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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar's military is forcing convicted criminals to serve as porters and human shields during armed conflicts, amounting to war crimes worthy of a United Nations-led investigation, a report released on Wednesday said.
Porters were subjected to summary executions and torture, and were placed in the line of fire or sent to navigate heavily mined trails, "systematic practices" dating back as far as 1992, said the joint report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW)and the Karen Human Rights Group, based on Thai-Myanmar border.
The porters were forced to carry heavy loads of ammunition, food and supplies for the army without adequate food, shelter and access to medical care, it added.
Myanmar's military has for decades fought on multiple fronts against numerous ethnic rebel armies seeking autonomy along larges stretches of the country's northern and eastern borders.
The report called for the U.N. General Assembly or Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) to probe abuses by both the military and rebel groups for recruiting child soldiers, using land mines and forcing civilians to become porters.
"Burma's forcible recruitment and mistreatment of convicts as uncompensated porters in conflict areas are grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law," said the report, referring to the country by its former name.
"Those responsible for ordering or participating in such mistreatment should be prosecuted for war crimes."
The report entitled 'Dead Men Walking' is based on 58 interviews with escaped convicted porters ranging from 20-57 years old who were used in military operations in eastern Karen State and central Bago region since 2010.
In January, an estimated 1,200 male prisoners were forced to serve as porters during two large military operations, with the support of police, prison authorities and the army, the report found, adding that most prisoners were selected at random.
They included serious offenders as well as people convicted of minor crimes such as brawling and fraud, with sentences ranging from a year to more than 20 years.
Many of the convicts were unfamiliar with the local languages and terrain, making it less easy for them to escape.
"Using convict porters thus becomes a cheap, expendable, and easy solution to logistical challenges," the report said.
Rights groups have repeatedly called for a COI into alleged war crimes committed by the Myanmar military, such as forced displacement of civilians, sexual violence, torture and murder, but to no avail.
Neither Myanmar's former junta nor its new civilian-led government have acknowledged such crimes have taken place and the international community's demands for human rights reforms have been ignored, resulting in sanctions on the country.
The call for an inquiry has been supported by 16 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia but the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, has been silent.
"Every day that the international community does nothing is another day the Burmese army will press more porters into this deathly service," said Elaine Pearson, deputy director for HRW's Asia division.
Editing by Martin Petty and Daniel Magnowski