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September- 2010

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COMMENTARY
Rampant Extortion

        The practice of extorting money and possessions from the people in Shan State by the Burmese military troops and their cohorts has long been one of the most rampant human rights violations affecting the daily lives of the people. It has also been one of the main causes that have been hindering the economic well-being of the people for decades.
        It has been carried out in many different types and names, e.g., taxes, fees, funds, fines, donations, contributions, etc., and carried out systematically and routinely, and also randomly and occasionally. As the number of troops increased over the years, because more and more battalions have been deployed all over Shan State in accordance with the policy of militarization of the Burmese military junta, the number and frequency of extortion have also increased.
        Over the last 2 decades or so, the situation has been increasingly getting worse and worse until in recent years it has become a life and death matter for many people. It has put many people below the poverty line and pushed many to the brink of starvation. It has caused many people to flee to different places, including neighbouring countries, in desperation in search of better means of survival.
        Even though the majority of the people have to live a life of poverty and have to struggle on a daily basis to survive, the concerned authorities do not seem to care, but have continued to enjoy the practice of extortion with impunity up to the present, as reported in this month’s newsletter.
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SITUATION OF FORCIBLE PROCUREMENT OF RICE AND OTHER CROPS
        The forcible procurement of rice and other crops by forcing farmers to sell their crops in quotas to the Burmese military authorities at low prices every year has been an ongoing policy for many years up to the present.
        However, over recent years, there have been increasing incidents of the military authorities demanding money instead of crops from the farmers. One of the reasons for such incidents was because the troops had some other means to procure crops for their own consumption.
        In recent years, many military battalions in Shan State have confiscated a lot of land to grow crops for their own consumption, using forced labour of the people as well as their own troops. In this way, many of them managed to produce virtually enough crops for their own consumption.
        However, the duty that has long been imposed on the farmers, to provide annual rice quotas for the military, is still in place and the military simply exploit the situation for their extra incomes.
        The following are some such instances that took place during the early months of 2010:

FORCIBLE PROCUREMENT OF PEANUT IN KAE-SEE
        In early 2010, farmers in Ha Wan and Paang Zae village tracts in Kae-See township were required to sell all their peanut to the SPDC troops of LIB313 at a rate much lower than the contemporary market price.
        In January 2010, SPDC military authorities of LIB313 issued an order requiring peanut farmers in Ha Wan and Paang Zae village tracts to sell all their peanut to the military at the rate of 25,000 kyat per ‘lang’ (1 lang = 4 baskets), at a time when the market prices were between 50,000 and 60,000 kyat per lang.
        On 10 January 2010, the authorities called all the farmers who cultivated peanut in the said 2 village tracts to a meeting at the base of LIB313 and collected data about the acreage of peanut farms being cultivated in the areas.
        There were more than 200 acres of peanut farms cultivated by over 30 farmers in the 2 village tracts. At the meeting, the farmers were told to sell all the peanut produced to the military at the rate of 25,000 kyat per lang.
        Although the authorities had forced farmers in the areas to sell certain amounts of their peanut to the military every year previously, they had not required them to sell all their produce as they had done earlier this year.
        According to some farmers, who had come to the border areas to find other means of livelihood, they had to sell all their peanut so that not even the seeds for the next season were left. They also did not have enough money to buy the seeds to continue growing peanut for a livelihood.
SITUATION OF FORCIBLE RICE PROCUREMENT IN MURNG-TON
        In early 2010, farmers in Mae Ken village tract in Murng-Ton township were forced by the SPDC military authorities of IB225 and LIB519 to sell and buy back their rice at different prices, resulting in great losses on the part of the farmers.
        In January 2010, the military authorities issued an order requiring farmers in Mae Ken village tract to sell rice quotas to the military at the rate of 1 basket per acre and at the price of 1,500 kyat per basket.
        However, the authorities said they would not take the rice but would sell it back to the farmers in accordance with the market price, which was 5,000 kyat per basket at the time. That meant, after the supposed buying and selling, the farmers would have to give the military 3,500 kyat of money for each basket of their rice quotas.
        There were 4 villages in Mae Ken village tract and the numbers of farmers and acres of rice fields in each village are as follows:
1. Mae Ken village = 82 farmers and 575 acres of rice fields
2. Mawk Zali village = 75 farmers and 430 acres of rice fields
3. Wan Mai village = 35 farmers and 104 acres of rice fields
4. Naa Pa Kaao village = 55 farmers and 326 acres of rice fields
        The order was issued to the community leaders of Mae Ken village tract requiring them to collect the money from the farmers and hand it to military within 3 days. However, it took nearly 10 days for the villagers to be able to collect and give the demanded money to the military, which was around 5 millions kyat.

