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

On society’s fringes, disabled Myanmar veterans languish in poverty
Kyaw Win are seen in an army-built community called Thudhammawaddy Ward, in Mon State. Photo: Htet Khaung Linn/Myanmar Now

By 1999 Sein Kyaw Win had already survived 24 years of service as a foot soldier in the Myanmar army’s long war against ethnic rebel 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 100,000 kyats ($80) per month, while he receives 12,000 kyats.
“I felt upset. This is such a tiny amount for sacrificing my eyes,” said Sein Kyaw Win, a former sergeant in his fifties, adding that his disability allowance barely added to his meagre 90,000 kyats pension.
These pension and disability support rates are, nonetheless, still triple what they were before the previous government of President Thein Sein began strengthening Myanmar’s social programmes.
Since 2009, 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, in 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 soldiers injured or killed during nearly 70 years of civil war. 
Many veterans here said they are grateful for the free housing, but all spoke of hardships they go through as they lack job opportunities and ways of finding extra income.
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 that 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 1,500 kyats and 2,000 kyats each day,” he said.
Most veterans said their children have become migrant workers in neighbouring Thailand and provided important financial support.
A military spokesperson contacted by Myanmar Now declined to answer questions about support programmes for injured veterans.
According to Thant Zin, chairman 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, and injured officers fared better because of their higher education, said Thant Zin, a retired lieutenant-colonel who lost a leg to a mine 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,” he said.
A representative of an army veterans’ organisation told Reuters in June it had some 250,000 members, around 10,000 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.
The military provides vastly different levels care for officers who retire or are injured than to the low-ranking soldiers, according to Kyaw Zeya, a retired lieutenant-colonel and Yangon Region lawmaker for 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 in 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,” 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 MEHL and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL) largely go towards the military’s pension fund and its shareholders, who are mostly retired senior military officers.
Under the rule of the military junta, MEHL and UMEHL controlled huge swathes of the economy through monopolies on products such as tobacco, alcohol, rice trade and imports of vehicles. Though these business privileges have been greatly reduced during Myanmar’s democratic transition, the army retains huge but unknown revenues from the conglomerates.
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.
Courtesy Myanmar Now