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.
In Part One, I described the factors that lend to the durability of insurgency in Myanmar over time: geography, resources, and people. I also explained the interplay of drugs and insurgency across decades. Part Two looks at where Northern Chin, and Tonzang in particular, fits into this triage of crime and insurgency.
Simply put, it doesn’t. Tonzang contains all the elements for durable insurgency, but without the durable insurgency. Tonzang might be characterized as a forgotten township in a forgotten state. This says more about our short attention spans than the actual forgetfulness of such places as we overlook Tonzang and innumerable other corners of the Union in favor of place-names like Shan and Kachin, lands soaked in stereotypes of blood and shadow like hardtack in water.
Let’s begin with geography. The advantage provided by geography toward rebellion is lacking in much of eastern Tonzang—a flat land inseparable from the Sagaing plain, with lowland Chin there practicing the same wet-rice cultivation that characterizes the Bamar lowlands. Many of these Chin came from the mountains so recently that they don’t speak Burmese, but their food is now Bamar, and within a few generations, they may be as well.[i] The east’s distinguishing feature is a North-South road built by the Indian government in the mid-1990s; with the exception of the multitude of rusted and ramshackle bridges along its length, it is the smoothest road I’ve driven on in Myanmar. Paradoxically, the flat east is the only area where I have seen evidence of the Chin National Front, in the form of a large banner in a village announcing a CNF “public consultation” from the previous year. These consultations are a part of Myanmar’s ceasefire process. In that village, where I gnawed through a plate of pig’s blood sausages, I asked what the consultation was about. None could recall. “Unity?” one suggested. Down the road was a security checkpoint where shirtless soldiers played cards. If this area was ever held by rebels, it’s not in recent memory.
Further to the west, however, Tonzang contains the advantage of geography in spades. To the west of Kalay (the nearest town to Chin State with an airport), the road into Western Tonzang rises in unstable and landslide-riven switchbacks, only stabilizing when it reaches the tops of mountain ridges. The road passes Tedim before plunging thousands of feet downward and briefly following the Manipur river, again rising in switchbacks to the township capital, after which it drops to cross the Manipur river one last time before rising, in ever more switchbacks, over the hills toward Chikha.
Here swiddening Chin families build new villages on outcroppings where water is scarce, not in the interests of defense, but because a 3G signal is plentiful. We humans are really just a less-majestic species of crow.
Chin State’s people
“The Kukis have yet to realize self-rule, the postcolonial mantra. We continue to be victims of sub-colonial imperialism…”
The Kuki-Chin category is an ethnographic convenience from the time of the British Raj, containing Mizo, Kuki, Chin, and Zomi: Lao Tzu writes, in the Tao Te-Ching, that naming is the origin of ownership. The alien label unites the Kuki-Chin, just as alien theoretical borders separate them, and a contemporary plague of figurative fences divides them further: they range from Bangladesh’s Chittagong hill tract through Northeastern India, in Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Assam and Nagaland; in Myanmar, the Chin are found not only in Chin State, but also across Sagaing, Magway, and Rakhine. The Kuki-Chin spoke 45 different dialects, according to a 1931 survey[iii]. In 1959, then-Rangoon University Professor Gordon H. Luce claimed that “Chin” derived from khyang, an archaic Burmese word meaning “ally” or “comrade.” This may be another melodramatic linguistic speculation common to that era, although many young Chin men do join the Tatmadaw to escape the poverty and lack of opportunity in Chin State. If they are allies, they are forgotten ones.
The folds of this land could have easily been controlled by an insurgency acting on a set of grievances and nominally controlling, and defending, a pliant population which did not identify itself as Bamar. It wasn’t: northern Chin State’s occasional insurgents were of the classic mobile variety, defending populations spiritually but not spatially. Chin State’s insurgencies may have laid claim to territory in years and eras past, but never to an extent where the Tatmadaw had to shift its attention toward them and away from its more blooded opponents in a meaningful way: Chin insurgent attacks, relatively small, and so late in the “game” of rebellions across the latter half of the last century, meant the Tatmadaw would not react enough to fuel their cause with embittered recruits. The “Four Cuts” strategy and wide-scale displacement are not known here. This lack of insurgency is partly due to a historical lack of coherent pan-Chin nationalism across fragmented identities speaking mutually unintelligible Chin dialects.
