Wounded soldiers receive little support from Burma’s military regime. (Photo: Yuzo / The Irrawaddy)
By MIN LWIN
The Irrawaddy News
A morning breeze cools a perspiring Zaw Moe as he walks through a residential neighborhood in the outskirts of Rangoon with a pile of books in his arms.
Wearing a faded Burmese army uniform, the 42-year-old ex-corporal supports himself on crutches as he makes his way from door to door with the low-priced books on Buddhism that he sells for a living. Seven years after losing a leg while serving as a soldier in Burma’s 400,000-strong army, the crutches have become a natural extension of his body.
Like thousands of other disabled veterans of the Burmese regime’s endless anti-insurgent campaigns, Zaw Moe struggles to support his family of four on his meager earnings.
“I didn’t want to do this kind of work at first, because I made sacrifices for my country,” he said, speaking to The Irrawaddy from a public telephone near a crowded market. “But I couldn’t afford to feed my family, so I had to do something or starve.”
In a soft voice, he explained that his monthly pension of 10,000kyat (less than US $9) is barely enough to pay his rent. “After we were forced to leave the military housing compound, I had to get used to doing this job.”
But peddling religious texts is not easy on the former soldier’s pride.
“Some people are willing to listen, but most just want the throw us out,” he said. “They think we are just beggars.”
Military sources in Burma say that times have gotten tougher for soldiers wounded in action. In the past, generals often allowed disabled servicemen to remain in on-base housing compounds until they were ready to leave of their own accord. Now, however, they are expected to leave as soon as they are no longer able to perform active duty.
“Before they could stay as long as they wanted,” said an officer from Light Infantry Battalion 702, based in Hmawbi Township, Irrawaddy Division. “But now the commanding officers don’t want them to stay and expel them from the compounds.”
The source added that the shift in policy began in late 2007 and is now enforced under orders from senior generals in the Ministry of Defense.
Official statistics on the number of disabled soldiers in the Burmese armed forces are not available, but sources close to the Defense Services Rehabilitation Hospital in Rangoon’s Mingaladon Township said that at least ten thousand soldiers have lost limbs over the past two decades.
“Most of the soldiers were injured by landmines,” said one source at the hospital. “The insurgents’ handmade landmines are rarely capable of killing, but they are effective at blowing off hands or legs.”
For enlisted men who survive landmine injuries, the options are limited.
“Disabled veterans fit into three categories,” said one former soldier who lost a hand in battle. “Some can survive by selling religious books door to door in our uniforms. Others have skills, such as sewing or cutting hair. For the rest, there is nothing they can do but beg.”
Officers generally fare much better. Most who suffer injuries get positions in the military bureaucracy or in civil departments, retaining the privileges of their rank.
“If a rank-and-file soldier gets injured, he is no longer considered fit to serve his country,” said a sergeant from Light Infantry Division 88, contrasting the fate of officers with that of low-ranking soldiers.
One of the few provisions made for injured veterans is a vocational training program. Training centers in Pyinbongyi, Pegu and Kyaukse townships teach practical subjects such as sewing, photography, garment dyeing, electronics repair and hairdressing.
“Every physically disabled person who was injured in fighting against insurgents can attend the school,” said a sergeant at one of the schools. “However, the schools can’t accept all applicants, because two of the schools do not have enough accommodation or trainers.”
For Win Than Than, the wife of a corporal who lost his leg in battle several months ago, such help as the military is willing to offer falls far short of her family’s immediate needs.
“As soon as he was injured, we had to leave his battalion. Now I don’t know how we will survive with our children,” she said.