Systematic and Widespread Drug Epidemic Destroying Ethnic Communities in Northern Burma

An epidemic of drug addiction is destroying communities and claiming a generation of young people and scores of men in Kachin State and northern Shan State, embattled ethnic areas of Burma.

Opium cultivation in ethnic conflict zones has steadily increased during the recent years and addiction among ethnic civilians has spiraled out of control. For some ethnic armed groups such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northern Shan State, traditional Ta’ang (also called Palaung) lands have become battle fields not only to fight against the Burmese military but also to fight against the drugs.

TNLA raid2
Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) soldier leaning over drugs and stacks of cash seized from a Burmese proxy militia group during a May 2014 TNLA drug raid in northern Shan State. (Photo: TNLA)
Two different ethnic women’s organizations, Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) and Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO), have published comprehensive reports about the crisis. The recent KWAT investigation “Silent Offensive” found half of all youth in some Kachin regions use drugs, primarily heroin. The PWO’s 2011 report “Still Poisoned” found poppy cultivation to have more than tripled in 15 Ta’ang villages from 812 acres to 2740 acres between 2006 and 2011. In one village, addiction rates among males aged 15 and over skyrocketed from 44 to 91 percent between 2009 and 2011.

The crisis is inextricable from the conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military. In Kachin State and northern Shan State, the Burmese military is waging an offensive war, attacking ethnic armies and civilians, seeking to control access to precious natural resources, snatching up valuable fertile land, and building new military camps in an attempt to expand their control over ethnic lands. Ethnic civilians in these areas now suffer the consequences of not only the conflict and the military abuse, but also a drug epidemic of a scale unimaginable to anyone who doesn’t call these areas their home.

Instead of tackling the problem, the (military) government reaps multiple benefits from the drug crisis that provides both an effective weapon of war against ethnic resistance and a lucrative business.

<strong>The role of the government</strong>
According to a Kachin villager quoted in “Silent Offensive,” just one kilogram of opium can bring in nearly five hundred U.S. dollars. Poppy fields in his village fall under the protection of the government-backed Border Guard Forces (BGF), who collect steep taxes from villagers rather than combat the nominally illegal drug trade.

The Burmese police and forestry department also collect taxes, making it difficult to earn a living even with the high value of the drug, the same villager says. Proxy militias and the BGF also capture drug revenue by either growing, producing, or trafficking opiates or methamphetamine, in addition to taxing and providing security to others doing so, according to the KWAT report.

Proxy militias carry out the same practices in northern Shan State, too. A noted TNLA leader Tar Aik Bong told Burma Link, a Mae Sot-based NGO, that “the Burmese troops have allowed its militias to plant opium and trade drugs for a long time.” He also shared pictures from a May 2014 TNLA raid of a Burmese proxy militia camp near Namkham Township in northern Shan State, which yielded several kilos of what appears to be heroin, 20 small bags of methamphetamine, and stacks of cash.

While the government claims to be tackling the issue, ethnic Kachin and Ta’ang organizations assert the opposite. Moon Nay Li, the KWAT coordinator, told Burma Link that “According to our research, KIO/KIA (Kachin Independence Organization/Army) strongly do anti-drug campaign yearly and [have] forbidden to grow poppy in their control areas. But the Burmese army are supporting in growing poppy.” Poppy cultivation is even directly used as an incentive to fight against the Kachin. “The Burmese government's policy is allowing its local militia to grow opium and produce heroin and other drugs in exchange for fighting against the Kachin Independent Army,” said Moon Nay Li.

Echoing the local voices, Bertil Lintner, a long time Burma specialist and author of “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948,” told Burma Link; “The government has never done anything to combat drugs, it’s a total lie.”

Opium is a cash crop and, according to Bertil Lintner, thrives in conflict situations because the buyers come directly to the villages. With the help of the conflict, poppy has now become an integral to the local economy. Since poppy is easy to grow and sell, it has increased tremendously in popularity over staple crops such as rice, corn, and tea in war-torn areas.

In Kachin areas, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) numbering over 100,000 provide opium farmers a wealth of cheap labour to work at the poppy fields. In Ta’ang areas, traditional reliance has been on a crop they can no longer afford to grow and sell. The Ta’ang are known for their tea, the price of which has plummeted since 2006. According to the PWO’s 2011 report, “The Burmese regime exercises total control over the local economy, including the tea industry, which is the traditional livelihood of the Palaung (Ta’ang) people. As the price of tea plummets, the price of essential goods such as rice has increased; many Palaung (Ta’ang) can therefore no longer rely on the tea industry to make ends meet.” The opium business, perhaps not by accident, has become an important means by which to scrape by a living.

