Statement 20 Views

Impact of Myanmar’s Forced Remittance, Double Taxation & Military Conscription Policies on Migrants

March 28th, 2024  •  Author:   Mekong Migration Network  •  8 minute read
Featured image

As a sub-regional network of civil society organisation, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) is deeply concerned about recent law and policy developments in Myanmar that force citizens to make mandatory remittances, pay double taxation, and serve in the military. These cynical measures promulgated by the military junta are designed to extract foreign currency from its sizeable migrant population, while compelling young people to fight on its behalf in the ongoing civil war. As elaborated below, MMN believes that these policies seriously harm the interests of migrants, increase irregular migration, and increase the likelihood of migrants becoming undocumented.

Mandatory Remittances

Since 1 September 2023, migrant workers must remit a quarter of their foreign earnings through a bank regulated by the Myanmar Central Bank.[1] This has coincided with a crackdown on informal remittances,[2] and the collection of information on migrant workers from family members in Myanmar.[3] Those who fail to comply face three-year travel bans.[4]

MMN is concerned that these rules will mainly be enforced against migrants who use formal channels and thus may inadvertently incentivise irregular migration. As a matter of principle, we find the new remittance rules objectionable as they intrude on migrants’ right to dispose of their earnings as they wish. Remittances are by definition private funds that are given voluntarily. We are also troubled that migrants who seek to comply are at risk of breaching sanctions by remitting money through banks accused of facilitating the procurement of arms used to commit atrocities against civilians.[5] In MMN’s experience migrants are distrustful of remitting money through Myanmar’s banking system, given the excessive fees, and official exchange rates that are significantly lower than those available on the open market. A spokesperson from the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA), an MMN member organisation who work closely with migrant worker communities in Thailand summed up the general feeling:

“Migrant workers feel they are being used by the junta and that the money they send will be used to buy arms to kill their family members.”

Double Taxation

On 1 October 2023, the junta amended the Union Tax Law to require Myanmar nationals abroad to pay income tax on their foreign earnings. Under the amendment, domestic legislation that prohibits double taxation has been repealed,[6] and a sliding scale of income tax on foreign earnings introduced.[7] For migrant workers who refuse to comply with tax demands, the junta has threatened to withhold issuing passports and certificates of identity. Further punitive action, such as the revocation of already issued passports, travel bans, or the bringing of civil or criminal proceedings have also been threatened. Thus, Myanmar citizens wishing to renew their passports abroad must pay all outstanding taxes directly to the embassy or consulate in one lump sum before their application will be processed.[8]

A spokesperson for MMN member, the Raks Thai Foundation commented that migrants in Thailand fear that the new tax will divide the community:

“They are worried that if other Myanmar migrant workers find out that they are paying the tax they will be ostracised and accused of supporting the military junta which is killing civilians every day.”

 MMN members are also concerned that migrant workers who are unable or unwilling to pay income tax risk having their immigration status jeopardised, as they will be unable to keep visas and work permits up to date if their travel documents are revoked or not renewed. As a result, many migrants risk becoming undocumented, further exacerbating the likelihood of exploitation in the labour market. The enforcement of double taxation together with the mandatory remittance rules will further impoverish migrant workers who are also feeling pressure as a result of the surge in recent arrivals from Myanmar.  A spokesperson from MMN member, YCOWA explained that:

Employers are taking advantage of the excess supply of migrant labour and are exploiting workers. For example, textile factories in Mae Sot have increased their daily work quotas. Those who cannot meet the new quota are fired.

A spokesperson for MMN member organization, the MAP Foundation, also remarked that:

“It is not just the payment of taxes, in addition to other fees required for maintaining their documentation status, that puts migrants off – it is having to deal with the embassy or consulate and provide private information to a ruling body they distrust. It is just another obstacle to migrants being able to maintain their legal status”.

