Opium’s Calculus (Part 1: Abacus Beads)

Bobby Anderson, in Part One of a three-part series on opium and insurgency in Tonzang, examines some elements of traditional understandings of insurgency, statebuilding and opium.

This three-part series discusses historical and contemporary insurgency and opium cultivation in Myanmar, and the conditions in which the drug trade supports territorial control, either for the state or its rebels. It focuses particularly on northern Chin state—an outlier in that a thriving opium trade there does not finance an insurgency. Part One begins in Tonzang: a mountainous, remote, non-Bamar, and non-Buddhist area of the union where opium is prevalent. In order to comparatively understand why an area with so many elements of insurgency does not actually result in a durable one, I proceed to quantify the elements of strong insurgencies in other parts of the Union, Shan in particular, according to geography, demography, and markets. I demonstrate how different factors impact insurgent scale and capability. I then describe the historical and contemporary financing role of drugs in both insurgency and statebuilding, from the foundations of opium financing under the British through to the Kuomintang and on to contemporary indigenous insurgencies. I then describe the state-drug nexus, analyzing how some state actors are involved in promoting or protecting the trade and how still others are involved in suppressing it. Part Two and Three of the series apply the tools laid out in Part One to northern Chin state, Tonzang in particular.

“Myanmar’s government has set the year 2019 as a deadline for when the country will be drug-free.”

Public Radio International
May 2015

Tonzang (variously spelt Tonzan, Ton Zang, Tong Zan, Tunzan, Tunzang, Tun Zang) is the northernmost township in Myanmar’s Chin State, and Chikha is its north-westernmost town. It lies a dozen miles back from the Indian border, connected by rutted track to a decrepit crossing – across which lies Manipur, a place of insurgencies within insurgencies like Russian Matryoshka dolls: Mizoram, relatively peaceful[i], lies further west.

Chikha is a dusty little town of a few paved streets, almost stereotypically sleepy, and dotted with the churches of myriad Christian sects. Of the few streets, as in small towns everywhere, one bears the honorific “main”, and on this street lies the local “office” of the National League For Democracy (NLD): a shopfront bearing that party’s ubiquitous “roadrunner” signboard alongside the photo of a bemused Aung San at 10 Downing Street on a frigid January day in 1947, six months before he was gunned down by persons unknown in the Yangon Secretariat. Seventy-two years later, I examine a rack of dusty plastic-wrapped dolls hanging on pegs under his image. Although the beans and salt in Chikha’s NLD shop come from India, the plastic—and most other things with any kind of value-added process—comes from China.

In this shop a man in a wheelchair plays Scrabble. He has used the word “Iota” in his game, and I comment upon this favorably to my friend, John. I’ve been losing Scrabble games my entire life, to family and friends who look upon me with pity.

“It’s a Greek word,” he says, without looking up from the board.

Chikha’s ethnic Chin families try to exist as though the border does not, with members on either side of it. They are scornful of the marches, and sometimes in the past they could nearly forget its presence, but it hardens of late. Chikha’s people feel the frontier most palpably when the Indians close it, cutting them off from their hunting grounds; their main source of fat and protein which grows scarcer with every passing year. The British in their day moved the Chin north to work their Assam tea plantations, as well as to form a pliant buffer population between them and the Naga. A Chin civil servant friend here has two brothers in the Indian army, and his family’s experience is a common form of insurance on such a frontier. Some of Chikha’s Chin have degrees from Delhi and Bangalore; they possess both Myanmar and Indian IDs. Better health care, for one, is available in Manipur, but Manipur’s people need no such comparative arrangements on this side of the border. For them, Tonzang is known for opium—a row on a Union abacus of coercion and incentive, its beads worn and stained from decades of use—more than any other product or service.

Tonzang road to Chikha
Photo by Bobby Anderson (IG: @batbitim)


Chikha sits within the upland Asian land massif Van Schendel coined Zomia[ii], from the Kuki—Chin word Zomi: “us”.[iii] James C Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), framed Zomia as a “shatter zone” of ethnically and linguistically fluid, swiddening peoples arriving in successive waves of flight from state control—namely China, but later, Siam and Burma, amongst others. Zomia, to Scott, is consigned to history, and he is correct in that some ideal of it might be.

But the land and the people continue to transform, and be transformed, by the frontiers, markets, and other aspects of the states that claim them, both in the ways that Zomia’s people have adapted to such impositions, and in the way their own emergent ethnic elites have made armed counterclaims.

These elites have often retained territories through an isomorphic mimicry of the coercive administrations that seek to rule them, and sometimes, equilibrium is reached, often around natural resources, of which opium is one. Such equilibriums are evanescent, and soon enough, state and rebel set upon one another until the next balance is reached. Within these corners we see the breathing remains of the place and time Scott eulogized. Myanmar’s peripheries abound in them.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve made four trips to Tonzang, where I’ve explored the contours of the township’s opium cultivation, and the reasons why it is so often unmentioned within larger discourses on insurgency, drugs, and crime in the Union. I visited villages in cultivation areas in order to understand the scope of the issue and local responses to it; I also spoke to farmers about the crops they grow and the money they earn, in order to consider how the standard triage of a state’s response to opium cultivation that I’ve witnessed in Afghanistan and Northwest Thailand—eradication, alternative development/livelihoods, harm reduction—might play out there. But my overarching question remained:

How did such a trade in a remote and undeveloped non-Burmese, non-Buddhist area not fund an insurgency? 

The Elements of Insurgent Scale

Firstly, let’s consider Myanmar’s intertwined experiences with drugs and insurgency, followed by where the experience of Tonzang may fit within them. The durability of such uprisings stem from the weakness of the centre rather than the strength of the periphery, and since independence in 1948, a half year after Aung San’s murder, we have seen a gradual consolidation of the centre: from Karen rebels on the literal outskirts of Yangon, to the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw ranged across the outskirts of the Karen National Union’s desiccated territories along the Thai border.

Myanmar’s most stubborn insurgencies in contested and fragile areas bear particular features:

  1. They exist in a complex and defensible geography that contains an international border;
  2. That geography possesses at least one high-value and easily extractable natural resource, with a market across the aforementioned border;
  3. The insurgency controls a discrete population in the manner of a state, and legitimizes itself via a non-Bamar people’s notion of themselves, or a martial elite’s shaping and corralling of such a notion.

Winning combinations

In order for an insurgency to truly be durable (or in development-speak, “sustainable”), these features must appear in combination; one cannot have two out of three here. Geography and resources combine to sustain an insurgency through the possibility of direct extraction of, or taxation of, high-value products at an international crossing. Insurgents don’t need to extract or produce resources on their own; they just need to levy fees, in exchange for protection, the state’s—and the mafia’s—classic role. A taxable border crossing can make or break an insurgency: the Communist Party of Burma collapsed in 1989, but its mortal wounding occurred in January of 1987, when it lost the Panghsai crossing into Yunnan to the Union.[iv] The KNU receded to but a shadow of its former greatness after it lost the Three Pagodas Pass and other highly-trafficked border crossings with Thailand.[v] Geography and resources also combine to establish connections to local markets within Myanmar, but beyond the complex geography shielding the insurgency, allowing for harmonious networks between the representatives of theoretically opposing forces (in this case, ethnic insurgent groups and the Myanmar military) to develop. The higher the value of a resource in transit, the more pliant it renders ideologies and nationalisms. And often, what is seen as a “flare up” to a conflict—or even the entire conflict—may actually be a disagreement between local and nonlocal elites over a division of resource spoils. But often, relatively equitable divisions are again reached—a form of peacebuilding less discussed in the western confines of the conflict resolution field.

Regarding identity, that a non-Bamar people in Myanmar might have significant historical and contemporary negative experiences of exclusion and violence with the Bamar state is a given, but the degree of that negative experience matters as well. Collective opinions can be shaped, but one should have ample clay of blood to work with. Factors such as geography and identity combine so that an insurgency might offer protection to local populations, but in turn, also compel others to fight; conscription can be unpopular, as long as it is more popular than the Tatmadaw, and it’s initially the behavior of the Tatmadaw that leads such collective opinions from the theoretical to the palpable.[vi]

Whilst territories across Shan, Kachin, and other parts of the Union possess optimal degrees of these three factors in spades—the highland areas in particular—historically, Chin arguably only has degrees of the first two, although to the south, in Paletwa’s ethnic Rakhine territories, this is changing.

