Few in SLORC’s Burma can escape the cruelties and indignities of slavery.
A civil servant tells his story...
I was a Government servant responsible for searching out coalmines for the Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration, when I got a letter from my mother in December 1995. She wrote that she was unwell; she had cancer of the uterus and begged me to come back home to Tavoy in case she died.
As the eldest son I have responsibility to look after my mother and four younger sisters. So I submitted my resignation from the Department and applied for a pension. I arrived home in late December and stayed there until March when I was ordered to do two weeks forced labour on the railroad. I had to bring enough food to provide for myself during this time.
The work began at 6.00 am and went on till evening. We had to get up at 4.00 and cook rice to take with us because the worksite was several miles away. Each day we had to cut 50 bamboo canes and 20 pillars.
There were also prisoners working with us on the site and while we stopped to have our lunch they had to carry on working, pulling huge, heavy rollers in order to flatten the ground. Those prisoners worked like buffaloes. Sometimes the roller was so heavy it just wouldn’t budge. Then the soldiers would beat the prisoners with huge canes, drawing blood. And the prisoners were not allowed to have a drop of water or a mouthful of food until it was time for them to have a meal.
There were vendors who came to sell us food which only those with money could buy.
Sometimes the soldiers gave the workers alcohol – but in exchange they would have to do even more work. If the workers got drunk and fell down they would be left there, in the forest, overnight where they would catch cold or fever. And to punish them further they were denied medical treatment and forced to carry on working. That’s not all: they were shackled too.
I came down with malaria and had to go to the health centre to buy some tablets. They helped me feel better, but the fever returned. When I went back to the health centre they refused to give me a day’s medical leave and told me to get back to work. I did so, but I felt terrible. I could hardly stand and eventually I collapsed. Luckily, the supervisor was sympathetic and sent me back to the camp to rest.
When I got there I saw three soldiers with two young women who seemed to be virgins. The girls put their sarongs on immediately they saw me. I also saw the captain put his trousers on. Later I learned that they would let young girls rest for a few days in exchange for sleeping with them. The girls would sleep with them for a week and then they were given some money and allowed to go home.
Blood in the water
I completed my duty as a ‘voluntary servant’ on the railroad and went home to Tavoy – only to be called by the area headman to serve as a porter. He said that one man per household had to serve. When I asked him whether, as a government servant, I should be required to serve as a porter he replied: ‘If you can’t do it, I’ll take your mother and your sisters.’ I was very upset by this, so I agreed to go.
I was sent to Myoma Police Station where I was locked up, together with all the other porters. There were 370 of us – from four townships – and that afternoon we were taken away in seven trucks. We were sent up to Yebyu and were dropped at Regiment No 407. I tried to make friends with the soldiers, giving them cheroots and asking them their names.
When we arrived at Yebyu we were again locked up and not given any food or water. We were not even allowed to go to the toilet. Eventually, I knocked on the door from inside and said to a guard: ‘Master, I want to pass stools and urine, what shall I do?’
‘You just stay there,’ was his answer.
Then he passed me a plastic carrier bag and said: ‘Do it in the bag.’
In the evening some soldiers’ wives came to sell us noodles, snacks and bottles of alcohol. There were also some people offering to act as locum porters, but they wanted 12,000 kyats to go in your place. You would get retired soldiers sometimes doing this work for money.
Those people could afford to buy food and drink, but the people who were forced to work could not afford food and many were starving.
Early the next morning we were sent to Sinma Camp. We had to carry heavy bundles on our backs and in our arms and sacks tied to our heads. When we got to the camp we had to stand in a row. ‘Come on staff!’ said the soldiers – they didn’t call us ‘porters’, they called us ‘staff’. We were then locked up in the barracks and given a plastic bag full of rice and soup to eat. When we had finished our meal we had to load up with rice sacks, artillery shells and ammunition and set off for Natyin Mountain. The terrain was rocky and some people fell down into the valleys. Others became ill.
One old man accidentally dropped his rice sack into a small river. The soldiers thought he was trying to escape so they shot him in the head. I could see the blood coming out of his bullet wound and the flow of the water was so fast that he was carried away by the river. Another man – over 60 years old – just couldn’t carry his bag of rice any longer. He dropped it and as he did so his longhi (cloth wrapped round the waist) fell off. One of the captains pulled him up and beat him on the head with a huge cane. He was left with a gaping wound and forced to carry his sack again.
At the base of the Natyin Mountain the ground was being prepared for gas pipelines and we were forced to stop here and do some of the work. On the third day four or five Englishmen came. We completed our work and continued on our way.
Go ahead, shoot me
But by now we were getting short of food, so we had to go back to Sinma to get some more. We stayed there one night before coming back with the food. While I was carrying a rice sack my longhi fell off. To pick it up I had to drop my rice sack and for that I was beaten by a soldier. I told him he was young enough to be my kid brother and he shouldn’t beat me. But he just beat me again. I tried to protect myself against him and he took aim at me with his gun. I told him to go ahead and shoot me if he wanted to but I wanted to see Lieutenant Colonel San Won first. The soldier dropped his gun and called the Lieutenant Colonel who asked: ‘What’s going on?’ He pulled at my shirt and asked me whether I was a Karen. [One of Burma’s many ethnic minority groups.]
The soldier who had beaten me said:‘Oh yes, yes, that bugger is a Karen.’
The Lieutenant Colonel said to me: ‘You must be a Karen rebel officer.’
I replied: ‘I am a Karen but I’m not a rebel and I’m not a rebel officer. I was put on the list of the porters unfairly by the local headman. Actually I am a government servant.’ I showed him my card to prove I was on the staff of the Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration.
He said: ‘A government servant like you is not supposed to be a porter. You must go back. You can sleep with us tonight.’
After that I was asked to carry only two haversacks and a smaller rice sack. But I still wasn’t released – even though they had promised me that I would be. A couple of days later there was some shooting. I heard that seven people had died, including some of the Englishmen we had seen at the gas pipeline site and a young Karen man.
Interviewed by John Pilger
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996