A Taxing Trip in Karen State

By Lawi Weng 12 June 2015

ASIA HIGHWAY 1, Karen State — For this recent traveler, it was 2,000 kyats (US$1.80) per head to secure smooth passage from the Burmese border town of Myawaddy to Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon via the Asia Highway 1.

For our minibus with 14 passengers, that meant nearly $30 in total went to a broker, ethnic armed groups and the Burma Army over nine checkpoints on the 90-minute drive from Myawaddy to Kawkareik in eastern Karen State.

Drivers can choose to pay up at each individual checkpoint or do as we did, hiring a “road broker” to handle the soldiers stationed at these informal toll booths along Asia Highway 1, a series of road links that stretches nearly 13,000 miles from Tokyo to Turkey via Southeast Asia.

“They are bad guys, and they talk very aggressively sometimes, this is why I do not want to talk to them, and let her deal with passing checkpoints,” our driver explained.

According to our driver, the 40-year-old woman enlisted to be our facilitator was close to the three ethnic Karen armed groups that levy fees on the route: the Democratic Karen Benevolence Army (DKBA), Karen National Union (KNU) and Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNLA-PC).

Rates can vary, depending on the type of vehicle and passenger load. For our minibus, 13,000 kyats in total was extracted by the nine checkpoints, with the rest going to the broker. Such is the arbitrary nature of the system—or the brashness of the soldiers—that our driver apparently preferred to pay twice as much for a no-hassle journey.

Motorbikes, a common form of transportation in the region, are charged 1,000 kyats per checkpoint, making the full journey from Myawaddy to Kawkareik a 9,000 kyats expenditure.

Talk to locals who ply the route frequently and it’s clear that this system of informal taxation rankles. The highway is publically funded and thus should be a public good, they argue.

Asia Highway 1 is not yet officially open, but that hasn’t stopped vehicles, and then the checkpoints, from taking advantage of the new route, which can be driven in about one-third the time of the old road.

Drivers are taxed by plainclothes personnel at Burma Army checkpoints, but the ethnic Karen armed groups make no such effort at subtlety, with fully uniformed, gun-toting soldiers from the KNU, DKBA and KNLA-PC manning the posts. Noncompliance is met with the threat of being turned back.

Thwarting the designs of those who envisioned the Asia Highway 1 facilitating the more efficient movement of goods in country and transnationally, trucks are avoiding the route.

“For 10-wheeled trucks, the driver has to pay 100,000 [kyats] total. This is why none drive on this highway, because they have to pay a high tax,” said another driver.

Commercial trucks instead take the old road, where a far less hefty levy is enforced.

The ethnic Karen armed groups in the area are powerful, and last month Zaw Min, the chief minister of Karen State, was temporarily held at gunpoint by the DKBA after failing to declare his travel plans in territory it controlled.

Kwe Htoo Win, who is general secretary of the KNU, was asked about the taxation during a recent ethnic summit in Law Khee Lar, Karen State, but the KNU leader ignored the question.

Karen News, based on the Thai-Burmese border, reported recently that the three Karen armed groups hosted a meeting in late May to discuss consolidating their checkpoints in future after fielding numerous complaints of their proliferation along the highway. The armed groups reached an agreement on the matter, according to Karen News, though the details of the agreement were not revealed.

This story has been changed to remove an incorrect reference to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) partially funding the new highway from Myawaddy to Kawkareik. The ADB is helping to fund part of the Asia Highway 1, but not the section linking these two cities.