The government’s granting of car licenses to ethnic rebels comes amid ongoing peace talks, a gesture seen by some observers as bribery while the groups and Naypyidaw attempt to reach terms to end decades-long conflicts on the country’s peripheries.
The general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), Saw Kwe Htoo Win, confirmed that some 120 vehicle licenses were granted to the KNU, which he said would be assigned to vehicles used for organizational needs, but not for its leaders’ personal use.
He said the cars would be used by KNU leaders, but only for KNU-related tasks such as transportation to meetings and traveling to the KNU liaison offices located across Burma.
“We don’t know why they [the government] gave them to us. It might be a privilege opportunity or they might want to support our organization’s needs. But we won’t use it for personal purposes. … It will be easier to get around since we have organization cars,” Kwe Htoo Win told The Irrawaddy.
He said the government granted about 60 tax-exempt car licenses to KNU leaders, but the remainder were given at a tax rate of 60 percent.
Some observers, however, warned that the government’s generosity amounted to nothing more than bribery. They urged KNU leaders not to accept the licenses at this early stage of the peace process.
They pointed out that while the KNU leaders enjoy the relative luxury of automotive transportation, many Karen civilians, mostly in war-torn areas, are living in deep poverty.
“A group of current KNU [leaders] eye only business interests,” said an observer on the border who asked for anonymity. “Mutu Say Poe [KNU chairman] is being used. He is not a real player. There is a particular group that masterminds the current KNU leadership. And these leaders are interested only in money.”
Despite the KNU general secretary’s insistence that the cars would be used solely to fulfill the organization’s needs, a reliable source within the KNU said some of the licenses were given to individuals, while other KNU leaders were completely unaware of any arrangement. Other licenses were delivered under the names of specific KNU brigades.
“The government didn’t give cars. They gave licenses for the vehicles,” the source said. “Some 60 licenses were sold off by the KNU leaders with the help of a Burmese business in Burma. Then, they bought some 20 cars with the money they got from the sale of the 60 licenses.”
He said that two cars were given to central committee members based in Thailand and one was given to the chief of the KNU’s army wing, Gen Johnny. Two cars were also given to separate KNU brigades.
Because the government does not recognize the KNU as a legal entity, Kwe Htoo Win said KNU leaders were unable to purchase the cars on their own and instead had to use the names of people who hold Burmese ID cards.
Hla Maung Shwe of the Rangoon-based Myanmar Peace Center confirmed the registration of some licenses to the KNU, but could not provide specifics.
“I know the government started to register some vehicles that belong to the KNU, but I don’t know how many of them received the cars,” he said.
“I heard that the KNU leaders also requested that the government legalize cars that they use in accordance with the law. So, they want the government to register for them,” Hla Maung Shwe added.
Cars used by KNU leaders in Thailand had previously been unlicensed and thus illegal on Burma’s roads.
Informed ethnic sources also said that all of Burma’s major ethnic groups, including the Karen, Shan, Chin and Mon, also received car licenses at tax-free or reduced tax rates, though the government’s tax policies varied among the groups.
Kwe Htoo Win also said that all ethnic rebels who had signed ceasefire agreements with the government since last year were also granted car licenses.
Notification of the car licenses was provided via letters handed to ethnic representatives attending a Union Day ceremony on Feb. 12 in Naypyidaw, which was attended by Aung Min, a minister of the President’s Office and the government’s key peace negotiator.
A leader of the Chin National Front said his organization had received 40 car licenses, including ones for mini buses, trucks and luxury cars.
“It was very hard to use illegally imported cars from neighboring countries in the past. Now, the government provides the car licenses. So, it is very helpful as we can use the cars legally in Burma,” he said.