Below is an excerpt from Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime
34 years old, male, Chin
Former Prisoner and Army Porter
Aye MaungÂ is an outgoing Chin manâ€”a Burmese ethnic minorityâ€”who works for the Chin Refugee Center. It is a clear that he has a lot to say; he is passionate about telling people of his experience as a prisoner of the State Peace and Development Council (the military junta that rules Burma), as he believes the issue must be exposed.
I was a porter for nearly six months.
I stayed in Moulmein (the third largest city in Burma) prison until the day I became a porter. At the time, I was about thirty years old. One night they yelled for me to get out. They made me line up with other prisoners, and they chained us all together, one by one. They put us in a military car, but they didnâ€™t tell us anything. But as soon as they had called us that night, we knew we would be made porters. All prisoners are afraid to become porters. We were afraid, because we had heard that most porters die. Only the prisoners who have money can pay to not become porters.
The government doesnâ€™t have much money, but they have many prisoners. So for them, it makes sense to use us for army porters â€”if we die, they lose nothing. But if they use horses or helicopters to carry their loads, the government loses money if the horse dies or the helicopter breaks. But itâ€™s easy to take a prisoner and make him a porter. Thatâ€™s how the SPDC thinks about it.
That night, they brought us to Bahloat, which is in the area of the Karen National Union [The KNU is a political organization that represents the Karen ethnic minority in Burma. The KNU also has an armed group called the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).] Â There were 185 porters and 250 soldiers. Most of the soldiers were Burman, but maybe about thirty of them were ethnic minority people. The porters were mostly ethnic minoritiesâ€”Rohingya, Karen, Rakhine, and a couple Chin, like me.
The head of our tama [abbreviated version of â€œtatmadaw,â€ the Burmese name for the SPDC military] was Bo Mu Choke [Brigadier General] Cho Kway. We left Bahloat on January 28, 2006, and began walking to the Au Dou Rai army camp. We started our journey around three p.m., and slept that night in Seven Mile Village along the way. The next morning, we continued walking. We followed the stream, but it was hard because there was no trail. Sometimes a few porters would walk ahead to clear a trail, and we would follow. We were carrying so muchâ€”machine guns, ammunition, and rations for all the soldiers and for ourselves.
Some machine guns were so big that eight people had to carry them. We hadnâ€™t gone through training, and we werenâ€™t allowed to rest, so some porters couldnâ€™t handle it. If one of us couldnâ€™t walk any farther, the soldiers would just kill him. They didnâ€™t want to leave any prisoners behind alive. And if someone tried to take a rest without permission, the soldiers would beat him with their guns. They would beat him so much that he couldnâ€™t walk anymore, and theyâ€™d leave him there to die. People kept dying. My friends kept dying.
On that trip from Bahloat Town to Au Dou Rai, my leg became swollen. I thought I could not carry my load any longer. But, I knew that if I didnâ€™t carry anymore, I would die. I told one of the soldiers that my leg was swollen and asked him to give me less weight. â€œWhat do you say nowâ€”what, porter?â€ He beat me. He shoved at me and beat me. â€œNo, here, here, here, I cannot carry this!â€ I told him again. He beat me again. But when they only hit us with their hands, we were not so afraid because we could recover again. If they beat you with their guns, you wouldnâ€™t recover.
When we walked through combat areas, the SPDC soldiers would make the porters walk in the front. In the forest, itâ€™s easy for KNU soldiers to shoot the SPDC soldiers. But if the porters walk in front of the army, the KNU soldiers donâ€™t dare shoot. They donâ€™t want to shoot porters. So whenever we were walking on a path with the SPDC soldiers, the porters were always walking in front. Everywhere we went.
Sometimes there were landmines. One time, I saw a porter step on one and lose both of his feet. But another time, it happened to a captain. Â As always, we were walking with the porters in front of the army. But the porter didnâ€™t set off the landmine, and the captain behind him did. Two soldiers lost their legs.
But most of the time, I didnâ€™t think about the landmines. I just walked. The load was so heavy, and we were always very tired. No time to think about the landmines, only about how we could carry on and get to rest. After the first village we stayed in, other villages we passed were empty. We saw no one. The SPDC had cleared the villages.