With these standards and their Rubik’s Cube’s worth of possibilities in mind, the highest end of insurgents, such as the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), and a few others, not only control territory and both coerce and offer protections to pliant populations and trades; they also provide services, even operating fire departments. The Karen National Union (KNU) also mimics Union services to oppose the Union, although its borders are less “hard” than the UWSP and KIO, and this differs by township, with the KNU maintaining hard borders in Kyaukkyi but few to speak of in Kyainseikgyi.[vii] All too many other insurgents offer almost a simulacrum of their figurative sovereignty to the Union in hopes the government will take it literally.

In Myanmar and elsewhere, then, the more durable an insurgency vis-a-vis the state, the more it replicates the structures of what it opposes.

Means of Warfare

These aforementioned factors establish the type of fighting an insurgency conducts, with the highest end theoretically able to engage in conventional battles with conventional weapons, although none possess the air power of the Tatmadaw. The Wa are the gold standard here: one can get away with no air power as long as one has anti-aircraft defenses. At the level below this, the Arakan Army (AA) in southern Chin and Rakhine are classical insurgents, drawing in the Tatmadaw, ambushing, and withdrawing before retribution arrives, in a territory lacking most resources but abounding in areas of concealment. The Chin National Front in its brief mid-1990s heyday behaved more like the November 17 movement or the Irish Republican Army, targeting Tatmadaw officials—Military Intelligence in particular—for assassination.

Still others function as gangs offering an ideological justification for extortion, amongst other crimes.

The Downgrade: Ethnic Armed Group to Militia

 Peasants are dust and cobwebs; militias are the brooms the Tatmadaw sweeps with.

When an insurgency lacks most of the above factors and combinations, either due to government offensives, or those internal fragmentations that have plagued insurgency here as regularly as the monsoon, a given insurgent group eventually reaches a point where its taxes no longer provide protections, and instead simply recedes into extortion—if it ever moved beyond that in the first place. The civilian base such insurgents may still claim to represent may thus prefer an alternate protection racket in the form of the Union.

Insurgencies may lose authority over geography and population, but still possess an armed hierarchy, and a means by which to generate illicit income. When this happens, like the civilian base it lost, it too may turn toward the Union for protection. The Tatmadaw has exactly such mechanisms in place to incorporate such insurgents, by converting them into militias.

The distinction is an important one. John Buchanan outlined the forms such groups might take in the report Militias in Myanmar, with the most robust conversion being the insurgent group transitioning into a Border Guard Force with Tatmadaw officers, and the least robust seeming to be a declaration of allegiance, with the militia in question serving occasionally as a proxy for the Tatmadaw, not only in its fights with other insurgents, but in its policing (domesticating) of local populations. Most important, however, is that although such forces may be within Tatmadaw commands, they do not benefit from Tatmadaw financial flows; they must raise funds on their own. Here the allowance of, and sometimes, allocation of, control over organized criminal activities and profits are conflict resolution and statebuilding exercises in themselves, and have been so in Myanmar since at least the 1960s, but only fully realized through Khin Nyunt’s amoral pragmatism in the early 1990’s.

Drugs: An Essential Ingredient to Insurgency

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or UNODC identified 37,300 hectares (ha) of opium cultivation in Myanmar in 2018. Of this, only 2,605 ha were eradicated by law enforcement.[viii] Myanmar’s total production was only 14 percent of Afghanistan’s, which contained 263,000 ha under cultivation in the same year. Myanmar’s 2018 yield declined from 41,000 ha in 2017, and from a peak of 160,000 ha in 1996.[ix]

The interplay of opium and insurgency in Myanmar has been well described in classic works such as Alfred McCoy’s authoritative 1972 work The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, and Bertil Lintner’s Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948, along with his catalogue of writing and reportage. Lintner captures a fractal-scape of insurgency alongside Martin Smith’s magisterial 1991 work Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnic Conflict. Much of what is alleged to be new in studies of drugs, statebuilding, and the Union—the notion that drugs are a mid-term stabilization tool rather than only a proxy of chaos in particular—is not novel at all, and can be found in these and other works which have accumulated across the last forty years. But original work still emerges; Ko-lin Chin’s groundbreaking research in Wa territory (amongst other informative works), the Palaung Women’s Organization’s study of opium cultivation in Union areas, and Tharaphi Than’s analysis of Mongla, all serve as stellar examples, as does John Buchanan’s Militias in Myanmar, which described the contours of the Tatmadaw’s co-option of other forces. Mandy Sadan’s lyrical ethnography[x] lets us glimpse a dense and complex human topography under the surface of simplistic ethnic categorizations used, along with funding, to drive rebellions, while David Scott Mathieson’s reportage continues to tally the human cost. The Transnational Institute’s research contributes to our understanding of the economic interplay between state, insurgent, and capital in contested areas. And although usually staid in their writing, the latest International Crisis Group report on drugs and conflict in Shan state, Fire and Ice (an excruciatingly painful Game of Thrones reference), succeeded in updating Buchanan’s work, namely the continued connections of militias to criminal activities and Union links. These and other works combine to demonstrate the aforementioned utility of crime in peacebuilding.

