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"Laphet" Companies Contribute to Junta's Human Rights Violations

Moe Thee Zun
Mizzima News
May 20, 2003

The consumption of dried tea leaves as a delicacy can be dated as far back as the 13th Century. While the Chinese still eat tea leaves prepared in this way, only the Burmese eat 'Laphet' (pickled tea leaves). Since the beginning of recorded history the people of Burma have used pickled tea leaves in different meaningful ways. The Burmese name for pickled tea leaves, Laphet, is written as 'Laban' in ancient Burmese inscriptions.

When tension was to be resolved peacefully between warring groups in the ancient kingdoms of Burma, pickled tea leaves were exchanged as a part of any peace process. The two sides of a conflict would put an end to their dispute by sharing pickled tea leaves together in a friendly manner. For this reason pickled tea leaves occupy an auspicious place in Burmese society as it interrelates friendship and intimacy.

During the reign of King Bodaw Phaya, the pickled tea-tip was authorized to be given to the servicemen of the palace, and later it became a part of everyday Burmese culture. The ancient elders portray the taste of pickled tea leaves as being the best of its food group: "mango commands fruit, pork commands meat and pickled tea commands leaves". This is why they named it figuratively as the 'God leaf'.

Pickled tea leaves play an important role in many celebrations and 'shinpyus' (religious occasions). Some pickled tea leaves often accompany an invitation to a wedding ceremony in Burma.

For these reasons, the leaves that provide such a significant and unique taste have become known in Burma as an emblem of peace.

In stark contrast, eating pickled tea leaves in present-day Burma brings about breathtaking anxieties. The two biggest pickled tea companies, namely Yuzana and Ayitaung, have been financial contributors to military junta; a government acknowledged internationally to be responsible for genocide killings, torture and drug trafficking. Since the junta seized power in 1988, these two companies have had a great advantage by exploiting the prisoners' labour. Because there has been a higher exodus of Burmese people to foreign countries since 1998, the export market for pickled tea leaves has greatly increased. This has combined to make the companies' pickled tea leaves business highly profitable.

The two biggest companies need prices of fried beans and onions (which are consumed together with pickled tea leaves) to remain low. Therefore they cooperate with the Burmese junta and gain benefit from the free work force provided by the prisoners.

Yuzana and Ayitung have contracted prison labour directly from the prison authority.

The prisons in Thayet and Meihthila towns produce laphet beans and peeled onions. Each prisoner has to squeeze one pyi (equivalent to 7 pounds) of dipped laphet bean each day. The work starts early in the morning, and has been happening continuously since 1993. The free labour force of 800 prisoners in Thayet and 600 prisoners in Meihthila is highly profitable and has provided a fine income for the prison authorities.

Pressing out laphet bean is somewhat easy work but it is tiresome when you do it for a long time. The prisoners have to work until their fingers become stiff and it is particularly hard working in the early morning of the freezing winter, said one political prisoner. Though the companies make a great deal of money from them, the prisoners are only rationed 2 ounces of meat a week. When a prisoner is found eating any of the laphet beans, the prison authority punishes him severely.

In the same way, Meihthila prison authorities signed an onion contract with the same laphet companies. The prisoners have to peel a stipulated amount of onions daily.

These jobs, squeezing beans and peeling onions, are not made an exception for the political prisoners. They have to perform these tasks after the completion of their regular prison work.

Under the military regime, these two companies are using the civilian consumers of their product to donate much to the junta. The government gives preferential treatment to Yuzana and Ayitung because they fund frontline soldiers and donate to the military hospitals.

"This (the actions of pickled tea leaves companies) is an insult to their benefactor; the people", said Ko Taik Naing, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). "Pickled tea leaves get a great deal in the border areas and (make profit) because of the support by Burmese nationals living in different countries".

These pickled tea companies ignore the junta killings of its own people. They have cooperative services with the government, and they help fund the military's actions.

The junta also honours them with many summary enacted names. You can often see them having been awarded in the state run newspapers.

The laphet companies do not use their money for public works. They do not fund educational and academic programs, nor do they contribute towards libraries and hospitals for the population.

The pickled tea companies are purely self-interested businesses only. It is not enough to only boycott foreign companies that work hand in hand with the military government. The time is overdue for the people of Burma to ask how and why the Yuzana and Ayitaung pickled tea leaves companies support the junta so closely.

Laphet is not only a traditional Burmese food, but it is the essence of friendship among Burmese people. Today the laphet beans and onions of Yuzana and Ayitaung are mixed with the sweat and blood of prisoners. Now is the time to protest against these companies for their direct complicity in the Burmese military junta's many human rights abuses.






 







 




 







 

 

 

 

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