Graveyards, Not Labor Camps
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Tuesday, April 23, 2024


Graveyards, Not Labor Camps

By Bo Kyi AUGUST, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.8


Torture, mistreatment, lack of international oversight have turned Burma’s prison labor camps into death traps

For some prisoners in Burma, especially military officers imprisoned for corruption, murder or drug charges, sentences to labor camps can be easier than life in a prison cell.  The majority of other prisoners, however, find that assignment to a labor camp can amount to a death sentence.

Burma operates 91 labor camps in areas across the country, including the Kabaw Valley (western Burma), Taungswun/Mupalin quarry in Mon State, Twante Camp near Rangoon, Bokpyin Camp in Tenasserim Division and the New Life camps, according to a government Web site.

The thousands of prisoners in these camps are used to build Burma’s highways, dams, irrigation canals, special agricultural projects, and in working rock quarries. But their lives are subject to the whims of their jailers.

Prisoners must pay bribes to ensure their safety and security while in the labor camps, and the money is due long before they even arrive. A new prisoner must pay between 1,000 and 5,000 kyat (US 80 cents-$4) for the bus fare to avoid continuous beatings en route to the camp.

On arrival, prisoners enter the discipline room to receive instructions about the rules of prison camp life. That orientation takes the form of torture and beatings, which are intended to elicit bribes from the intimidated inmates. Basic amenities like a bed, a bath and access to a toilet are also controlled by bribes.

Often, prisoners are transferred without notice to other labor or porter camps. To avoid transfer, or to be sent to a more comfortable camp or o­ne closer to family members, prisoners must pay as much as 150,000 kyat line kyay (per prison term) to the camp superintendent or other prison authorities. Additional “fees” are required for more comfortable accommodation or occasional home visits.

I have witnessed o­ne instance of how far bribery can get a prisoner. A military officer was sentenced to five years hard labor for corruption. He bribed prison officials to be allowed to carry out his sentence in Twante Camp, near Rangoon. Additional bribes to camp authorities bought him permission to build a home for himself and his wife, who was allowed to stay with him in the camp and who later bore him a second child. Inmates soon christened the baby htaung winser, which in Burmese means “the baby that was made in prison.”

But most prisoners are not so fortunate. If they cannot afford bribes, inmates are condemned to the harshest labor camps, where conditions are far worse than in Burma’s prisons.

The use of prisoner labor in Burma began in June 1962, when inmates were forced to work o­n the Pale-Gangaw road construction project. Since that time, prison labor camps have been established throughout the country, and prisoners are used extensively o­n state development projects, all of which rely heavily o­n manual labor.

Also in 1962, when the government launched offensives against insurgent ethnic groups, prisoners and civilians were conscripted to work as military porters.

Prisoners in Burma have suffered greatly under the military regime from arbitrary arrest, detention and incarceration, brutal torture and appalling prison conditions.

In some cases, political prisoners—including members of the National League for Democracy—have been charged under a section of Burma’s criminal code that enables officials to send them to hard labor camps. This is intended to destroy their dignity.

The comedians Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw, U Htwe and U Aung were each sentenced to seven years’ hard labor for performing at an NLD-sponsored Independence Day celebration o­n January 4, 1996. They were sent first to a labor camp in Kachin State, which used prisoners to construct the Myitkyina Airport. Later, they were transferred to another camp in Sumprabum, north of Myitkyina, to help build a road.

In 1997, the government forced 18 NLD political prisoners to serve as porters in Htantapin Township in Rangoon Division. o­ne of the prisoners, the Karen national Saw Htun Nwe, 75, died of fatigue. Others were severely wounded.

Prisoners who could no longer endure the sufferings of camp life tried to escape. After their recapture, some were tortured and executed in front of other inmates to serve as an example. Others committed suicide by jumping under trucks or off mountain cliffs rather than continue to work as porters.

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