Wed 26 Nov 2008
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Travelers on the Zemi river charge that delays enforced by a Karen National Union (KNU) checkpoint are designed to earn extra income for relatives of KNU members, while a KNU source says the delays are for travelers’ safety.
Travelers and traders using the Zemi River must change boats at the KNU checkpoint, say IMNA sources who recently made the trip. They are also not allowed to depart from the checkpoint after 4pm. multiple sources among travelers and ethnic-ceasefire groups surmised that the delays are designed to encourage travelers to spend the night, and spend their money, at shops near the checkpoint.
Mi Htaw, a passenger who recently traveled though the Kyun-chaung gate, complained that though her boat arrived at 1pm, she was not allowed to leave until nearly 4pm, when a new boat was ready. She and other passengers expressed frustration, and said that they could easily have continued on their previous boat.
Had Mi Htaw’s group waited a little longer, they would have been entirely barred from passing; no boats are allowed to depart after 4pm.
Travelers waiting around at the checkpoint, especially those forced to spend the night, must purchase food and water from shops near the checkpoint. â€œThey made us delay our trip and we had to spend our money for food at the house boat shop,â€ said Mi Htaw.
Prices at the shop are unfairly high, sometimes more than double what they should be, say travelers. According to Saw Tu Tu, KNU officer in charge of the Kyun-chaung checkpoint, relatives of KNU members own the shops.
Saw Tu Tu denied keeping travelers at the checkpoint to make money at the shops, and said rather that it was for their safety. Navigating the river at night is dangerous he said in a phone interview with IMNA. â€œWe worry for the passengers, so we do not allow them to pass the gate after 5 pm. I don’t think people face many difficulties from this arrangement.â€ Travelers, however, reported being told at the checkpoint that they could not depart after 4pm.
KNU policy is take responsibility for accidents that befall boats after they pass through their checkpoint, which could be encouraging the group to take particular care for traveler’s safety. In October, for instance, a woman was compensated 600,000 kyat after her baby drowned in an accident two miles from the Kyun-chaung checkpoint.
Water levels in the Zemi River have dropped since the end of the rainy season, exposing large rocks and other obstacles to safe navigation. Travel on the river, which is home to over fifteen gates operated by the KNU, as well as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Burmese army battalions, is set to be closed on December 6th due to low water levels.
Passengers, however, expressed skepticism that the delays were generated by concern for their safety. A number of villages and houseboats are easily reachable in both directions from the Kyun-chaung gate, they pointed out, offering ample places to stop and take safe harbor.
A source in the NMSP familiar with operations of the checkpoint also did not believe the excuse proffered by Saw Tu Tu, and agreed that travelers had plenty of places to safely spend the night should they be caught on the river at nightfall. Instead, said the NMSP source, whoever is operating the checkpoint is likely trying to make extra income.
The Zemi River saw unusually high rates of traffic during the 2008 rainy season, said a report released by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland. According to the report, an average of one hundred and fifty to two hundred people passed through river checkpoints every day. This is up from 2006 and 2007, the report said, when daily traffic was closer to between thirty and fifty people a day. The Zemi River becomes the primary transit route to and from Three Pagodas Pass when roads are muddied and destroyed by the rainy season.