On so­ci­ety’s fringes, dis­abled Tat­madaw vet­er­ans lan­guish in poverty

The Myanmar Times - - News - HTET KHAUNG LINN news­room@mm­times.com

BY 1999, U Sein Kyaw Win had al­ready sur­vived 24 years of ser­vice as a foot sol­dier in the Myan­mar army’s long war against eth­nic armed groups, but dur­ing a de­ploy­ment in Kayin State his luck ran out.

A land­mine blew up near him, and he lost his sight in the ex­plo­sion.

After re­cov­er­ing from his wounds, the mil­i­tary kept him on for small chores at a base for an­other eight years. But when he re­tired, he found that the army’s sup­port pro­vided for his par­tic­u­lar dis­abil­ity was neg­li­gi­ble.

“For­mer sol­diers get com­pen­sa­tion only if they lost limbs. So I did not get that as I lost my eye­sight,” he said, adding that those who lost a limb re­ceive an al­lowance of about K100,000 (US$80) per month, while he re­ceives K12,000.

“I felt up­set. This is such a tiny amount for sac­ri­fic­ing my eyes,” said U Sein Kyaw Win, a for­mer sergeant in his 50s, adding that his dis­abil­ity al­lowance barely added to his mea­gre K90,000 pen­sion.

Th­ese pen­sion and dis­abil­ity sup­port rates are, none­the­less, still triple what they were be­fore then-pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s gov­ern­ment be­gan strength­en­ing so­cial pro­grams.

Since 2009, U Sein Kyaw Win has been liv­ing in Thud­ham­mawaddy ward, where he and about 60 other dis­abled vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies have been given small houses in an army-built com­mu­nity on the edge of Tha­ton town, Mon State.

There are be­lieved to be dozens of such set­tle­ments across the coun­try, though the se­cre­tive mil­i­tary has re­leased no in­for­ma­tion about its sup­port mea­sures for maimed vet­er­ans, nor has it ever re­leased fig­ures on the num­ber of sol­diers in­jured or killed dur­ing nearly 70 years of civil war.

Dis­abled vets fall into poverty Many vet­er­ans in Tha­ton said they are grate­ful for the free hous­ing, but all spoke of the hard­ships they go through as they lack job op­por­tu­ni­ties and ways of find­ing ex­tra in­come.

U Win Htay, a re­tired sergeant who lost a leg to a land­mine in Kayin State in 1999, said ev­ery day he goes to col­lect dis­carded plas­tic bot­tles along the Yan­gon-Hpa-an high­way, which runs through Tha­ton.

“My ail­ing wife has no paid job. So I have to con­sider where I should go to col­lect empty bot­tles. I have no reg­u­lar in­come; I earn be­tween K1500 and K2000 each day,” he said.

Most vet­er­ans said their chil­dren have be­come mi­grant work­ers in neigh­bour­ing Thai­land, pro­vid­ing im­por­tant fi­nan­cial sup­port.

A mil­i­tary spokesper­son con­tacted by Myan­mar Now de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about sup­port pro­grams for in­jured vet­er­ans.

Ac­cord­ing to U Thant Zin, chair of Peace Myan­mar Aid, a small NGO that helps land­mine vic­tims in the army and in vil­lages in Bago Re­gion, in­jured sol­diers are usu­ally kept in ser­vice by the mil­i­tary, which tries to put them in ad­min­is­tra­tive jobs or other sup­port­ive roles.

But this de­pends on their lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and the sever­ity of their dis­abil­i­ties, with in­jured of­fi­cers far­ing bet­ter the higher their ed­u­ca­tion, said U Thant Zin, a re­tired lieu­tenant colonel who lost a leg to a land­mine in 1991.

Or­di­nary dis­abled sol­diers of­ten strug­gled to sur­vive. “The in­come for dis­abled rank-and-file sol­diers is so low that they would rather go to the cities and some end up as beg­gars on the streets,” U Thant Zin said.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a vet­er­ans’ or­gan­i­sa­tion told Reuters in June that it had some 250,000 mem­bers, around 10,000 of whom were dis­abled.

Though dis­abled sol­diers lack sup­port and many linger in poverty, gov­ern­ment poli­cies still of­fer them far more ben­e­fits than civil ser­vants or or­di­nary civil­ians who be­come dis­abled through con­flict or ac­ci­dents, noted the Land­mine and Clus­ter Mu­ni­tion Mon­i­tor in 2015. Of­fi­cers get bet­ter sup­port The mil­i­tary pro­vides vastly dif­fer­ent lev­els of care for of­fi­cers who re­tire or are in­jured than for low-rank­ing sol­diers, ac­cord­ing to U Kyaw Zeya, a re­tired lieu­tenant colonel and now a Yan­gon Re­gion law­maker for the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD).

Many of the re­tired or in­jured of­fi­cers, he said, were given ad­min­is­tra­tive jobs in the army’s vast busi­ness hold­ings, adding that after he re­tired in 2011 he worked as a shares man­age­ment di­rec­tor at Myan­mar Eco­nomic Hold­ings Ltd (MEHL) un­til 2013.

He said dis­abled vet­er­ans’ free hous­ing quar­ters and vil­lages were of­ten lo­cated in re­mote ar­eas where there are no jobs, and also lacked ba­sic ameni­ties such as run­ning wa­ter and elec­tric­ity.

“I feel like the mil­i­tary should spend enough on dis­abil­ity funds for th­ese vet­eran sol­diers. More fi­nan­cial sup­port should be al­lo­cated from the bud­get of the Min­istry of De­fence,” U Kyaw Zeya said, be­fore adding that the NLD has no way of re­view­ing the de­fence min­istry bud­get as it re­mains un­der mil­i­tary con­trol.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group brief­ing, rev­enues from army-owned con­glom­er­ates like MEHL largely go to­ward the mil­i­tary’s pen­sion fund and its share­hold­ers, who are mostly re­tired se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

Un­der the rule of the mil­i­tary junta,

‘Since I lost my eye­sight, I’m now to­tally de­pen­dent on oth­ers. So if it’s pos­si­ble, I would like the army or the gov­ern­ment to con­sider im­prov­ing the wel­fare of dis­abled sol­diers.’

U Sein Kyaw Win Dis­abled vet­eran

MEHL and other mil­i­tary-owned firms con­trolled huge swathes of the econ­omy through mo­nop­o­lies on prod­ucts such as to­bacco and al­co­hol and on the rice trade and im­ports of ve­hi­cles. Though th­ese busi­ness priv­i­leges have been greatly re­duced dur­ing the demo­cratic tran­si­tion, the army re­tains huge but un­known rev­enues from its con­glom­er­ates.

U Sein Kyaw Win said the vet­er­ans at Thud­ham­mawaddy ward had paid a heavy price for their ser­vice and needed more sup­port.

“Since I lost my eye­sight, I’m now to­tally de­pen­dent on oth­ers. So if it’s pos­si­ble, I would like the army or the gov­ern­ment to con­sider im­prov­ing the wel­fare of dis­abled sol­diers like me. It’s dif­fi­cult to sup­port a fam­ily with th­ese small pen­sions,” he said.

– Myan­mar Now

Photo: Htet Khaung Linn

Dis­abled vet­er­ans U Sein Kyaw Win (right), U Aung Kyi (cen­tre) and U Win Htay sit in an army-built com­mu­nity called Thud­ham­mawaddy ward in Tha­ton, Mon State.

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