A report released this week by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) alleges that pro-government militias involved in the fight against the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) have been given free rein by the military to profit from the drug trade in northern Burma.
According to the report, Border Guard Force (BGF) units that were previously part of the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDAK) have been engaged in the opium trade in eastern Kachin State in Chipwe, Sadung and Tsawlaw townships. Other pro-government militias operating in northern Shan State are similarly involved in the drug trade, according to the report titled “Silent Offensive.”
The former NDAK turned BGF units have fought alongside Burma Army units in numerous clashes with the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), since the 17-year Kachin ceasefire broke down in June 2011. According to KWAT, the Kachin BGF and the other pro-government militias are being allowed to grow opium and other drugs “in exchange for fighting against the KIA.”
The report’s authors quote many people from the region to support their allegations concerning the pro-government’s militias’ involvement in the drug trade. “After the war, the number of fields in mountain areas under the NDAK [now BGFs] has increased greatly. They easily get workers and also pay them very little. People from the [IDP] camp are now working in the opium fields,” said a social worker interviewed by KWAT who is stationed at a remote internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the China-Burma border near Sadung, which is controlled by the Kampaiti-based BGF unit No. 1003
The NDAK was the successor to a KIO unit operating in eastern Kachin State led by Zahkung Ting Ying, which split from the KIO in 1968 to merge with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). After the CPB dissolved in 1989, Zahkung Ting Ying formed the NDAK and reached a ceasefire agreement with the central government, a deal that coincided with similar agreements between the government and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and two other groups that emerged from the ashes of the CPB.
The NDAK officially transformed its force of what was estimated to be more than 1,000 soldiers into BGF units in November 2009 at the request of Snr-Gen Than Shwe military’s regime, something that neither the UWSA and the other successor groups to the CPB did. Zahkung Ting Ying in 2010 was elected as a parliamentarian representing a constituency largely made up of what was the NDAK-controlled Kachin State Special Region No. 1 territory. According to locals, he remains a key figure in Pangwa, Kambaiti and Hpimaw, where his former subordinates turned BGF troops continue to operate.
In addition to buying the pro-government militias’ loyalty, the military’s drug policy generates illicit funds that flow back to government officials, according to KWAT. “The substantial profits feeding back through corruption to all levels of authority are also a strong disincentive from cracking down on the drug trade,” the group said.
KWAT’s report is also heavily critical of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assessment made in the agency’s 2013 Southeast Asia Opium Survey, which stated that there was an overall decrease in opium production in Kachin State of 10 percent since 2012. While UNODC describes Tanai and Waingmaw townships as locations at “high-risk” of opium growing, it does not list Chipwe Township as such, despite a claim by KWAT that large amounts of the crop has been growing in the open there since 2010. That observation is backed up by a recent visitor to the area who told The Irrawaddy that opium is grown in abundance in Chipwe.
The report also alleges that government-backed militias, officially called People’s Militia Forces, operating in parts of northern Shan State’s Muse Township are heavily involved in the drug trade as well, again with complicity of government authorities. One such militia based in Kutkai Township is led by Khun Myat, who also serves in the Union Parliament. Another three militias operating nearby are led by members of the Shan State parliament, according to KWAT. They are Li Shau Yung, also known as Kyaw Myint Panse, whose militia is also in Kutkai Township; Wang Goi Ta, also known as Myint Lwin, chief of the Mung Nye militia; and Kying Mai, commander of the Mung Baw militia.
According to KWAT, a group founded by Kachin exiles, the increase in availability of drugs in northern Burma, which has taken place since the Kachin conflict resumed in 2011, has had serious consequences for the Kachin population in Kachin and western Shan states. The negative impacts have affected many families from across social and economic classes. One Kachin woman living in the Shan State’s Muse told KWAT’s researchers of how her husband’s drug addiction had caused his family great suffering.
“My husband uses heroin,” she said. “All the money he earns, he uses to buy drugs. When I delivered my child I didn’t have money to buy nutritious food. My children don’t have enough clothes to wear. He asks money from me and if I don’t pay him he becomes angry. He has stolen sacks of paddy and rice from the house.”