Chapter 5: Looting, Extortion and Arbitrary Taxation
Foundation of Fear: 25 years of villagers’ voices from southeast Myanmar
Written and published by Karen Human Rights Group KHRG #2017-01, October 2017
“They [SPDC/ Tatmadaw] asked me for money but I had no money because I was just a farmer. I only had money sometimes when I hired myself out to work. If I couldn’t give them money they said they’d hit me and kill me. So I had to borrow some money from another villager. If I couldn’t find the money, I had to go as a porter for them.”
Saw Da--- (male), quoted in a report written by KHRG, Db---- village, Hpa-an District/ central Kayin State (interviewed in September 1998)
“We [villagers] have to pay them [KNU] every year. We have to pay cardamom and motorbike [taxes to] them. The KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army] also demanded money fromus.They [villagers] mainly complained about cardamom and motorbike taxations. They [villagers] always talk to the village heads to bring up this issue when ever they [village heads] go to a meeting along with [KNU] top leaders. They taxed it in two levels. They firstly demanded it at the village level, then at the checkpoint level.”
Saw A--- (male, 52), B--- village, Htantabin Township, Toungoo District/ northern Kayin State (published in November 2016)
- Villagers report that taxes in southeast Myanmar remain unclear and arbitrary, and that, in addition to taxation by the Myanmar government and KNU, they are often taxed by multiple armed groups. Villagers report that they do not see any benefit to their lives from taxation and that the taxation is not proportionate to their income, making it a financial burden. The burden that taxation places on villagers, with little to no social benefit provided in return for this taxation means that most taxation in southeast Myanmar can be viewed as arbitrary. Furthermore, villagers continue to mistrust the tax system due to excessive taxes and extortion levied on them throughout the conflict by Tatmadaw and EAGs.
- The persistent presence of armed checkpoints is a significant restriction on villagers’ trade, freedom of movement, access to basic goods and ability to earn an income. These checkpoints are often run by multiple armed groups in southeast Myanmar. Furthermore, the presence of checkpoints increases villagers’ exposure to armed actors and, therefore, to additional abuses including threats, arbitrary arrest, violent abuse and detention.
- During the conflict, looting and extortion, committed most commonly by Tatmadaw, acted as direct attacks on villagers livelihoods. A significant consequence of looting and extortion, when combined with additional abuses in armed conflict, was displacement, and many villagers faced debt or refused to meet the demands levied on their village by armed actors.
- Extortion, while less frequent since the 2012 ceasefire, is a barrier for villagers to access justice when it is imposed by powerful actors, including the Myanmar Police and armed groups. The incidences of extortion in the justice system mean that villagers do not feel that the system works for their protection and helps to maintain their mistrust of the Myanmar government.
Consistently, throughout the 25 years of KHRG reporting, villagers in southeast Myanmar have found that their financial security has been undermined through various forms of abuse at the hands of armed actors. The analysis of KHRG reports has shown that Karen villagers have been systematically targeted and impoverished through the methods of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation. Whilst these abuses may not cause bodily harm, unlike some of the abuses covered in this report, they are included here because the impact that they had and continue to have on villagers in southeast Myanmar is as significant. Furthermore, although these abuses have been separated, they cannot be viewed completely in isolation, as they often accompany each other, as well as other abuses including displacement, violent threats, and land confiscation.
This chapter will highlight how villagers describe these abuses as serious because they severely undermine their ability to survive and fend for themselves, targeting basic possessions and villagers’ savings, which are a form of security. However, in order to understand the present financial situation many villagers find themselves in, it is necessary to compare and contrast the current ceasefire period, which began with the preliminary ceasefire in 2012, with the conflict period covered by KHRG reports between 1992 and 2012, whilst maintaining an understanding that sporadic conflict has also continued since 2012. After the examination of the reports spanning 25 years, this chapter will proceed to analyse the impacts of these abuses according to villagers, including financial hardship, displacement, fear and mistrust of the taxation system. Finally, the agency strategies that villagers employ when they face looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation will be discussed.
25 years of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation
The majority of the looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation committed during the conflict period covered by KHRG reports, between 1992 and 2012, were perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, who attacked villagers as part of the ‘four cuts’ policy. The aim of this policy, which was officially adopted as a military tactic in the 1960s, was to sever links between civilians and EAGs including the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), by focusing on funding, supplies, intelligence, and recruits. Through looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation of the local population, the Tatmadaw attempted to limit the funding and supplies that could go to the KNLA. This was highlighted in a KHRG report from 1992, that “anypropertyorfoodislootedordestroyedbytheStateLawandOrderRestorationCouncil(SLORC)troopsas“rebelsupplies””. However, the significant effect of this policy was on the villagers themselves, as in an attempt to deny food, money and supplies to the KNLA, the Tatmadaw denied villagers’ access to these essential necessities. The four cuts policy severely hindered the villagers' ability to fend for themselves, and led to many of the excessive human rights abuses and livelihood impacts that villagers continue to feel the effects of.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA Buddhist) and the Border Guard Force (BGF) also abused the financial survival of villagers during the conflict, by deliberately draining villagers of money and supplies through looting and extortion. In addition, the KNLA and Karen National Union (KNU) demanded food and money from villagers; however, community members frequently described this abuse in less accusatory terms, as illustrated by one villager from Toungoo District in 1999 when he stated that the village head “wasunabletoavoidbeingfriendswiththeKNLA”. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw, DKBA (Buddhist), KNU and KNLA demanded taxes from villagers arbitrarily throughout the conflict, using both financial fees, which were said to be for soldiers’ salaries, and tax demands in the form of food supplies such as rice, which were said to be for soldiers’ rations. These taxes were not optional and were often demanded by multiple armed groups, through the village head, and caused a significant financial burden on the villagers. Therefore, not all the financial attacks on villagers can be attributed to the four cuts policy, but also because there was a direct reliance on villagers to support the activities of the armed groups through money, rice and other basic supplies.
