NAMKHAM TOWNSHIP, Shan State — A 32-year-old man stands handcuffed on the pasture of a large plateau in Namkham Township in northern Shan State. He is held securely with cattle rope by a soldier from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The suspect owns a poppy farm, which last year produced two viss (3.2 kilograms) of opium that sold for 700,000 kyats (US$720). He was arrested by a TNLA patrol for possessing small amounts of heroin. “I bought it from the Pansay militia to pay my workers on the farm,” he says with a defiant smile. He knows that the TNLA soldiers, after burning the catch in a symbolic show, will have no choice but to release him.
“There are too many traffickers around and we don’t have jails. When we arrest someone, we can only confiscate the drug and throw him out of our land,” says Maj. Tar Arn Vee, a TNLA battalion commander who launched an anti-drug campaign last year with the objective of ridding the area of narcotics by 2017.
This hilly and remote area in east Burma is scattered with red-brownish fields of various sizes. In a few months, poppy flowers will spring up to produce the famous “Golden Triangle” opium. Farther down a dirt road and at the bottom of a steep valley lies a rough assemblage of bamboo huts with rusted tin roofs—a factory for methamphetamine, known locally as yaba.
Most of the drug facilities are reportedly run by People’s Militia Forces, which, like Border Guard Forces, consist of ethnic soldiers but are controlled by the government. Among an estimated 100 militias operating in the area are the Pansay, considered one of the most powerful militias around with a core membership of 50 men and 300 reservists. “PMFs represent the main problem in our Palaung land,” says Lt-Maj Thar Khu Lanh, deputy commander of the TNLA, which represents ethnic Palaung people. “They are formed by the government, which tells them to raise money by themselves, so they use whatever means they can.”
Nyee Kyaw, a Palaung villager, was 15 years old in 2008 when he was forced to join the Pansay. He defected five years later to the TNLA. “I hated the militia. It never worked for the community, only for business,” he says.
A crucial issue is the involvement of government troops, known as the Burma Army, in the drug business. In the history of ceasefires with ethnic rebel groups, Burma Army soldiers have often received free business licenses in border areas, including in Palaung territory. “The commander of the division operating here needs 80 million kyats per month to pay his soldiers,” says Lt-Maj Thar Khu Lanh of the TNLA. “Because the government does not give him enough, he resorts to other sources of income, including the drug business.”
A 39-year-old former captain who was posted a few years ago at the Burma Army’s headquarters in Lashio, northern Shan State, acknowledges this unofficial “compensation” system. “We were happy to be sent to Shan State during opium harvests because there was more money to share when we made confiscation from the traffickers,” he says during an interview in Mandalay.
Some Palaung make larger allegations. “Burmese soldiers know all about the drug business, but they do and say nothing,” says Mai Aung Moe Wai, secretary of the recently created Linkar Ra (“anti-drug”) Youth Group in Kutkhai Township. “Isn’t it evidence of a government strategy to bring people into submission?”
The Palaung territory is slowly being eaten away by a narcotic scourge that in some villages has resulted in addiction rates of 90 percent within the male population. “This has negative effects on society. It has created a surge in domestic violence, addicts become thieves, and people don’t trust each other anymore,” laments a TNLA intelligence officer.
Ah Nyee Khan, a 25-year-old widower and father of three children, squats in the shade of a village house, lighting a dose of heroin on aluminum paper. To pay the 10,000 kyats for the three doses of heroin he needs every day, he sells forest products and does farm work. “I know heroin is bad for health, but it gives me a good feeling, I can see the paradise,” he says with a smile. But he adds, “After smoking, many addicts turn to the needle and later they directly put the drug into an open vein. A lot of my friends have died like that.”
The drug trade in Palaung areas is aggravated by a virtually total economic dependence on neighboring China. “More than 80 percent of our consumption products are Chinese, and we sell most of ours, including human resources—tens of thousands of workers—for a low rate to China,” says the TNLA deputy commander. Tea leaves, the traditional Palaung crop, cannot compete with cheap Chinese tea flooding Burma, so many local farmers grow poppy.
Burma is the world’s second-largest grower of opium after Afghanistan. This week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime highlighted in a report how poor farmers without alternative ways of making a living often turn to opium production. The UN agency estimated in an annual survey that Burma would produce 870 metric tons of opium this year, a 26 percent increase over production last year.
The TNLA is one of the last ethnic armed movements that has not reached a ceasefire with the government, along with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in north Burma and the first brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). The latest bilateral effort, in July this year, ended in a stalemate.
It’s also a new group, created in 2009 when the government was pressuring ethnic armed guerillas to transform into Border Guard Forces. The disarmament in 2005 of the Palaung State Liberation Army (PSLA), TNLA’s predecessor, raised frustration within the leadership and ranks (and also allegedly coincided with a surge in drug addiction). When the Palaung’s political branch, the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), decided to create the TNLA, it counted on the support of the KIA, whose fourth brigade operated in the same area along with Shan troops.
Today, the TNLA claims 10 battalions totaling 1,600 men. Its strategy is based on mobility, with no permanent headquarters and small groups of soldiers constantly on the move. Since the TNLA started its military activities in 2011, confrontations with Burma Army and PMF units have been relentless.
The group, a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), is pushing for more autonomy from the national government and the extension of the official “Palaung self-administrated zone” within a federal state. To the leaders, this is the most realistic way to preserve local traditions, obtain a greater share of profits from natural resources exploitation, and fight the narcotic addictions destroying their people.