“We were all Slaves”

An investigative report by Burmese journalist Swe Win has revealed that abuses and exploitation are rife in Myanmar’s prison labor camps. Interviews with ex-prisoners and former prison officials document that convicts are forced to pay bribes or perform backbreaking manual labor, sometimes resulting in death.

There are an estimated 20,000 prisoners in 48 labor camps in Myanmar. Labor camp prisoners are deployed in rock quarries where they crush boulders into gravel with sledgehammers and on private sugarcane and rice plantations. Their labors enrich prison authorities. The sales of gravel, for example, bring in millions of dollars annually.

Prision laborers break rock in a quarry
Prisoners work in a rock quarry as part of forced labor. The proceeds benefit the prison authorities (credit: Swe Win/Myanmar Now)

Prisoners are often shackled and beaten unless they have enough money to bribe prison staff for better treatment, according to Swe Win’s investigation.

“You will bribe to get a better task, you will sacrifice your body, or you will toil as an animal. You had no other options — we were all slaves,” a former policeman who was serving a two-year sentence, was quoted as saying.

Swe Win’s article was originally published by Myanmar Now, an independent service providing news in Burmese and English, and picked up by several other outlets and blogs, including Thomson Reuters Foundation. Swe Win is the chief correspondent of Myanmar Now.

Reporting with impact

After the article’s wide circulation, authorities played down the allegations, saying that abuse was a thing of the past and that conditions have improved for prisoners. Myanmar Human Rights Commission member, Zaw Win, insisted that violent abuse in labor camps was limited to a few isolated cases and was not an institutional problem.

However, David Mathieson, a senior Myanmar researcher with Human Rights Watch, said government officials and the commission were ignoring violations and that the Home Affairs Ministry should order an investigation into the prison labor system with the aim of ending it.

The lower house of parliament discussed the issue and called for the responsible authorities to end the human rights abuses. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for all correction facilities, subsequently decided to run a regular TV program called “Rays of Lights that Impact” to document supposed improvements of the facilities.

The camps existed under previous regimes and still exist under the new government despite calls for reform and “despite the fact that many party members once served time inside the facilities as political prisoners,” as noted in a subsequent report by Swe Win. More recently, Swe Win reported on prisoners in Mandalay protesting for better conditions.

3 men carry heavy sacks down a dirt road
Prisoners working as part of forced labor in Myanmar. (credit: Swe Win/Myanmar Now)

The NLD has made progress in some areas of reform. They recently repealed the Emergency Provisions Act, which was used to silence dissent by threatening to incarcerate anyone who endangered “public morality” and threatened execution for those caught damaging telephone lines.

Another story that Swe Win investigated was about domestic workers, mostly young women from rural areas, working in upper and middle class homes in cities. He personally advocated for a girl who was enslaved by a family in Yangon by filing an official complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, resulting in the resignation of four of its members. He was also commended by the President’s office.

Swe Win’s labor camp investigation was supported by Internews’ in-depth Reporting and Innovation Support Scheme (IRISS) under USAID’s Civil Society and Media Project. Swe Win is an Internews Journalism Training of Trainers graduate from 2012. In 2011, while an editor with Irrawaddy magazine, he was trained by Internews in newsroom management.

Michael Pan is Internews Country Director in Myanmar. Internews is the media partner of FHI360 under the USAID Civil Society and Media Project.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)