argue that the new regime is merely a sham since it is made up of military generals with the military party winning 80 percent of the vote.