        A similar incident also took place in Pung Pa Khem village tract, also in Murng-Ton township, at about the same time, although less money was extorted from the farmers.
        On 5 January 2010, SPDC military authorities in Pung Pa Khem village tract called a meeting of community leaders of the village tract and told them that the military would buy rice quotas from the farmers at the rate of 1 basket per acre and at the price of 1,500 kyat per basket.
        However, instead of actually buying the rice, the military would only take 1,500 kyat of money for each basket of the rice quotas from the farmers. In this way, the farmers would be less affected because they could sell the rice at around 5,000 kyat per basket in the market, said the authorities.
        The money was to be collected and handed over to the military no later than 10 January 2010, said the order, in accordance with the following acres of rice fields at the 5 villages in the village tract:
1. Pung Pa Khem village = 520 acres of rice fields
2. Ton Pherng village = 387 acres of rice fields
3. Pung An village = 98 acres of rice fields
4. Son Kuay village = 140 acres of rice fields
5. Nam Kaa Yaang village = 102 acres of rice fields
VILLAGERS FORCED TO GIVE MONEY INSTEAD OF CROP QUOTAS AND AS PROTECTION FEES FOR GROWING OPIUM IN KAE-SEE
        In early 2010, large amounts of money were extorted from the villagers of Murng Sawng village tract in Kae-See township by the SPDC troops from IB246, based in Kun-Hing township, as taxes on opium and other crops.
        On 1 February 2010, a patrol of about 25 SPDC troops of IB246 from the outpost camp at Saai Mon village in Laai Kaam village tract, Kun-Hing township, came to patrol the area of Murng Sawng village tract in Kae-See township.
        In the afternoon of the same day, the SPDC troops stopped at Nawng Tao village in Murng Sawng village tract. In the evening, all the village and community leaders of Murng Sawng village tract were called to a meeting at Nawng Tao village by the troops.
        At the meeting, the SPDC troops told the villagers that they had seen many opium farms in the area which would have been cultivated by not less than 200 households in the village tract. For this year, the troops would not destroy the opium farms but would collect taxes as protection fees, they said.
        The SPDC troops said that out of consideration for the villagers they would only set the number of the households that grew opium at 150 and demanded that each of them pay 10,000 kyat of money as taxes for not destroying their farms.
        From people who grew rice and peanut, the SPDC troops said that instead of forcing them to sell their crops in quotas, they would also collect money as taxes. They also set the number of the farmers at 150 households and demanded 10,000 kyat from each of them for each kind of the crops.
        However, although the tax money was supposed to be collected from only 150 households, all the people of Murng Sawng village tract were required to share the burden equally among themselves, and the amount was rather large when the taxes for all the 3 kinds of crops were put together.
        The SPDC troops told the villagers to bring all the money, both for the opium and the other crops, to their camp at Saai Mon village in Kun-Hing township no later than 5 February 2010 as they would leave the village on the following morning.