Since the preliminary ceasefire, arbitrary taxes have continued to be levied against villagers by all of the armed groups that operate in southeast Myanmar, in addition to the taxes for public services by the Myanmar Government and the KNU. Nevertheless, the standard of public services in southeast Myanmar does not fairly reflect the level of taxation, which means that the majority of taxes can be considered arbitrary. Taxation in villages, and additional fees enforced at checkpoints on villagers, are now the most common complaints from communities with regard to their financial security. While, in general, recent examples of looting and extortion are limited and are perpetrated by a minority of corrupt individuals from the BGF, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA Benevolent), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA Buddhist Splinter), and Tatmadaw as well as the Myanmar Police and government officials.
Legal and political commitments
Since signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, the Tatmadaw/BGF, KNU, DKBA (Benevolent) and KNU/KNLA-PC have been subject to the agreement that they would reduce certain military activities. This includes looting and extortion, as can be seen in Articles 9.d and 9.g:
“Avoid for cibly taking money, property, food, labour or services from civilians.” And “Avoid the destruction of public property, looting, theft, or the taking of property without permission.”
However, the word ‘avoid’ allows potential for impunity of military actors for at least some of the attacks on villagers’ financial survival, and can explain why there are still sustained incidences of these abuses. Most notably, the problem of arbitrary taxation by armed groups is not dealt with in the NCA and remains a sensitive and troublesome topic as it is heavily relied on by armed groups for their income generation.
There are significant weaknesses in the NCA and it may be more valuable to refer to international legislation. The international commitments placed upon the Myanmar Government, and Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs), can be found in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 31 of the Convention prohibits the use of extortion:
“No physical or moral coercion shall be exercised against protected persons, inparticular to obtain information from them or from third parties.”
While Article 33 limits the use of looting in conflict:
“Pillage is prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”
Once again there is no mention of arbitrary taxation, however, depending on the situation this issue could be argued to fall under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Looting and extortion
Since the preliminary ceasefire there has been a marked decrease in the examples of looting and extortion committed by armed groups in southeast Myanmar, while complaints that Myanmar government officials and the Myanmar Police have begun to be implicated in these practices are more frequent. During the conflict period, Tatmadaw was the most prolific perpetrator of looting and extortion, in part because of their ‘four cuts’ policy, with similar abuses also perpetrated against villagers by DKBA (Buddhist) and BGF. Tatmadaw, and to a certain extent BGF since its formation from DKBA (Buddhist) soldiers in 2010, have significantly reduced their involvement in looting and extortion since the ending of the ‘four cuts’ policy, but also because they are now said to be receiving consistent salaries from the Myanmar government, which was often not the case during the conflict.
Between 1992 and 2012 according to KHRG reports, looting and extortion by Tatmadaw was extremely aggressive in nature, as they acted with impunity and deliberate intention to harm the possessions and livelihoods of civilians. This treatment of villagers as “rebels” with the purpose of “starvingthemout”created an environment of further abuses against villagers, which meant that Tatmadaw stole villagers’ basic and essential goods and money for their own use, as well as deliberately destroying villagers’ supplies so that they could not be re-used.
Specifically focusing on the examples of looting during the conflict, villagers reported that their belongings were stolen from them on a frequent basis by the armed groups, most commonly Tatmadaw. The regularity with which villagers experienced looting was described in an interview with Naw Dd--- from Dooplaya District in 1998:
“They [SPDC/Tatmadaw] also stole our fruit and vegetables that grow near our houses, like corn, cucumbers and many kinds of fruit. They stole our chickens at night when we couldn’t see. If we went to tell their commander, he said, ‘If you see them, just tell them not to do it’. When they rotated their troops, they took all the chickens and sold them in Saw Hta village. If they’re sleeping in Db---, they go to Dc--- to steal. Whenever they’re patrolling they look to see who has a lot of chickens. They sleep two nights in the village, then they leave for two or three days and then come back again.”
Naw Dd--- (female, 31), Dooplaya District/ southern Kayin State (interviewed in September 1998)
Furthermore, these attacks on the villagers’ financial survival were tightly combined with other abuses, such as burning of all or some of the village. Consequently, villagers were left in severe destitution, as in addition to being left without homes, they were left without any personal belongings, food, and livestock. Additionally, it was not only the homes of the villages and their personal belongings that were targeted, but villagers highlighted that religious spaces were also looted for financial gain, including churches, and these abuses was part of a holistic system of oppression, ultimately resulting in villagers being driven out of their communities with no more avenues to sustain or protect themselves, displaced.
While the deliberate and discriminatory abuse has perceptibly lessened, the application of the rule of law and accountability of armed actors remains weak and therefore cases of looting by armed actors against villagers persist. According to KHRG reports, DKBA (Buddhist splinter), DKBA (Benevolent), BGF and Tatmadaw have all looted villagers’ property in southeast Myanmar since the preliminary ceasefire. Recent examples of looting perpetrated by armed groups are often committed by rogue commanders; nevertheless, this shows that members of armed groups are continuing to act within the impunity they enjoyed during the conflict, which maintains the mistrust that villagers have of the Tatmadaw and undermines villagers’ sense of security in southeast Myanmar.
Of serious concern is the involvement of the Myanmar Police in looting, which is often closely connected to other mistreatment, and indicates that in some cases the Myanmar Police are involved in multiple human rights abuses. This was demonstrated in an interview detailing forced displacement in 2015 by the Myanmar Police and the Myanmar Department of Forest Management in Hpa-an Township, as the land had been designated a forest reserve. In the interview Ma A--- explained that not only did she suffer the abuse of land confiscation, but she was left with limited belongings because she experienced direct abuse of her livelihood through looting at the same time:
“Because they [Myanmar Police and officials from the Myanmar Department of Forest Management] came and did to me like that [threatened to arrest me and destroyed my house], I have been very miserable and I am not able to be happy since then. I have been miserable because I do not have my own business anymore. They took or ate [and drank] all of the things that I sell in my shop, including the bottles of juice, beer, and thermoses, and all of the other goods that I have in my shop.”