<strong>Poppy and politics</strong>
In the 2010 elections, local politicians in Kachin and Shan States used impunity for poppy cultivation to secure votes from economically hard-pressed villagers.

In the Kachin State, after the Burmese military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) member and leader of the BGF, Zakhung Ting Ying, won a seat in the parliament, the villagers in Chipwi and Waingmaw have been allowed to grow opium freely. Ting Ying’s BGF troops not only tax and protect the opium fields but they assist the Burmese military to wage war against the KIA, according to the KWAT report.

Same pattern manifests in Ta’ang regions. Burma Link spoke with De De, a staff member at the PWO, who explained that a well-known drug lord ‘Pansay’ Kyaw Myint, also a member of the USDP, promised voters freedom to grow opium for five years in exchange for votes. In the area of Namkham Township, a major Ta’ang town, opium cultivation increased by 4,000 acres in just one village in 2010, the year Kyaw Myint was elected to office. Like Zakhung Ting Ying, Kyaw Myint is also the head of a local militia that protects and taxes the poppy fields and fights against the ethnic armies.

Burma Link also spoke with two TNLA soldiers, Mai and Mai Main, who had come to study human rights and law in Mae Sot. “Pansay Kyaw Myint is, he’s the leader of like public army, like cooperates with the Burma government. So, his area is around Namkham Township. So, he has power, he has power to grow opium. So, now also our TNLA fights against him, not to grow,” Mai Main said.

Villagers also accuse Kyaw Myint of allowing dealers to operate with impunity so they can arrest addicts and extort money from them for their release. The Burmese police, to them, are interested in profiting from the crisis, not working to uproot and end it. The effects are dire. “Most young people are using drugs. Now our people are almost all gone,” said De De with deep sadness.

In fact, the crisis in Ta’ang land is such that it’s solving accounts for half of the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) and TNLA objectives. Tar Aik Bong, a leader in these two organizations, explained the situation in a recent interview with Burma Link:

“The main aims of PSLF/TNLA are to attain national equality and self-autonomy, but, due to the current increasing in opium plantations and drugs smuggling and drug addiction issues in the region, the TNLA has to operate these two objectives jointly: a war on drug eradication and, at the same time, national liberation.”

<strong>Anti-drug campaigning</strong>
To cope with the crisis, the TNLA operates remote drug rehabilitation centers in the area’s forests and conducts anti-drug educational campaigns, according to the TNLA soldiers Mai and Mai Main. Their efforts to post anti-drug posters in urban centers in northern Shan State, they say, are thwarted by Burmese police, who tear them down. Additionally, the Burmese military and their local proxy militias fight the TNLA whenever they are on drug eradication missions or educating villagers about the dangers of drugs, Mai and Mai Main explain.

The role of the government’s anti-drug teams is highly contentious. A Ta’ang villager quoted in the PWO report “Still Poisoned”, explains that opium farmers have to pay taxes not only to the police, militia, and Burmese military soldiers, but even the government anti-drug teams. According to the same report, the government’s anti-drug teams only eradicate a few poppy fields that are next to roads and easily visible, leaving most of the fields untouched. Farmers were also reportedly able to bribe the anti-drug teams to have their fields left undamaged. “They (the government) don’t do anything [to stop it]. Even themselves, they use it. How can they control the people?” De De asks.

Mai also explains that the anti-drug teams are very selective in their eradication methods that they, Mai says, conduct for show. “…in 2009 when they came in our village, they came for destroying poppy field, but I noticed what they said; ‘destroy all of not very good poppy fields. Leave good poppy fields,’” said Mai who at the time had not yet joined the TNLA but soon joined to help his people.
Bertil Lintner also repeatedly contested the government’s role: “I am not saying necessarily the government is behind it but they’re certainly not doing anything about it. They are not doing anything about it because it suits their policies.”

Indeed, in the contested ethnic areas, it is easy to see how the drug trade can provide an all-round beneficial situation for the government; it provides a lucrative business, weakens armed opposition, and systematically destroys ethnic communities thus preventing any future opposition movements.

