Children as young as 10 are being forced to work as porters for the Myanmar military and ethnic minority Karen troops.
The accelerating trend comes amid intensifying conflict near the border with Thailand, according to refugees in northern Thailand, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.
One village in a Karen region houses 95 Myanmar refugees, including thirty nine children under the age of 12. All say they were taken from their villages in Myanmar (which is also known as Burma) and forced to work as military porters.
The increased press-ganging of villagers, including children, into work as porters comes in the wake of intensified fighting between Myanmar government forces supported by elements of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on one side and the mostly Christian Karen National Union (KNU) troops on the other, the refugees said.
Thousands more are believed also to have fled their homes in Myanmar since June and to be hiding in villages on the Thai side of the border, according to human rights and aid workers.
The prolonged military conflict in the region has meant that none of the Karen children has ever been able to attend school.
"I am 10 years old," one shy girl told a visiting reporter.
Another, who said she was 16, said she had to carry dozens of cans of rice in a basket on her back for five days at a stretch and was given only rice with salt and chili peppers to eat. "When it rained, we had to sleep under trees, so we would get completely wet," she said.
Myanmar soldiers forced anyone who had no physical disability to carry goods and ammunition for them, the refugees said. No one was paid for his or her labor.
The porters said they don't know if the troops who press-ganged them into service belong to the DKBA or a joint force comprising soldiers for the DKBA and the ruling junta.
Fathers with children able to walk on their own but not big enough to work as porters themselves must hold onto their children while carrying ammunition on their backs, sometimes pulling the children through heavy jungle vegetation, they said.
Parents and children are required to sleep separately to prevent them from running away, they said, and the men are told their wives will be taken by soldiers if they try to flee.
Parents in the camp said they had no choice but to bring their children, as the only people left behind in their villages were very elderly or too disabled to look after anyone but themselves. One woman carrying her three-year-old son in a sling in front of her demonstrated how she had to carry artillery shells in a basket on her back at the same time.
If her child cried, she was told to put her hand over his face to silence him or face a reprimand from the soldiers.
She said she had had to carry the shells for four days at a time and was allowed to stop and rest only two or three times a day.
"In the past, they would need porters only once a month," said the head of the village that the group of refugees left behind them.
"But now they need them three or four times a month, and we would even have to go to the front line. We would have to supply three soldiers per village, and if the village was bigger we would have had to supply up to 20 soldiers," he said.
"If we cannot supply the soldiers we would have to pay 30,000 baht (about U.S. $880). If we cannot give them the money, they would send us to jail," he added.
Karen refugees have so far received no aid from international agencies, nor from the Thai government, they said.
Sometimes, soldiers from the DKBA stole their goods, even on the Thai side of the border, they added.
"When I left I brought with me the best bullock I had, but when I got to Thailand the DKBA stole the bullock from me," she said.
"I had to pay them 1,500 baht (U.S. $44) to get my bullock back."
According to the Myanmar-based Karen Human Rights Group, the DKBA began a stepped-up recruitment drive in August 2008 in response to an escalating series of DKBA and joint DKBA/government attacks on KNU and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) positions in the Dooplaya and Pa'an Districts of Karen state.
Those attacks have greatly intensified since the start of the year, the group said in a report published on its Web site.
Partly under the control of the Myanmar government, the DKBA has again increased recruitment as it prepares to transform itself into a Border Guard Force as required by the military junta ahead of elections in 2011.
"By June 7, over 3,000 villagers, including the Ler Per Her camp population of just over 1,200 people as well as nearly 2,000 residents from other villages in the area, had fled to neighboring Thailand to avoid fighting as well as forced conscription into work as porters and human minesweepers for DKBA and SPDC forces," the group said Aug. 25.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says there are more than 100,000 registered Myanmar refugees inside Thailand today, most of them Karen.
(Original reporting in Myanmar by Khin May Zaw. Translated by Soe Thinn. Myanmar service director: Nancy Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han).