Shan State Militia, AA Deny Links Through Lucrative Drug Trade

By Lawi Weng 29 April 2020

The Myanmar military-backed Kaungkha militia and ethnic armed group the Arakan Army have denied allegations that they are associated with one other through illegal drug enterprises that bring in tens of millions of dollars in profit.

On April 21, Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor published a report alleging that Myanmar military intelligence has identified the ethnic Kachin Kaungkha militia as the AA’s main strategic partner in the lucrative production and trafficking of methamphetamine “yaba” tablets and crystal methamphetamine “ice.”

The report said the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has “identified the narcotics trade centered on northeastern Shan state as the key generator of the tens of millions of dollars required to recruit, train, and equip an insurgent army.”

The report also said that the Myanmar military’s Northeastern Command has likely been aware of the militia’s involvement in the drug trade for years and has “almost certainly” profited from the drug trade.

A senior leader from the Kaungkha militia denied the accusations in the report and told The Irrawaddy that that the group does not have any connection with the AA.

“There are people who work for illegal drug business in our areas, but our Kaungkha group is not involved in their business,” said the senior militia leader, who asked not to be named.

“It was a political game, intended to place blame on our Kaungkha group, to say that we have a connection with the AA, he said.

The AA also denied the allegations in the report. In a statement released on Wednesday, the AA said it “has no ties to any People’s Militia Force set up and controlled by the Myanmar army” and that the AA is “not in any way connected to this militia group.”

“These allegations surfacing in the media claiming that the Arakan Army has ties to the Kaungkha militia are damaging, defamatory and false,” the statement read.

The Kaungkha militia, also known as the Kachin Defense Army (KDA), split from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 1991 and has often been the subject of allegations of illegal drug production in northern Shan State.

The militia leader said that some people operating illegal drug businesses have worked in the Kaungkha area but that those people also worked in other areas across the country.

“It was not our business to ask them who they worked with. The government has a duty to investigate it,” the leader said. “[Drug traffickers and producers] may approach people who have influence or power in the areas where they want to operate their business.”

According to the Jane’s report, Shan State’s proximity to China has allowed drug producers to illicitly import precursor chemicals across the border. The report added that the drug trade is also driven by profitable new markets in cities in central Myanmar as well as Rakhine State and Bangladesh.

Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun did not comment on links between the AA, the Kaungkha militia and the drug trade, but he said that the military disarmed the militia when they were discovered to be producing illegal drugs.

The military seized almost 2,000 weapons from the Kaungkha militia and detained some leaders from the group on March 24. The leaders were released a week later.

“A lot of illegal drugs were seized in Rakhine after the AA established its base in the area. Most illegal drugs are seized before they are sent to other areas,” said Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

The army seized illegal drugs, other materials and equipment valued at 267 billion kyats (US$194 million) during an 11-day crackdown in early March in the area under the control of the Kaungkha militia near Lwekham and Kaungkha villages.

The report alleges that the Myanmar army launched its crackdown against the Kaungkha militia because the threat posed by the drug money-financed AA outweighed whatever income the military was making from the arrangement.

The AA first established itself at the headquarters of the KIA in Laiza in 2009, near the Chinese border. After finishing military training in Laiza, some members of the AA began operating in northern Shan State, where they fought the Myanmar military in an alliance with groups including the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). According to the Jane’s report, it was through these operations in Shan State that the AA became connected with the Kaungkha militia.

The Jane’s report outlines how the Myanmar military has tried different strategies to cut off the AA’s support, including the “Four Cuts” strategy which targeted the food, funds, intelligence, and recruits of ethnic armed groups.

“It is difficult to gauge how severely and for how long the downfall of the Kaungkha will damage AA financial flows,” said the report.

“Beyond narcotics, the AA has other sources of funding that include cross-border timber smuggling into India and Bangladesh. It is also understood to have developed a system of donations from widely scattered Rakhine diaspora along with ‘taxation’, voluntary or enforced, of businesses in Rakhine and beyond,” read the report.

TNLA Brigadier General Tar Phone Kyaw said that the idea of a financial link between the AA and the Kaungkha militia is a conspiracy theory promoted by the Myanmar army.

“Because there is too much war, too high of causalities and too many deaths in Arakan [Rakhine], the Burmese army links [the AA] to Kaungkha. Of course they try to take down the image of the AA,” he said.

The TNLA and the AA are both members of a coalition known as the Brotherhood Alliance.

“To keep pointing out that the AA has a link with Kaungkha is wrong,” said Brig-Gen Tar Phone Kyaw.

Zin Lin Htet contributed to this story.

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