It took us five days to walk to the Au Dou Rai army camp. By the time we arrived, only 147 porters remained. Thirty-eight people had died on the journey to the camp. When we made it to the camp, near the Daneeta River, we could finally take a rest. We were very, very tired. But after a week, another bad thing happened. Four porters who were sick tried to flee, and the army caught them. The soldiers killed those four people very brutally. They broke their arms, and cut their tongues. Then they hanged them from a tree, and they made the rest of us watch. They wanted us to be afraid so no more porters would try to run away again. After that, we were so afraid.
See, Au Dou Rai was a Karen village before, but now there are no more Karen peopleâ€”only an SPDC army camp. All the Karen villagers in the area had to move to Thailand, because the SPDC cleared them out. The army would go into the area and kill everyone they saw, even if they were just civilians. The government sends ten battalions [200â€“600 soldiers per battalion] and five hundred porters to Au Dou Rai every year. But out of those 500 porters, only 70 to 100 return. So many porters die every year. The year I was there, it was also like this.
During the day, we would stay by the river. The soldiers made us stay in the sun all day, and it was so hot. If we moved, one of the captains beat us. We had to stay in the same position until evening, with no water. They wouldnâ€™t even allow us to bathe for seven days. We were very dirty, and smelled so bad. On the seventh day, they finally let us bathe, and they fed us well. But after a month, many of the prisoners were sick. Since we didnâ€™t get to bathe often, most of the porters were ill. Some of the weaker porters began dying, one by one, often from malaria. I kept wondering, â€œIs this how I will die?â€ At the Au Dou Rai camp, malaria was a big problem. When I got sick with malaria, I was shaking for three days.
When twenty prisoners had died, Bo Mu Choke Cho Kway became afraid that we would all die. We were also afraid, watching our friends die every day. So the soldiers gave us good medicine and good food for five days. Â I finally recovered, but by then there were only about 115 or 120 porters remaining. We all grieved so deeply at the time, watching our friends die. We loved each other and took care of each other, because we shared the same lack of freedom.
Soon after I recovered from malaria, we started to work again as porters, travelling back and forth with rations from the Au Dou Rai camp to an army camp on the Thai border. During the rainy season, which begins in June, it takes one month to go back and forth to the border camp by climbing through the mountains. At that time, you canâ€™t follow the river to the border, because it rises high and becomes too wide to cross. So, we climbed the mountains instead. Go up a mountain, go down, go up another mountain, go down again.
The rain was so heavy when we were climbing through the mountains. Heavy rain, morning to night. We got up at five in the morning, and started walking around six a.m. each day. We would walk all day, through the rain, with our 25kg bags of rations for the border camp. In the mountains, we used plastic to collect rainwater. We used the water to cook rice. At five in the evening, we would take a rest and find a place to sleep.
First, we had to make sure the rations did not get wet, so we made a tent to store them. Second, we made a tent for the soldiers. Since we were in a KNU area, we had to be on guard. But for us, the porters, there was no tent. We could fit only our heads and chests under the tent and had to leave our legs outside. Our bodies got so wet through the night. We woke up in the morning with our longyis [sarongs] so wet, and then weâ€™d start carrying again.
The first time we climbed that mountain, I actually wanted to die, because I knew this was the first time, and that Iâ€™d have to go many more times. I know I will die, I thought, so let me die now easily. Let me not suffer in the future again. But then I remembered my father and mother, and how sad they would be if I died there. The only reason I could survive is that Iâ€™m from Chin State, and as a child I was always climbing in the mountains. Only because of that could I survive this mountain journey. Every time we took the trip, two people would die. All the time, we were walking through a KNU area but we saw no Karen people. Only destroyed villages.
One time, the captain told us that we had lost the way. It was the rainy season, so the path was very slippery. We made our way to a cliff near the river, and we set up camp there for the night. It was already dark, but since we were in the forest and it was a KNU area, the army didnâ€™t dare make a fire. So we stayed in the dark, in the cold.
When we finally arrived at the border camp after losing the way, we were so hungry. We were very thin. Our hands were so sore. But when we arrived at the camp, we saw that one porter had been left behind. We hadnâ€™t noticed before, because we could barely even take care of ourselves. It was so dark and rainy on that journey, so the army didnâ€™t keep track of us either. We only knew that we couldnâ€™t fall behind, or we would surely die. We had to get to the camp. So when we saw that we had left one porter behind, we went back to find him the next day. But he was already dead.