Ma A--- (female, 43), B--- village, Hpa-an Township, Thaton District/ northern Mon State (interviewed in July 2015)
Affected villagers in this case submitted a complaint letter to the KNU, however, as the perpetrators of this abuse were the Myanmar government and the Myanmar Police, there is limited hope of justice for Ma A--- and the other villagers.
Villagers have also reported that the Myanmar Police have been involved in abusing villagers through extortion, since the preliminary ceasefire. Although KHRG has received limited reports on this issue, extortion tends to be connected to arrests and police investigations, because of corrupt government, police and military officials, which implicate Tatmadaw and KNU in the practice. Examples include a villager having to pay 100,000 kyat (US$105.30) to be released from Tatmadaw custody in Toungoo District in 2014, a Tatmadaw commander demanding one million kyat (US$1,000) to release a villager in Hpapun District in 2013, and the Myanmar Police demanding 200,000 kyat (US$169.19) from a villager who had accidently shot himself, in order not to investigate the case, in Toungoo District in 2015. This is a serious issue, as it means that villagers face the barriers of bribery and corruption when attempting to access justice, criminalises villagers and undermines belief in the justice system.
The current use of extortion by the judicial system is in contrast to its practice during the conflict, where it was extensively used by Tatmadaw when demanding forced labour and forced recruitment, as villagers were made to pay fees in order to not fulfil those burdens. Villagers reported that they had no choice between fulfilling the demands or paying the extortion fees, which the latter would allow them to continue to work and earn their livelihood. However, these were never one-off payments, and villagers found themselves having to pay extortion regularly, which hindered their livelihood and survival to the point where many saw no alternative but to displace themselves. A KHRG report from Mergui-Tavoy District in 1993 explained that extortion, in the guise of ‘replacement fees’, was often demanded of villages, via their village head, if they could not or would not supply a specific number of villagers to become soldiers:
“The SLORC [Tatmadaw] has given orders to al lvillages in [Mergui-] Tavoy District that each village must send2 recruits to become SLORC soldiers. Villages which cannot provide the required recruits are forced to hire itinerant workers or others to go in their place for 15,000 kyat each (US$15.00). Any family which sends their son to be a SLORC soldiers must thenceforth be given 30 tins of rice and 300 kyat (US$0.30) every year by the other villagers.”
Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Hpapun, Mergui-Tavoy and Nyaunglebin Districts/Kayin State (published in April 1994)
The demands for ‘porter fees’ and ‘soldier fees’ often used the language of taxation, even though this was extortion and used by Tatmadaw and EAGs as another form of punishment and abuse against villagers. This results in extortion now being easily confused by villagers with current requests for taxation that the armed groups, including DKBA (Benevolent), BGF and Tatmadaw, issue in southeast Myanmar. Therefore, the legacy of past extortion compounds the mistrust villagers have of the current tax system. This is a serious problem as villagers now report that the financial hardship they experience is mostly because of taxation and that this significantly affects their livelihoods. Overall, as the incidences of looting and extortion have diminished, so too have the financial constraints that they place upon villagers, but the mistrust that they created continues to exist, especially when villagers are made to pay taxation in a militarised system lacking transparency.
Taxation is commonly disliked and complained about across the world; however, a fair and functioning tax system is wholly necessary to fund essential public services in a country. The Myanmar Government and the KNU are the two government authorities that implement and follow a formal taxation system in southeast Myanmar, however, for a tax system to be viewed as legitimate it must benefit those that it collects from. In southeast Myanmar, essential services are not being provided to villagers, as there is persistently poor infrastructure and the void of basic health and education services in rural areas despite the existence of government taxation. Furthermore, KHRG reports demonstrate that the majority of communities in southeast Myanmar view Myanmar’s taxation system as corrupt, exploitative and disproportionately causing them financial hardship. Therefore, although the implementation of a fair and functioning tax system is not a human rights abuse, the taxes that are collected in southeast Myanmar place a significant burden on villagers, without providing any evident benefit. Consequently, the arbitrary nature of taxation is viewed as a continuation of methods to undermine villagers’ subsistence and financial survival, as seen extensively during the conflict.
There are a wide variety of taxes that villagers in southeast Myanmar currently have to pay, which are levied on a range of household and livelihood items, as well as travel and livestock taxes charged at checkpoints. Despite formal tax policies by the Myanmar government and KNU, villagers have reported that taxes are collected by a variety of different actors and on items and materials that do not fall under the official taxes listed in the Myanmar government or KNU tax policies. These taxes are imposed by a variety of armed actors, routinely the BGF, DKBA (Benevolent), Tatmadaw, KNLA and Karen Peace Council (KPC). Additionally, the Myanmar government considers any taxes not levied by themselves to be arbitrary, which includes the KNU and EAGs. However, villagers accuse Myanmar government officials of misappropriating tax, and altogether these factors indicate that very little of the taxation imposed on villagers in southeast Myanmar can be considered to be legitimate.