<strong>Problem in full bloom</strong>
“Before you could ask one question: ‘How many people are using drugs?’ Now you cannot ask that question. You will have to ask the opposite one: ‘Who are not using drugs?’”, De De said.

“[It’s] everywhere. That is the most challenging thing. That is worse than the fighting,” she continues. As an increasing number of villagers, mostly males, struggle to support their addictions, it is the women in both Kachin and Ta’ang communities who shoulder the burden of caring for the addicts. Wives, mothers, and sisters of addicts often must not only provide for the family and support the user’s habit, but they suffer severe physical and mental abuse from them, particularly if they are unable or unwilling to support the addiction.

In the Kachin State, heroin crisis is rampant even in urban areas and among youth on university campuses. It has also become commonplace in the mines. The KWAT report found rates are as high as 90 percent in mining areas, where migrants come for work, get hooked on methamphetamine or heroin, and must stay in the mines just to feed their new addictions. These areas attract men starved for economic opportunity, who flock to the mines for work, partake, perhaps, in casual drug use, and before long get roped into a gripping addiction.

The spread of HIV/AIDS is a growing concern, too. Users often try smoking opium or heroin before intravenous use. When they become hooked, they switch to injecting, the more cost-effective method of consumption. As users carelessly share needles, they risk contracting the terminal disease. Numbers on the growing HIV/AIDS problem are scant. KWAT cites one health worker from Muse, close to the China border, saying that of the 150 infected in her community, 50 had already died of the disease.
Some needle-exchange programs are now being operated by foreign NGOs in an attempt to combat the crisis. These programs, it seems, are among the very few allowed to be operated by the military government. Areas where the drug crisis is at its very ugliest are generally not accessible to international organizations due to security concerns and government restrictions.

Among these hindered organizations is The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a global authority on data on illicit drug trends. The UNODC has come under sharp criticism by KWAT, the PWO, and others, for its partnership with the Burmese government, who these groups view to be profiting from and even encouraging and exacerbating the crisis.

The UNODC collaborates with the Burmese governmental agency the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control to implement the Myanmar Opium Survey. The survey estimates poppy cultivation, opium yield, and sociological components in some or all areas of the northern Shan State, Kachin State, Chin State, and Karenni State. Data on drug addiction and poppy cultivation in Kachin and Ta’ang areas collected by both KWAT and the PWO differ tremendously from that collected by the UNODC. Muse district, government militia-controlled region near the Chinese border in northern Shan state, for example, is a well-known hub of the opium and heroin trade, but is not considered by the UNODC as a “high risk” area. The UNODC also overlooked entirely Chipwi Township, a well-known opium hub in Kachin State.

According to De De: “They (the UNODC) don’t take any responsibility for this, they cooperate with the Burmese government, work under them.” The TNLA soldiers Mai and Mai Main say that they have never seen the UNODC office. “They [are] just going around the villages. They do nothing,” Mai Main said.
The UNODC failed to provide a comment on the drug crisis in Burma, despite Burma Link’s repeated efforts via phone and email to contact the UNODC Burma office.

<strong>Beyond the Kachin and Ta’ang lands</strong>
Of the ethnic organizations, KWAT and the PWO have produced perhaps the most extensive reports on Burma’s drug crisis, but they are far from the only groups affected. Burma Link also spoke with leaders in the Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO) and United Lahu Youth Organization (ULYO) about how their communities are affected. Pa-O and Lahu also live in the Shan State.

Kyar Yin Shell of the ULYO lamented the availability of methamphetamine in Lahu areas, more available, he said, than medicine. He also emphasized the connection between the civil war in ethnic areas and the growth of the drug crisis. “Without the solving the armed conflict or political problem, the drug cannot be eradicated in Burma because of the connection between the drug growing, trade and political problem,” he said.

Khun Oo, the PYO Coordinator, bemoaned many of the same issues detailed by the PWO, KWAT, TNLA, and ULYO. Pa-O villagers choose to grow opium so they can make ends meet, the Burmese military, according to him, allow the opium trade to blossom unhindered. Like the Ta’ang, Kachin, and the Lahu, the Pa-O’s suffering as a result of the drug crisis is augmented exponentially by the compounded effects of the conflict, the government, the languishing economy, and their remote location.

