“We had never heard the word ‘porter’ before. Now every time anyone says it we are frightened,” one of the four villagers said.
The puzzlement and distress at being dragged into Rakhine’s new battleground is evident on the faces of the four men caught up in recent fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw – part of a conflict few seem to understand.
These four men are not even ethnic Rakhine. They are Khami, part of a small community originating from close to Chin State and eking out an existence cutting bamboo in forests, far from the complex world of Rakhine State politics.
But that didn’t stop the Tatmadaw turning up in their village of just 29 houses, Kin Poung Chaung, in Rathedaung township last month and demanding its community leader send teams of four to be porters on weekly rotation over a three-week period, the men said.
The work behind the lines was physically demanding. “They didn’t hurt us, but they called us bad names and made us carry heavy loads behind the lines. At the end of the week they gave us K5000 [US$4.50],” one man said.
“We had never left our village before. When we got back home our families were so surprised to see us. They thought they might not see us again.”
According to the group, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, the Myanmar army has moved on from their village, but they remain scared.
“We were afraid when we were porters and we are afraid we will be porters again,” another man added.
It is an old tactic in a new conflict – and one the Tatmadaw has strenuously denied using.
The Arakan Army was excluded from the so-called nationwide ceasefire signed last October and in December sporadic fighting broke out between the two forces. In January, the Tatmadaw pledged it would “eliminate” the AA.
Some analysts have suggested that the AA, previously confined largely to Kachin State and considered a relatively minor force, had upped its presence in Rakhine in an attempt to secure a place at national peace negotiations. Whatever the trigger, civilians are now suffering.
Latest UN estimates say around 1100 people have been displaced by skirmishes and some displaced in January are reported to have since returned home. The Myanmar Times met a group of around 80 people at a monastery in Kyauk Tan village, who had fled from Li Gwan Gyi village as recently as April 28.
One of the IDPs said he had been forced to carry shells for the Tatmadaw for a day. The experience was frightening, though he said the soldiers had been polite and paid him K3000.
U Pinyandria, the 84-year-old head monk at the monastery, said the conflict was threatening villagers’ livelihoods across the area.
“The local people used to go to the hill to collect wood or bamboo [to sell] every day before the fighting. Now the Tatmadaw have a base near here they restrict access to the hill. Sometimes they refuse to let people go at all. Sometimes they let them for one hour.”
The monk said he did not believe the AA had strong support in the area, but at the same time he believed the armed group was sincere in its efforts to achieve rights for people in Rakhine.
“The AA are defending their territory for the good of all the people in Rakhine,” he said.
The Myanmar Times could not independently verify the accounts of forced portering but the numbers of people involved, who corroborated each other’s stories, indicate it is more than a few isolated incidents.
Some military analysts suggest the use of forced labour by the military – which is illegal under international rights laws – is the consequence of an army culture that allowed such abuses to go on as standard practice for decades.
“Abuses against civilians in minority ethnic areas have simply become over the years … part and parcel of Tatma-daw military culture. In other words, this is not policy aimed at a specific political objective. It’s what happens when (usually) small-unit armies wage essentially colonial wars in zones,” said Tony Davis, security analyst with IHS Jane’s.
Unlike in other border areas where long-running rights abuses by the Tatmadaw against ethnic minority communities have led to decades of fear and mistrust, the military does not have a long history of conflict with the ethnic Rakhine majority. The recent fighting is creating a new tension between ordinary people and the Tatmadaw that many say did not exist before.
“Before the conflict we didn’t even think about the Myanmar Army. They didn’t do any trade or torture so even if people saw soldiers they just didn’t care. But since the conflict and the portering we feel scared,” said one ethnic Rakhine man from Ray Zar Chay village in his 50s who said he had recently been used as a porter.
He was one of six men who were herding cattle on the evening of April 19 when they were approached by Tatmadaw troops who forced them to accompany them to their base.
“Some of us were resting, others were controlling the cows, so we didn’t see them coming till it was too late. They pointed their guns at us and shouted at us to follow them, saying, ‘If you don’t come we will shoot you.’”
He and five fellow porters, all from the same village, are staying in an IDP camp created at a school in Rae Soe Chaung village.
Camp leaders say 258 IDPs are living there, including pregnant women and young children. They fled from surrounding villages, most arriving at the camp during the Thingyan celebrations from April 11 to 18.
“We heard explosions for about four or five days before we left,” said Myi Hla Phyu, a community leader from Ray Zar Chay, one of five villages about an hour’s walk from the IDP camp that were forced to provide porters.
The six men taken on April 19 described how they were led to a Tatmadaw base that evening and given a few handfuls of rice before being told to carry buckets of shells and bags of rice through the jungle for three or four hours.
“It was physically very hard. We had just a small amount of food for three days and, one day, no food at all,” one said.
According to the captured men, the Tatmadaw force was called combat unit 551.
After their initial night in the jungle the men were taken to the front lines and forced to carry injured Tatmadaw troops to the rear for treatment.
“Eight soldiers were injured, but four could walk. Four we had to carry to the rear. We slept there and the next morning we heard gunshots. A combat leader was blown up by a mine and we had to go to the front line and bring him back,” said one of the porters. He did not know if the injured leader had survived.
On April 23 he and his five fellow porters managed to escape and made their way to the IDP camp.
They and others remain confused and uncertain about the nature of this new conflict which has forced them to flee their homes.
The majority of people The Myanmar Times spoke to in Rakhine about the conflict said they supported the AA because it was “for our Arakan people”, but were also insistent that they wanted the fighting to stop.
“Life would be good without the fighting, but we cannot say that conditions would be better or worse without the Arakan Army. Even though we have thoughts about it, we are too scared to say,” said one former porter from Ray Zar Chay.
“Before the conflict we didn’t have any cares, but now we’ve been captured as porters we are scared we will be captured again,” he added.
Yet in some quarters, the AA appear to have stronger backing. On May 1 a protest march took place in Sittwe calling for a ceasefire between the AA and the Tatmadaw.
While organisers called for both sides to “end the civil war”, the principal target of the march was the Tatmadaw and the new government. Protest leader U Aung Htay said, “The AA don’t want to attack, but in the past the military government did not give equal rights to different ethnic groups.”
He called on the new government to allow the AA to take part in the nationwide ceasefire process but added that ultimately it would be up to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Meanwhile the IDPs show little faith in the ability of Rakhine’s new NLD chief minister to bring peace.
“When the minister came here, the people asked him about the fighting telling him, ‘We can’t do our jobs or make money, what will we do?’ The minister talked about conditions getting better and we believed him, only a little bit. He did not talk about how to end the fighting,” said one man.
Despite past denials by military chiefs that forced portering was occurring in Rakhine, Colonel Htin Lin, minister for security and border affairs in Rakhine, spoke to The Myanmar Times about recent alleged cases while
recognising community resentment over the issue.
He said the military had already ordered all combat units not to capture villagers as porters or guides.
“If anybody has any evidence of people being captured and used as porters they should let us know. The military really wants accurate information as well,” he said.
“If there is proof, then the military will step in to prevent that happening and use reliable military officers to take actions against perpetrators. We really don’t want anyone to feel aggrieved. So we will take action if we get proper evidence.”
Yet with those who have experienced forced portering too frightened to speak out, it is hard to imagine many being able to access justice.
Their anger, though subdued,is evident.
“We don’t ever want to do portering again,” said one of the six porters from Ray Zar Chay. “We want to live in peaceful conditions and a normal life.”