Villagers frequently report of the financial burden that taxation places on their livelihood, which has been exacerbated by the increase of taxation since the 2012 preliminary ceasefire. Villagers report a lack of a sliding scale between how much rich and poor people must pay in taxation, which means that taxation disproportionately burdens poorer villagers, at times reaching unmanageable levels inconsistent to many villagers’ incomes. For example, in 2015 Naw A---, a village head from Hpapun District, noted how some of the villagers were unable to pay the full range of overlapping taxes:
“The Kawthoolei [KNU] collected 15,000 kyat (US$11.55), and [inaddition] they collected 50,000 kyat (US$38.49) for each car. [The] 15,000 kyat (US$11.55) [was] for each motorbike, and each motorboat [was taxed at] 15,000 kyat (US$11.55) [as well]. Based on these [numbers], it is too much for the villagers. As we are village heads, we did not say anything [to the KNU]. We collected the tax for them as we could, but for the villagers who work as missionaries it is very hard for them to afford on that [salary].Therefore she [one of the missionaries] reported it [to the KNU], but if they don’t diminishit [the tax], we will give it asother people give.”
Naw A--- (female, 51), Section C--- of D--- Town, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/ northeastern Kayin State (interview received February 2016)
The financial difficulties that villagers face have been intensified by the fact that not just KNU and Myanmar government, but also multiple armed groups, collect the same taxes in areas where they are active. A repeat offender is the DKBA (Benevolent), which does not have a formal tax system but follows the KNU system, as explained by Saw A---, from Kawkareik Township in 2015:
“For DKBA, they collect yearly taxes such as [for] farm, hillfarm, chain saw, lumber saw, and wildyam business. They tax all those things.”
(Q) How many wild yam businesses are there here? And how much do they tax for each one?
They tax based on KNU’s taxation system. KNU tax 1,500 [Baht] [US$41.67] and they [DKBA] tax 1,500 [Baht] [US$41.67], the same as KNU.
1,500 is in Thai Baht?
Yes. They tax the same [tax] standard as KNU.
How do they tax each year?
If KNU tax four bowls [ofrice], they [DKBA] tax four bowls as well.”
Saw A---, (Male, 50) B--- village, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/ southern Kayin State (interview received in August 2015)
This duplication of taxation places a burden on the villagers living in areas where multiple armed groups assume control. Villagers report that they do not want to pay the DKBA (Benevolent) taxes and other arbitrary taxes, not only because of financial struggle, but also because they doubt that any benefits will be provided to them after they have been taxed. This indicates mistrust in the taxation system imposed by multiple armed groups, which in part stems from the abuse of arbitrary taxation and extortion imposed during the conflict.
The imposition of taxes by armed groups is an additional reminder of the militarisation that villagers continue to experience. Hence, in 2015 Naw Du---, from Dooplaya District, questioned why she still had to pay taxes to armed groups now that the there was a ceasefire. Prior to the preliminary ceasefire, armed groups collected taxes, which were used by corrupt officials and for military purposes and provided no benefit to the villagers. These taxes varied in amounts and frequency, and could include payments of money, as well as rice and other belongings, which significantly undermined the survival of villagers. Saw G---, a village head from Mergui-Tavoy District, explained the situation in 2009:
“We also have to pay the taxes. We have to pay for their office and for their battalion. Manythings we have topay for.I have many debts to pay. I had to pay 30,000 kyat (US$30.00) [to the SPDC/ Tatmadaw]. I couldn’t collect [the money] from the villagers. I have to pay by myself [because he is the headman]. They [the SPDC] often come and collect money and we have to pay it... They’ve asked for so many things, I can’t remember all of them”.
Field Report written by KHRG staff, Mergui-Tavoy District/ Tanintharyi Region (published in October 2009)
Saw G--- explained that the taxation system was arbitrary, unclear and compulsory, which is similar to complaints reported to KHRG across the past 25 years. The views of the villagers during the conflict period and the ceasefire period echo each other, showing that the financial security of villagers has not improved. Taxation continues to be imposed arbitrarily and by a range of actors, and this is no more obvious than at checkpoints.
Villagers frequently raise the issue of checkpoints and the taxes collected there, as they are the most common and obvious form of arbitrary taxation imposed on villagers in southeast Myanmar at present. Checkpoints, can be set up by both state and non-state actors, and can be either official or unofficial, but all feature arbitrary taxation to some degree. They are frequently located along main roads, as well as along rivers to tax boats. At the checkpoints taxes are levied against anyone or any possessions that pass through them, including goods, taxis, traders, and passengers. Armed groups currently active in taxing villagers at checkpoints include the KNU, DKBA (Benevolent), Tatmadaw, Myanmar Immigration Police and BGF, as well as private companies in more recent examples. Villagers state that these armed groups and authorities use checkpoints as a means to extort money from villagers, and to raise money for military activities, hence villagers often state that checkpoints do not benefit them:
“The DKBA is traveling and operating in this area. We do not see them doing anything to benefit civilians. They are collecting tax from saw mills, cars [which pass checkpoints], 50,000 kyat (US$ 51.33) for one phone, 100,000 kyat (US$102.67) [to be allowed to own] one elephant [for one year], 100,000 kyat (US$102.67) for one wild yam stove, rubber plantations, and they collect money from [travellers at] check points.”
Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Kyonedoe Township, Dooplaya District/ southern Kayin State (received in September 2014)
Checkpoints are not a new point of arbitrary taxation in southeast Myanmar, as villagers have frequently described being held up at multiple checkpoints along a journey, which would be manned by different armed groups who charged assorted amounts of taxation, across the 25 years of KHRG reporting. Before the preliminary ceasefire, Tatmadaw, and to a lesser extent DKBA (Buddhist), used checkpoints to control and target community members, as they could not be avoided by villagers travelling by road. The extent to which checkpoints were used during the conflict was explained by a KHRG researcher from Hpa-an District in 2009:
“The subsequent Thin Gan Nyi Naung [village] check point is located only a short distance past the Special Industrial Zone checkpoint and is operated by SPDC [Tatmadaw] soldiers, State officials and Police alongside DKBA and KPF soldiers. Toll charges here are less than the other large checkpoints. At Thin Gan Nyi Naung each light truck must pay a toll of 3,000 kyat (US$2.75) and each heavy truck must pay a toll of 15,000 kyat (US$13.76). Drivers of public transport also usually ask their passengers ahead of time to pay “life insurance fees” (“athet amakhan kyay”) of between 500 and 1,000 kyat (US$0.50-1.00) to meet an additional separate bulk payment at Thin Gan Nyi Naung, although occasionally this fee is not required.”
Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Hpa-an District/ central Kayin State (published in October 2009)
Not only were taxes levied at checkpoints, but arbitrary restrictions imposed on villagers caused further abuse. Additional restrictions were arbitrary in that they varied per checkpoint, the costs were not transparently communicated to villagers, and the actual purpose of the restrictions remained elusive. Villagers reported that transportation and amounts of basic necessities have been heavily and arbitrarily restricted, and at times included essential items such as rice, batteries, and medicine. Villagers, who were found to be transporting too much, or any restricted items, risked being arrested, fined or even arbitrarily detained and tortured. Under a government system of severe oppression lasting decades, this additional barrier to receiving basic supplies had severe impacts on villagers, exacerbating serious livelihood concerns including poor health, lack of basic food supplies, lack of financial security and a lack of freedom of movement. In many cases, the armed officials at checkpoints were corrupt enough to accept high bribes paid by villagers in order to let them travel with restricted items, such as medicine. These arbitrary restrictions, bribes and fees drained villagers financially, and this was worsened because they were often required to carry an expensive permit recommendation from the local authority to be able to travel at all and faced arrest, a fine or severe violent abuse if they were caught travelling without a permit. These impositions were explained by a KHRG researcher from Toungoo District in 2005:
“At these check points, every passenger has their ID checked, they are interrogated and every bagis checked. Civilians in the area say this is a great burden on them and restricts their movements. If the soldiers want something from a passenger they interrogate and intimidate them until they can demand money or other possessions. They arrest everyone who doesn’t have an identity card and fine people who are not carrying a pass issued by local military or SPDC authorities. The fine is usually 5,000 Kyat (US$5.00).”
Commentary written by a KHRG researcher, Toungoo District/ northern Kayin State (published in August 2005)
This need for permits and payments meant that checkpoints enforced restrictions on villagers’ freedom of movement, which meant that Tatmadaw, and at times EAGs, imposed an atmosphere of control, fear and insecurity on the lives of the community members. This insecurity was particularly evident when villagers were stopped at checkpoints, as they were subject to the whims of the armed actors manning the checkpoint. Villagers reported that they were placed in vulnerable positions when being made to walk through checkpoints, with community members who appeared to be from rural areas more frequently targeted for abuse. The continued existence of checkpoints reinforces the context of militarisation, making it impossible for villagers to avoid armed groups and therefore placing them at risk of further abuse, both financial and otherwise. Additional abuses villagers reported facing at checkpoints included torture, GBV and arbitrary detention.
While in recent years, notably since 2012, the indiscriminate treatment that some villagers faced at checkpoints appears to have lessened, but threats and intimidation towards villagers carries on. These abuses, when encountering armed actors at checkpoints, ensure that villagers in southeast Myanmar continue to have concerns over their personal safety, due to the presence of checkpoints when they travel. Furthermore, car drivers and traders, particularly animal traders, report that they have not seen any easing of the taxes they face at checkpoints, which often hampers the profits that they can make in their trade. The issues that traders face were highlighted by a KHRG researcher in Win Yay Township in 2015:
“When they were onthe way with theircows,they had to cross manycheckpoints. So they had topaya lot of money as a tax. Although they paid money, the officer [from an unknown group] at the checkpoint said their money [tax] was not enough. Those checkpoints are related to many armed groups including Myanmar army group [Tatmadaw] and located in Win Yay Township, Dooplaya District.”
Situation Update written by a KHRG researcher, Win Yay Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (received in September 2015)
This highlights that checkpoints have retained their purpose of raising revenue for armed groups, taking money directly from villagers without open transparency as to where it goes or who it goes to. The militarised presence of checkpoints remains for villagers in southeast Myanmar, and the burden of checkpoint taxes are still evident, even if restrictions on medicine and the need for permit recommendation letters have diminished. For example, Saw A--- from Nabu township, Hpa-an District described the taxes charged at checkpoints in 2014:
“I was fined by the [local Police] check point two times. I heard about it from the other people, but now I faced it myself. The first time was when I sent a patient from Noh Boh Kloh village to the hospital [Mae Tao clinic in Thailand]. I forgot my identification card. They [the Police] thought that I came back from Bangkok. I told them I came back from Mae Tao clinic. I went there on Friday and I came back on Tuesday. I told them I cannot remember my ID number but I have the phone number of the village head. But they said that I was lying and told me to pay 1,000 kyat (US$0.97) to the immigration [officers] and 1,000 kyat (US$0.97) to the Police. Altogether, 2,000 kyat (US$1.94). Then I came back again after two or three weeks and I forgot my ID again and I had to give 4,000 kyat (US$3.88). The people who have to suffer are those who come back from Thailand. They have to pay at least 1,000 kyat or 2,000 kyat.”
Saw A--- (Male, 36), C--- village, Nabu Township, Hpa-an District/ central Kayin State (Interview received in May 2014)
Evidently, although villagers no longer need to carry permit recommendations, ID cards are still being used as tool to extract money from villagers. Furthermore, the insistence on showing ID cards (Citizenship Scrutiny Cards) at checkpoints has further negative impacts, in addition to the financial burden it imposes. As minority groups, notably Muslims, who have faced discrimination in registering for these cards, experience restricted freedom of movement because of the existence of checkpoints.
