Making Opium (and the Past) Go Away

By Seamus Martov 12 April 2014

MONG LA, Shan State — Mong La’s opium museum has to be one of the more interesting institutions created during the days of Myanmar’s State Law and Restoration Council (SLORC). Located in Shan State’s Special Region No. 4, an almost completely autonomous corner of northeastern Myanmar, the museum was founded by Lin Mingxian (also known as Sai Lin or Sai Leun), a former rebel commander in the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and long-time leader of his own 5,000-strong militia, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). During the 1990s, Lin and his group were alleged by US authorities to be heavily involved in the drug trade.

Lin, who is of mixed Chinese and Shan heritage, has ruled over his 1,900-square-mile (4,950-square-km) Golden Triangle fiefdom ever since 1989, when he and his fellow ethnic comrades rebelled against the CPB’s overwhelmingly Burman politburo and reached verbal ceasefires with the SLORC that split the CPB’s territory and its massive cache of weapons four different ways.

Built at the base of a hill close to Mong La’s standing Buddha, the museum offers an interesting alternative to the NDAA region’s other attractions—namely, its casinos, brothels and stores selling tiger skins and ivory. It is especially likely to appeal to those adverse to large crowds: On a recent visit, this correspondent found the museum devoid of any other visitors, or, indeed, of any staff.

One of the museum’s more memorable attractions is a life-size diorama portraying a drug addict’s journey to recovery. Unfortunately, however, the glass case was caked in so much dust that it was rather difficult to see inside. But you can still see enough to get the general idea. The first scene shows two young men injecting heroin. Besides the telltale hypodermic needle, you can tell they are addicts because they are sporting long hair, jeans and matching “Bad to the Bone” T-shirts. In the next scene, one of the duo is lying dead with a needle protruding from his arm while the other is being led away in handcuffs. The survivor is then seen in a hospital bed being well looked after. In the last scene, the survivor is clearly a changed man: Not only has he kicked drugs, he’s also gotten a haircut and put on a longyi.

Much of the rest of the museum is made up of faded propaganda photos from the military’s anti-narcotics drives and similarly themed murals. Another section has a series of pictures from the SLORC regime’s negotiations with various factions that broke away from the CPB. Unmentioned in the captions is the presence of the late Lo Hsing Han in several of the photos. Dubbed the “godfather of heroin” by US authorities, Lo was an ethnic Kokang Chinese drug lord turned tycoon who served as a key mediator during SLORC’s talks with the ex-CPB groups.

Although Snr-Gen. Than Shwe officially stepped down as Myanmar’s head of state nearly three years ago, a large portrait of him still hangs next to the front entrance, with an awkwardly worded quote of his in English. “The drug abuse control because it is related to all the people of the entire world is a very huge and difficult task. We are willing to warmly welcome sincere participation by anybody. Even if there is no assistance whatsoever, we will do our utmost with whatever resources and capability we have in our hands to fight this.” The same quote is also featured in the Yangon drug museum, which opened in 2001 and was apparently modeled after the one in Mong La.

One thing you won’t find here are any reminders of another former SLORC leader who played an even bigger role in bringing the region’s drug lords “into the legal fold,” to use the old SLORC-speak. The numerous photos previously on display of the NDAA’s long-time ally, deposed Military Intelligence Chief Gen. Khin Nyunt, were removed long ago. Prior to his fall from power in 2004, the notorious spy chief inaugurated the museum’s opening and frequently attended Mong La drug-burning ceremonies.

When the museum was officially opened in April 1997, Lin and his NDAA were making regular appearances in the US State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports. The reports accused Lin of being heavily involved in the drug trade, alongside his former CPB comrades in the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led at the time by Lin’s father-in-law, Pheung Kya-shin.

Apparently Lin didn’t appreciate his annual denunciation by the US government. “I don’t think I need to defend myself at all. It’s not worth refuting what the United States has alleged about me,” Lin told international reporters during a stage-managed anti-drug event held in Mong La in 1999 on the 10th anniversary of his group’s ceasefire with the government. The comments reported by Reuters appear to be one of the few times anyone from the NDAA has ever spoken to international media.

The official opening of the opium museum coincided with Lin declaring his little kingdom opium-free—a move that appears to have impressed US authorities enough that in 2000, the US State Department described Lin as having “successfully rid his area of opium cultivation.”

Although he was no longer appearing in their annual narcotics reports, US diplomatic cables continued to describe Lin as a “drug trafficker” who oversaw what one embassy official described in 2005 as a “James Bondian private police force.”

Like the NDAA, the UWSA and the MNDAA have also implemented opium bans. The shift away from opium saw all three groups establish large-scale rubber plantations across their respective territories. But not everyone is celebrating. According to a February 2012 report published by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI), these plantations, financed by Chinese government crop-substitution programs, have benefited Yunnan-based business interests, but pay former opium farmers far less than they could earn in the past.

But if anyone is complaining, Beijing doesn’t seem to be listening: In a report cited by TNI, the Chinese government said it was “a blessing for mankind that Yunnan has helped the 4th Special Zone of Myanmar.”

Apart from working on huge rubber plantations or migrating, farmers who used to grow opium are left with few options. “Development interventions by international NGOs and UN agencies to provide farmers with sustainable, alternative livelihood options to offset the impact of opium bans have been grossly insufficient, and are merely emergency responses to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” write TNI researchers Tom Kramer and Martin Jelsma in an article published shortly after their report was released.

Of course, none of this makes it into Lin’s museum, where unpleasant aspects of the present—like the embarrassing facts of the past—are treated like things sometimes best forgotten.