By Eric Vandenbroeck

Myanmar, Shan State and Drugs, the Challenge of Unity in a Divided Country

Since the establishment of the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885), the Shan states paid tribute, but were never directly controlled by the Burmese. When the British annexed Upper Burma in 1885 they treated the Shan states differently. The notification issued in 1886 under the Statute XXXIII Vic. Cap. 3, Upper Burma excluding the Shan states was constituted as a scheduled district.  The traditional Shan system of feudal administration was continued under the supervision and control of British officers.

In 1959, eleven years after independence, all thirty-four Shan ruling princes or saophas formally gave up their royal positions in a ceremony at Taunggyi and they worked to incorporate the area of Shan State as an autonomous yet integral region within Burma. One forward-thinking saopha who was educated in the United States named Sao Kya Seng tried to modernize Shan state and he represented his people in Burma’s upper house of Parliament in Rangoon.

His story and that of his Austrian born wife, Inge Sargent, which was told in her book Twilight Over Burma – My Life as a Shan Princess, relates a heartbreaking story of how he was kidnapped and killed by the military government when General Ne Win seized power in 1962. For years she was told a mix of stories by the government, some of which claimed that he was alive and being detained, while others asserted that he had never been arrested at all. It is now believed that he was executed shortly after he was taken. Inge and her children were harassed by soldiers and left to fend for themselves, but fortunately she had learned the language and the customs of the Shan and the Burmese and was eventually able to escape the country.

This October (2015) the Colorado School of Mines posthumously conferred on Sao Kya Seng, the last Saophalong (ruling prince) of the Shan State of Hsipaw, the Distinguished Achievement Medal in recognition of his outstanding professional achievements as an alumnus of the institution. The award was presented to Inge Sargent, Sao Kya Seng’s widow, accompanied by their two daughters, Sao Mayari and Sao Kennari.

A visitor to Hsipaw, a popular base for hiking around the Shan hills, can see something of their large former house behind a now rather overgrown metal gate, but still no visitors are allowed in by the Burmese military.

The Shan are a Tai ethnic group, speaking a language closely related to Tai, and originally came from the area that is now Yunnan province in south-west China. There are probably about six million Shan, consisting of several sub-divisions. Unlike the Karen, who are spread out among several Burmese states, the Shan are mainly confined to their own very large state, the biggest in the country, occupying about one-quarter of Burma’s land mass.

Travelling though Shan State it becomes clear that there is no easy solution to the problem of dissembling this security obsessed state and constructing a new one that treats citizens with dignity and accountability. The removal of the handful of top generals and colonels from the government, and their replacement with elected officials, will not transform overnight the century-old command relationship between state and society.

For one there is the unworkable nature of federalism in this multi ethnic society. This is challenging both for the military and advocates of democratic political reform. In some respects, through the cease-fire the powers that be constructed a novel approach to federalism. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was initially demanded by the ethnic resistant organizations. Of course the government delayed because they still want to carry out their strategy of attacking some, making 'peace' with others. Leading to a divide and rule policy.

Even after having signed a ceasefire, the Burmese military continued to attack the Burma Army and the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North areas. Since clashes between the Burma Army and the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North broke out in early October and continued into early December, more than 10,000 civilians in Mong Hsu, Mong Nong, and Kesi Townships have fled their homes.

This also shows that the ceasefire accord is primarily a useful campaign tool for the government, which is dominated by former military men and serving officers who hold a constitutionally mandated 25 percent of parliamentary seats. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party can claim it as a sign of its commitment to reform as it goes into the 8 November elections, but even the ceasefire’s name is misleading. The agreement can hardly be considered “nationwide”, since it excludes the majority of Myanmar’s approximately two dozen armed groups, including some of the most powerful ones.

The offensive, which began on October 6, was taking place while election monitors and journalists from across the globe were in Burma to observe the recent polls. Yet most news reports have only praised the "peaceful" nature of the elections, and no foreign governments publicly raised concerns about the widespread attacks by Burmese government troops. But soon thereafter however the U.S. called for an investigation of possible Myanmar military atrocities (like rape of women and so on).

The Shan sawbwas agreed in 1947 to join Ministerial Burma because of the provision provided for self-determination and the right of secession after ten years of independence. Aung San had correctly noted that it would be a failure on the part of the Myanmar leaders if the Shan still wanted to secede from the Union after the said period. Aung San's guarantee had moved the Shan sawbwas to join Myanmar forgetting what had happened to the Shan states during the past Burmese kings.

The 1947 Constitution was received as the root cause of problems that Myanmar encountered in the past fifty years and remains a major issue to be solved. Referring to the defects in the constitution, the leaders of the hill peoples said that the Union Constitution is not a genuine federal system. In the set up of the Union, they said though the minorities are constituted as constituent states, Myanmar proper was incorporated within the central government and enjoyed the monopoly of Union power whereas the status of the remaining states are lowered to that of tributary states to Myanmar. Regarding the controversial issue of constitution Chan Htoon notes: "Burma's (Myanmar) Constitution, though in theory federal, is in practice unitary" (The Guardian, 11 March 1961).