The continued use of checkpoints places a financial burden on community members, which is in addition to the wide range of arbitrary taxation levied across southeast Myanmar. During the conflict taxation was demanded by a variety of armed groups, to directly fund their operations, and this has continued into the present day. These financial demands often included additional abuses against villagers to ensure that they would pay. Although tax systems are being implemented by the Myanmar government and KNU, the lack of public services for community members suggests that tax payers’ money is being misused and is not being collected for the public good. Taxation should be used for the benefit of those who pay it, and when this is not provided then it is an imposition on their ability to survive, undermining their human rights. Therefore, for the Myanmar government and the KNU to be the legitimate collectors of taxation and providers of services in southeast Myanmar, they need to listen to villagers voices. The taxation system needs to be made fair and easy to understand, with clear explanations as to how it benefits villagers, in addition to the ending of arbitrary taxation collection by armed actors.
The consequences of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation
As detailed above, there are three main methods of abuse that armed groups have used to attack the financial survival of villagers in southeast Myanmar, which are looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation. Although these are different methods of abuse, the consequences are often very similar. The main impacts of these abuses were and continue to be severe financial hardship, displacement, and fear and mistrust of armed actors and the taxation system itself.
Severe financial hardship due to looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation
Over a quarter of a century of KHRG reports, incidences of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation have severely compromised the extent to which villagers are able to support themselves or their families. These abuses have targeted the material goods of villagers, mainly their personal belongings, food and livestock, as well as their finances and savings. Additionally, as well as directly impacting the finances of villagers, arbitrary taxation has also indirectly raised the cost of commodities and food,as these have been subject to levies at checkpoints. This means that these abuses have been directly impacting the daily livelihood security of villagers in southeast Myanmar.
As the sustenance and survival of community members has been extensively undermined, villagers’ have been forced to adapt by changing their lifestyles, at times disrupting the cohesion of families and communities. In order to cope with the financial burden that stems from these abuses, some villagers reported having to sell their personal property in order to meet the costs of the financial demands made on them. Furthermore, villagers have also reported having to take out loans to cover the costs of the extortion and taxation, and also to cover the losses they faced from looting. This situation was reported by Naw Dt--- in Hpa-an Township in 1999:
“When they come to tax, we have torun and get it. If you have no money you have to find some you can borrow and give it to them. Many villagers borrowed money and are nowindebt. The villagers have nothing to eat, but they still have to help the Burmese [Tatmadaw]. They say that the place where we stay is government land. It’s as though we’re staying on their land so we have to pay tax to them.”
Naw Dt--- (female, 29), Hpa-an Township, Thaton District/ northern Mon State (interviewed in 1999)
Sometimes these abuses have been so excessive that the villagers have found that their financial situation has become unmanageable. When the burden placed upon the villagers became too high they have sometimes had to change the way that they earn money, as Saw Dv--- explained happened in Hlaingbwe Township in 2015:
“They [villagers] hadtoprovide four baskets [of rice] to the military [Tatmadaw] and three baskets [of rice] to the trading department [of the Myanmar government]; Seven baskets altogether so that they [villagers] could not work on it anymore [as it is too high]. They all stopped working, [and now] none of them are working [on the land].”
Saw Dv--- (male), Hlaingbwe section---, Hlaingbwe Township, Hpa-an District/ central Kayin State (Interview received in August 2015)
These abuses have been undermining the lives of the villagers, often breaking the connections they have to their lands and making it unmanageable to continue to work or live as they once had. Excessive financial demands have further changed the structure of communities by acting as a contributing factor to displacement.
Displacement due to looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation
The constant burden that was placed on villagers during the conflict, by looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation, drove many into extreme poverty, and then any further abuses often devastated them. Villagers reported repeatedly being left with minimal food after it had been looted, as well as being left without any crops to harvest or without the prospect of being able to grow enough food after their land was destroyed or their harvest was demanded as tax by the local armed group. The extensive attacks on community members by the Tatmadaw not only undermined their livelihood, but created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, one that has continued in the ceasefire period and makes community members question the strength of the current ceasefire. The precarious situation that villagers have been put in due to these overarching abuses was highlighted by a KHRG report in 2009, which explained that villager’s found themselves struggling to survive because of the constant abuses by the Tatmadaw:
“Now the animals here are gone because the SPDC [Tatmadaw] soldiers took them as their own. We’re so poor; we have nothing. Why do the SPDC soldiers keep collecting money from us, taking our properties and killing us? We don’t know where to go next. We are already exhausted.’
Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Mergui-Tavoy District/ Tanintharyi Region (published in October 2009)
This example demonstrates that looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation left people unable to cope in their communities, and the response to this was frequently displacement. As can be seen throughout 25 years of KHRG reporting, families and communities have split because some family members have migrated to Thailand to find work and to send money back to their dependents in southeast Myanmar. The difficulty of paying financial demands when villagers are subsistence farmers continues to push many villagers up to the present day off their land and into daily wage labour, which is underpaid, low skilled and unreliable, or to work without ID and therefore with extreme vulnerability to additional labour abuses in neighbouring Thailand.
When entire families were not safe to stay in their village, due to persistent abuses including extortion, looting and arbitrary taxation, and strategic displacement became their main option, although villagers often reported that they did not want to leave their homes. Displacement involved villagers and their families making the hazardous journey to refugee or IDP camps in order to avoid further confrontations, demands and abuses by armed actors in their home communities. This was described by Naw Dm--- in 1998, after she had fled from Dn--- village, when the extortion demands of replacement fees and porter fees accompanying abuses of forced labour and forced portering became impossible to negotiate, avoid or pay:
“We couldn’t stay in ourvillage because of the Burmese [Tatmadaw] and the Ko Per Baw  [DKBA]. Whenever they came to our village they forced us to go with them, and if we didn't dare to go we had to give them money. If we didn't have any money to give, we had to go. They asked for porter fees of 5,000 Kyat (USS$5.00) for one trip [to avoid going as a porter] and one trip is for 5 days. Now they've started forcing us to pay 700 Kyat (US$0.70) [per family] every month. Our family can't pay that much every month, so we had to come here.”