“In rural areas there is no education and healthcare because there is no stability and no peace,” Khun Oo said. “In many villages, there are mostly old women and kids. So, there is [not enough] food and no energy to work. It effects health. [There is not enough] rehabilitation because the peace process is broken again, and so still the conflict continues differently. The government doesn’t allow help to go to deep rural areas for many reasons.”

The drug crisis is not even confined to northern Burma. Karen Human Rights Group noted in a report released in March 2014 “an increase in the production and sale of methamphetamines by Tatmadaw-Border Guard Forces (BGF) soldiers in Hpapun and Hpa-an districts” in the Karen State, where armed Karen groups have signed a ceasefire with the government. These findings coupled with the undeniable role of multiple government actors and MPs, strongly suggest that the crisis is not only used as a weapon of war in areas of active conflict but seems to be a systematic and widespread government policy.

As Moon Nay Li emphasized; “To finish drug problem in Burma, it is very important to solve the problem of ethnic issues.” The government, however, has shown no interest in solving the more than half a century conflict with ethnic armed opposition through political means. It is thus likely that the government will continue with its attempt to reap multiple benefits from the drug trade whilst the efforts to tackle the crisis will be solely on the shoulders of the ethnic armies and other local groups.

Additional reporting by Ariana Zarleen, a co-founder of Burma Link, a non-profit NGO that works to amplify the voices of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and displaced people.

By H. Paladino

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Law Safeguarding the Rights of National Races: Better to ratify UNDRIP

On 24 February 2015 , the Law Safeguarding the Rights of the National Races was promulgated. The following is a short commentary by Richard Zatu, a researcher at the Pyidaungsu Institute (PI) for Peace and Dialogue.

1. If the country were already a federal union, with th right of self determination for every constituent state, this law would have been superfluous.

2. How effective this law will be depends on how strictly the under par democratic 2008 constitution is being enforced. For example, the law has nothing to say about the ownership of agricultural lands and forests by the national races. But according the constitution's Article 37, The Union (a) is the ultimate owner of all the lands and natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere of the Union.

3. The term" national races", at first glance, appear to include the Burman majority, but later articles show the Burmans seem to have been excluded.

4. There is nothing to assure that the person to be appointed as national races affairs minister should be a non-Burman. Also there is no answer to the obvious question: Whether a non- Burman should or should not be appointed as a minister in other portfolios if the national races affairs minister is a non- Burman.

5. The law should also have addressed discriminatory practices largely common in appointment and promotion of civil and military personnel and foreign scholarships. These discriminations have forced non- Burman intellectuals to seek jobs and residence outside the country.

6. Instead of stating that national races' mother tongues will be allowed to teach and learn at schools, it should be stated clearly that they have the right to be taught and learned during school hours.

7. Informing and coordinating with national races in matters of development projects are simply not enough. It should be stated plainly that their consent is also required.

8. A one- year imprisonment for obstructing the rights of the national races is far from being stiff, as it is highly unlikely that the offender would be a non-Burman.

9. The words "in accordance with law" and " if not against the law" are extensively used in the text.

10. We have yet to hear that the country has ratified the United Nations Declaration of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which was adopted on 13 September 2007. It should be and the rights stipulated therein implemented, the sooner the better.

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Latest round of peace talks gone ‘smoothly’

For the first time since last September, the talks between the rebels’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the government’s technical team, Myanmar Peace Center (MPC,) concluded yesterday, with the two sides departed in a much congenial atmosphere, according to sources from both sides.

“That was due to the fact that the NCCT has replaced idealist notions with realistic ones,” one of the leading MPC members said. “In the past, we had to debate on every point. This time? None.”

An NCCT member, while agreeing that the meeting went smooth, gave the following reason: “This time, they (the MPC) accepted every point that we proposed without arguments.”

The details are not available but it is understood that the two sides will meet formally in Rangoon around mid-March.

Several informal meetings had taken place between the two sides since the deadlock in September. The 4th draft that resulted then was ‘not acceptable,’ according to several rebel sources including those from non-NCCT groups.

Three more incidents that followed had merely added to the increasing tensions: 19 November shelling near Laiza that killed 23 rebel cadets, 20 January rape-murder of two young Kachin teachers and most recently, the battle that has raged in Kokang since 9 February.

