Penniless and Prosecuted, a Veteran Soldiers On

By Salai Thant Zin 27 March 2015

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — As it nears 6 o’clock, Thein Hla Aung each evening prepares his lunchbox and water bottle before going to work—the night watch at the Pathein University of Computer Studies. This job is important to him, as his first paid gig after retiring from military service on a health-related pension.

Between the 6 pm to 6 am shift at the university, there’s not much sleep to be had. If he were to indulge in too much slumber, the livelihood of his family would be at stake. That’s because after getting a few hours of post-graveyard shift shut-eye, it’s off to the Pathein town center, where he works another job as a motorcycle taxi to earn a bit of extra cash.

“We are a five-member family: me, my wife and three children. The pension is simply not enough for my family. So, I work as a watchman at night and drive a motorbike taxi in the daytime. But even then, I earn barely enough money for my family to live on,” said the 53-year-old former corporal, rubbing his tired eyes.

Encouraged to enlist by his father, who was himself a military man, Thein Hla Aung was 17 when he joined the military in 1979.

He was assigned to Division 77 and fought as a member of the division’s 106 Light Infantry Battalion in the Burma Army’s war with the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma in Shan State.

He was lucky enough to survive those battles, and in the years that followed Thein Hla Aung discharged his military duties in various parts of the country before his retirement. While serving, he was entitled to a food ration in addition to allowance and salary.

But in 2003, 24 years into his service, he suffered complications from malaria, a disease he caught on the frontline, and underwent an operation to reduce brain inflammation. He retired from the military the same year with the approval of the military hospital.

With his gratuity, Thein Hla Aung bought a small house for 70,000 kyats (US$70) at Ywa Thit Gon village in Pathein Township, where he began a new life.

But after serving in the military his entire adult life, the veteran came to a startling realization: He had never acquired any vocational skills during his military career, dealing a serious blow to his ability to make a decent living as a civilian.

“I had no particular skills for work when I retired from the army. So, I worked odd-jobs like bricklaying, carpentry. … When there was no job, I patched bicycle tires at my home. This was the way I lived, barely making ends meet,” said Thein Hla Aung.

About seven in 10 rank-and-file soldiers face real hardship in their lives after they hang up the uniform, said retired warrant officer Thaung Win, who has served in the military for 26 years.

“Some of my old comrades drive a rickshaw, some do odd-jobs. Around 70 in 100 veteran soldiers face hardship, mainly because they do not have vocational skills,” he said.

Perhaps it is not surprising that veterans lacking vocational skills have limited employment opportunities in Burma, where even university graduates find it hard to get a decent job.

Indeed, Thein Hla Aung considered himself fortunate to have landed the night watching job while also working in the informal economy as a motorcycle taxi driver. Then the army, to which he had dedicated nearly a quarter-century of his life, messed things up.

In December 2013, Light Infantry Battalion No. 38, under the Burma Army’s Southwest Regional Command, said the house he had bought in Ywa Thit Gon was located on military-owned land. The Southwest Regional Command proceeded to demarcate its land claim by erecting stone posts and ordering the households of six veterans, including Thein Hla Aung’s family, to vacate the premises.

Adding insult to injury, the five other veterans were retirees from Light Infantry Battalion No. 38, whose mother unit seized their land without paying compensation or giving them land plots elsewhere.

“We were told that we were squatting on the army-owned land and were forced to leave without [the army] giving compensation or resettling us. We bought this land with our gratuities and we had lived there for more than 10 years and so we disobeyed their order,” said Thein Hla Aung.

On March 31, 2014, about 50 soldiers led by an officer from Light Infantry Battalion No. 38 arrived at Ywa Thit Gon carrying mattocks, hoes, hammers, saws and hatchets. Amid the din of the families’ pleas, the soldiers began dismantling the homes within the area claimed by the army the previous year.

The destruction stopped, however, when a group of Pathein-based reporters arrived on the scene. The houses today remain intact.

“When the reporters arrived, army men from Battalion No. 38 argued with them and left in a rush. I saw the scars left by hoes on the houses. At one house, the altar was removed,” said a Pathein-based reporter who was covering the altercation that day.

But to Thein Hla Aung’s dismay, the misfortune did not end there.

In mid-2014, Capt. Baw Ni Soe, on behalf of Battalion No. 38, filed a lawsuit with the Pathein Township Court against the six veterans, alleging that they were trespassing on army-owned land. The battalion eventually dropped the lawsuit against three of them, ultimately suing only Thein Hla Aung, Kyaw Thein and Cherry Soe Moe Thwin, the widow of veteran Tin Myint.

The three defendants have sent a petition to President Thein Sein, Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann and Irrawaddy Division Chief Minister Thein Aung. There has not yet been a response from any of the men.

“It is not even an acre wide, the land on which we veterans are living. I’m really sad that we were forced to leave and sued for not leaving after serving the army for 24 years,” said Thein Hla Aung, rubbing tears from his eyes.

“Our lives will be ruined if we are forced to leave here. We have no place to go and no money to buy a new house. So, I would like to request the army to consider what we have sacrificed for it, and not make us homeless,” he said.

After pouring out his heart, Thein Hla Aung gathered his lunchbox and water bottle and left for the Pathein University of Computer Studies, where another shift on the night watch was calling.