On December 26th and January 4th, temporary KNLA checkpoints near Ta-nyin and Myaing Thayar villages, Kyainnseikyi and Three Pagodas Pass Township, respectively, stopped civilian drivers en route to Three Pagodas. According to a source in the KNLA, KNLA soldiers from company No. 2 and 3 of Brigade 16 queried the drivers about their loads’ ownership, and took only rice belonging to the Burmese army.
The same KNLA source alleged that 140 sacks of rice, each weighing 50 kilograms, were seized. This number could not be independently confirmed by IMNA, but a close friend of one of the drivers who had his load seized on January 4th said 60 sacks were taken from a total of 21 vehicles.
According to the friend, Infantry Battalion (IB) No. 31 randomly chose drivers in Thanbyuzayat and forced them to carry rice along with their regular commercial loads. During the winter and hot seasons, scores of cars and trucks make the trip between Thanbyuzayat and Three Pagodas Pass, on the Thai-Burma border. The road, which opened to traffic in December, becomes impassable in the rainy season.
After the raids on December 26th, authorities in Thanbyuzayat held a meeting with the drivers and informed them that they would each be required to pay 50,000 kyat as a repayment for the lost rice. According to a trader in Three Pagodas who knows a number of the affected drivers, the order was issued by authorities within the Southeast Command, which controls the area. The payments, however, had to be made to IB No. 31.
“After the KNLA took the rice, Burmese soldiers called a meeting with the drivers and ordered them to repay money for the rice – 50,000 kyat each,” said the trader. The payments are uniform and do not vary depending on the number of rice sacks transported by the drivers, the source added. Cars were typically carrying 3 to 4 sacks, while trucks carried 5 to 10.
According to the IMNA sources, the drivers have already made the required payments. “If the drivers don’t repay the money, they [the army] will stop them from driving on the road. So the drivers will face trouble,” said the friend of one of the drivers. Some drivers unlucky enough to be pressed into service twice have, consequently, had to pay twice, added the trader.
When asked to comment on the impact the rice seizures have had on drivers, captain Htet Nay said, “They took the rice because the Burmese soldiers are our enemy. The materials from the traders we did not take. We did not threaten them, we only asked them if they were carrying rice belonging to the soldiers.” The KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union, is embroiled in one of the longest running civil wars in the world, and has been fighting a succession of central governments in Burma since 1948.
The trader in Three Pagodas Pass, meanwhile, wondered at IB No. 31’s decision to send the rice without an armed escort. In the past, he said, security guards have accompanied the semi-regular, approximately tri-monthly supply shipments. The decision to leave the rice unguarded might have been calculated to entice seizure by the KNLA, he surmised, creating a pretense under which money could be collected from drivers. Or, he added, maybe the soldiers are afraid of the KNLA.