The aim of the leaders of the hills people to amend the constitution was by no means to disintegrate the Union of Myanmar, said Sao Hkun Hkio, the then head of the Shan state. He was reported to have told U Nu that the proposal for a federation, made by all the political parties in the Shan state, was inspired by the laudable motive of making the Union of Burma stable for all time (The Nation, 2 July 1961). Nonetheless, giving the example of the United States of America, U Nu, the premier of the Union government, warned the Shan leaders that in the early history of the United States a long and bloody war was fought among its states on the issue of secession. The Shan leaders, however, relying on Chapter XI of the Constitution.' expected to submit the constitutional amendment proposal to the Union Parliament in due course.

Such was the background history of the Myanmar Constitution that when it came to a call for an amendment, the army promptly seized power on 2 March 1962. Suspending the constitution and dissolving parliament, Ne Win declared that “parliamentary democracy was not suitable” for the country, and instead started to rule through a “revolutionary council”. Burma had ruptured from the modern world. More than fifty years later, it is still struggling to return.

The reason that the Shan leaders were particularly targeted in 1962 is because one of the justifications for Ne Win’s coup was to forestall Shan attempts to break off and form their autonomous state – “to prevent the disintegration of the union”, as the military put it.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the country’s numerous minority ethnic groups, which comprise more than 30% of the country’s population, have been battling the central government (and sometimes each other) pretty much constantly. At the heart of these conflicts are promises contained in the Panglong Agreement. Signed by Aung San, leader of the country’s independence movement (and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, a parliamentarian and longtime democracy activist), as well as Kachin, Chin and Shan representatives, the Agreement promised broad regional autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities and said that a “separate Kachin State…is desirable”. The country’s government has delivered on neither promise.

The Shan had won the right to a referendum to secede under the Panglong agreement ten years after independence, by 1958. Thus, Burma’s leaders saw the Shan, above all, as an existential threat to the Union of Burma, as they not only had the theoretical right to split off but also a distinct and widely supported structure of extant royal government to lead them if they chose to do so.

None of the threats faced in the 1960s could be blamed on easily identifiable, geographically containable populations, which led battalion commanders and military planners almost inevitably into broader programs aimed at reordering, reeducating, and redefining the population throughout the country. War fighters became state builders.

This political quandary could have come right out of the debates of 1946-47, when Aung San Suu Kyi's father was attempting to rally disunited forces to stand up to the British one more time for the cause of independence: "We must take care that 'United we stand' not 'United we fall' [sic] .... Unity is the foundation. Let this fact be engraved in your memory, ye who hearken to me, and go ye to your appointed tasks with diligence." This unified show of force was probably critical in moving the British to grant independence. However, unity became an end in itself, and by virtue of historical habit, Burmese politics has never matured beyond this phase. Or as one published comment stated on 12 Dec. It Is Not Enough for Elites Simply to Get Along.

Also, Joseph Silverstein argues that the political language and concepts of the Burmese opposition are at least partly derived from those of the military government. Similarly, Christina Fink notes that “the military's propaganda and ways of operating have profoundly shaped even those opposed to military rule”. Like its military opponents, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is intolerant of internal dissent. That is also why she argues that before she wants to talk to any of those that are currently under attack by the Burmese armed forces that all (thus seen as ’rebels’ by Suu Kyi) of them, first have to lay down their arms.

Following the resumption of warfare in early October, at least, eight villages in Kyethi Township have been totally abandoned after a Myanmar Army artillery bombardment and gunfire in Kyethi and Mong Hsu townships. In mid-November, Burmese government troops torched a Ta’ang village. As of early December, there are 4,000 newly displaced people in southern Shan. Today (23 Dec.) I was told that there was heavy fighting with various battles just outside Murngvill and that Government troops conquered, at least, one camp of the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Significant is that the TNLA actively searches for opium poppy fields and destroys them; opium smugglers caught are arrested. In other words, there are signs that similar to the fighting by Government troops in the Jade region of Kachin State that this is a battle of in this case drug resources (see more about the drug cartels below).

Ethnic rebels in the north of Burma, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KLA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), have accused the Burmese government of actively participating in the drug trade, whilst at the same time claiming to be cracking down on it. The government’s new model of drug production, according to the rebels, is to broker ceasefires with rebel groups, and then enlist former rebel soldiers as members of ad hoc, pro-government militias, who are then given free rein to produce and traffic drugs in territories under their control. An excellent documentary by journalist Chris Veits, released this July by Journeyman Pictures, depicts this very phenomenon, as TNLA soldiers intercept huge hauls of heroin and methamphetamine headed for pro-government soldiers. See also: Myanmar’s state-backed militias are flooding Asia with meth.

TNA: "Ethnic armed groups they have political goals. They don’t want fighting. They want peace. But how can they get peace? How can they pass negotiations? Because government has no desire [to negotiate]." Opium cultivation in ethnic conflict zones has steadily increased during the recent years and addiction among ethnic civilians has spiraled out of control-“the Burmese troops have allowed its militias to plant opium and trade drugs for a long time.”