With that in mind, a brief description of the interplay is called for, in order to then relate it to lesser-described corners of the Union.

An Introduction to Opium

Poppies are a quintessential Zomia product—a cultural artifact, albeit with origins thousands of miles to the west. They thrive in rugged environments inhospitable to other crops. Poppies require little water and lots of altitude. Locals know how to grow it; they eat opium to cure diarrhea, amongst other reasons. Once dried, it takes up little space, is easily transportable, and can be stored for long periods. Opium is a better storage of wealth than livestock; unlike them—and the addicts of opium’s derivatives—it doesn’t die unexpectedly.

Even better than opium, when morphine is boiled out of it, converted to base, and mixed with acetic anhydride, it becomes heroin, decreasing the product’s size and increasing its earning power by a factor of ten.

It took the western introduction of tobacco, and the British ramming of opium down the throat of an anemic imperial China in order to solve their silver shortage, with a resultant collapse in the price, to combine in order to metastasize a formerly benign product used as medicine and in occasional animist rites into a worldwide plague. The British, in the correction of their trade imbalance, launched the drug financing we see in Myanmar today, and the wars they waged in order to keep profits flowing are not all that dissimilar to the actions of contemporary drug cartels.

The vast levels of addiction the British created in China, the migration of those addicts to diaspora communities, and the British elite discovery of post-profit morality long after the fact[xi], resulted in China meeting its own demand, and then worldwide demand: by the 1920s, 80% of the world’s opium originated in China[xii], and opium addiction morphed, in the western imagination[xiii], into a problem indigenous to China and its neighborhood, “infecting” the west through the conduit of sinister “Chinatowns.” In this fantasyland, laudanum-addicted western housewives were the fault of sinister Chinese of the Fu Manchu variety—an inverse of blame, divorced from its origin. Poppies would be China’s primary cash crop[xiii] until the communists overthrew the Kuomintang or KMT under Chiang Kai-Shek.

Enter the Kuomintang

The KMT learned from the British. The fleeing dregs of its Yunnan armies turned to large-scale opium cultivation and processing in eastern Shan State in 1949, compelling local Lahu, Akha, Shan and others to clear entire hillsides for the crop,[xiv] destroying sustainable multi-year swiddening calendars and reducing the stewards of the land to indentured servants. When Scott refers to the death of Zomia at the end of World War II, he might cast his eye to this as one of the catalysts of said demise. This industrial-level cultivation was allegedly undertaken in order to continue the KMT’s anti-communist struggle and prepare for an invasion of China. In the words of KMT 5th Army General, Tuan Shi-wen:

“We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium.”[xv]

This disingenuous sentiment existed in a vacuum, divorced from American and other funding to the KMT in Shan. The involvement of the KMT in opium, or at least the profits of it, didn’t begin in Shan State, but extended back to the 1910s, with KMT—Green Gang associations through the personage of no less than Chiang Kai-Shek himself.[xvi] In Shan State, KMT product was initially (and allegedly) flown out on the same CIA charter flights that ferried in supplies to the KMT, although later, the opium would be transported to Chiang Mai on mule trains, where representatives of that “anti-communist” country’s police, and later, army, took over. Ironically, successive American administrations would blame “Red China” for the heroin their own allies were moving. China, for its part, had exterminated its crop soon after the communist victory.[xvii]

Looking back, and then to our present, we can fairly dismiss the utility of opium financing as ideological in nature and related to the ends justifying the means by which a greater cause is won. 

