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Burmese Convict Brutality Spurs Calls for International Probe

Lily Hough

WASHINGTON, Jul 13 2011 (IPS) - Burmese convicts forced into military service have endured mistreatment that warrants a U.N. investigation into war crimes in the country, according to a new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) Wednesday.

The 70-page report details the abuses carried out by the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, against some 700 prisoners who were gathered from multiple prisons in January 2011 to serve as porters.

“Convict porters are the Burmese army’s disposable human pack-mules, lugging supplies through heavily mined battlefields,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “Press-ganging prisoners into deadly front-line service raises the Burmese army’s cruelty to new levels.”

The report includes chilling testimonies from escaped porters, whose descriptions include being used as “human shields” in firefights and minefields.

The report was released as Burma has crept back into U.S. headlines over the past month.

Last month, the government warned pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi not to carry out her first national tour since she was released from house arrest in November.

Meanwhile, the nominee to be the first U.S. coordinator for Burma policy, Derek Mitchell, spoke at a Senate confirmation hearing at the end of June in a largely symbolic dialogue that suggested the Obama administration would be stepping up its engagement drive.

“The U.S. still seeks a peaceful, prosperous, open and democratic Burma that respects the rights of all its citizens and that adheres to its international obligations,” said Mitchell, a veteran diplomat on Asia.

Last week, however, a coalition of some 20 human rights groups, including HRW, sent a letter to President Obama, calling on his administration to exert greater pressure on the Burmese government.

The letter called for full implementation of all the banking sanctions authorised in the JADE act, which, similar to those imposed against Libya, allow the Treasury Department to target banks that endorse the government’s economic activities. It also called for a U.S.-led mobilisation for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Burmese military’s campaigns.

Despite the scores of ethnic villages destroyed and hundreds of villagers arrested, tortured and killed by Burmese troops described in the letter, in addition to Wednesday’s report that detailed the accelerating vulnerability of prisoners to these abuses, the Obama administration has yet to deliver a response, Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, one of the organisations that sponsored the letter, told IPS.

“[The Obama administration] has been extremely slow in taking action on this issue,” Quigley told IPS. “The U.S. has stated its support [for our advocacy], but it hasn’t moved from supporting us in condemning what the regime does toward actually doing something about it.”

A lack of accountability has bolstered a culture of impunity in Burma since the beginning of its military occupation in 1962.

For nearly two decades, the U.S. has imposed fluctuating sanctions on the oppressive regime long accused of murdering and raping political dissidents.

In a revised approach to the George W. Bush administration’s diplomatic offensive against Burma, Washington’s outreach to the Burmese government via peace talks launched in 2009 was one of the Obama administration’s first, of many, ‘carrot and stick’ tactics that marked a shift from his initial – unsuccessful – policy of isolating Burmese officials.

Choosing to engage Myanmar generals, as part of a pattern that continued with numerous other unpopular regimes, has left Obama’s administration open to criticism that it is soft or naive, and that it sidelines human rights concerns while legitimising authoritarian governments.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the country’s first elections in 20 years last November, the Obama administration refused to substantiate the victorious ruling party’s claims that it had won a free and fair election, as San Suu Kyi was banned from participating in the political process widely bent in the ruling party’s favour.

The new HRW report released Wednesday is “another shining example” that the military-to-civilian government make-over professed by the regime after its elections last November was little more than a change of costume for the country’s military officials, as the government today “pretends to be a new government when in fact, it is just the same,” Quigley told IPS.

The report is based on interviews conducted with 58 escaped porters, including both petty and serious offenders, who range in age from 20 to 57.

In the report, one escapee disclosed witnessing another convict being used as a human minesweeper.

“We were carrying food up to the camp and one porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg. The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no one helped,” he recalled. “When we came down the mountain he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his clothing in the trees, and parts of his leg in a tree.”

In the report, HRW contends that the Burmese government’s longtime lack of accountability for its own abuses is worthy of a UN-led commission of inquiry into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma.

“The use of convict porters on the front line is only one facet of the brutal counterinsurgency practices. Serious abuses that amount to war crimes are being committed with the involvement or knowledge of high civilian and military officials,” the report said. “Credible and impartial investigations are needed into serious abuses committed by all parties to Burma’s internal armed conflicts.”

Burma is being considered as a host for the annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014.

“ASEAN and European Union governments should stop hoping for things to magically improve in Burma and instead strongly push for a U.N. commission of inquiry,” Pearson said. “Every day that the international community does nothing is another day that the Burmese army will press more porters into deadly service.”

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