An ethnic Chin human rights group in western Myanmar’s Chin state says the government military has forced residents of four villages to serve as laborers, transporting food rations for troops who are engaged in intense fighting with a rebel ethnic army in the region.
The military has demanded one laborer per family from households in Meezar, Kyauk Palin, Tharyargone, and Kyune Chaung Wa villages in Paletwa township and from families displaced by the armed conflict, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said.
CHRO spokesman Salai Taya said soldiers should not request that civilians provide mandatory labor because local transportation routes are closed in the area on account of fighting between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed organization that seeks greater autonomy in Rakhine state, which borders Chin state.
“As you know, [the villages] are very close to the conflict area,” he said. “If battles break out, these civilians will be affected. They could get injured in the conflict.”
“The military troops should be using their own laborers and leave the local villagers alone.”
Light Infantry Battalion No. 77 stationed in the township’s Kha Maung Wa village in southern Chin state had requested that administrators of the four villages provide 15 to 20 laborers, including women and the elderly, to transport their food rations, the CHRO said in a May statement.
The laborers must transport the rations by motorboat from Paletwa town upstream along a river to Meezar village, and then by motorbike to Kyune Chaung Wa village, the CHRO said.
A pastor from Tharyargone village, who declined to give his name, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the military has summoned every family to provide a mandatory laborer via the local administrative head, and that the practice is viewed as “forced labor.”
“If there is no adult male in a family, then a woman is asked to be the laborer,” he said, adding that even pastors in the heavily Christian state are asked to perform work.
“They asked nicely, but when they told local village administrators that they needed 15 to 20, the village heads were required to provide them,” he said. “I think this is something like forced labor.”
Villagers said the laborers have been transporting food rations for the military two to four times per month since February.
Each worker receives 4,000 kyats (U.S. $2.57) to carry bags of rice, and 5,000 kyats (U.S. $3.21) for hauling other types of cargo.
Villagers said they do not want to serve as mandatory laborers because it takes time away from their day-to-day farm work.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the armed forces will take a closer look into the allegations.
“We have ordered the troops not to use any forced labor or to ‘demand a porter’ as it has been called in the past,” he told RFA. “We have conducted an on-the-ground investigation of this issue, and [soldiers] reported that they were paying the villagers daily wages to work as laborers.”
“They said it is not true that the troops made it mandatory,” he said. “We will investigate the matter further.”
Fighting between Myanmar and Arakan forces spiked in early January in Rakhine state and spilled over into neighboring Chin state’s Paletwa township, where the AA reportedly abducted residents from a dozen households following a clash near Kintalin village in early February. At the time, an AA spokesman said soldiers did not take the villagers by force, but rather took them to safety.
Thousands of Chin civilians have been displaced by the fighting, while a few have been taken by Myanmar soldiers to serve as local guides.
In its 2018 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the U.S. State Department said Myanmar was among the world’s worst offenders in human trafficking among 187 countries, and downgraded it to the report’s lowest classification, mainly because of the Myanmar military’s violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017.
The report also pointed to the Myanmar military’s requirement that its troops source their own labor and supplies from local communities, continuing the exploitation of adults and children, as well as the recruitment and use of children by both the armed forces and ethnic armed groups.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.