We were always weak, because we never had enough food on these journeys. They only fed us twice a dayâ€”at eleven a.m and seven p.m. They gave us rice, and we would take banana shoots and crush them into it. We could only go on if there was at least something in our bellies.
If we tried to steal from the rations, the soldiers would beat us. The army checked what we had when we left Au Dou Rai and when we arrived at the camp, so we dared not steal. If we lost any of the rations, we were punished.
It was so hard in the mountains. The food they gave us was barely enough to survive, so one month when we were carrying in the mountains, five of our friends died from the hardship. If porters died while we were climbing through the mountains, we had to leave them there. We couldnâ€™t bury them, because we had no tools for digging. But when porters died in Au Dou Rai camp, we buried them as much as we could.
One time in the forest, my legs became very swollen before we reached the camp. But I knew in my mind that if I didnâ€™t keep going, I would die. Maybe because of this, I made it to the camp. But when we arrived back to our camp after trips in the rainy season, weâ€™d all get sick. But the soldiers would feel fine. They were very fit from training, and they got better meals and more food than us.
Another time when we were climbing the mountain, one of our friends, a Mon man, was severely beaten by the soldiers. But he kept climbing. When we reached the top of the mountain, we left him to stay there while we continued on to bring the rations to the border camp. We stayed two nights at the border camp, and then we came back to find him. We found our friend sleeping there, with maggots crawling from his anus. But he was still alive. So all the porters, we said to the army, â€œPlease, we will carry him. We will carry this man to our camp, and we’ll take care of him.” But the army didn’t allow it. “No,â€ they said. â€œHow can you carry him?”
We begged the soldiers. We had already left the rations at the border camp, so we had no more to carry. We were about 50 porters, so we could carry him back to the camp and take care of him. We begged them, but the soldiers said no. And then the soldiers made us throw our friend off the cliff. They made us throw him off the cliff while he was still alive. We were so sorry for our friend, but as prisoners, we could do nothing. We had to throw him. We felt so much sorrow, all the prisoners. That day I told myself, Run away from this life.
For the first three months, the soldiers treated us badly like thisâ€”as if we were enemies. They watched us carefully, and we didnâ€™t dare talk to themâ€”we just carried the loads. But after three months, there was some mutual understanding with the soldiers, and they started to trust us more. At the same time, we prisoners would always try to please them. We tried to do whatever they wanted, because if we pleased them, they might give us some food. Especially while we were in the forest, we tried to please them because we could only get food from them.
Staying at Au Dou Rai camp was always so hard. The soldiers fed us very little, and we wore only the clothing we had when we first arrived at the camp. Our loads had been so heavy while walking to the camp, that we threw away our extra clothing. Six months in the same clothes.
One day, things started to change for me. I was assigned to cook for the prisoners. That day we were not given the full ration of food for the prisoners. The prisoners reported this to a major, and he came to check. He called me, since I was the cook, and asked, â€œDid you cook all the rice I gave you for the prisoners?â€ I explained that there was only a little left.
â€œWho left only this?â€ he asked.
â€œIt was the sergeant,â€ I said.
â€œWhere is the rest of it?â€
I had to tell the truth. I admitted that the sergeant took the rice away. The major was angry about this, so he punished the sergeant severely. Then the sergeant got angry with me. â€œOh, so you reported me?â€ he said.
â€œNo, I didnâ€™t.â€ He slapped me and told me I had no right to reply.
â€œIf we travel together to carry the rations,â€ the sergeant said, â€œI will kill you.â€
I was so afraid. In the Au Dou Rai area, it was very easy for the soldiers to kill porters. There were only 97 porters left at that time, so I was afraid. Many of our friends had died. My friends tried to encourage me to run away. They said that if we went to carry rations, they would accompany me and help me run away from the camp. So, I felt it was my chance to leave. I could not escape death if I stayed, so I had no choice but to try to escape. I thought, If I die, I will die. If I live, I will live.
