HPAKANT, Kachin State — More than 700 people were stranded in a village in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township after the Myanmar Army blocked some 70 vehicles on the Myitkyina-Tanai road, claiming the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was collecting taxes from vehicles in the area.
The Tatmadaw’s Light Infantry Battalion No. 298 based near Dun Bum village blocked passengers travelling in both directions at noon on Friday—including children, elderly people, and pregnant women.
Trucks carrying oil and produce from state capital Myitkyina to Tanai were also blocked by the army.
On Sunday morning, the battalion allowed six of the more than 70 vehicles to pass, but continued to block the rest.
“The [Myanmar] army blocked [the road] as the KIA collected money around Lawa [village] in Hpakant since Sept. 22,” said Ko Sai, the driver of a small passenger vehicle running between Myitkyina and Tanai.
He said he paid 50,000 kyats to the KIA for a year and had received a KIA receipt, which he presents at KIA checkpoints. The fee per passenger is usually 5,000 kyats, he added.
According to other drivers travelling between Myitkyina and Tanai, the KIA charges 50,000 kyats on small vehicles and 100,000 to 200,000 kyats on bigger ones, per year, to use the road.
A Myanmar Army soldier on duty at Dun Bum said the battalion was blocking the road so as to avoid passenger vehicles being trapped armed clashes.
“The KIA would get a lot of money even if they only collect 5,000 kyats per person. They always collect money,” said the soldier. “Some travelers think we are deliberately causing delays to their trips,” he added.
According to locals, Battalions No. 6 and 14 of KIA Brigade No. 2 are active in Dun Bum and Lawa villages where KIA was reportedly collecting money.
“We didn’t start collecting money a few days ago, we have been doing it for over 50 years,” Lt-Col Tang San of KIA Battalion No. 6 told The Irrawaddy. “We solicit donations, we don’t deny it. But we don’t block the road and ask for money,” he added.
There is no military tension between KIA Battalion No. 6 and the Myanmar Army in Hpakant at the moment and the road is accessible, he said.
“We don’t block civilians. It is the [Myanmar] army that blocks travelers when we [KIA troops] come out [of the forest]. We only usually come out onto the road once a month,” said Lt-Col Naw Bu, a spokesperson of KIA.
Among those stranded, some were traveling onward to Mandalay, Yangon, and Shan State.
One stranded driver, who wished to remain anonymous, said that when the road is closed like this, it usually lasts at least three days.
“I’m used to this situation so I always bring a mat and bedding with me,” he said. “We have to stay alert for possible armed clashes in the forest.”
Daw Sami, who was travelling to Myitkyina said: “It is not convenient to sleep and relieve oneself here on the road. I’ve travelled at least ten times on this road. If we met KIA, we gave them money. We had no trouble. Being stranded here costs more [than paying money to KIA].”
According to drivers and local residents, passenger vehicles were blocked by the Myanmar Army in Tingkawk and Kawng Ra villages in Tanai Township for the same reason from Sept. 16 to 18.
Military tensions remain high in the area as Myanmar Army attacked gold mines operated by the KIA in Hpakant’s Sha Htu Zup village in August last year, as well as amber and gold mines in Tanai Township in June this year.
The Myanmar Army believes the KIA earns around 2.8 billion kyats in tax each year from illegal gold and amber mines, which it uses for the procurement of arms and ammunitions to fight the army.
Myanmar Army helicopters dropped leaflets in the second week of June, asking people in the mining areas to leave by June 15 or else be recognized as insurgents supporting the KIA.
This was followed by attacks that forced around 10,000 locals and many more migrant miners to take shelter in Tanai Town. There have been frequent reports of gunfire on the Myitkyina-Tanai road.
The Myanmar Army reportedly limited fuel and food shipments to Tanai as part of their campaign to close the mines in that area.