That doesn’t mean those within the Kuki-Chin don’t agitate and—occasionally—fight. The Kukis revolted against the British in 1845, touching off a series of small-scale wars that lasted through 1871. In 1933 the Chin Union demanded an autonomous greater “Chinland” from the British, and in 1948, Captain Mang Tung founded a progressive Chin People’s Freedom League that rejected hereditary Chin rulers; in 1957 the two groups merged. In 1962, the Chin Liberation Army formed, with the support of Pakistan. In 1969 the Chin Liberation Front was created. This mishmash of groups does not reflect revolutionary enthusiasm so much as a chronic disagreement over who gets to run things, resulting in the short lifespan of the aforementioned fronts, unions, and so on. In this, Chin resembles the bloodier insurgent corners of the Union.
The Chin National Front (CNF), now desiccated even in its home territory of Hakka, has little contemporary presence elsewhere, except perhaps in sentiment. It did, however, have a promising start. The CNF was declared shortly after Myanmar’s 1988 coup[iv]; it had the zeal, but not the guns or the experience. Enter the Kachin Independence Army (KIA),[v] which in-part brought the group into existence when in 1989, the first 70 CNF recruits began training under the KIA in Pa Jau, Kachin, returning to Chin State in 1991. More recruits followed.
In February of 1996, the CNF made its presence known by blowing up a Tatmadaw Military Intelligence (MI) officer’s house in Hakka, injuring him. In June it shot dead an MI officer in Thantalang. That October it blew up an MI officer’s car in Falam. Four days later in Falam, it ambushed a convoy carrying a Tatmadaw battalion commander and his family. But the CNF never managed to provoke a large enough reaction, because it lacked the numbers and weapons—and perhaps, the cruelty—to do it. The CNF’s tactics showed the limits to its growth, while at the same time further east, the Tatmadaw was busy attempting to annihilate the KNU.
From this heyday, the CNF faded into obscurity as its leadership aged and did not make room for younger cadres; it is now characterized by Bertil Lintner as an NGO rather than an insurgency. The CNF has signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), but this provided more benefit to the CNF than the Union, restoring some of the legitimacy it lost through inaction. The CNF did, however, add slightly to the milk-skin of credibility that sits atop the NCA, so long as one doesn’t spoon through it and note that Myanmar’s ceasefire process excludes or is rejected by the majority of actual fighters, and the most durable and dangerous groups.
This lack of threat to the Union has resulted in Chin people experiencing the Union on vastly different terms than, for example, those myriad peoples to the northeast labeled “Kachin:” there, a people stereotyped as having martial qualities – not unlike the Chin – launched an insurgency nearly 60 years ago, and the Tatmadaw bloodily midwifed a pan-Kachin nationalism from amongst those on the receiving end of its murderous response.
Opium in Tonzang and other areas of Chin State
Despite the lack of insurgency in Tonzang, an element foundational to the supply and maintenance of other insurgencies (in Northern and Eastern Shan State in particular) is found here: opium, folded within the township’s topography, off the main roads, in areas only accessible by foot or motorbike.[vi] Across Tonzang’s hills, swiddening opium farmers clear hillsides in April/ May, till soil in July, sow in August, and harvest from December through March. But the local cultivators don’t use drugs to fund an insurgency making actionable claims on Union territory—on the Union’s notion of itself.
Not much of the Union’s opium originates in Chin State, which had only 630 ha identified in 2018: this yield generates a potential nine metric tons of opium, or one percent of the Union total. This is a small number until one notes that the entirety of Thailand had 281 ha under cultivation in 2015. And unlike every other state and region bar Kayah, Chin State’s ha under cultivation are increasing, with 140 additional ha, or 29 percent, since the last UNODC Chin survey in 2015. This makes sense when one considers that eradication dropped from 534 ha in 2015/16 to 28 ha in 2016/17, and 22 ha in 2017/18, only occurring in a few discrete areas on the east side of the Manipur River.[vii] This relatively small number grows in significance when one realizes that the entirety of the 2018 cultivation identified in Chin State is in Tonzang. It seems that Tonzang was the only area surveyed by UNODC in 2018, which begs the question: what else is growing, in Tedim and other townships where poppies are found? And how long has opium been harvested in Tonzang?