SITUATION OF FORCIBLE RICE PROCUREMENT IN KAENG-TUNG
        During the beginning 2 months of 2010, the SPDC military authorities had completed their yearly rice procurement in Kaeng-Tung township by forcing farmers to sell rice quotas to them at prices much lower than the contemporary market prices.
        Although the authorities used the same method to procure rice, e.g., forcing farmers to sell rice quotas at fixed prices, the way they went about it was different from previous years. The following was how the method was implemented as explained by some local farmers.
        This year the Burmese junta’s troops did not directly force the farmers to sell their rice quotas, but forced the village tract community leaders in the township to do the job for them. All the village tract leaders were called to a meeting by the SPDC township chairman, U Ngwe Maung, and forcibly given the duty, and were threatened with imprisonment if they failed to fulfill it properly.
        The community leaders were required to arrange things in advance, e.g., informing the farmers to bring their rice quotas to a certain place on a certain date, and then lead the SPDC troops to collect the rice from the farmers.
        The scheme was designed so that it seemed like the community leaders who were forcibly buying rice and not the military. During their rice collecting trips, the SPDC troops even told the people that they were not forcing anyone to do anything and they had come only on the invitations of the people’s leaders.
        Community leaders who had not done their duty as well as expected were scolded by the SPDC township authorities at the regular meetings held 4 times a month at the SPDC township office. All the community leaders in the township were mandated to regularly attend those meetings without fail.
        Although the meetings were originally supposed to be for the community leaders to report their difficulties to the SPDC authorities, they said they had never received any help that they had asked for from the authorities.
        Instead, the meetings had been mostly for the authorities to give orders to the community leaders to do one thing or another for the military, mostly to requisition forced labour or extort money and possessions from the people, and to scold and reprimand them when they failed to carry out the orders.
        The community leaders were not only responsible for providing their own food and transport to attend those meetings, they were also often required to provide food for some of the staff members of the SPDC township office.
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SITUATION OF OTHER TYPES OF EXTORTION
        Various other types of extortion are still rampant and increasing in many parts of Shan State as the military continue to expand.
        The following are some such instances that took place during the early months of 2010:

PEOPLE FORCED TO PAVE ROADS AND BUY FIRE FIGHTING POLES IN KAENG-TUNG
        During February and March 2010, people living in Kaeng-Tung town were forced by the SPDC township authorities to pave roads in front of their houses and buy traditional fire fighting equipment made of bamboo poles.
        In March 2010, the SPDC municipal authorities of Kaeng-Tung town issued an order requiring the townspeople to buy bamboo poles that were designed for fighting fire. Each household was required to buy at least a pair of such poles, one of which was equipped with a hook and the other with a fan.
        Since ancient times such equipment were used by the people to fight fire, and were made and kept ready for use at virtually every house during the dry season of each year. Traditionally, at the beginning of the dry season, concerned authorities would remind people to keep such equipment ready at their houses.
        This year, however, people of Kaeng-Tung town were not just reminded but told to buy the equipment from the authorities. People were not allowed to make the equipment themselves or get them from somewhere else.
        If people made the equipment themselves, the quality may not meet the required standards, said the authorities. Each household had to buy at least a pair of the equipment at the price of 5,000 kyat per pair, although it would have cost them much less if they made it themselves.

        In early February 2010, people whose houses were on the main roads in Kaeng-Tung town were required to pave the sections of the roads in front of their houses. Although many of the roads were paved, they were currently deteriorating and needing to be fixed.
        The roads were required to be paved with cement concrete and the costs were the responsibility of the owners of the houses adjoining the roads. The renovation of the roads had to be completed before the end of February 2010, said the order.
        The people had no choice but to comply with the order, although many complained about the difficulties finding money to cover the costs. Some people said that they had to spend up to about 200,000 kyat to pave the roads, an amount hardly affordable by many.
INTIMIDATION AND EXTORTION OF MONEY FROM PEOPLE FROM THAILAND IN TA-KHI-LAEK
        In March 2010, Burmese military authorities at the main border crossing point, between the Shan town of Ta-Khi-Laek and the Thai town of Mae Sai, extorted money from people from Mae Sai who went to visit Ta-Khi-Laek.
        On 16 March 2010, many people from Mae Sai crossed over to Ta-Khi-Laek to attend a Buddhist religious ceremony being held there. The Burmese military authorities manning the checkpoint on the Burmese side of the border allowed all of them to go to the ceremony.
        However, on their return back to Thailand, people holding Thai highlander cards as their ID were stopped by the Burmese authorities at the border checkpoint. They were intimidated by the Burmese authorities and money was extorted from them before being let to cross over back to Thailand.
        In the afternoon of the same day, people from Thailand returned after attending the religious ceremony in Ta-Khi-Town. At the border checkpoint, however, the Burmese authorities did not let people with Thai highlander cards cross back to Thailand right away, but took them into the nearby guard house.
        In the guard house, these people were accused by the Burmese authorities of supporting the Shan resistance soldiers who were active in the Shan-Thai border areas. The Burmese authorities threatened to arrest them and put them in jail unless they each paid a fine of 500 Thai baht.
        For fear of not being able to return back to Thailand, virtually all of them quickly paid the extorted money without any argument and immediately crossed over the border as soon as they were released. Quite a number of Thai highlanders had been victimized by the Burmese authorities on that day, many of them in groups of 5 or 10, and some individually.

