By Swe Win
NAUNG CHO TOWNSHIP, Myanmar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the sweltering midday heat, several dozen convicts shackled at the ankles hacked with hoes at shrubs and grass in a field in Myanmar's northern Shan State.
"One! Two! Three! Four!" one of the men shouted, waving a long bamboo cane to the beat of the hoeing. A prison warden looked on with a rifle slung over his shoulder and holding an umbrella for the blazing sun.
Wearing blue shirts and sarongs, the convicts were from Kaung Hmu Labour Camp, seen in June as they cleared wasteland along the Mandalay-Lashio Road for the expansion of a sugarcane plantation.
The man barking orders - known in Burmese as a "dote-kai", or a stick-holder - was a prisoner appointed to supervise the labor in return for avoiding backbreaking work himself.
Such stick-holders routinely flog prisoners to make them work harder and aren't afraid to use violence to crush dissent, former prisoners say.
"The stick-holders would beat us at will," said Zeyar Lin, an ex-convict released from Kaung Hmu Labour Camp in early June.
"We worked at the front and they beat us from the rear. Even if a tiny plant was left after clearing weeds in the sugarcane plantations we were beaten."
A months-long investigation by Myanmar Now, an independent website supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reveals that brutal beatings are just one of many rights abuses common in Myanmar's penal system, which activists describe as a form of state-sponsored slavery.
Dozens of interviews with ex-convicts and former prison officials painted a picture of dire working conditions and rampant corruption among guards who force prisoners to pay bribes to escape beatings and heavy labor.
The investigation also showed that prisons profit by selling convict labor to private companies for hefty fees, in violation of international conventions on forced labor that Myanmar has ratified.
The Ministry of Home Affairs said it would look into Myanmar Now's findings but declined to comment further.
BRIBERY AND PRIVILEGES
Myanmar has 48 labor camps, holding some 20,000 prisoners, according to the Correctional Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The practices at labor camps uncovered by the Myanmar Now investigation continue months after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in March, after sweeping 2015 elections.
Many of the ruling party's members themselves spent years in jail as political prisoners during their decades of struggle against military rule, while Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for some 15 years.
"Personally, I think the new government should work toward shutting down all these prison labor camps as a political priority," said Khin Maung Myint, a former chief jailor who retired in 2002 after 25 years at the Correctional Department and is now a legal consultant on Myanmar's penal system.
"Prisoners at these camps are being punished in a way that violates existing laws," he said, adding that prisoners receive inadequate food and healthcare while prison authorities "are trying to extract all their labor in all sorts of ways".
Among the 48 labor camps, 30 are dubbed "agriculture and livestock breeding career training centers" where prisoners work on plantations run by the Correctional Department, or are put to work at private plantations and local farms.
At 18 sites, mostly in Mon States in southeastern Myanmar, thousands of convicts are deployed in rock quarries - officially called "manufacturing centers" - where they break granite and limestone boulders and crush them into gravel with sledgehammers.
The gravel is sold to government agencies or private companies for infrastructure and construction projects, bringing in the equivalent of millions of dollars for prison authorities, according to prison sales records seen by Myanmar Now.
A Myanmar Now reporter took photo and video evidence of harsh labor conditions at nine prison labor camps in Shan and Mon States, and in Mandalay and Sagaing Region.
In interviews, ex-inmates from camps in Shan State's Naung Cho Township and Sagaing Region's Kalay Township consistently described being forced to pay bribes to avoid abuse and hard labor.
Kaung Hmu Labour Camp is one of five camps in the mountains around Naung Cho, at an altitude of around 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) where the nights are cold and the days are hot.
Around 200 men are held in Kaung Hmu and work six days a week on the camp's 140-acre (57-hectare) sugarcane plantation, or in private sugarcane and cornfields and rice paddies that dot the green, fertile valleys.
Zeyar Lin, 25, arrived at Kaung Hmu in early 2015. He was a former policeman from Bago Region who was serving a two-year sentence for fighting with his superintendent.
On his way to the camp, wardens put iron shackles on his ankles, he said. Once there, regular beatings and a crushing workload quickly took their toll.
"I was accused of being slow at work, so my back was beaten, my buttocks were beaten - at least 30 strokes every day," he said.
After a month, he had his mother pay around $500 to the deputy chief jailor to stop the beatings. He was then assigned to boil water and prepare tea or coffee for prison officials, a task he performed until his release.
"WE WERE ALL SLAVES"
Zeyar Lin said the poorest prisoners had no such option, and some resorted to offering sex or other services to wealthy convicts or the stick-holders to seek protection.
"You will bribe to get a better task, you will sacrifice your body, or you will toil as an animal," he said. "You had no other options – we were all slaves."
Khin Maung Myint, the former chief jailor, said the prison labor system encouraged abuse and corruption because it gave authorities full power to assign tasks and enforce corporal punishment.
"You can bribe officials for what kind of iron shackles you want to be put on: lighter ones or heavier ones," he said. "Or you have to bribe more if you want to have the shackles taken off. Some who can't afford it will have to wear them until they are released."
According to prison rules, an inmate cannot be kept shackled longer than two months after arriving at a camp.
