For their failure to pay a bribe to prison officials, Thaung Htay Oo, 28, Tin Zaw Min, 21, and Moe Yarzar, 17, were part of a group of 30 inmates recently sent to Myawaddy, Karen State, to act as porters for the Burmese Army. In addition to their forced labor, the men were also used as human minesweepers, forced to walk ahead of the Burmese army soldiers to clear a path littered with landmines. After witnessing the horrific injuries of other inmates as a result of stepping on landmines, the trio decided to escape from the camp they were assigned to and flee into Thailand to avoid the same fate for themselves.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy news agency, Thaung Htay Oo said, “There were many prisoners who were injured by the landmines after they were forced to walk ahead of the soldiers. We ran away because we didn’t want the same thing to happen to us.”
“‘The situation in prison was bad, but on the front line it was much worse. That’s why we decided we had to get away, no matter what happens,’ [Moe Yarzar] said” (The Irrawaddy).
Fighting broke out in Burma between the Burmese Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in November of last year, mere hours after the nation’s first elections in 20 years. Since then, an estimated 600 prisoners have been sent into the conflict area as forced laborers and as minesweepers for the Burmese Army.
According to the constitution passed in a sham referendum in 2008, the use of forced labor is allowed, considering it “as a punishment for crime duly convicted and duties assigned by the Union in accord with the law in the interest of the public” (ND-Burma).
Ko Bo Gyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) based in Mae Sot, Thailand, commented, “This shouldn’t happen in any situation. They are in effect, executing these prisoners by other means.” AAPP will be investigating this matter, which could constitute a crime against humanity if proven.