Myanmar Junta Soldiers Extort Huge Sums From Civilian Travelers on Nation’s Highways

By The Irrawaddy 24 February 2023

The Myanmar regime’s forces have found a lucrative enterprise in extorting money from civilian drivers and travelers at the many newly established military checkpoints across the country.

With the regime facing growing armed resistance, thousands of military checkpoints have emerged, popping up at the entrance to every town, township and highway nationwide.

Buses queue at a military checkpoint on the border of Mon State and Tanintharyi Region. / CJ

Every vehicle is stopped, purportedly for security reasons, and all occupants checked to see if they are following COVD-19 regulations and are carrying citizen identification cards and travel permissions. They even check the validity of the vehicles’ registrations.

However, these checks are nothing more than excuses to extort money from citizens using the roads, according to truck drivers and other civilians who said they had been asked for money by soldiers and police manning the checkpoints.

Furthermore, they said, any vehicle that fails to stop is in danger of being shot at. People, including passengers traveling in coaches, face unnecessary questioning and threats from the security forces if their ID is found to have expired, or if they have committed some other minor infraction. The only way to get through a checkpoint is to pay the amount the regime forces ask for.

Truck drivers who transports goods and charcoal products from a township in Mandalay Region to the commercial capital Yangon told The Irrawaddy that on a single trip recently they encountered more than 20 checkpoints and were forced to pay a total of 700,000 Myanmar kyats (US$333 at the current exchange rate) to soldiers and police.

They are required to pay at least 20,000 to 50,000 kyats at each military checkpoint along the Mandalay-Yangon Expressway and on the road linking the expressway with their town.

The route is one of the busiest in Myanmar, with hundreds of vehicles using it every day. Based on the above figures, security forces on the Mandalay-Yangon route would earn at least 350 million kyats a day if they stopped just 500 trucks at each checkpoint.

Citing residents, local media recently reported that regime forces including policemen at the Palway military checkpoint on the expressway near the entrance to Naypyitaw, the country’s junta-controlled administrative capital, have become rich by extorting money from drivers of trucks and private civilian vehicles.

A resident told the media that regime forces at the gate are publicly demanding bribes from the drivers of trucks and other vehicles, with each police officer and soldier earning at least 50,000 kyats daily.

He added that even drivers of vehicles that have proper travel documents are required to pay.

A container-truck driver who often transports goods from Yangon to Mandalay via the old Yangon-Mandalay highway told The Irrawaddy they had to pay 40,000 kyats for a regime-issued permit to pass through the Naypyitaw area.

Trucks bearing the permit cards can pass through military checkpoints in Naypyitaw without facing inspection, but the cards are only valid for one month.

Hundreds of trucks and vehicles queue at the Nyaung Khar She military checkpoint in Wal Township, Bago Region in December 2022. / CJ

“Despite it not being their job to do so, soldiers are checking drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations and demanding money when they find something wrong. They also threaten to detain us and seize our vehicles if we don’t pay the bribe,” he added.

Ko Thet Gyi, the leader of local resistance group Zero Guerrilla, which is active in some townships of Mandalay and Sagaing regions, told The Irrawaddy that vehicles and trucks are extorted for at least 5,000 to 30,000 kyats by each military checkpoint on the Sagaing-Monywa Highway.

“The military checkpoints open fire on vehicles that don’t stop,” he said.

“An army captain assigned to a checkpoint can send up to 2 million kyats to his family each month,” said Ko Thet Gyi. The Irrawaddy was unable to confirm his claim, however.

Officially, an army captain is paid around 200,000 to 300,000 kyats a month in Myanmar.

In June last year, 11 million kyats in cash extorted from vehicle drivers and other civilians was seized along with weapons and ammunition when PDF groups occupied a military checkpoint at the Sin Phyu Shin Bridge in Yesagyo Township, Magwe Region.

Rampant extortion by junta forces of those using the nationwide goods transportation network is one of the reasons the prices of basic commodities have tripled since the coup. A charcoal trader explained that a sack of his product costs just 4,000 to 5,000 kyats in Mandalay, but he has to double the price in Yangon due to the transportation costs, including bribes.

At the same time, regime forces are looting civilian property before burning houses during their raids on villages across the country, especially in Sagaing, Magwe and Mandalay regions and Chin State.

Junta soldiers and others also extort money from the families of people detained on suspicion of being involved in anti-coup activities. When no evidence is found to charge the detainees, authorities put them on a “to-be-released list”. Military personnel and police who have access to these lists then contact the relatives of the political detainees and deceive them into paying money for their release. They say they can help to free the political detainees in exchange for a bribe from the relatives, who do not know the authorities have found no evidence.

“Currently, our country is in a state of anarchy. There are no rules or laws. So, regime forces are doing whatever they want,” said Ko Thet Gyi, the leader of Zero Guerrilla Force.