Myanmar regime reviving practice of forcing political prisoners to do hard labour

The military council continues to show that it is willing to go even further than its predecessors in punishing its political opponents

Myanmar’s military junta has been forcing many who oppose its rule to perform hard labour in prison-run quarries, according to former political prisoners and other prison sources.

The practice, which was rare until recently, has now become commonplace at Mandalay’s Obo Prison, an inmate of the prison who was released in August told Myanmar Now.

“Whenever a batch of prisoners is sent to a labour camp, it is common to see one or two political prisoners among them,” he said, noting that two prisoners serving three-year sentences for incitement were sent to the 24-Mile labour camp in Pyin Oo Lwin Township, about an hour’s drive from the prison, in July.

The two prisoners, who he did not name, were included in a group of around 200 criminal convicts sent to the camp, where they were forced to work all day breaking and carrying rocks in a quarry.

One of the prisoners was identified as a 20-year-old man who was arrested in April of last year. According to another source familiar with his situation, the young man is suffering from serious health problems due to injuries he received at the quarry.

Like all other prisoners at the camp, the man was forced to wear iron shackles, resulting in an injury to his ankle that later became infected, the source said.

“He didn’t receive any medical treatment, so his wound worsened day by day,” the source told Myanmar Now. “The infection spread to his kidneys, and his whole body became swollen. Only then did the prison authorities send him to the hospital.”

According to the source, the prisoner was not even permitted to take toilet breaks while he was working, which also exacerbated his condition.

Since seizing power more than two and a half years ago, the current regime has demonstrated a willingness to go even further than its predecessors in punishing its opponents. In July of last year, it carried out Myanmar’s first executions in decades against veteran activists Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zayar Thaw and two other political prisoners.

Like the death penalty, a sentence of prison with hard labour would not, in the past, necessarily have been enforced, especially in the case of political prisoners.

Inmates working at a quarry labour camp in 2016 (Myanmar Now)

The last recorded cases of political prisoners actually being forced to perform hard labour were in the late 1990s. The most famous involves four entertainers, including the famed comedian Par Par Lay, who were sent to labour camps after they put on a show for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996.

The following year, 18 political prisoners were forcibly used by the military as porters, resulting in the deaths of several members of the group.

It is only now, more than two and a half decades later, that reports of political prisoners being sent to labour camps have again begun to emerge.

According to prison sources, some political prisoners have submitted reports detailing physical infirmities, such as the lasting effects of broken bones or abdominal surgery, in an effort to be exempted from having to do quarry work.

The Department of Prisons, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, operates dozens of labour camps around the country. Using tens of thousands of prisoners as free labour, these camps generate hundreds of millions of kyat in income for the military each month.

Under former dictator Than Shwe, the military also created a “service battalion” of prisoners to carry weapons and supplies for the army at the front line.

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