The Indigenizing of Production

While the KMT withdrew over time from the Shan scene, settling in Northern Thailand or returning to Taiwan, the product it detonated across the landscape remained, and when nativist revolts began in Shan State, they were led by Shan who lived under, and sometimes, fought for, the KMT, nearly all of whom who later joined Union self-defense militias or Ka Kwe Ye (KKY, 1962-1973, later described as People’s Armies or Pyithusit): Olive Yang, Lo Hsing Han, Khun Sa, and Peng Jiasheng—to name only the most famous of many—engaged in the opium trade in the absence of the KMT. And while the KMT may have withdrawn from control, it stayed involved, just over the border, buying, synthesizing, and transporting. Some of the Shan groups ultimately achieved refining capacity. This insurgent/militia financing strategy continued across the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The Communist Party of Burma or CPB[xix] initially rejected opium financing on ideological grounds, and perhaps, because of the association between opium and their KMT enemies, but in the struggle between China’s gang of four and Deng Xiaoping, they bet on the wrong horse, and when funding was reduced accordingly, they turned in part to drugs as well; cadre Peng Jiasheng established their first heroin refineries in the mid-1970s. [iv]

The Indigenizing of Production

While the KMT withdrew over time from the Shan scene, settling in Northern Thailand or returning to Taiwan, the product it detonated across the landscape remained, and when nativist revolts began in Shan State, they were led by Shan who lived under, and sometimes, fought for, the KMT, nearly all of whom who later joined Union self-defense militias or Ka Kwe Ye (KKY, 1962-1973, later described as People’s Armies or Pyithusit): Olive Yang, Lo Hsing Han, Khun Sa, and Peng Jiasheng—to name only the most famous of many—engaged in the opium trade in the absence of the KMT. And while the KMT may have withdrawn from control, it stayed involved, just over the border, buying, synthesizing, and transporting. Some of the Shan groups ultimately achieved refining capacity. This insurgent/militia financing strategy continued across the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The Communist Party of Burma or CPB[xvii] initially rejected opium financing on ideological grounds, and perhaps, because of the association between opium and their KMT enemies, but in the struggle between China’s gang of four and Deng Xiaoping, they bet on the wrong horse, and when funding was reduced accordingly, they turned in part to drugs as well; cadre Peng Jiasheng established their first heroin refineries in the mid-1970s.[xviii]

The Tatmadaw—Drug Nexus

When the CPB collapsed under the weight of a Wa-led revolt in 1989, Tatmadaw Military Intelligence leader Khin Nyunt enlisted both Lo Hsing Han and Olive Yang to help him negotiate with the constituent parties which emerged from the wreckage of that group, namely the UWSP, the National Democratic Alliance Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (under Peng Jiasheng), and the Shan State Progress Party. The Tatmadaw was willing to trade much for the neutrality of these groups vis-a-vis the 8888 pro-democracy movement under Aung San Suu Kyi, and if this collection of armed groups wished to continue the fund-raising for their insurgency—just without, you know, the insurgency—then so be it.

They did, and this freed the Tatmadaw to concentrate on other threats—the KNU in particular, but also, the Mong Tai Army, whose involvement in heroin proved to be too much of an attention-getter from foreigners, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in particular. The DEA declared MTA leader Khun Sa to be “public enemy number one” in the same manner they declared Pablo Escobar in the late 1980s. The MTA surrendered in 1995, with Khun Sa retiring and legitimizing his wealth in real estate.

Amazingly, the year after Khun Sa’s retirement, the scourge of heroin did not vanish from the world, and colorful minorities did not resort to scything tea on misty orientalist hills: in 1996 Myanmar hit the peak of its opium production, with 160,000 Ha under cultivation.

The DEA, casting about for more warlords to blame (as opposed to demand-side issues in the US), turned to the UWSP, indicting its leadership in a New York courtroom, resulting in a ban on opium cultivation in UWSA territory that has held since 2005. Meanwhile, what remained of the MTA became the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and a profusion of smaller militias, of whom the most infamous was only partly fictionalized in the blockbuster Chinese film Operation Mekong.

If opium is good, and heroin is great, then meth is the best. It requires less human resources and has shorter supply chains, it takes up much less space, and because the market is not on the other side of the Pacific, it doesn’t attract DEA attention. Varied CPB and MTA spin-offs soon moved into the production of crystalized methamphetamine and Amphetamine-like Stimulants or ALS. In the last two decades, meth and ALS have predominated along the Shan border with China, but opium remains, and it is still profitable—for the security actors who allow others to dabble in it in exchange for their loyalty, for the profusion of militias and EAOs who profit from it, and for the local civilian and military representatives of the Union, who continue to tax the trade.

