Villagers in Yebyu Township strained by the army’s latest round of taxation

October 10, 2008

HURFOM : Battalions in the Thabyay Chaung village area, in Yebyu Township, have been ordered to pay a new set of taxes to Light Infantry Battalions No. 406 and 407, say local sources.

On October 2nd, 2008, LIB No. 407 ordered every household in Thabyay Chaung village, Yebyu Township, to make a new set of monthly payments of 800 to 1,000 kyat. “The money is to support army families while soldiers are away on military operations,” said a thirty-year-old villager from the area.

Betel nut farmers about to enter the November harvest season will also be taxed by LIB No. 407, says Ko Soe, 45, a cattle trader from Thabyay Chaung. “I saw a group of soldiers from LIB No.407 come to the village to collect the names of betel nut plantation owners. They plan to tax betel nut harvest next month.” Ko Soe did not know how high the betel nut tax would be, but he said that farmers have had to pay the tax before: “During the harvest season last year, my uncle, who has a ten acre betel nut plantation, had to pay 50 kyat per viss.” Viss are a unit of measurement used in Burma, approximately equivalent to 1.5 kilograms.

Daw Thit, 50, a betel nut owner who lives near Thabyay Chaung, added that LIB No. 406 will also be taxing betel nut. “According to village Peace and Development Council officials, next month LIB No. 406 is going to tax betel nut more than last year, but I don’t know how much more. I am worried because I could barely make enough after the taxes last year.”

Officers say the betel nut taxes are to pay for repairs to the road connecting Thabyay Chaung to Thit-Toe-Dauk village. Residents, however, are skeptical about the actual use of the funds. “The village headmen said the money will pay for work on the Thabyay Chaung to Thit-Toe-Dauk road,” says Daw Thit. “They already made us pay for construction on that road in June and July. Every household had to pay 300 kyat. But we haven’t seen any improvements.”

“Both LIBs No. 406 and 407 have farms as part of the army’s ‘Self-Reliance Program,’ but it is never enough. They always make people provide them with cash, food and other goods,” added another source. On September 28th, the source added, each household in the village was also ordered to pay 500 kyat for the maintenance of LIB No. 407’s jatropha “physic nut” plantations.

The new taxes add onto existing taxation levied by the army, compounding difficulties villagers in Yebyu face. The worst is a paddy quota enforced in Yebyu by LIBs No. 406, 407 and 408. For the last seven years, every household in villages around the battalions’ headquarters has had to provide the army with three baskets of paddy rice. The paddy requirements strain villagers struggling to subsist, especially in years when rice crops are not bountiful. Even families that do not farm rice must supply the paddy, forcing them to purchase baskets, which each typically cost 5,000 kyat.

Burma’s junta maintains the second largest standing army in Southeast Asia. According to Sean Turnell, a Burma expert from Australia’s Macquarie University, the junta spends close to 40% of its annual budget on the military. This does not mean, however, battalions are outfitted sufficiently or soldiers given adequate salaries. Instead, the government encourages the military to be “self-reliant,” directing the armed forces to augment government funding as necessary. This often leads to human rights violations as an army that operates with virtually no oversight or culpability seeks food.

A variety of sources report that the rank and file of the Burmese army is increasingly unhappy with this situation. The Irrawaddy, for instance, recently published an article detailing rising numbers of desertions. In a recent extreme case, a soldier in LIB No. 707, in Taikgyi Township, Rangoon Division, assassinated an officer.

In 2006, a HURFOM reporter interviewed a soldier who had deserted from LIB No. 409, also based in Yebyu Township. The soldier complained of mistreatment by officers and a general lack of food and medical care. “A lot of commanders do not care about the soldiers. They just think about their own benefit and are not concerned about the lower ranks. There are many problems both in the families’ barracks and battalions.’ Mainly, the problems were related to soldiers’ income and lack of rations,” said the soldier, adding, “I was displeased and wanted to change my life. I knew there was no way to quit legitimately. The only way was to run away from the battalion.”

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