War veterans left behind as Myanmar recovers from junta

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War veterans left behind as Myanmar recovers from junta
For some 60 years, Myanmar has been in a state of perpetual civil war, with ethnic armed groups killing and maiming unknown thousands of soldiers. With military casualties a closely guarded secret, wounded veterans were kept largely out of public view. Now, amid rapid economic and social reforms, the cost of years of fighting is slowly being revealed.
Aung Myint Sein, a former soldier who lost his legs after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic armed groups, sits on his cart outside Yangon, Myanmar May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Aung Than Oo, a former soldier who lost his leg after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic armed groups, sits on his motorbike outside Yangon, Myanmar May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Aung Myint Tun, a former soldier, who lost his leg after he stepped on a landmine during fighting with ethnic armed groups, rides a makeshift cart outside Yangon, Myanmar May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
A prosthetic leg belonging to Kyaw Kyaw Oo, a former soldier who lost both legs after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic rebels, is seen at his house outside Yangon, Myanmar May 26, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Former soldiers who lost their legs after stepping on landmines during fighting against ethnic armed groups, chat as they sit on their carts outside Yangon, Myanmar June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Kyaw Kyaw Oo, 41, a former soldier who lost both legs after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic armed groups, looks at his cart being repaired outside Yangon, Myanmar June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Kyaw Min Naing, a former soldier who lost his leg after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic armed groups, closes his barbershop outside Yangon, Myanmar May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Former soldier Than Htike, 50, who lost his leg in the war in Kayah state after he stepped on a landmine in 2007, waits for his daughter to open the door of their house outside Yangon, Myanmar June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Ba Thein, 63, a former soldier who lost his leg during fighting against Communist Party of Burma in 1983, sits at his home outside Yangon, Myanmar June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
A former soldier, who lost his leg after he stepped on a landmine in a fighting against ethnic armed groups, pulls a child cart outside Yangon, Myanmar May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Aung Gyi, 60, a former soldier who lost both legs after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against communists, sits at his house outside Yangon, Myanmar June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
Kyaw Min Naing, a former soldier who lost his leg after he stepped on a landmine during fighting against ethnic armed groups, waits for customers at his barbershop outside Yangon, Myanmar May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun 
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YANGON, June 14 (Reuters) - Disabled and collecting fees to use a public toilet in a busy Yangon market was not how Kyaw Kyaw Oo imagined the life of a soldier when he lied about his age to join the Myanmar army at 16.

Four years later, a landmine blast tore through his legs during fighting in the country's east. He nearly died from an infection after an eight-day journey to hospital and lost both his legs.

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Discharged in 1999, he was unemployed and living at home, relying on his aging parents for support. In 2008 he moved to Yangon, the country's largest city, where an official "had pity" on him and helped him get a job at the market.

For some 60 years, Myanmar has been in a state of perpetual civil war, with multiple ethnic armed groups killing and maiming unknown thousands of soldiers. With military casualties a closely guarded secret, wounded veterans were kept largely out of public view.

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"If we didn't have someone to depend on, like parents, things would have been very bad for us," said Kyaw Kyaw Oo.

Now, amid rapid economic and social reforms that began in 2011, the cost of years of fighting is slowly being revealed.

Wounded former soldiers, with few job opportunities, are reliant on a veterans' assistance scheme that offers minimal medical care or financial support.

A new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) knows it must work with former foes from the military high command, who remain powerful under a constitution written by the armed forces.

But rank-and-file veterans of Myanmar's long-running conflicts fear being left on the margins of the transformation taking place around them.

ARMY RULE

Myanmar's military ran the country from a coup in 1962 until it relinquished direct control in 2011.

Many top junta members amassed great wealth, visible now in high-end enclaves of Yangon, where mansions rise behind barbed-wire topped walls, and the sprawling compounds in the capital Naypyitaw.

Aung Gyi, 56, who also lost both of his legs to a landmine in 1979 battling communists, lives a drastically different life.

Like Kyaw Kyaw Oo and around 50 other wounded soldiers, he was given his home a 45-minute drive outside Yangon in 2012.

The neighborhood, bureaucratically titled, "Ward-6, Agriculture and Livestock-1," has provided the wounded veterans who live there with a sense of community, residents said.

On a recent day, a barber with an aging artificial leg visible beneath his longyi - a traditional sarong worn by men - sat outside his shop chatting with friends. Another man limped behind a toddler running down the road.

But the single room homes lack indoor toilets and have no special features to accommodate the residents' disabilities.

Aung Gyi, who shares his with five family members, receives 40,000 kyat ($34) per month from the military.

He recognizes, nonetheless, that he is more fortunate than most. "There are many wounded veterans who still don't have a place to live," he said.

FUNDING SCARCE

The NLD, which faces sky-high expectations that it can rapidly transform a country impoverished by decades of junta rule, is unlikely to find much extra cash for veterans.

"We don't have any special plan giving any assistance to the disabled veterans, we only help former political prisoners," Han Tha Myint, an NLD central executive committee member, told Reuters. "We can't afford to do much."

An official from the Myanmar War Veterans Organization in Naypyitaw, which oversees veterans' affairs, said there were currently 250,000 veterans registered with the group.

Around 10,000 were wounded in combat, said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, adding that funding remained a "major problem."

The MWVO had tried to stop some homeless veterans begging or selling used book on the streets in Yangon, the official said.

"We invite them to join our organization so that we can help with whatever assistance we can afford," said the official.

Kyaw Kyaw Oo lost his job at the market in 2013, when the officer who helped to get him hired left. He began selling lottery tickets from his homemade wheelchair, but struggles to travel between downtown Yangon and his home outside the city.

"I think we deserve more assistance from the state," said Kyaw Kyaw Oo, who had followed his father and two uncles into the army. "I believe my family and I sacrificed a lot for the country." ($1 = 1,188.0000 kyat) (Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun, Soe Zeya Tun and Hnin Yadana Zaw; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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