Military Conscription

On 10 February 2024, Myanmar’s Public Military Service Law entered into force. This legislation, originally enacted in 2010, specifies that men between the ages of 18 and 35, and women between 18 and 27 undergo military training and serve in the armed forces for not more than 24 months.[9] These age ranges are extended up to 45 years for men and 35 years for women who are “experts”, defined within the legislation as medical doctors, engineers, technicians or anyone who practices some form of expertise.[10] Such experts can be called upon to serve in the military for not more than 36 months.[11] However, these service periods can be extended up to 5 years when the country is under a state of emergency.[12] Moreover, under such an emergency those who have already completed their military service can be remobilised.[13] The military junta has continuously extended a state of emergency since seizing power in 2021,[14] and will in all likelihood continue to do so until any election is called.

At the time of writing, the issuing of the summonses has reportedly commenced. A spokesperson for EMPOWER, an MMN member organisation elaborated on how the conscription process is playing out at the village level:

“We’ve been informed by village headman that military officials will visit to compile a list of eligible persons. Lots will then be drawn from these names and those selected would be obligated to join the military.”

 Enforcement of the Public Military Service Law has already accelerated the mass mixed migration from Myanmar.[15] Since the announcement of mobilisation, there has been a marked trend in young people crossing the Thai border, while long queues have formed outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon. There have also been stampedes resulting in deaths and injuries outside passport offices in Mandalay,[16] and Yangon. Meanwhile, the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has announced that it is no longer accepting applicants from Myanmar students due to the overwhelming number of applications.[17] A spokesperson for EMPOWER remarked on the dilemma facing Myanmar’s young people:

“The junta has them cornered. They face the grim choice of fleeing and risking their lives or staying and facing the inevitable consequences.”

 A spokesperson from the MAP Foundation, also remarked that:

“There has been a conspicuous increase in young people crossing under desperate and dangerous conditions to escape the conscription order. In fact, the other week there was a serious road accident in Chiang Mai involving at least six young people fleeing Myanmar. Unfortunately, two people died and the others were severely injured.”

 A spokesperson from the Raks Thai Foundation added that:

“We have received several cases from women who have been sexually harassed and raped on their way to Thailand. It is very hard for us to help in these cases as the victims arrived via irregular channels and are undocumented.”

 MMN is also concerned that migrants from Myanmar who make it out will remain vulnerable to conscription. The Public Military Service Law states that “If this person is not found, it [call up papers] shall be handed over to a cohabiting family member before a witness. The draft order shall be treated as if it had been handed directly to the person drafted for military service”. The conscription of migrants through deemed service will thus reduce the chances of them ever approaching the Myanmar Embassy to renew travel documents and thus increase the likelihood that they will become undocumented. It may also increase the number of asylum claims made by Myanmar citizens in destination countries. A spokesperson for EMPOWER explained that:

“Migrants are worried about running away from conscription orders. The junta has threatened legal action against family members, including imprisonment and the confiscation of assets.”

 Recommendations

  1. MMN calls on the governments and employers of destination countries of Myanmar migrants to protect the rights of migrant workers to make their own decisions regarding saving and remitting their earnings; including having the freedom to choose their bank and remittance channel of preference and the amount they choose to save and remit.
  2. MMN calls on governments of destination countries and ASEAN to take all necessary measures to avoid the double taxation of migrant workers.
  3. To private sector actors, such as banks and recruitment agencies, who facilitate the mandatory remittance and double taxation policies described above, MMN calls on them to halt their partnerships with Myanmar’s military junta and its agents.
  4. Given the illegitimacy of the junta to rule the country and force young people into the military, leading to a spike in new arrivals from Myanmar fleeing this forced labour; we call on neighbouring countries to adopt a humanitarian response to new arrivals.
  5. We urge destination countries to do all they can to facilitate the regularisation of newly arrived Myanmar migrants and to make adjustments to processes for extensions of work permits to ensure migrants do not become undocumented. We also call on countries of destination to enhance the provision of healthcare and education services to all migrants.

View the original