CHIANG MAI, Thailand – An increase in the number of local militia groups backed by the Tatmadaw in eastern Shan State has contributed to the growth of opium production and the drug trade, according data published by an ethnic Lahu civil society organization.
In its new report “Naypyitaw’s Drug Addiction,” the Lahu National Development Organization (LNDO) stated that the Burma Army plays a key role in the drug trade by hosting jungle labs for syndicates to produce large amounts of heroin and methamphetamine pills, which are ravaging the communities across the country and in neighboring nations.
The Tatmadaw makes huge profits from monopolizing opium sales to refinery owners, holding joint investment in refineries and transporting refined drugs to distributors, the report said.
LNDO’s report highlighted the growth of state-backed militias in the region, of which there are now 87 groups with an estimated 3,400 troops. This is a marked increase from figures a decade ago, which stated that in 2006 there were 68 militias with 2,300 troops in total.
“There are at least ten mobile heroine labs, mostly in Mong Hsat and Tachileik townships,” said Japhet Jagui, the director of LNDO. In these labs, he explained, militia groups collect money as “taxes” from mobile heroin producers.
Japhet Jagui was among the field researchers who carried out data collection in 33 villages in eastern Shan State’s eight townships—Kengtung, Tachileik, Mong Hsat, Mong Ton, Mong Phyak, Mong Yawng, Mong Ping, and Mongla—from April to June of this year.
Poppy cultivation has long been practiced in Burma, the top opium producer in Southeast Asia and the second in the world, following Afghanistan, according to a 2015 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report. The UNODC has been collaborating with the government to strengthen the capacity for cross-border cooperation against illicit drug trafficking and to review drug-related legislation and policies. The UN agency’s statement in June said it also supports a major initiative to provide alternative means of income to opium-growing farmers in Shan State.
Despite the presence of the government’s drug elimination schemes in Shan State—home to a diverse number of ethnic groups, and where most of the Lahu live—Japhet Jagui said there is little to no control over the drug trade in the state’s eastern region. Due to the lack of marketability for other crops, as such corn or potatoes, more than half of locals in the area are thought to grow opium to support their families, but remain in poverty. He added that as part of their drug eradication programs, the current National League for Democracy government must take locals’ livelihoods into consideration.
International support to eliminate opium cultivation in the region should be suspended, Japhet Jagui urged, because it has only been beneficial to the Burma Army’s soldiers rather than the local farmers.
The drug trade has long been blamed for triggering conflicts, as a number of armed groups vie for control of the area east of the Salween River.
“If the drug problem is reduced, a reduction of conflict could become possible,” Japhet Jagui said, adding that the only way this could happen is if the Burma Army came under the control of the civilian government.
LNDO has also documented increased troop numbers in both the Burma Army and non-state armed groups, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Mongla region’s National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA).
According to LNDO figures, the Tatmadaw’s numbers in eastern Shan State are estimated to have risen to over 14,000 troops, indicating a troop expansion of about 40 percent over the last ten years.
The LNDO estimates the total number of troops in the non-state ethnic armed groups present in the same eight townships—the UWSA, RCSS and NDAA, which operate separately and are not an alliance—to have reached nearly 10,000: an increase from around 6,000 soldiers a decade ago.