Despite calls for reform, prisoners continue hard labor in shackles

Prisoners are seen in Mon State’s Zin Kyeik Labour Camp quarry, manually breaking rocks while shackled at the legs. Photo: Swe Win / Myanmar Now

Months after a report on abuses and corruption in prison labor camps prompted calls for reforms and investigations, little has changed.

By Swe Win / Myanmar Now

ZIN KYEIK LABOR CAMP, Mon State — Prisoners continue to conduct hard labor in shackles in a Mon State labor camp, Myanmar Now has found, despite calls for reforms by lawmakers and investigations into prison abuses by a UN rights envoy and the International Labour Organization.

In September, a special report by this news agency revealed widespread corruption and human rights abuses, such as continuous shackling and beatings, in Myanmar’s 48 prison labor camps, which hold some 20,000 convicts.

The revelations prompted National League for Democracy (NLD) MPs to question the Minister of Home Affairs over the conditions, while United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee went to inspect Zin Kyeik Labor Camp in Mon State in early January.

In an end-of-mission statement she expressed concern over alleged forced labor and “the use of shackles as a form of additional punishment (including during quarry work) and the lack of transparency on how prisoners are selected for transfer to the camp.”

She added that prisoners had been ordered to clean the camp shortly before her visit.

These public calls appeared, however, to have had little impact on prison authorities in charge at Zin Kyeik Labor Camp.

In late January, this reporter photographed dozens of thin-looking prisoners, shackled at all times, working manually at the quarry. The site holds some 400 convicts, who are put to work on a daily basis, using sledgehammers to break rocks into gravel, while others load pieces of rock onto lorries.

According to official prison rules, convicts can only be kept shackled up to one month after arrival in a camp or prison.

This reporter entered the camp to seek comments from authorities on the conditions. Prison officials denied that shackling prisoners at all times was a common practice and insisted that the numerous prisoners were being shackled because they all had recently arrived.

Aung Lwin Oo, deputy director at Zin Kyeik Camp, said shackling the prisoners for the first month after they arrive was a necessary measure to prevent escape.

“The prison authorities lock the legs of prisoners so they are unable to escape from jail or breach prison rules, which may increase their punishment,” he said during an interview at his office.

The mother of a prisoner at Zin Kyeik Camp said she was deeply concerned her son’s health. “My son now has to work in the rock quarry with the iron shackles,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

She added that when she visited the camp in early January she saw another prisoner sustain a serious injury when falling rocks hit his shackled legs.

FORCED LABOR FOR PROFITS

The construction material produced from free manual labor is sold by prison authorities to well-known local construction companies. Obtained documents showed millions of dollars in annual revenue are generated from 18 quarries — officially called “manufacturing centers” — in southeastern Myanmar.

At another 20 camps in Shan State and Sagaing Region, prisoners are put to work on plantations, which are officially referred to as “agriculture and livestock breeding training careers centers.”

Myanmar Now’s investigation revealed prisoners there are subject to daily beatings by prison officials and their aides to speed up work or to extract bribes from convicts. Prisoners were also rented out as laborers to commercial agribusinesses, with authorities collecting the payments.

The practice of letting private companies use convicts violates the 1930 Forced Labor Convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which Myanmar signed and ratified in 1955.

ILO’s Myanmar office accepted one complaint of forced labor by a former convict in September and said the government had agreed to look into the case.

ILOs report for an upcoming meeting of its governing body describes the allegations that prisoners are “made to work in quarries and plantations run by the correction authorities for private commercial purposes, or else are allegedly put to work at private plantations nearby the correction centers for the private gain of the authorities, without being paid.”

The report said ILO wants to support prison reform in Myanmar and plans to conduct training of the prison administration on international standards for prison labor.

It notes, however, that the NLD government has so far failed to convene the inter-ministerial Technical Working Group on handling forced labor complaints. Neither has the government taken any action on 61 complaints of underage recruitment and forced labor submitted by the ILO since the administration assumed office in April last year.

UN envoy Yanghee Lee said in a recent report that the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced plans to revise the draft Prison Law, adding that she hoped it would be in line with international standards.

So far, Myanmar’s democratic reforms have largely bypassed the country’s notorious prison system and labor camps, which totally hold some 100,000 prisoners.

When MPs asked the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry to close the labor camps in December, General Aung Soe replied there were no labor camps, but only “vocational training centers for prisoners.” He added that sufficient mechanisms were in place to prevent abuses.

Former convicts interviewed by Myanmar Now said none had ever received vocational training during their ordeals in the labor camps.

Aung Lwin Oo, deputy director at Zin Kyeik Labor Camp, said he could not implement vocational training programs even if he wanted to.

“We have no authority to conduct vocational training courses at our camp,” he said. “The regular activity at our camp is to extract rocks— except on gazetted holidays.”

(Edited by Paul Vrieze)

A journalist in Yangon chronicling the fast-paced lives of Burmese babies.

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