No traveler to Shan State could fail to notice the presence of an abundance of local militia forces that are especially active in the northeast and near the Thai border in the south. They carry guns, bear their own insignias and run businesses—from petrol stations and plantations for commercial crops to the trade in methamphetamine and other drugs.
These militia forces are, at least officially, under the control of the Myanmar Army, and more than 1,000 of their troops are now being used to fight the Shan State Army-South and the Shan State Army-North, ethnic armed groups that actually have ceasefire agreements with the government. It is hard to imagine that these often unruly militia forces could contribute anything to Myanmar’s future other than chaos and destruction—as the decades-long civil war in Shan State clearly shows.
In the mid-1950s, Shan State was a battleground where government forces fought the invading Chinese-nationalist Kuomintang that had set up bases in remote areas in the northeast. Called Pyu Saw Htee after a legendary hero of the Bagan era, these fighting forces soon developed into local warlord-led factions that the government proved unable to control. Consequently, they were disbanded when Gen. Ne Win established his caretaker government in 1958.
But the relatively weak and poorly equipped Pyu Saw Htee were to be followed by the much more powerful—and far more notorious—Ka Kwe Ye home guards. This group was established in 1963, the year after the military coup that deposed the government elected in 1960. Ka Kwe Ye literally means “defense” and the group became part of a new counter-insurgency strategy that the government was about to launch.
Shan State has always been Myanmar’s most troublesome region, partly because of its ethnic diversity—not only Shan but also Kachin, Pa-O, Palaung, Padaung, Wa, Kokang Chinese and many others live there—but also because of the separate status and rights that it enjoyed before and after independence. During the British colonial period, the 40 or so Shan principalities were collectively a protectorate and not part of Myanmar proper. Each state was ruled by a Shan saopha (sawbwa in Myanmar) who had his own administration and even his own police force.
The Shan, who call themselves Tai, are closely related to their Thai and Lao neighbors. Contact with the Myanmar kings of the pre-colonial era was limited to paying tribute to the various courts that ruled the western lowlands. But that never amounted to recognition of Myanmar sovereignty over their principalities.
Britain’s interest in the Shan states, as they were called, was limited to keeping the French in Indochina at bay and preventing the emergence of an uncontrollable region between the two colonial empires. Sir Charles Crosthwaite, the British Chief Commissioner in Myanmar in 1887-90, described the situation in this manner:
Looking at the character of the country lying between the Salween and the Mekong, it was certain to be the refuge of all the discontent and outlawry of Burma [Myanmar]. Unless it was ruled by a government not only loyal and friendly to us […] this region could become a base for the operations of every brigand leader or pretender where they might muster their followers and hatch their plots […] To those responsible for the peace in Burma, such a prospect was not pleasant.
Crosthwaite’s words were to become prophetic—in the 1960s. The Shan princes had agreed to join the proposed Union of Burma [Myanmar] at a conference in the Shan market town of Panglong in 1947. The agreement that was signed there on Feb. 12 stipulated that the Shan states would retain their autonomy, thus laying the groundwork for the federal system that was introduced after independence in 1948. The Shan princes had also asked for, and been granted, the right to secede from the Union after a ten-year period of independence, should they be dissatisfied with the arrangement. Only the Shan and Karenni (now Kayah) states had this right, which was enshrined in Chapter Ten of the new constitution.
When the ten-year “trial period” was up in 1958, voices were raised for separation from Myanmar. A rebellion broke out that year which attracted radical Shan students in Yangon and elsewhere as well as figures such as Bo Maung, an ethnic Wa former officer in the Union Military Police. In 1959, he led an attack on the garrison town of Tangyan with a force including some Shan students. The civil war was in full swing, and intensified after the 1962 coup, when the federal constitution was abolished and Myanmar’s first president, the Shan prince Sao Shwe Thaike, was arrested and killed in custody. In 1964, his widow, Sao Nang Hearn Kham, became the head of a coalition of resistance forces that amalgamated to form the Shan State Army (SSA).
In the 1960s, Crosthwaite’s nightmare vision of chaos in the area was coming true. The main reason was the growth of the Ka Kwe Ye home guard forces. The idea behind the program was to create units to fight insurgents in areas which government forces had difficulty reaching. This became even more important for the government when the Communist Party of Burma, with massive assistance from China, in the late 1960s and early 1970s took over the remote eastern border mountains, including Kokang and the wild Wa Hills.
The Ka Kwe Ye home guards were encouraged to strengthen their forces, but there were not enough funds in the central coffer to support such a sustained counter-insurgency effort. The answer was to allow them to use all government-controlled towns and roads in Shan State for opium trafficking. In that way, the home guards would become self-sufficient and not dependent on the government for funds.
Many local warlords and brigands accepted the offer and turned their forces into home guard units. The most powerful of them was Lo Hsing Han, an ethnic Chinese from Myanmar who was the commander of a home guard unit made up of men from his native Kokang. Lo Hsing Han’s forces assisted the Myanmar Army during the crucial battle for the Kunlong bridge in December 1971 to January 1972.
The government’s forces were led by a very able commander, Lt-Col Tun Yi, a short, rotund and baldheaded man who was nick-named “Napoleon” by his fellow officers. Later in life, he rose to become the chairman of the National Unity Party and passed away in Yangon earlier this year.
In exchange for Lo Hsing Han’s services to the nation, the Myanmar Army even helped protect his opium convoys from ambushes by rival gangs. But the Ka Kwe Ye home guards became too powerful even for Gen. Ne Win and were abolished in 1973. However, rather than surrendering his arms to the government, Lo Hsing Han went underground and formed an alliance with the SSA.
Lo Hsing Han was arrested later that year in northern Thailand, where he had slipped across the border to avoid an attack by the Myanmar Army. He was extradited to Myanmar where he was sentenced to death, not for trading in narcotics—which he had had the unofficial permission to do anyway—but for “rebellion against the state,” a reference to his brief alliance with the SSA.
Lo was, as we know, never executed but was released from jail during a general amnesty in 1980. He returned to his old base in Lashio where he set up a new militia force under the Pyi Thu Sit (“people’s militia”) program. He was still a useful tool for the government and later also became a prominent businessman. He passed away in July last year.
Another prominent home guard commander was Zhang Qifu, the half-Chinese leader of the local Ka Kwe Ye unit on Loi Maw mountain in northern Shan State. He became an equally powerful warlord. His forces attacked the Shan rebels and, in return, he was allowed to trade in opium and heroin. He was arrested in 1969 after an attempt to reach out to his enemies, the Shan rebels, to negotiate safe passage for his convoys through the areas they controlled.
Such an agreement would have defeated the entire purpose of the Ka Kwe Ye program, so Zhang Qifu ended up in jail. He was released in 1974 after his men, who had gone underground and also linked up with the SSA, kidnapped two Russian doctors from a hospital in Taunggyi. Zhang Qifu then built up a new army, remodeled it into a Shan resistance force and assumed a new, Shan name: Khun Sa.
His Mong Tai Army (MTA) became one of the strongest and best equipped in Shan State, armed mostly with weapons acquired in Thailand. But the MTA, much to the chagrin of his new Shan followers, never used its weapons against the government’s forces. It seemed this was the old Ka Kwe Ye deal in a new shape and form. Khun Sa eventually surrendered to the government in January 1996, disbanded his army and moved, with his money, to Yangon. He died there in 2007.
Against this background, is it plausible to assume that the emergence of yet another set of militia forces would lead to a situation that would be any different from the past? Hardly, most observers would say, as the recent rapid increase in the production of opium and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines indicates. Shan State is bound to remain a cockpit of anarchy where drugs, guns and money rule supreme.