Aung Soe, 51, served 17 years in Myanmar's prisons and was released from Hokho Labour Camp in Naung Cho in 2014.
"The reason prisoners are beaten is to make everyone fear the prison staff. When prisoners lose all hope, they will bribe officials," he said, adding that those who pay $1,000 might become clerks while $700 is enough to become a stick-holder.
During a brief visit to a camp in Naung Cho, Myanmar Now exchanged a few sentences with a prisoner convicted for murder. The man, 37, was deeply tanned from daily toil in the fields, which he said he had done for the past year-and-a-half.
"I was beaten just yesterday," he said, pointing at scars on his legs. "If I could get 300,000 kyats ($250), I could buy the position of water-boiler (to escape labor), but none of my family members have ever visited me."
He added: "You can clear the weeds for one acre, then the next day you are asked to do two acres. I can’t stand it anymore. I try to control myself so I don’t I fight back."
Current and former prison officials say the practice of raising revenues from private companies comes from a Correctional Department directive stating that camps must generate enough funds to cover their running costs.
Rock quarries supply construction firms with thousands of tonnes of gravel per day. Agricultural camps sell the produce from state-owned plantations and hire out convicts to private plantations and local farms, officials and former inmates said.
Any deals putting prisoners at the disposal of companies would violate the 1930 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention, which Myanmar ratified in 1955.
The convention says convicted prisoners can only work if "the said work or service is carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority, and the person is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations".
Piyamal Pichaiwongse, deputy liaison officer with the ILO's Myanmar office, said she couldn't comment on whether forced labor was taking place in the Myanmar prison labor system as there had been few complaints and little evidence of wrongdoing.
After being interviewed by Myanmar Now, Zeyar Lin, the former convict, contacted the ILO to complain about his prison treatment in Naung Cho Township.
Piyamal Pichaiwongse said the ILO was looking into his case as a "forced labor complaint", adding that Zeyar Lin's prison sentence didn't include hard labor.
AUTHORITIES PLAY DOWN ALLEGATIONS
Htay Lwin Tun, superintendent of Htone Bo Labour Camp in Mandalay, was previously in charge of five camps in Naung Cho. He denied that beatings and bribery were common, saying just one case of violent conduct was reported in 2014.
"Since the case didn't lead to lethal injury, I just gave a verbal warning to the prison officer involved," he said in an interview at Htone Bo Labour Camp.
Min Tun Soe, a deputy director of the Correctional Department, told Myanmar Now that severe abuses and extreme labor conditions were a thing of the past, and that reforms initiated by the government of former President Thein Sein between 2011 and 2015 had improved conditions for prisoners.
"I don't claim that the beatings have completely stopped, but general conditions regarding food and accommodation have improved," he said.
In August, a Lower House lawmaker for the NLD asked the Ministry of Home Affairs, which remains under military control, whether it would allow lawmakers to investigate prison conditions, including reports of corruption and abuse in labor camps.
Deputy Minister Gen. Kyaw Soe responded that the Correctional Department had effective mechanisms to investigate such complaints, adding that no violations had been reported.
He said the Myanmar Human Rights Commission and the International Committee of the Red Cross were also monitoring prison conditions.
Zaw Win, the Myanmar Human Rights Commission member, said violent abuse in labor camps was limited to isolated cases and was not an institutional problem.
"There is some scolding and slapping, but no more torture and cruel beatings like in the past," said Zaw Win, whose commission is appointed by the President's Office.
David Mathieson, a senior Myanmar researcher with Human Rights Watch, said government officials and the commission were turning a blind eye to abuse.
The Home Affairs Ministry should order a review of the prison labor system with the aim of ending it, he said, while the NLD-dominated parliament “should announce an immediate investigation into the Department of Corrections ... that includes a thorough accounting of all the prisoners thought to have disappeared into abusive labor camps."
STUCK IN THE PAST
Myanmar Now has obtained hundreds of internal Correctional Department documents that stretch back decades and shed light on junta-era policies for managing prison labor camps.
A document from 1993 refers to a statement by then-Minister of Home Affairs Lt-Gen. Phone Myint, who said prisoners' labor was "wasted" if they only remained incarcerated. Their free labor should be used instead for state-owned plantations, infrastructure projects and to generate funds that cover running the prisons, it said.
As late as October 2014, junta-era language was still in use by Thein Sein's government to explain prison labor policies.
Former Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Brig-Gen. Kyaw Kyaw Tun told parliament at the time that the camps "use the prisoners' labor, which is going to waste in the prisons, for state-level agriculture, livestock breeding and rock quarry projects, and to ensure that the prisoners learn about agriculture and livestock breeding techniques and have attained a vocational profession upon their release."
After the NLD assumed power in March, it urged all departments and ministries to come up with reform priorities for their first 100 days in office.
The Correctional Department's reform plans for this period came to a single sentence: "To increase the duration of family visits in prison from 15 minutes to 20 minutes, and allow family members to visit any day of the week."
(Reporting by Swe Win; editing by Paul Vrieze, Ros Russell and Timothy Large. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories. Myanmar Now is an independent website supported by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit https://we.tl/82PJd0GSgo to download free-to-use pictures to go with this story within seven days of publication.)