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Myanmar's arbitrary tax system

September 2, 2010

A new report by activists and economists about Myanmar’s taxation system highlights its lack of transparency and accountability. In Myanmar, taxes may include arbitrary cash payments and even forced labor.

Myanmar's people have to shoulder a heavy load
Myanmar's people have to shoulder a heavy loadImage: AP

The report released this week says while Myanmar has legislation governing taxation, the actual tax system often includes forced labor, forced purchasing of goods or even confiscation of land and other property.

The report, based on a survey of over 340 people over a two year period, says taxes on households are generally collected by local village councils and the armed forces. State organisations such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) also levy taxes including funds ahead of November’s general elections.

Arbitrary fees

People are also forced to pay arbitrary fees at checkpoints and to give donations for festivals, school buildings, school registration and equipment.

Villagers can never be sure how much tax they will be asked to pay
Villagers can never be sure how much tax they will be asked to payImage: AP

Alison Vicary, an economist from Australia's Macquarie University, said the officials collecting the taxes, often members of the local military and other armed forces, are often also involved in human rights abuses. "We need to say that the system of taxation is oppressive and has no legitimacy", she told Deutsche Welle. "The agencies collecting taxes are actively involved in the control and suppression of the population."

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the military has been in power since 1962. Over the time it has maintained a high degree of control over the economy, despite steps towards economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.

Population cannot save money

The report says taxation is "so corrupt that it is directly contributing to the deteriorating living conditions of the people and especially children."

Cheery Zahau, a coordinator with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, said the system’s lack of accountability has a wide-ranging impact on society. Ms Zahau said rates of tax are generally unplanned. "The people of Burma already have a low income. So this adds to the problems of basic survival. They cannot save money; they cannot in many cases send their children to school and they don’t have enough money for hospitals, for health care any more."

According to the report, the tax system denies most people of Myanmar the right to an adequate standard of living, health care, food and education.

The army has ruled Myanmar for almost 60 years
The army has ruled Myanmar for almost 60 yearsImage: AP

Army's mismanagement of the economy

Macquarie University’s Dr Vicary said the tax system highlights the military’s mismanagement of Myanmar’s economy over the past 50 years. "One of the biggest damages that this government has done is that it has impoverished people for several generations and for several generations into the future because of the damage that has been done. Burma’s now so poor that it is going to take a long time to right the economic problems that the regime has caused."

Dr Vicary said the arbitrary level of taxation contributes to a further deterioration of the economy, in turn placing more pressure on provincial military units and other armed groups to extort resources from the local population.

Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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