Naw Dm--- (Female, 21), quoted in Field Report written by a KHRG researcher, Dn--- village, Hpa-an District/central Kayin State (interviewed in August 1998)
Clearly the impact that looting, extortion and taxation has had on villager’s survival was significant, and has often been an attributing factor to villagers going into hiding, fleeing and becoming refugees or IDPs, and prompting economic migration. Whilst the burden that looting and extortion placed upon villagers has decreased since the ceasefire, arbitrary taxation continues to negatively impact upon villagers’ livelihoods. Economic migration continues to be used by villagers to secure their financial situation, and tens of thousands of villagers who displaced themselves remain in refugee and IDP camps, yet to return to their home communities, showing the persistent effects of extortion, looting, arbitrary taxation and financial insecurity in combination with multiple other abuses against villagers in southeast Myanmar.
Fear of armed actors due to extortion, looting and arbitrary taxation
Across the past 25 years, villagers frequently reported feeling fearful of armed groups; in part because of the looting and extortion they have suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw and EAGs. For example, Naw Dw--- stated that the fear of the Tatmadaw in her village came from the fact that they repeatedly entered her village to loot from the villagers:
“When the SLORC [Tatmadaw] comes to our village they take some of our livestock, coconuts, and sometimes our rice. Sometimes we don’t have any husked rice to give them, and they make us pound our paddy [unhusked rice in storage] and give it to them. We can't refuse, because we’re very afraid. Most people don’t dare face the soldiers and run away as soon as they get close to the village.”
Naw Dw--- (female, 60), Hpa-an Township, Thaton District/ northern Mon State (published in May 1994)
The fear that villagers speak of when encountering the Tatmadaw is not something that has disappeared; it is a lasting legacy from the conflict. The fear and mistrust that villagers feel towards armed groups, particularly Tatmadaw, was not alone caused by looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation. Instead they were part of a concerted tactic of abuse by the Tatmadaw during the conflict, which included violent acts, land confiscation, forced labour and discrimination. This fear continues because of the long term effect of the sustained abuse, but also because the Tatmadaw continues to act with impunity in cases of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation, and this is compounded by the involvement of EAGs and parts of law enforcement, such as the Myanmar Police, in such practices.
An additional consequence of the fear and mistrust that villagers feel around armed actors, particularly Tatmadaw and its allies, is the limitation on freedom of movement that villagers continue to feel in militarised areas, such as around checkpoints. Additionally, the presence of checkpoints throughout parts of southeast Myanmar reinforces the militarised context and insecurity that villagers continue to face every day, and heightens their exposure to potential abuses by armed actors. Whilst direct conflict may have reduced in recent years, the presence of armed actors such as at frequent checkpoints and in villages when collecting tax serves as a persistent reminder of the unsafe, militarised context in southeast Myanmar today.
Mistrust of the system of taxation
The fear that villagers feel towards the Tatmadaw, as well as the blurring of extortion and taxation, most especially in the 1990s and 2000s, has led to a general mistrust of taxation for villagers in southeast Myanmar. The lack of trust in the taxation system is exacerbated by the fact that villagers often report that they feel that they are paying too many taxes, to too many different actors and do not have information on what the taxes are for. Villagers also suggest that government officials and armed actors are misappropriating the taxes, instead of using them to provide public services for the benefit of the community. Therefore, as arbitrary taxation continues to occur, villagers will remain mistrustful of the tax system and not see it as beneficial, creating significant barriers between government authorities and the citizens that they tax. Nevertheless, since the preliminary ceasefire, villagers have demonstrated agency to check whether they are paying the correct taxes, and to find ways to alleviate the livelihood constraints that these taxes cause.
Villager agency when facing looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation
Between 1992 and 2012, as KHRG reported during the conflict, looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation were used by armed groups, predominately Tatmadaw, to undermine the livelihood and survival of villagers in southeast Myanmar. In response to this, throughout periods of persistent abuse, which commonly involved looting and extortion, villagers employed avoidance tactics such as hiding their belongings. The pattern of abuse has changed since the signing of the preliminary ceasefire, and the ending of the four cuts policy, as now these abuses are being perpetrated by corrupt individuals and armed groups for their own financial gain. In response to the changing motives and incidences of the abuse, villagers have adapted the tactics that they use to deal with these abuses, although they continue to have a similar impact on their lives. Therefore, as arbitrary taxation has become the most pressing financial abuse, villagers are now more frequently employing agency tactics of confrontation and questioning to challenge the existence of these taxes.
During the conflict, villagers took active participation defining and choosing the direction of their lives, even if the choices they had had been severely limited by the actions of the Tatmadaw and EAGs. As looting and extortion were regularly connected to other abuses during the conflict, villagers reported feeling that the alternative to not paying extortion fees or directly resisting looting would have more serious consequences than the abuse of extortion or looting in of itself. As one villager from Kyainseikgyi Township suggested in an interview in 2000:
“The villagers had to give it [house hold goods] to them [SPDC/Tatmadaw] because they fear them. If the villagers didn’t give it to them, they beat them and looted it from them anyway.”
Saw Dl--- (male, 36), quoted in a report written by a KHRG researcher, Kyainseikgyi Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (published in March 2000)
However, this is not to say that villagers did not demonstrate more active forms of agency, as to mitigate the risk of looting and extortion villagers hid their belongings in the forest or buried them. This demonstrates that villagers were not merely victims of the conflict, but actively engaged in ways to lessen the impact of abuse and avoid further abuse, as one KHRG researcher reported about T--- village, Kawkareik Township in 1995:
“They [villagers] have also taken all of their household items and hidden them in the rocks and cliffs in the area so that the SLORC[Tatmadaw] or Ko Per Baw [DKBA Buddhist] cannot take them, as the villagers have already suffered this in the past.”