Khonumthung News reported that cultivation has occurred in Tonzang since at least 2004. In 2009 it claimed that “junta-sanctioned” poppy cultivation rose from 81 ha[viii] (200 acres) in 2007 to 405 ha (1,000 acres) in 2009, in Thangsih and Thawng Bual Len Kawt in particular; an additional 203 ha (500 acres) were found in Aisih and Suan Hawi. In 2010, Khonumthung reported 810 ha (2,000 acres) in Tedim and Tonzang, and that, fantastically, a regime-sanctioned heroin refinery had opened 20 miles west of Tamu town, Sagaing, in November of 2009. In February 2011, the same outlet[ix] reported only 405 ha (1,000 acres) of poppy. In January 2015 Khonumthung again reported 405 ha (1,000 acres) under cultivation. These numbers stand in sharp contrast to UNODC, which reported 1,100 hectares across the entirety of Chin State in 2014. The first mention of government eradication of poppy fields in Tonzang dates from March 2014, when the Chinland Guardian reported that local authorities eradicated over 243 ha (600 acres), but this may have occurred after the harvest. In January 2015 Khonumthung reported that from 10 December until 7 January police eradicated 230 ha (566.81 acres).
These numbers are not matched by UNODC records. A comparative table of eradication results between Shan State and Chin State is telling: it illustrates the volume disparity between sources, the volume disparity between states, and a commonality, namely a decrease in eradication by Tatmadaw-controlled security and other actors since the NLD won the 2015 election.
Table 1: Eradication rates by ha in Shan and Chin States, 2006 – 2018
In May of 2015, Public Radio International (PRI) cast doubt upon reported eradication, quoting Tonzang town council member Cin Tung Mang:
“[In 2013] there were people here from government who were supposed to eradicate opium. They only destroyed a few nearby fields that are easy to get to. They said they eradicated 60 percent of all the fields, but that’s not true.”
PRI reported it was closer to 20 percent. In that article, USDP Tonzang chair Hen Thang claimed that opium farmers were taxed by local officials in exchange for protection, and that “last time the police went out to eradicate, they took bribes from the farmers to ignore their fields.”
In early 2018, local officials in Tonzang told me that 202.5 ha (500 acres) had been eradicated the previous year. Who is to be believed? UNODC records are likely less accurate than township sources. But at present, township officials don’t know how many ha are under cultivation. One can purchase high-resolution satellite photos and undertake a manual count, but even that won’t reveal the extent, because the steeper the cultivated hillside, the harder it is to see from space. Township officials and locals only know that it’s happening, and likely with the collusion of and taxation by select local authorities, civilian and military—a protection racket of the classic sort described by Charles Tilly or Diego Gambetta.
Indian Insurgents and Drugs
An insurgency must lay claim to lands and peoples claimed by the state. It has to be noticed. If an armed group claims no square footage, it implicitly places itself in a subservient position vis-a-vis the sovereign that claims the territory it exists within; instead of offering protection, it accepts, and pays for, protection.
Manipur’s myriad rebels may rebel in India, but not in Myanmar, where they have sought safety in the past. These groups allegedly have a historical presence in Northern Chin State, the Manipur People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) in particular. Referred to as “Meitei” by locals, the PRA was in the past alleged to be “camped” throughout the township, especially in Tonzang and Chikha, but as far east as Tamu, Sagaing. The persistence of reports, mentions by interviewees, and the fluidity of the border with Manipur, suggest this is accurate. India is a major producer of precursor chemicals, and so the value-added processes that make opium into heroin may lie across the Manipur border, among criminals who cannot be differentiated from that state’s multitude of insurgencies espousing all manner of liberation, of which the PRA is one.