It was the end of July when I ran away. By this time, weâ€™d already been at the camp for six months. Somehow, the soldiers trusted that we would not run away. We usually had breakfast at eleven a.m., so everyone was there taking food. The guards were having breakfast, too. So I ran away, and made it to the stream. It took me three days to get to Bahloat town.
On the way to Bahloat, I slept on the ground, just like we always did as porters. And for food, I ate banana shoots. This kept me alive. Since I stayed in that area for almost six months, I knew the way to Bahloat. I didnâ€™t dare walk on the path, but I stayed near it. During those three days of walking, I thought about how simple the life of a porter is, and also how easy it is for us to die. I thought about my friends who died. Some of them had good, strong muscles, but they died anyway. Maybe they died because they didnâ€™t have strong minds or strong hearts. As I thought about what Iâ€™d faced in my life as a porter, I realized again that I had only survived because of my love for my mother and father. If I didnâ€™t love them, if I didnâ€™t have them to love and take care of me, I would have died as well. But I was still alive. Iâ€™d survived.
When I arrived in Bahloat town, a schoolteacher helped me and let me stay at his house. Â He took care of me, and helped me get to Kaw Thaung, the southernmost town in Burma. In Kaw Thaung, there was an agent who sends people to Malaysia. The payment was nine lakh [about $900 USD], but I didnâ€™t have it. So the agent paid for me, and agreed for my older sister to pay him back in Malaysia.
From Kaw Thaung, I fled to Thailand. It was August 2006 when I left Burma. I came by boat to Ranong, Thailand, which is near the Malay border. The boat ride was five or six hours long, and there were about twenty of us on the boat. There were Mon people, also Karen people. We were all going to Malaysia with the agent. When I was in Bahloat and Kaw Thaung, I was still afraid. But when I arrived in Thailand, something lifted in my mind. I felt like what I feared just flew away from me.
To pass through the Thailand-Malaysia border and into Malaysia, they put me in a car. They put two of us in back, on the floor behind the seats. And thatâ€™s how we entered Malaysia.
I decided to come here to Malaysia because there are so many Chin people here. Even before I was arrested I knew this. My elder sister and my younger brothers have been living here since before I was arrested.
The lives of porters are always unsafe. I believe one reason that soldiers treat the porters so badly is that most of the soldiers did not willingly become soldiers. Some people who are in prison, they know that if they join the army they will be released. So thatâ€™s how some people get out from prison. Some of the soldiers are very young, maybe fifteen or sixteen. Some of them donâ€™t have a mother or father. The army tells them, â€œAh, come. You join, and we will take care of you.â€ So they join the army. And if soldiers run away from the army, they are imprisoned. Itâ€™s the law of Burma.
Some of the officers joined willingly, but not all of them. The officer life is very different from the normal army life. The officerâ€™s salary is one lakh [about $100 USD] but a normal soldierâ€™s salary is only 30,000 kyat [about $30 USD]. You canâ€™t survive on this in Burma. Also, the officers rule over the normal soldiers very cruelly. They can do whatever they want, and they have opportunities. But the normal soldiers are stuck. If they run away, they will be imprisoned.
When we were carrying the rations, the soldiers were also very tired. If a porter could not continue, the soldiers had to take care of itâ€”they would just kill him. I think itâ€™s the officers that made them do this. The officers told them, â€œDonâ€™t look at the porters as your friends. Theyâ€™re prisoners. Thieves, murderers. So donâ€™t think they are like you. Donâ€™t give them any chances.â€ Â This was the officerâ€™s command.
In actuality, many of the prisoners are arrested not because they are murderers, but just because they sold lottery numbers. The lottery is illegal in Burma. Just for selling a lottery ticket, someone can get one and a half or two years in prison, and be sent to porter.
My strategy to survive was to appease the soldiers and to make friends with them. I thought, if only we could make friends with these soldiers, then we would survive.
But porters can die at any time. For example, if a soldier got angry and just shot me with his gun, nothing would happen to him. I would just die, like a chicken or a rat. To Tanintharyi Division, they send 500 porters every year. Of the 500, only 72 porters make it back to the prison. If you survive, you survive.
Photographs courtesy of Chin Human Rights Organization.
Help Voice of Witness empower narrators like Aye MaungÂ to share their stories– donate now.