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BUTHIDAUNG, Myanmar (Reuters) - In the fertile river valleys near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh, stateless Rohingya Muslims say there is no let-up in soldiers forcing them into hard labor, despite the government launching a campaign three years ago to end the practice.
The military, which ruled the former Burma for nearly half a century before handing power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, has vowed to end forced labor. President Thein Sein, a former general, promised in 2012 to eradicate what was once a military custom within three years.
But army units in the north of Myanmar's restive Rakhine state still routinely force minority Rohingya to porter loads, tend military-owned fields and maintain military infrastructure, according to interviews with 16 villagers in three hamlets.
Evidence of ongoing forced labor could complicate Myanmar's efforts to convince the United States to drop sanctions introduced during military rule.
The northern borderlands of Rakhine are closed to foreigners, and access by U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations is tightly controlled by the government.
A Reuters team had to seek special permission from the state government to visit.
In the area, villagers described cases in which two local units - Light Infantry Battalion 552 and Light Infantry Battalion 352 - pressed scores of villagers into work in recent months, sometimes accompanied by beatings or threats of violence.
Myanmar's military did not respond to questions on forced labor and the central government spokesman, Ye Htut, declined to comment.
Maung Maung Ohn, the chief minister of Rakhine state, denied that the military carried out forced labor there.
"If forced labor was really happening in Rakhine state, we would have already heard about it and taken action," Maung Maung Ohn said.
But the villagers said the practice was widespread. They spoke on condition that they only be identified by their first names, and that the names of their hamlets not be mentioned, out of fear of retribution by the army.
Rohingya teenager Sadek said he was walking along a dusty village street in early May when a soldier grabbed him by the collar and, wordlessly, dragged him away.
Along with 31 other men and boys, Sadek said he was loaded up with heavy sacks of rice and ordered by soldiers of 552 Battalion to march for two days through forest-covered hills with little food and water - and no pay. Some who resisted were beaten.
"By the end of it, I felt like I was going to die," the 15-year-old said, adding he was released after some days.
Sadek's story was backed by five other villagers who said they were dragooned into becoming porters with him.
Behind forced labor in Rakhine State is a cocktail of military impunity, racism, and a system that encourages local army units to be economically self-reliant, said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, a rights group that focuses on the Rohingya.
The Arakan Project has received information on up to 8,000 Rohingya, including hundreds of children, forced to work in 2014, Lewa said. The military was the overwhelming perpetrator.
"Anyone can take advantage of Rohingya. The authorities treat them as beasts of burden, as slaves," she said.
Forced labor has actually dropped in much of Rakhine State where police or civilian agencies are in control, but persists in border areas like Buthidaung township in Rakhine, which is dotted with military bases, she said.
Forced labor is in turn helping fuel an exodus of Rohingya that has seen more than 100,000 flee the state in the last three years on often-deadly boat journeys with human traffickers, said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.
"Part of the reason people are getting on boats is because of abuses like this," he said.
In two of the hamlets, villagers complained of recruitment by both 552 Battalion and 352 Battalion for work maintaining military bases and plowing, planting and harvesting military-owned fields. Some work was unpaid, while in other areas wages up to 1,000 kyat ($0.90) per day, were given along with rice.
In one village near the base of 352 Battalion, the villagers said they were obliged to send five men per day to work for the unit.
In early June, two village leaders were detained overnight at the base after objecting to the arrangement, said one of the detained men, Noor, 42.
"Some villagers say 'don't send anyone.' But we really can't deny the army," Noor said.
Additional reporting by Hnin Yadana Zaw in Naypyidaw; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan