The following statement regarding current conditions around Pa'an Town was given by a recently arrived refugee who lived there. Pa'an is the capital of Karen State, and there is no fighting in the immediate area. This man's name has been changed to protect him, although he and his family have no plans to return to Pa'an.
NAME: Saw Ghay Htoo SEX: M AGE: 40
FAMILY: Married with 4 children
In Pa'an I worked for the Agriculture Corporation, which is controlled by the government. In other words, it's all controlled by military men. It's left over from the BSPP times [Burma Socialist Program Party, Ne Win's pre-1988 dictatorship], when all farmland was national Property. The farmers had to buy their seed, fertiliser, etc. from the Agricultural Corporation and sell their crop to the Corporation as well. The farmers were left with just enough profit to survive.
Now it’s still the same. Every farmer has to sell 3 baskets of unhulled rice per acre to the Agriculture Trade Corporation. Each basket weighs 4 pounds. The farmers are only paid 50 Kyat per basket, even though the market price is 150 Kyat per basket. To plant one acre takes one and a half baskets, and one acre can produce 20 or 30 baskets in a good year. The farmers often only get 15 or 1ess baskets per acre though, because at ploughing time they all have to go and hide from the soldiers to avoid being taken as porters. Also, the land is not fertile anymore because it has been used for so long with no fertiliser. The farmers can't afford fertiliser, so they can’t grow enough rice. Some farmers have 7 to 10 acres, but some only have 2 or 3 acres, and they need about 50 baskets of unhulled rice to feed their family for the year. Apart from being forced to sell their rice to the Corporation, the rest of their rice goes to pay off their loans from the Corporation and to hire bullocks and workers. The farmers have to work very hard, but at the end their left with nothing. Many even have to eat rice soup instead of rice now, because they don't have enough rice to survive.
Everyone must also pay "porter fees" - the SLORC comes and takes money and, says it will be used to hire porters. In town, every family must pay about 80 or 90 Kyat per month. In rural areas, the troops demand 200 or 300 Kyat per month from every family. Each village or town suburb has a leader who is responsible to come up with the money each month. If it isn’t enough, and it often isn't, the SLORC takes people as porters. Whether the fees have been paid or not, the soldiers also come around at night often, checking every house for "unregistered visitors" [Civilians everywhere are under orders to report all overnight visitors to SLORC authorities]. They say this is what they're looking for, but they really just want porters. At each house where they find an unregistered visitor, they take everyone in the house as porters.
I'm not sure what happens to the porter fees - maybe some goes for porters or to build roads and things, but I think maybe, the SLORC just uses it for themselves. All the money to build everything comes from the people - we're forced to pay different fees every month, always collected by the Army.
In the villages people are forced to act as sentries on roads, bridges, etc. If the soldiers catch them, sleeping when they're supposed to be sentries, they have to pay fines of chickens, rice or personal belongings. The SLORC also forces 10 or 20 people from every village to be in their militia. The soldiers don’t give them any training, just give them a gun, take them along on patrol and order them to fight the Karen Army. The SLORC makes every family in the villages give 3 baskets of rice every month to support this militia.
Near Pa’an, every family that lives along the main road has to build a brick wall 5 feet high with an iron gate in front of their house. The wall has to be white. You must pay for it yourself, and if you can't then you have to leave. People don't want to lose their homes, so they have to borrow money to build the wall. For the families of military men, the SLORC arranges and pays for it.
Leaf roofs are not longer allowed either, except on the roofs of shops owned by military families. The SLORC does all of this so they can say, "Look, we have made the city beautiful and improved your living standards". I think it has something to do with the advice of Ne Win's astrologers.
Since 1988, many of the ricefields, have been taken from farmers because the SLORC has forced thousands of people to move to the fields outside Pa'an. They have forced people from Pa'an, Rangoon, and all over the country to move there. I’m not sure how many people are there now; but it's already about as big as Pa'an. The SLORC says they were moved because the places they stayed before were too crowded, but I think maybe it’s another idea of Ne Win's astrologers. There are also some civil servants with over 20 years’ service who moved there voluntarily. Every family has to pay 2,000 Kyat for a piece of ground 60 feet by 40 feet. There is no water, electricity, drainage or anything for the people there. Even in Pa'an town, only the few people who can afford a meter box can get electricity.
After 1988, all the people I worked with who had been involved in the demonstrations were transferred or arrested. Under the SLORC, I was only paid 750 to 800 Kyat per month, and I have 4 kids. It was never enough - hulled rice is 450 Kyat per basket, and a 1viss [1.6 kilogram] chicken costs 150 Kyat. We had to live on vegetables and fish paste, and whenever we got sick we had to go in debt. It was just impossible to live, so we came here.