Commentary written by a KHRG researcher, Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/southern Kayin State (published in January 1996)
Furthermore, some villagers contacted the KNLA or created their own home guard to monitor the movements of the Tatmadaw and other armed groups. In one report a villager described that while they hid in the jungle, Tatmadaw had looted and destroyed many of their belongings and following this, villagers created a home guard and supported the KNLA to watch over the village. The villager explained that:
“[T]he gherder [home guards] and Army [KNLA] take security. They plant hundreds of landmines to frighten and prevent the SPDC Army from coming here easily. We can do our own work year by year. In the past, in our village [Lo---] and wherever we fled and stayed, the SPDC [Tatmadaw] Army came and burned down our village and our shelters. They ate our pigs and chickens. They shot our buffalos. They took our property, like shirts and blankets, if they saw them in our hiding places in the jungle.”
Incident Report written by a KHRG researcher, Lo--- village, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/northeastern Kayin State (published in August 2011)
Problematically, as the above quote shows, in the militarised context of southeast Myanmar, relying on any protection from armed groups creates additional risks, such as the laying of “hundreds of landmines”, which not only prevented Tatmadaw from entering the village but prevented villagers from safely moving around as well. Villagers’ reported that they have repeatedly relied on the KNLA for protection from other armed actors throughout KHRG’s reporting period, and as the feeling of insecurity remains villagers continue to look for support from armed groups, which adds to the ongoing militarisation in southeast Myanmar.
Contrastingly, since the 2012 preliminary ceasefire villagers have increasingly sought justice for abuses such as looting and extortion committed against them. The impunity of the armed groups during the conflict has had a wider impact in that the judicial system also acts outside the boundaries of the law, and this means that villagers are severely limited in their ability to complain or seek justice if the abuse involves military and judicial authorities. This was highlighted by Ma A---, who explained the injustice she felt after the Myanmar Police attempted to extort money from her brother in 2013, in order not to investigate the car accident he had been in:
“But they [the police] are educated; what they are doing? I am not very educated. They are oppressing the local people a lot, so we cannot endure it. Now all our siblings are upset and our business is also ruined. We have to send food [to our brother]. We do not know how our younger brother is. He does not know anything.”
Ma A--- (female, 36), Bu Tho Township, Hpapun District/ northeastern Kayin State (interviewed in October 2013)
The impact of corruption in the Myanmar Police is clear in this example, as it creates a sense of injustice; that the justice system does not work in the interest of community members. This is a feeling that is also raised when villager's reported being taxed arbitrarily.
With regard to taxation, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, cases of villagers avoiding taxation were often intertwined with their activities to avoid looting and extortion. Notably, since the preliminary ceasefire, villagers have been active in asking for receipts when taxation has been demanded, refusing to pay when not provided with a receipt and directly confronting the tax collectors when they disagreed with the tax. This was described by a villager from Hpapun district in 2015:
“She [an other female villager] said, ‘In the past you [KNU] collected the taxes, but we did not get a receipt from you.’ They [the KNU] replied that [this year] they will provide the receipts for [both] the last year  and this year . [She said], ‘If we get a receipt we would pay the tax [since we will have a guarantee that we will not be asked to pay again]. But [either way] the taxes that you demand are too much for us. If we compare with the taxes demanded by the Burma [government], they demanded only a few kyat.’ Shesaiditopenly.”
Naw A--- (female, 21), Dt--- village, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/ northeastern Kayin State (interviewed in April 2015)
Furthermore, in an attempt to reduce the negative financial impacts of taxation, village heads and villagers have also attempted to negotiate with tax collectors, as was described by a village head from Hpapun District in 2015:
“[The [v]illagehead said that the amount of taxes the KNU is demanding is too much for the villagers to handle, but Hpapun District KNU administrator Hpuh Kaw did not reply anything to her...The village head had asked the KNU to reduce the taxes for the villagers. Some of the villagers who went with her also told the KNU that they are working as volunteer missionaries so they do not earn a good wage and they could not possibly pay all those taxes.”
Naw A--- (female, 21), Dt--- village, Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/ northeastern Kayin State (interviewed in April 2015)
The avoidance, questioning and negotiation strategies employed by villager’s show that there is still significant mistrust and lack of correct procedure with regard to the taxation system in southeast Myanmar. Ultimately, the involvement of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar government, KNU and other EAGs in the perpetual proliferation of abuses against villagers financial survival hinders the villager’s ability to seek justice for these abuses. Until corruption, impunity and the lack of transparency of armed actors and some local authorities is tackled in southeast Myanmar, villagers will continue to have a lack of trust in the presence of these actors and the taxes they demand, as well as seek to maintain their own livelihoods as much as possible without the interference of these actors. However, they would be in a much better position if the tax system was simplified and worked for their benefit, and if all cases of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation were fully prosecuted regardless of who committed the abuse.
Across the 25 years that KHRG has been reporting it has been clear that looting, extortion, and arbitrary taxation have had a significant negative effect on the lives of villagers. During the conflict, the financial sustainability and survival of villagers was targeted by the Tatmadaw, as well as the BGF and DKBA (Buddhist), which produced serious livelihood problems, an atmosphere of fear and widespread displacement. Although examples of looting and extortion have reduced since the preliminary ceasefire, the effects of the extensive abuse mean that villagers continue to feel unsafe in the presence of armed actors, especially when demands are made for taxation. Furthermore, villagers continue to feel that their finances are under attack because of taxation. Community members have reported that a variety of taxes are being collected by many different actors, including armed groups, and that they do not perceive any benefit from ongoing taxation in southeast Myanmar. Therefore, simplifying and improving that taxation system should be a priority for the Myanmar government and KNU, as well as ensuring that public services provide benefits to the villagers and reflect the taxatio