RANGOON — The government’s chief peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, has insisted that so-called car permits handed to ethnic armed groups are not intended to be used to import cars.
Aung Min spoke to The Irrawaddy on Thursday at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), the government-aligned body that has in recent years worked to get ceasefires between the government 14 ethnic armed groups signed.
The MPC is still confident that peace negotiations are progressing, despite repeated delays getting a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed.
But the center has come in for criticism from activists and in the media for “buying peace” with licenses that can be used to register imported vehicles for sale, or sold to commercial car importers. Ethnic sources say some groups have sold on most of their “permits,” which can reportedly fetch as much as US$100,000 each.
Aung Min dismissed the criticism, saying the licenses were simply for ethnic armed groups to register vehicles used by their organizations that have been brought into Burma unofficially.
“They are not permits, as others are saying. It is just allowing their [ethnic groups’] unlicensed vehicles to be registered as they have vehicles without licenses,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The decision did not come from me or the president [Thein Sein]. It was the decision of the relevant government meeting.”
He also claimed unlicensed cars were also licensed in this way before Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government came into power in 2011.
“Under the military regimes, we used to do that way. We allowed the unlicensed vehicles by levying tax and allowed them to register by paying tax. The idea is the same here.”
Aung Min said that while ethnic group leader were allowed completely tax free vehicle registration, other members of armed groups were only given a 40 percent discount on the normal tax rate.
Normally, a tax of 100 percent is levied on car imports.
Hla Maung Shwe, an MPC special adviser, said permission had been granted to register 800 cars in total—270 of which were completely tax free.
He said only three out of the 17 ethnic armed groups remaining in the country were yet to be given any registration licenses.
Hla Maung Shwe said Burma’s Road Transport Department has put aside a total of 3,000 number plates—beginning with “9E/”—for ethnic armed groups. But he insisted that most had not been distributed to any group.