The Extent of Tatmadaw and other Sizeable Armed Actor Involvement

The Tatmadaw and contemporary large insurgent groups possess alternatives to the most illicit of organized criminal activities, with the largest groups avoiding drugs because of the reputational stain it leaves. Unlike its explicit involvement in other trades—resource extraction in particular—the Tatmadaw seems to allow localized drug trades to happen, either in exchange for fees or with the knowledge that their proxy forces require funding, rather than engaging with the markets directly. The evidence we have for Tatmadaw involvement is anecdotal, primarily through the militias known to be involved in drugs and their intimate proximity to the Tatmadaw. The latest ICG report details a whole new level of “drug war”: the anti-drug campaigns of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) target poppy crops controlled by the Tatmadaw proxy Pansay militia; the latter fights to defend its crop, with the Tatmadaw providing artillery and air support. Knowledge of this and other examples are exceptions: the utter control the Tatmadaw and its proxies wield in these areas prevents anyone from knowing what the military doesn’t wish to be known. While numerous allegations of direct Tatmadaw involvement in the drug trade can be found, they usually emanate from peripheral sources, and unreliable ones at that (see below).

Allow me to speculate that the Tatmadaw might also be concerned about drug use in its ranks—a young, under-resourced, and underpaid group of single men engaged in violence far from home is an ideal constituency for drug usage, which obviously degrades efficiency, as the Americans learned in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

There’s also the issue of stigma: a group that imagines itself as the defender of a Theravada Buddhist Bamar cosmology and territory would need to tread carefully with regard to how deeply it wades into such a trade, with plausible deniability paramount. There’s plenty of money to be made elsewhere: in real estate, in timber, in importing and exporting licit goods, and most of all, in jade, a desired cultural artifact which carries little stigma unless one knows the conditions in which it is dug from the earth. Jade, for its part, is simply too valuable for the Tatmadaw to leave even in-part in the hands of the KIA, and may be one of the reasons why the Tatmadaw was so keen in 2011 to end a ceasefire with a group that powerful.

Again, regarding the larger and more image-conscious insurgents: decentralized commands serve to prevent the disunity that historically plagues regional insurgencies. What the central level orders—no drugs!—may be contradicted at the township or village tract level. And the possibility of plausible deniability at the central level may determine how the centre responds to actions which contradict their positions. In the 1990s, for example, while the KNU was executing drug traffickers in one part of its territory, in others, the hillsides were covered with poppy.[1]

All this serves to demonstrate that, while drugs are addictive to individuals, they are also addictive to collectives.

In Myanmar, these decentralized commands result in the integration and networking of nominally opposing forces, public and private sector actors, and foreign and domestic capital, into what Jonathan Goodhand et al. have described as a regional combat economy, and a significant impediment to peace.

The Other Side: Drug Enforcement

While some representatives of the Union, within the Tatmadaw in particular, might allow for drug production, and others might be involved directly, in cultivation/production, or indirectly, through protection, still other elements of the Union seek to disrupt the trade: arresting dealers and traffickers, raiding labs, seizing shipments at checkpoints, eradicating poppy fields, and so on. The Tatmadaw, police and other actors are involved in this enforcement, assisted by foreign governments. This contradiction reflects less the Weberian definition of a state and more the one articulated by Joel Migdal, where a diverse range of local actors re-shape state practices and policies to fit local “norms,” often in a contradictory manner. This paradox allows for the propagandization of one side’s malfeasance by the other side, even as they engage in the same crimes. Drugs are a stick to beat a recalcitrant insurgency with, although the rod is spared for co-opted militias: a great example of this can be found in the Global New Light of Myanmar’s (so-far unsubstantiated) branding of the Arakan Army as meth kingpins in “How to Fund a War.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) became an unwitting cudgel in a short-sighted Union attempt to blame insurgents for the activity of Tatmadaw proxies when it wrote, in its 2018 Myanmar Opium Survey—an exercise it undertook jointly with the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control under the Tatmadaw-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs—that “Opium poppy is now mainly concentrated in areas where government action against cultivation and organized crime groups is inhibited,” and that “the highest density of poppy cultivation took place in areas under the control or influence of the Kachin Independence Army,” currently one of the Tatmadaw’s priority enemies. The Restoration Council of Shan State, an NCA signatory, was also mentioned. Bertil Lintner, in The Asia Times, replied that the areas claimed by UNODC to be KIA and RCSS territory are actually the territory of Tatmadaw-affiliated militias that surrendered to the Union long ago. The MNDAA, the Pa’O National Liberation Army (PNLA), and the “People’s Militia Force” (PMF) were also mentioned by UNODC, but which MNDAA was not described. There are two: one is a breakaway, Tatmadaw-affiliated BGF, whilst the other is the original group under Peng Jiasheng. Regarding PMF, UNODC mentions it as though it were a group unto itself, but this term can be used to describe any number of Tatmadaw proxy militias. The Transnational Institute called the report a “distortion of reality.” What matters, however, is not so much that something is an untruth, but that the untruth was stated first, and later branded with a UN logo.