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Day Three. Sunday, 15 February 2015

Yesterday was a day of investment. Today is my payback day. Naturally, I aim to take as much as I can especially when Dr Chaiwat is the speaker today.

So the first thing I do after breakfast – a fine local dish called Khao Yam (rice salad) – is to look up about him in my smart phone.

I’m not disappointed. After listening to his presentation at the University of Michigan in 2009, I’m getting a better picture of the Deep South.

According to him, the former Pattani Sultanate, which is now divided into 3 provinces with another 4 districts in the neighboring Songkhla, has a population of 1.8 million: 300,000 of them Buddhists and the rest Malay Muslims.

The land was occupied (“colonized” according to locals) by Bangkok in 1785. Since 1902, when common law for all tributary states under its sovereignty was imposed (in order to ward off colonization by British and French), violence had begun.

While the majority, not different from Shans, are for Independence, others are calling for autonomy. However the problem here is that the word “autonomy” (meaning “to give oneself one’s own law”), to Bangkok that has adopted decentralization in its unitary state, has become a sort of anathema for it, rather like Burmese leaders to Federalism until 2 years back.

On the other hand, Dr Chaiwat, who is Muslim but not a Malay Muslim like his hosts here, had suggested 3 conditions for autonomy:

•    One, the Deep South must be a democracy. It must have an elected legislature and government.

•    Two, it must accept the monarchy (presumably a substitute for non-secession)

•    Three, it must take responsibility for the Buddhist minority in the Deep South, see that their rights are not violated and they enjoy same rights as the Muslim majority

But to do this, Thailand will need “a new type of citizens”, he said, not only on the side of the Buddhist majority but also on the side of the Muslim minority.

Having learned about him has the other fringe benefit, because when we are introduced to each other before leaving for the campus, we become sort of chummy. Not to be outdone, he also surprises me by saying he knows Hso Khan Fa (1211-1264), the Shans’ most celebrated warrior king, whose power extended to Asssam in the West, Dali in the northeast,  Luang Phrabang in the east, and almost all of today’s Burma and northern Thailand in the north.

His lecture is about Non-killing, a new creed that appears to be the outgrowth of Gene Sharpe’s study and use of strategic nonviolent revolution in conflicts, which are quite familiar to Burmese activists.

“It is not guns that change the world,” he told his listeners. “It is not by using them that we can change it.”

He gives us the following two graphics:

figure1 figure2
But then it is noon and I have to leave for the airport in Hatyai.

On the way, the student who says he has applied to join the University of Chiangmai asks me what my thoughts are about Dr Chaiwat’s lecture. And this is what I tell him. “I think of Prophet Mohammed who employed both violent and non-violent methods as the situation called for.

I also think of the ongoing peace process. I ask myself: would there be a peace process at all, if the non Burmans don’t have arms to fight against the Burma Army? I remember what George Washington had said: To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace. I think having a strong force also useful to preserving the non-violent process, at least in Burma’s case.

Six hours later, I’m back in Chiangmai to face with a new crisis for the peace process: the escalation of war in Kokang and the announcement of martial law there.

Well, “tit for tat” not “turning the other cheek” is still the order of the day here. Peace is an uphill job for all peacemakers.

But one thing’s sure. If you don’t do it, don’t expect it to handed on a plate by anybody.

Hey, the world doesn’t belong to me alone, I remind myself for the zillionth time and go to bed.

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Valentines from Deep South - Day Two

Day Two. Saturday, 14 February 2015

Today’s Valentine’s Day. I have always claimed that Shans are entitled to celebrate it, because they have their own Khun Hsarm Law’s Day, which in some years falls on the same day as the more well known one. Only Shans count their days by the lunar calendar and not solar.

But Valentine or Khun Hsarm Law, I’m going to give my best to the people here who are looking for ways to learn about peace processes in the neighboring countries in order that they may be able to apply at least a little from each to suit their conditions.

They tell me they have already learned something about the Aceh and East Timor processes. Burma’s next.

(What I present here and their feedback are already reported on 17 February, under the headline ‘No Panglong for Deep South’.)

There I have a chance to renew my friendship with Don Pathan, who was still working with The Nation when I first saw him more than 20 years ago.

Then comes the time to show me around.


First to the Krue Sae Mosque, said to be constructed by Mustaffah Shah, a Chinese convert to Islam, in 1470. I’m a bit surprised because it is much smaller than I thought when I watched it on TV in 2004 during a shootout between militants and the Thai security forces. The prayer hall can seat only 66 merit makers.

