Thursday, 2 October 2008

Living under duress in Kachin State

by Shyamal Sarkar - KNG
30 September 2008

The Burmese military junta seems to have singled out Kachin State for some harsh treatment, one reason for which could be the daring level of dissidence among the student community, which has been repeatedly troubling the regime through poster campaigns, right under the very noses of junta officials.

The dissident students owing allegiance to the All Kachin Students Union (AKSU) have on a number of occasions in the past year put up posters demanding the ouster of the military dictators, freeing political prisoners, demanding a tripartite dialogue, putting a halt to environment unfriendly projects in the state, self determination rights among other demands, which are not new. Not just posters, activists are known to take to the streets either early in the morning or late at night and spray paint walls of government buildings, schools, colleges, markets and other key places making the same demands. The posters were put up despite the high alert in the township sounded by the junta since August.

The periodic movement carried out with precision has had junta officials including the police running from pillar to post trying to tear down the posters or white washing the spray painted walls, lest residents start getting ideas and join the angry students in their campaign against the junta.

The posting of a new Commander in the Northern Command, Maj-Gen Soe Win, who has taken charge of Kachin State, seems to have been done with a brief from the junta brass to come down on dissident activity with a heavy hand and keep people of the state on a leash.

He has gone about his mission with gusto, not uncommon among enthusiastic military officers of the regime. In the wake of students pasting anti-regime posters to denounce the 20th anniversary of the coup in the country on September 18, the Commander imposed night curfew in Myitkyina the capital of Kachin State from 10 p.m. to teach people a lesson. Then the harassment followed.

The police began rounding up people on the streets even before 10 p.m. before the curfew came into force. The idea was to create panic among people. To further hurt residents, the arrested began to be fined heavily to the tune of Kyat 10,000, equivalent to US $ 8. Shops were ordered to down shutters by 9 p.m. The police was taken to task by the Commander because they were unable to prevent activists from putting up posters.

In an effort to nab dissidents and check their activities the Military Affairs Security Unit (Sa-Ya-Pha) was told by the Commander to offer a reward of 100,000 Kyat equivalent to US $ 84 to anyone providing information about activists.

The form of harassment since the new Commander took over has been varied, but all are intent to keep people in the state under the thumb of the junta.

For instance, of a sudden junta officials began searching guest houses and hotels and started making arbitrary arrests of people they suspected. The police in Myitkyina began checking hotels which did not report overnight guests to the authorities. The hotels which allow prostitutes to operate came especially under the scanner. Prostitutes and guests were hauled away to police stations charged and detained. The prostitutes were released later. Even couples dating in parks or on roadsides were not spared.

People in Kachin state as such have been living on the edge. Suddenly the junta authorities decided that subscribers would have to shell out the costs of changing numbers of landline telephones in Myitkyina. The order issued stated that telephones starting with the code number 25 would be changed to 20 and subscribers would have to pay over 550,000 Kyat equivalent to US $ 464 each by September 30 to the State Telecommunication Office in the township.

The reason behind the change in number had to do with disruptions on landline telephones starting with the code number 25 being operated with China-made Telephone Service Operating Machines. These had to be replaced with a new Israel manufactured Telephone Service Operating Machines. Normally, the expense ought to be borne by the telephone department but here subscribers were fleeced, in all probability to save on government revenue or pocket the funds meant for the change.

From whichever angle one views the activities of the junta in Kachin State it is apparent that the people are at the receiving end and left holding the wrong end of the stick.

The Township Municipal Office in Myitkyina has been collecting increasing municipal taxes from residents but they are not getting the desired services whereas army officials do. While residents and shops and establishment owners pay enhanced tax for garbage collection, the civic body accords priority to the junta's Northern Command military headquarters in the township. Despite increased taxes the municipality has done nothing to enhance its fleet of garbage trucks. Only three trucks are in working condition.

Laws are flexible and used to suit the needs of the junta authorities. Without notice traffic police began seizing Chinese manufactured motorcycle rickshaws (three wheelers) called the Tong-bee-car in Myitkyina. All this while the traffic police have been levying a charge of 3,000 Kyat equivalent to US $ 2.5 on drivers operating unlicensed three wheelers. In a town where all three wheelers are unlicensed the very act of seizing them becomes meaningless because there are no provisions to provide a license.

It is such repression that has students up in arms and recently led to an instance where a traffic policeman was thrashed by irate people when the police was seizing unlicensed motorcycles in Myitkyina. The Township Land Transportation Department (Ka-Nya-Na) announced it would issue license for motorcycles till the end of October. But most unlicensed motorcycle owners are not even remotely interested because of the high fees pegged by the junta.

The high handedness of the junta continues in Kachin State despite the areas being under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which boasts an armed wing. The KIO, which has a ceasefire agreement with the junta, has always appeased the regime given the business ventures it operates courtesy the regime and the wealth it enjoys. Of late, after supporting the junta's referendum on the draft constitution, the KIO seems to be toeing the regime's line even more vehemently.

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