Ethnic Issues

On a Mission: Destruction of Opium

By Niels Larsen 24 March 2015

NAMKHAM, Shan State – After a three-day trek from their jungle base in Kutkai Township, Battalion 101 of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) finally reached their destination: the mountainous region around Namkham in northern Shan State that is largely under the control of the government-backed Pansay militia.

Straddling the borders of China and Kachin State, the territory is a patchwork of poppy fields and clandestine drug laboratories; a major source of the heroin and methamphetamine that is fueling widespread drug addiction among local Palaung (also known as Ta’ang) communities.

In its annual “Southeast Asia Opium Survey,” the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warned that the use of opium more than doubled and the use of heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants tripled in poppy-growing areas of northern Myanmar from 2012 to 2014.

“Our village looked like a graveyard,” a monk from a remote village close to Tar Moe Nyae in Kutkai Township said. “No men were working in the fields and the rate of robberies and domestic violence increased.”

Shan State—where the vast majority of opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar takes place—is home to an array of armed groups, including those that transformed into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under Myanmar Army control since 2009 and People’s Militia Forces (PMFs). Some of these government-backed militias, which often take part in military operations alongside the Myanmar Army, are reportedly heavily involved in drug production and trafficking.

Without government support, the TNLA, which is one of only two major ethnic armed groups yet to sign a ceasefire agreement with Naypyitaw, has made drug eradication a priority. But while destroying poppy grown by independent farmers has been relatively easy, the fields in the Pansay militia’s area are a different story.

The influential Pansay militia, reportedly led by Kyaw Myint, also known as Li Shau Yung, a state-level parliamentarian and a member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is said to control 20,000 acres of remote and largely deforested territory in which poppy cultivation is rife. A Myanmar Army battalion permanently stationed in the area has apparently turned a blind eye.

“Our objective is not to destroy the headquarters of Pansay or to fight, we just [want] to destroy the opium,” explained Tar Now, deputy commander-in-chief of the 3,500 to 4,000 strong TNLA. “We know that the Tatmadaw and the militias will never let us eradicate the poppy without a fight. So we are ready.”

Following Palaung national day celebrations on Jan. 12 in Mantong Township, the TNLA leadership resolved to launch a coordinated attack on the Pansay-controlled region, using four different battalions (400 men in total), under the leadership of Tar Now. Previous TNLA sorties in the area had been thwarted by the militia and the Myanmar Army.

At around 3 pm on Jan. 24, this reporter accompanied the lead TNLA battalion—Battalion 101—as it crossed a ridge and entered Pansay territory, engaging in a few short firefights with militiamen in the valley below.

For the rest of the afternoon and throughout the following day, TNLA soldiers set about destroying poppy fields in the valley. The group also forced Lisu and Chinese farmers living in the valley to destroy the crops; no soldiers were observed using physically abusive methods to do this.

On the evening of Jan. 25, the Myanmar Army stepped in. An army unit based in the area fired rocket-propelled grenades from higher ground at the farms where TNLA soldiers had taken shelter for the night. The TNLA soldiers managed to escape alive, leaving terrified Lisu farmers behind.

Fighting resumed the following morning and raged for two hours, leaving several Myanmar Army soldiers dead. When the army began strafing TNLA positions with mortar fire, the ethnic armed group finally withdrew, abandoning their poppy eradication mission.

The TNLA forces were pursued by Myanmar Army units throughout the three-day journey back to their Kutkai Township headquarters. In their attempt to intercept the ethnic armed group, the government army passed through territory controlled by other TNLA units, as well as the Shan State Army-North and the Kachin Independence Army, triggering more clashes.

Following the mission, the Battalion 101 commander, who asked that his name be withheld, resolved to return.

“We will go back there again until there is no more opium.”