There is however foundation for expanding it. Only it has never been expanded, says my host lady. According to local folklore, the Shah’s sister had tried to persuade him to return to his old faith. He refused to. The sister was then shipwrecked on departure. The grieved Shah then built a memorial near the mosque. True or not, I must admit it’s a touching story.

Central Mosque

We are then off to the Central Mosque, which is sort of like a mini-Taj Mahal. Sadly I’m not allowed to go in, so I take a photo of myself sitting at the man made lake in front of it.

They then tell me Dr Chaiwat Satha-Anand will be the next to give his presentation tomorrow. Having heard of him for a long time as a non-violence activist, I ask if I can attend it during the morning session before I leave for Hatyai. To my delight and gratitude, my hosts say yes.

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Valentines from Deep South - Day One

Day One. Friday, 13 February 2015

Yes, it is Friday the 13th. But due to my appointment with the hospital, I had missed the trip to Naypyitaw to witness the peace talks in Naypyitaw held yesterday. Should I let go off my once in a lifetime chance to visit the Deep South, Thailand’s Wild West?

I said No to myself, accepted the invitation from People’s College. I’m now flying there with Air Asia, a two-hour flight, which I’m trying to kill time by reading “Monsoon” by Dr Robert D Kaplan that I yet to finish.

A young man, Indian looking like most of the residents, picks me up at Hatyai and drives me to Pattani, 117 km away, along Route 43. And it is love at first sight.

The place is a narrow strip between the two oceans: Indian and Pacific. Pleasantly cool at this time of the year: 21°C-25°C, unlike Chiangmai where I’m coming from, 14°C in the morning and 32°C at noon. With palm trees lining the road, it somehow brings to mind Hawaii, which I have only seen in the movies, especially Blue Hawaii (1962) played of course by “The King” Elvis Presley.

The scenery is marred by three military checkpoints on the way and road barriers inside the city. I also notice people driving motorbikes without wearing helmets. Clearly this is the only place in Thailand when you might be stopped and questioned by the police for wearing them.

The CS Hotel where I’m located is a fine one. My room, # 520, is adequate with 4 bottles of water to see that I don’t go thirsty (Most give you only two.) But just for ‘just in case’, I buy two tamarind juices and two soya milks from a 7 Eleven nearby.

I’m treated to a southern dinner in the evening by my hosts. Unfortunately I only drink (both hard and soft) after 15:00. However, they being good Muslims, I get only a soft one.

The next thing I know, I’m being introduced to the Deep South’s underground activities and the latest development.

“It is getting harder for the militants to carry out their work,” says one of the hosts. “The government is arming the Buddhist residents. It may take some time before the militants can adapt to it.”

They ask me where I want to go. I reply without hesitation: the Central Mosque and the Krue Sae Mosque. But it is already late so I end up returning to my room.

With luck I’ll be getting away without any mishap. The last thing I want to get myself known by is through a headline like “Old Shan busybody feared among lost’.

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Mizoram peace broker to return to Burma soon

Pu Zoramthanga, former rebel and ex-chief minister of Mizoram, will be returning to Burma soon to explore ways to assist in the current peace process, according to his secretary.

Pu Rosangzaula, calling on Chiangmai-based the Pyidaungsu Institute (PI) for Peace and Dialogue, whose director is also founder/president of SHAN, on 13 February, said it was due to the official request made to New Delhi by U Aung Min, Vice Chairman and principal negotiator of the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) on 26 January.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga on a visit to Pyidaungsu Institute, Chiangmai, 20 January 2015. (Photo: PI)
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga on a visit to Pyidaungsu Institute, Chiangmai, 20 January 2015. (Photo: PI)

“On the last visit (to Chiangmai) we met Gen N-Banla (Vice President of Kachin Independence Organization and Chairman of the 12-armed movements alliance United Nationalities Federal Council) and talked with him for 3 hours,” he said. “We found out that he was really frank and open with us, something he couldn’t do with officials from Napyitaw. A need for a middle man is therefore great.”

He added that a 9 party coalition of Northeast India the United People’s Front (UPF) had also requested his mediation at a meeting in Shillong (Meghalaya state) on 16 February. “Naturally, he has accepted the request.”

