A leading international human rights group criticized Myanmar's army Wednesday for forcing prison inmates onto the front lines of the country's conflict with ethnic militias, using some as human shields and executing others who tried to escape.
Human Rights Watch said the military's use of "convict slave labor" constituted war crimes that should be investigated by the United Nations and prosecuted by local authorities. Officials from Myanmar's government could not be reached for comment.
The repressive Southeast Asian nation's army has been accused for nearly two decades of forcing civilians, including prisoners, to serve as porters. But "press-ganging prisoners into deadly front-line service raises the Burmese army's cruelty to new levels," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based rights group.
After half a century of army rule, the country formerly known as Burma organized elections late last year and officially handed power to a civilian administration in March. But critics say the new government is a proxy for continued military rule and little has changed since the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi last November from seven years of house arrest.
Some 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, more than 100,000 refugees live in neighboring Thailand, and sporadic clashes have continued in the north and east between the army and ethnic militias who have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades.
The chilling testimony gathered from escaped porters forced to participate in military offensives shows "the Burmese army's abusive tactics have not changed since last year's sham elections," said Poe Shan, director of the Myanmar-based Karen Human Rights Group, which collaborated with Human Rights Watch to produce a new 70-page report on the subject.
The report is based on 58 interviews with porters who risked their lives fleeing army operations in the eastern regions of Karen and Pegu in 2010 and 2011.
The inmates had been convicted of both petty and serious crimes and were apparently taken at random from prisons across the country before being transported to staging camps and assigned to military units, the report said.
The "porters described witnessing or enduring summary executions, torture and beatings, being used as human shields to trip land mines or shield soldiers from fire, and being denied medical attention and adequate food and shelter," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
"Serious abuses that amount to war crimes are being committed with the involvement or knowledge of high-level civilian and military officials," the group said.
The report quoted one witness detailing the story of a porter who was carrying food to a military camp when his leg was blown off by a mine.
"The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no one helped," the porter said. "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."
Another porter said soldiers told a group of inmates that there was heavy fighting on a mountainside one day, and "that if we were alive tomorrow night we would be lucky."
The group decided they had nothing to lose by trying to escape. As they fled, army troops fired four times, he said, shattering the porter's right arm.
Another witness described watching a porter being told to run by soldiers, who then shot him in the back.
Pearson called the porters the "Burmese army's disposable human pack-mules."
She said European governments and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations "should stop hoping for things to magically improve in Burma and instead strongly push for a U.N. commission of inquiry."
"Every day that the international community does nothing is another day that the Burmese army will press more porters into deadly service," Pearson said.