Above National Liberation Army soldiers destroy a poppy crop.

Since August, there are also operations apparently linked to plans for a large hydropower dam on the Salween River, which will flood large areas of Kunhing here in Shan State.

Thus the numbers of war refugees in Myanmar is still increasing due to the conflicts occurring in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Ironically this morning at the guesthouse where we stay I was also sent a news item about Myanmar's "brazen bid for Presidential immunity" for a draft law that removes accountability for "crimes" in office.

A major problem for the Shan state is drugs. The opium industry was a monopoly during colonial times and has since been illegally operated by corrupt officials in the Government military and both militia and certain rebel fighters.

There is significant evidence that the government-backed militias in Myanmar are heavily involved in producing opium and heroin. These militias, also known as People’s Militia Forces, were originally allowed to form by the first post-independence governments as they were considered to be helpful in fighting separatist movements. Nevertheless, many of them have become little more than private armies to protect the drugs trade. The army can use its checkpoint soldiers to wave drug shipments through while choking off supplies from competitors among the local ethnic groups.

A road trip north-east to Lashio, and then beyond to the Chinese border, affords a few glimpses into the army’s grip on the local economy. Lashio is the main city of northern Shan State. It has a strongly ethnic-Chinese presence, as it is the last major stop-off point before the border town of Muse, which gives onto the south-west Chinese province of Yunnan. This is the base area of North-Eastern Command, which in tactical terms has been mainly involved in counter-insurgency operations against the local Shan and Kachin.

Signs outside Lashio proudly announce the entrances to the North-Eastern Command’s enormous farms, and all along the road up to Muse lie more of the army’s various forests and plantations. Commanders use their troops here to extract higher prices from customers.

One Shan lobby group based in Thailand says that the links between the Army and Militia Forces have become so close that in 2010 seven drug barons were elected to Burma’s new parliaments (federal and state) under the banner of the army’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Their big pitch for votes to local farmers was that they would let them grow poppies without fear of persecution. Devastatingly, much of the area’s teak has been cut down and smuggled over the border to China, often with the help of the army. In the hills near the Chinese border, it looks as though someone has taken a giant electric shaver to the landscape, so thorough has been the deforestation.

Most of the time led by commanders of ethnic minority origin, these militias are allowed by the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) to finance themselves also by taxing the local population, or getting into a range of businesses – which in Shan State automatically meant the drugs trade. These often very rich militia leaders-cum-drug lords have also become essential supports of the central Burmese government control, and this is largely what the current war described above is about.

For local proponents of promoting democracy, ethnic peace and sustainable development, the existence of such ‘market of violence’ conditions poses enormous obstacles, while violent entrepreneurs benefit from the instability, and conflict and lawlessness. The local population in such areas is trapped in an ambiguous situation where they are forced to migrate into illegality to survive in a difficult and violent environment, for instance by taking part in the illicit economy of opium cultivation. The same holds true for ethnic armed opposition groups who control their areas but are at the same time denied access to the formal economy and may consequently be compelled to depend on illegal activities to sustain their base – a situation that could potentially corrupt their legitimate political aims. The Government military exploits this situation in its effort to manage the conflict instead of seeking a political solution.

Critics say that approach, and a lack of viable alternatives for growers, ensures no long-term solution can be reached.

By many accounts demand is on the rise in Shan state itself, where drug addiction is now a problem, especially among the young. Nang Voe Phart, the head of a local NGO working to improve livelihoods in the eastern Shan capital of Kengtung, reckons that three-fifths of young people there regularly take yaba. Doctors in neighbouring Kayin state, home to the ethnic Karen people, say the proportion is similar there.

Thus, the scourge of drugs has overwhelmed the lives and aspirations of all the ethnic groups who live along Burma’s eastern border.

Several people, I talked to argued that drug abuse is merely a symptom of “bigger political and economic dilemmas”. Poverty and lack of opportunity are common incentives for people to turn to drugs, but the Burmese assault on the Shan political and cultural identity has left many with little self-respect or ambition. The drugs, “mainly come from the armed militias, but the government helps them, and they are tools in keeping the youth inactive, preventing them from thinking about politics and the future.”And that has a recent public complaint stated, "In areas controlled by the government and [the government led] People’s Militia Forces, drug use is higher than anywhere else."

Many Karen and Kachin argue the same that the Burmese government has positively encouraged the production and use of drugs to destroy their sense of self-worth and dignity, thereby sapping political resistance to the authorities. Having observed the explosion of drugs from close-up also in Kachin State, if that’s true, there is no better evidence for it than what has happened to the peoples of Shan State over the past fifty years. They have seen their old kingdom culturally and politically obliterated, only to be divided up into so many narco-statelets pushed up against the Chinese border. The eastern Shan region is now the epicenter of the booming regional production of heroin and yaba. Much of this is smuggled out of the country, mostly to China, but the main victims of the drugs trade are increasingly the Shan themselves.

The present Government in Myanmar is not willing to admit guilt or accept accountability in order to embark upon the road towards true reparation and reconciliation. However, with the help and support of the international community, the opportunity is there for Myanmar to address its many challenges.


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