CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Illegal toll collection has been reported on a small stretch of the newly built Asia Highway 1, a road linking Thailand’s booming border town of Mae Sot with Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon via Myawaddy.
The incidents occurred between the towns of Myawaddy and Kawkareik in eastern Karen State, a section of the Asian Development Bank-subsidized highway which is still under construction. Sources in Myawaddy told The Irrawaddy that local ethnic armed groups the Karen National Union (KNU) and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), along with the government controlled Border Guard Force (BGF), were extorting travellers.
Maj. Saw Zorro, the head of KNU liaison office in Myawaddy, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that not all vehicles are allowed to use the new road before its official opening, but vehicles belonging to government or ethnic rebel organizations had been permitted to use the route for important and emergency travel. However, he said that vehicle owners had not been charged to use the highway, instead offering financial gratitude of their own accord.
“Our soldiers don’t ask for tax,” said Zorro. “Some vehicle owners want to use the road and they ask for permission to use the road while construction workers take a break from work. If they are allowed, they give some money for tips to thank the soldiers.”
The KNU, DKBA and BGF variously man at least six checkpoints run in the 62-kilometer (38-mile) stretch of road between Myawaddy and Kawkareik, according to locals.
Some residents in Myawaddy who use the road said they were asked to pay at least 1000 kyats (US$0.90) per checkpoint while others claim that they paid more than 10,000 kyats in total across the whole route.
Drivers who travel between Myawaddy and Rangoon through Kawkareik and the Karen capital of Hpa-an are currently permitted to travel on an old, dilapidated road, with more than a dozen checkpoints on the route each charging 500-5000 kyats each, depending on vehicle size and type. Most vehicles traveling on the new highway are family cars and small vehicles, rather than commercial trucks carrying imported goods from Thailand, according to Myawaddy residents.
According to the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), there are over 20 checkpoints along the new highway between Myawaddy and Rangoon. At each checkpoint, transport trucks and passenger vehicles must pay tolls, while travelers may be searched and forced to give ‘donations’ or ‘tea money’ to inspecting soldiers.
Generally, the total average cost of transit tolls between Myawaddy and Rangoon are 100,000-300,000 kyats ($97-$290) for a heavy truck, 10,000-30,000 ($9.70-$29) and 3000 kyats ($2.90) for a car, according to the KHRG.
Fighting broke out at the Asia Highway in late September after the DKBA clashed with the BGF on the outskirts of Myawaddy, leading dozens of residents to flee their homes to escape the violence.