Although the PRA claims to represent all the peoples of Manipur in its quixotic struggle for independence, Manipur’s Kuki formed their own groups, in part to counter the PRA. Of these groups,[x] the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA)[xi] is particularly relevant to Chin State. Both the PRA and the ZRA exclusively extort communities and kill Indian soldiers on the other side of the border, but the ZRA also claim to fight for the liberation of Myanmar’s Chin, including in Tonzang, and I have heard people express support for them in the township. However, they do not fight Union representatives here. They have, however, fought the PRA in Tonzang; the latter, described again as “Meitei,” reportedly compelled poppy cultivation in one area, taxed it in another, and even grew it themselves, all the while acting as a proxy for the Tatmadaw: controlling some local populations and managing illicit economic activities as though they were any other border guard force or militia. In 2010 the Chinland Guardian claimed that Chikha-based Tatmadaw demanded 200,000 Indian rupees (US$2,900 at current rates) from Thuambual’s 35 households, and used Meitei to assault the villagers when they only delivered half. Given the area, this was likely an opium cultivation tax. That article also described a January 2010 firefight near Phaisat, 20 miles from Chikha, between the ZRA and the PLA, with five killed and more wounded.[xii] Intriguingly, Khonumthung reported that, in Phaisat at nearly the same time, police “destroyed” poppy fields, albeit after the fields had apparently been harvested. In February 2011 Khonumthung claimed Meitei were planting marijuana (Kanza) in Tonzang. In 2014 the Chinland Guardian again reported a Tatmadaw-Meitei partnership.
2019 interviewees state that there are “Meitei” in the township, but that they are also part of the same family networks sprawled across these borders, that they are often married to Chin residents of Myanmar, and that they do have un-specified relations with the Tatmadaw.
When this is coupled with interviewees across Tonzang uniformly asserting that opium here is trafficked into Northeastern India through a multitude of official and unofficial border crossings, one begins to see less an alien insurgent presence and more the people who have always been here, and who have always just regarded the borders as inconveniences—for hunting, visiting family, smuggling, and demarcating their own territories in a manner that transcends those of states.
Across much of the writing and reportage I mention above, and in discussions I’ve had with lowland government officials and others, a stereotype of Chin, and more broadly, of Myanmar’s “highlanders” or “hill tribes”, emerges that is not different from so many other stereotypes of such peoples, not only in Myanmar, but in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere. It is equal parts chasteness and brutality; guileless people, cut off from and in need of civilizing influence; in this, exploitation becomes benevolence. The imagery is of a fall from grace: an idealized and non-Hobbesian state of nature where innocent highlanders once harvested tea whilst decked out in brightly colored uniforms and bangles, now reduced to the foot soldiers of indigenous warlords, all smoking opium and drinking rice wine at all hours, the women trafficked to stock the brothels of the near abroad. This is an inversion of the primitive innocence desired by states in need of tourist dollars, where the best minorities are both emasculated and ornately plumed, and sing and dance on command, their automatic weapons exchanged for tin swords.
The duality of this imagery of fall and return can be found in the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control’s Drug Elimination Museum, which opened in Yangon in 1998.[xiii] Twenty years later I had the entire museum to myself, exploring exhibitions which explicitly conflated rebellion and crime. Here drug-cultivating and trafficking rebels are in league with Chinese gangsters, leading minorities astray, while the valiant Tatmadaw struggles to eliminate the drug scourge, rescue minorities, and return peoples to the “legal fold.”
Tonzang’s stereotype is Shan-lite. Lacking warlords and child soldiers, but still a place remote and primitive, lacking all semblance of the state bar corrupt security forces, with opium farmers and smokers everywhere.
This, however, is not the reality of this township.
In Part Three of the series, I describe the opium growing villages I’ve visited in Tonzang, and how they differ from the stereotypes we often hold about such places. I describe the difficult positions of farming communities who were once self-reliant but are more and more integrated, for better or worse, into cash-based markets. This is followed by the conclusion of this series, which considers opium as a proxy indicator of coerced integration of non-market-reliant peoples into markets, from resource security to cash insecurity.