Michael Vatikiotis, the former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose pioneering coverage through Bertil Lintner and others kept Myanmar in focus when to most the place was a trunk of glass-eyed dolls closed by the dictator Ne Win and forgotten in the attic of decolonization, once asked me: what are the possibilities for peace when local economies and business profits in the country’s conflict areas are practically predicated on the continuation of conflict? He didn’t mean the fighting specifically, but rather, what occurs between nominally opposing forces. A structurally violent, exploitative web of resource redistribution and illicit market linkages has already developed, and with the exception of the KIA ceasefire collapse and a few others, its tenets have held. Peace would serve to rescind the martial law, either wielded by insurgents or the Tatmadaw, that masks such activities. Stalemates without negotiated settlements are useful for the continuity of the present system, where organized criminal activities can occur under an ideological veneer that a successful peace would strip away. For now, Vatikiotis’s question remains unanswered. But other elements of both Union civilian and military government, and insurgent groups and civil society, stand in opposition to the drug-crime nexus I’ve described, and have sought to provide alternate incomes and address health issues associated with the trade.

Alternative Livelihoods

Drug enforcement agencies worldwide prescribe “alternative livelihoods” to end supply side issues at the lowest level of production- the cultivation of opium by farmers. This approach assumes that an alternate crop will equal the money earned through opium. My research on these approaches in NW Thailand, and their applicability to Myanmar, suggests otherwise: no licit crops can equal the earnings from opium and since it’s a buyer’s market, with prices fixed low, buyers can adjust the price for a viss of opium at will while still profiting handsomely.

Another assumption about ground-level opium cultivators is that they are wholly integrated into, and subservient to, cash-based markets, and that without the cash from an opium crop, a farmer will starve; those of us long domesticated by cash-based markets subscribe to the notion that cash is the primary means by which to live.

But agricultural diversification is a highland nutritional strategy, and farmers that grow opium also grow everything from corn to rice to avocadoes and tomatoes and whatever else they know how to grow. Such farmers are poor when poverty is measured in dollars, but not resources; if poverty were measured in the latter, then many of Myanmar’s rural poor would be middle class in comparison to their urban brethren who currently outrank them in terms of cash. And while those in rural areas have less access to health care, they also have less exposure to pollution and foul water, and overall, less of a disease burden.

Any farmer who switched from traditional agricultural methods to the wholesale cultivation of a product one cannot survive on nutritionally was either stupid—or coerced.

In Parts Two and Three of the series, I apply the analysis of drugs and insurgency described above to northern Chin state, Tonzang in particular, to see how that area fits into the triage of crime and insurgency described in part one.

