Memories of an Arms Smuggler in Burma’s Far Northwest

By Lawi Weng 16 September 2015

RANGOON — Zo Win* thought he was about to strike it rich when he agreed to venture beyond northwestern Burma to retrieve automatic rifles for insurgents in northeast India, but that’s not quite how things turned out.

The outcome could have been a whole lot worse, to be sure. Today Zo Win is out of the business, and spends his time doing relief work in Chin State, his hearth and home, which was devastated by flooding and landslides related to Cyclone Komen in late July and early August. After years skirting the authorities, he has returned to the quiet mountain life he left during his days in university.

It was 2007 when he and three of his close friends, all ethnic Chin, were recruited by arms dealers with an enticing proposal: fly to Shan State, bring back some guns, make a whole lot of cash. Zo Win recalls the dreams that spun around in his head at the time. He could open up a shop. He could start his own business and turn it into a family trade.

“But my dreams did not come true,” he said as we sat in a flood-affected village in northern Chin State, where I was reporting on relief efforts when I happened upon the unexpected trove of militant tales.

The first time he set out on the dangerous trek was in 2007, he said. He and his friends were instructed to go to Wa, a small special administrative region on the border with China. Headquartered in Panghsang, the Wa region has the biggest and strongest ethnic armed group in Burma, outfitted with state-of-the-art hardware, much of it locally manufactured.

His work later took him to several other arms smuggling routes over the next three years; to Thailand and adjacent Karen State, a part of southeastern Burma partially under the control of ethnic armed groups. The weapons were destined for rebels in Northeast India, fighting a gruesome civil war for an independent Nagaland.

Getting to Panghsang wasn’t easy, he recalled. The region is couched in a hilly corner of Shan State, and the roads along the way are well protected by armed guards at checkpoints. They started out in Kale, a town in Sagaing Division on the border with Chin State, from which they drove to Mandalay. Then they caught a plane, planting them in Tachilek, a Shan State trade town near the Thai border.

From there everything was out of their control.

The group was intercepted at the airport by a carful of soldiers for the United Wa State Army (UWSA), who became their escorts for the next few days on a whirlwind tour of one of Burma’s most mysterious regions.

“They took us to visit many places,” Zo Win said, “poppy farms and arms factories, once we arrived in Panghsan.”

They were put up in a hotel, where they had to pretend to be members of the UWSA so as not to alarm the locals. It was and remains rare for strangers to come to the reclusive region, and they certainly did not want to arouse suspicion that they were weapons smugglers.

The day after their arrival, the group was taken to two arms showrooms, displaying a full spread of hardware ranging from semi-automatic rifles modeled after the AK-47 and M16, small pistols, mounted heavy-caliber machine guns, even rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

“They even had sniper rifles, but they were too long to fit in our bags so we didn’t buy them,” he said. Before they made any binding purchases, they were taken up to hilltop to try out the merchandise. After testing to their satisfaction, Zo Win said, “we bought about 350 guns from them.”

Several years down the road, he no longer remembers how much the weapons cost, but he said the current price for a semi-automatic runs about 2.5 million kyat, just shy of US$2,000. The team traveled with an enormous stash of crisp US currency, he said.

Once they got the goods, the team was returned to Tachilek, where they bribed some civil servants who worked at the airport to hide the weapons in the plane’s cargo chamber. Reclaiming them in Mandalay—he didn’t quite explain the intricacies of this encounter—they made it smoothly back to the border between Chin State and northeast India, where they met the Naga arms brokers.

That’s when the disappointment set in. Zo Win had been given the impression that the profit margin for such dangerous work would be much, much higher than the 3 million kyats he was paid. The disillusion didn’t dissuade him, however, and he agreed to do the job a few more times in the years that followed.

“I was a young person at the time,” he said. “I expected to be a rich person… but my dream did not come true.”

*Ed. Note: Not his real name.