EXTORTION OF MONEY DURING ISSUANCE OF IDENTITY CARDS IN KAENG-TUNG
        Since March 2010, SPDC Immigration officers in Kaeng-Tung township have been extorting large amounts of money from people who applied for national identity cards and refusing to issue them to those who could not pay the demanded money.
        In March 2010, SPDC authorities at the Immigration Department in Kaeng-Tung announced that they would issue identity cards for children aged between 10 and 13 years and persuaded parents in the township to get them for their children.
        However, the Immigration officers required the parents to pay 500,000 kyat of money for each of their children before issuing the ID cards to them, saying that the money was a contribution to the adminstration costs and for the maintenance of the department and its staff.
        At the beginning, not knowing that they would be required to pay such a large amount of money, many parents took their children to the Immigration office to apply for the ID cards. However, the concerned officers flatly refused to issue them to those who did not provide the demanded amounts of money.
        Although many parents managed to get the ID for their children, there were also many parents who returned empty handed because they could not afford to pay the demanded money. Many were poor people who had to struggle daily to make ends meet and many had more than one child.
        While parents who were still interested to get the ID for their children said that they would go again when they could save up enough money to pay for it, others seemed to have lost hope because they had no idea how they could save up such an amount of money..
MONEY EXTORTED FOR TRADITIONAL SOCIAL ACTIVITIES IN KAENG-TUNG
        In April 2010, people of Kaeng-Tung town were forced to contribute money for organizing traditional social activities during the yearly religious water festival by the Kaeng-Tung township SPDC authorities.
        In early April 2010, the SPDC authorities of Kaeng-Tung township called a meeting of all the community leaders in Kaeng-Tung town and issued an order requiring them to collect money from the people in their respective quarters.
        The money was to be contributed to the funds to organize traditional social activities, e.g., rowboat competition, drum beating ceremony, fish releasing ceremony and paying respect to the elders, etc., during the annual traditional water festival.
        The Chairman of the SPDC township office said that the order to solicit donations from the people to raise funds for organizing the festivities came directly from the Regional Military Command commander himself and told the community leaders to do their best to make the whole affair look good and grand enough.
        The community leaders were required to collect not less than 1,000 kyat from every household in the town and hand over the money to the SPDC township office no later than 9 April 2010. Apart from having to provide money, many Kaeng-Tung townspeople also had to provide their free labour to organize the water festival in accordance with the whims of the SPDC authorities.

MOTORCYCLE DRIVER DOUBLY FINED FOR FAILING TO SHOW RESPECT TO MILITARY AUTHORITIES IN KAENG-TUNG
        In April 2010, 10,000 kyat of money was extorted from a motorcycle taxi driver by a traffic police in Kaeng-Tung town, who later took the driver to a law court which also forced him to pay a fine of 5,000 kyat.
        On 28 April 2010, Zaai Yawm (not his real name), a motorcycle taxi driver, was arrested by a traffic police on one of the main roads in Kaeng-Tung town for failing to stop and keep to the roadside when a vehicle carrying high ranking military authorities was passing by.
        On the day of the incident, Zaai Yawm was carrying a passenger from one of the town quarters towards the town’s main market place. At one point, near a roundabout where there was a stone pillar monument in the centre of the town, a traffic police blew his whistle and signaled him to stop.
        When he stopped, the police took Zaai Yawm into the nearby police station and asked why he had not stopped and kept to the roadside when the military authorities passed by. Zaai Yawm said he did not know who was in the passing vehicle.
        However, the traffic police accused Zaai Yawm of being disrespectful towards the important authorities and deliberately not doing as a good citizen was supposed to, and threatened to put him in jail unless he paid a fine of 10,000 kyat.
        For fear of having to go to jail, Zaai Yawm paid the fine and expected to be released. However, the police did not release him immediately, but took him to a court of law with an accusation that he had broken traffic laws.
        Before taking Zaai Yawm to court, the policeman said he needed to do that to avoid being suspected of taking bribes if he released him right away. The court also fined Zaai Yawm 5,000 kyat for breaking traffic laws.