"Laphet" Companies Contribute to Junta's Human Rights
Moe Thee Zun
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
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
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
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.