Forced labour in Shan State
By Aung Zaw
February 21, 1994
“Get out of the car!” a soldier shouted at the passengers at a roadblock. All the passengers remained silent. Then, like many times before, they followed orders. Five stern-looking soldiers including one officer, holding German-made G-3 automatic rifles and wearing green uniforms looked at the passengers and told them without a smile, “The army needs you.”
The passengers whispered to one another. They let the driver go. But the rest were later forced to carry ammunition to the battlefield.
Incidents like this occur frequently on the Taunggyi-Kengtung road. “It is very common,” Sai Aung, a resident in Kengtung said. The people who are taken by the army do not know when and how they can return to their homes.
The order given by army is to carry the ammunition to the battlefield where Burmese army and ethnic armed groups are fighting. They receive no pay and sometimes they do not even receive food.
Over the last few months there has been fighting between Shan warlord Khun Sa and Burmese army. Whenever fighting occurs in the deep jungle and on the mountains, the military stops passenger cars, and orders particularly men to volunteer for their operations.
Some never come back to their homes as they died in either crossfire or in the jungle. A resident said that “No one wants to help as they understand that it is hell.” Some villagers who refuse to follow were taken at gun point.
He continued to say that The New Light of Myanmar, a military-controlled newspaper, always proudly advertises the Burmese army’s slogan “The Tatmadaw (armed forces) has been sacrificing much of its blood and sweat to prevent the disintegration of the Union. All nationalities of the Union are urged to give all cooperation and assistance in this great task.”
“The road we are walking by is just being finished by the villagers,” another local man, Htun, said. Then he point out a group of people who are constructing the road.
There are about 20 people, skinny men and women. Some are holding mattocks and pickaxes. Some are as young as 12. In Loimwe, 20 miles from Kengtung, there is a Burmese Army camp.
The army is continually asking the residents of Loimwe and nearby villages for “voluntary workers.” Htun said grimly that, “The army says that the people are volunteer workers. But it is not true; they are forced to work. These people were ordered to carry the food from their homes before they come to work. The army provides nothing,” Htun said. “They cannot make their own business so they have no income.” The villagers still don't know when they can return to their homes according to Htun.
Nearby, some soldiers holding automatic rifles are watching them. At night time, they sleep under the trees or huts beside the road made of leaves. In the winter these people have no blankets.
But, for the people in this area, these are not the only troubles. The so-called local bandits, according to a villager from Nansang area, “blocked cars with guns or sometimes with big stones. Then they ask for money and people’s belongings. If you do not stop the car, they will shoot.” Another man who is a trader, U Myint, 56, told of his experience last year. Myint’s car was stopped by a robber with a pistol on the way to Mongping who asked for 400 Kyats.
“I felt so much pity for him after I knew that he had nothing to eat.” A resident of Kengtung pointed out that “people are getting poorer and poorer, especially the farmers in the villages.” In Shan State, there are some Christian communities of priests and nuns that are helping the people there.
They are assisting orphanages, disabled persons, drug addicts, malaria and persons with leprous diseases. Some parents want the churches to take care and feed their children as they can’t continue to provide for them.
The Burmese Army is suspicious of the Christian churches in this area, specifically they want to know how and where the priests and nuns are receiving assistance to help the villagers.
In an incident last year, a military officer and his fellow soldiers stopped a priest driving in his van on the way to Kengtung. The officer asked the priest if the car belonged to him.
The priest said that nothing belongs to him, not even his own body. The officer, angered and surprised, then asked, “So who owns your body?” The priest quickly answered, “My body belongs only to God.”
This article appeared in the Thailand Times, Monday, February 21, 1994 (Vol.1 No.116).