[i] India’s Kuki-Chin groups, the Mizo National Front or MNF in particular, were historically supported by China, with MNF leadership based in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Mizoram State was created to defang the MNF insurgency in 1986.
[ii] Van Schendel, Willem. 2002. “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20: 647–668.
[iii] While “Mi” means people, “Zo” is the mythological creator of those same people. However, “Zo” can also mean “high hills,” such as is found in the place-name “Mizoram.” Thanks to Jasnea Sarma for pointing this out.
[iv] From Lintner, Bertil. 1999. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
[v] Amongst, of course, other losses, namely Khin Nyunt’s engineering of the splintering of a KNU faction, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, and its offensives against the KNU as a Tatmadaw proxy This combined with Tatmadaw offensives made possible by the ceasefires Khin Nyunt established with the constituent groups to the north which emerged from the Communist Party of Burma collapse… see below.
[vi] Ironically and unsurprisingly, however, a minority elite demanding an end to their “colonialism” only looks up in their demands, never down to see whose neck they might be standing on. In the great independence movements of the 20th century, Javanese, Bamar, Indian Hindu, and other nationalists engaged in this necessary and cynical hypocrisy, and the separatist movements that arose in consequence continue to this day, but those same separatist movements are guilty of the same stances. For example, the Lisu and Rawang, Kachin sub-tribes, generally loathe the KIA and prefer the Union, due to the brutality of forced conscription that sees the two, and also other Kachin, forced to fight the Tatmadaw for indefinite terms, with the threat of execution if they try and fail to escape. In Shan State, the Lahu and Akha seem to be the cannon fodder for all too many insurgent groups there. Chris Wilson has described this paradox between the Assamese and the Bodo; for more information refer to Wilson, Chris. 2016. “Ongoing Rebel Violence in Autonomous Regions: Assam, Northeast India.” Pacific Affairs 89/2, June.
[vii] I work in both townships, and the difference in the “governance styles” of the different KNU brigades in each is striking.
[viii] This eradication figure is 26% less than 2017, and is part of a pattern of decline in eradication actions since 2015 (UNODC 2018), not only here, but in Afghanistan.
[ix] The recent decrease in cultivation area is in line with the consistent decline of farm-gate prices of opium, which fell by 34 percent (fresh) and 45 percent (dry) since 2015. The decline reflects a fall in demand in favor of crystalized methamphetamine and amphetamine-like stimulants or ALS.
[x] Sadan, Mandy. 2013. Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[xi] This double-blind morality continues to the present day, through anti-globalization protesters of a decidedly ahistorical bent—one example, and one symptom, perhaps, of the approaching final end-point on that decrepit empire’s continuum towards its end, with Brexit representing what some future Edward Gibbon might describe as a kind of self-sacking: a final thumbing of the nose as she slips beneath the waves.
[xii] Slack, Edward R. 2001. Opium, State, and Society: China’s Narco-Economy and the Guomindang, 1924–1937. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
[xiii] This misconception was aided by the works of Thomas De Quincey, whose “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” (1822) abounded in descriptions of hallucinatory pagodas and East Asian landscapes. Ironically, the opium he consumed was of Turkish origin. Refer to Platt, Stephen R. 2018. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age. New York: Knopf
[xiv] Slack, 2001.
[xv] Although Western propaganda often utilized the imagery of the “communist yoke,” the harshness of life under the “anticommunist yoke” in the form of the KMT caused many hill tribe communities to flee into Thailand, and even, apparently, into Yunnan. Those destined for Thailand planted poppy there, and who could blame them: lacking land tenure, with no crops to harvest, the best survival strategy was the highest value cash crop harvestable in the shortest duration of time.
[xvi] Quoted in Gibson, Richard Michael and Wen H Chan. 2011. The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle. Singapore: John Wiley and Sons.
[xvii] For details refer to Lintner, Bertil. 2002. Blood Brothers: Crime, Business, and Politics in Asia. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books. Just as we can discard the KMT’s opium cultivation as “anticommunist” in nature, we can also dismiss the similar origin myth of Taiwan, where an organized criminal consortium captured a Japanese colony, declared it a state, and ruled over its indigenes through terror and fear in the first half century of its existence, with democratic elections only occurring in the mid-1990s. This current bastion of freedom has its contradictions in the same manner as the wealth of a USA that expounds upon the virtues of the free market is actually based upon protectionism.
[xviii] That’s not to say the communists weren’t previously involved. The CCP grew opium in their rear areas during WWII to generate funds, going so far as to compose a patriotic song about the “heroic” opium producers of Communist Shaanxi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanniwan . Interestingly, while the KMT cultivated opium in Shan with the knowledge and permission of their leadership in Taiwan, that same leadership eliminated cultivation on Taiwan itself. Thanks to Matthew Reinert for pointing this out.
[xix] This refers to the CPB in northeastern Shan, not the Pegu Yoma CPB, which was wiped out in the late 1960s, or the Rakhine CPB.
[xx] From Lintner, Bertil. 1999. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.