Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Soldier’s Arrest for Transporting Drugs a Sign of the Times

The Irrawaddy News

A warrant officer from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 701, based in Hmawbi Township, Rangoon Division, was arrested for drug trafficking in late December, according to a source close to Rangoon Regional Military Command.

“He was not selling, he was just a carrier,” said the source. “He did it because he couldn’t support his family on his salary.”

The man was found to be in possession of the drug while going through a checkpoint on the main road from Rangoon to Mandalay, the source said. No further details about the type or quantity of the drug were available.

The arrest highlighted a growing problem among low-ranking members of Burma’s 400,000-strong armed forces. Unlike the top generals who use the military to maintain their hold on power in the country, most rank-and-file soldiers are struggling to get by.

“Regional military authorities don’t provide sufficient rations and other supplies for soldiers and their families,” said a sergeant from LIB 701, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s why soldiers are always looking for some other way to support their families.”

While many military families try to subsist on earnings from a variety of side businesses, from raising livestock to making bricks or wooden furniture, even this extra income is often not enough. Like other public servants in this impoverished country, many soldiers survive on the spoils of petty corruption and other illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

Non-commissioned members of the armed forces are paid less than half as much as junior officers, with monthly salaries starting at 21,000 kyat (US $16) for a private. First class warrant officers can make as much as 50,000 kyat ($40) per month.

“We earn small salaries and work six days a week, even though we are not on the frontlines,” said the sergeant from LIB 701. “We don’t care where we get our money from, as long as we can support our children.”

With such attitudes prevalent among lower-ranking soldiers, commanding officers often look the other way or engage in illegal activities themselves. When caught, however, soldiers often face harsh sentences for their crimes.

Unlike soldiers near the bottom of the military hierarchy, those close to the ruling generals rarely face serious penalties for breaking the law.

Last year, Aung Zaw Ye Myint, son of Lt-Gen Ye Myint, was briefly detained at the Wat Htee Kan military camp in Prome, Pegu Division, after Burmese police raided his office at Rangoon’s Yetagun Tower on May 29 and found illegal drugs and six guns.

The Wat Htee Kan camp has served as a sort of reform school for the miscreant sons and grandsons of top-ranking generals since Burma’s socialist era.

Aung Zaw Ye Myint was a familiar figure in Rangoon’s elite circles, mingling with movie stars and the children of other top generals. He was well known as a reliable source of hard-to-find street drugs for a small but well-connected clientele.

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