Zoramthanga and his delegation visited Burma and Thailand, 12-22 January:

•    12-19 January in Burma
•    19-22 January in Thailand

According to Express News Service (ENS) of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, across from Burma’s Chin State, the ex-rebel leader was contacted by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s colleagues for his assistance in the current efforts to broker Burma’s peace process. He was reported to have met Dessislava Roussanova in New Delhi before coming.

The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) that assisted the UPWC in negotiations confirmed the letter to New Delhi, saying, “We welcome the sharing of knowledge and experience from all.”

Earlier, U Aung Min had told Khuensai Jaiyen, PI director, “As you know, successive governments (of Burma) have been allergic against mediation by foreign third parties.”

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KOKANG CONFLICT: Infringement of sovereignty, a false excuse?

The Kokang armed conflict, which started out on the 9 February, has developed into an all out war of words against the non-Burman, ethnic northern armed front, sometimes dubbed as Federal Union Army (FUA), by the Burma Army (BA), also known as Tatmadaw, if not yet the physical declaration of war in official sense.

Sai Wansai

It all started, as Peng Jiasheng's Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an offensive, in a bid to reestablish his authority in Kokang self-administrative zone, from where he was expelled by his competitors from within the army. The then military government sided with his deputy Bai Xuoqian, Peng's deputy, who is now the Naypyitaw’s point man there.

According to VOA, Burmese Section, and various media outlet, Burma's Chief of Military Affairs Security, Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, talked to journalists during a press conference at the Defense Ministry Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Naypyitaw. He claimed that allied ethnic rebel groups and former Chinese soldiers recruited as mercenaries are supporting ethnic Kokang rebels in fighting against government troops.

Earlier, on the eve of the armed conflict, Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing had warned that any ethnic groups supporting the Kokang rebels would be held accountable for their actions, although no specific armed organization was named, at that time.

In a VOA, Burmese Section report, on 21 February, Burma's Chief of Military Affairs Security, Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, buttressed Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hliang's accusation and spelled out BA position quite clearly, with regards to MNDAA offensive in Kokang: “We consider the Loa Kai (Lao Gai) attack as the issue of sovereignty. Peng Jiasheng led insurgent group attacks and wants to seize power from the officially elected self-administrative government. His intention is to seize political power. As he is attacking part of the government structure, our Tatmadaw absolutely cannot accept it and will not give in. According to the evidences happening in Lao Kai, Mong La, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and SSA-Wanhai – also known as Shan State Army - North(SSA-N) are involved and would like to say that groups that are involved must take responsibility.”

According to Burmese military analogy, MNDAA uses foreign mercenaries and tries to dislodge the local administration propped up by Union Solidarity and Development Party-Military (USDP-Military) regime, which implies a breach of sovereignty from regime's point of view.

Furthermore, the regime might like to portray Mong La, TNLA, KIA, UWSA, SSA-N fighting along with MNDAA as parties to infringing on Burma's sovereignty. And thus these groups must be taken as enemies of the State, which must be eliminated.

The regime is whipping up this line of rhetoric, narrow nationalism to mobilize the Burmese mass and many uninformed sectors have been already misled. If this tendency is allowed to foster further, we would be only a few steps away from racial riots of the sixties.

The anti-Chinese riots broke out in Rangoon on 26 June 1967, resulted from Chinese students' defiance of the Burmese government's ban on wearing Mao badges in school. This in turn led to the deterioration of Sino–Burmese relations, symbolised by the cessation of ‘Pauk Phaw’ ties and the subsequent shift in China's foreign policy, leading to the open intervention in Burma's civil war.

This is, of course, not to say that the regime's false move might trigger another Chinese intervention like in past. For the Chinese national interest is much wider and more sophisticated than just to blindly side with its kinship, within the border of Burma.

According to Yun Sun, a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, published by The Irrawaddy, on 18 February, she writes:

For China, the strategic importance of Burma significantly outweighs China’s interest in the border ethnic groups. Burma is a critical link in President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road strategy (that is, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road). China intends to build infrastructure and connectivity projects through Burma to Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean in order to boost Chinese economic growth and expand economic returns, political ties and strategic influence. Burma is key to the smooth operation of the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, a national strategic endeavor to diversify energy transportation routes and reduce trade vulnerability. In addition, in keeping with Xi’s stated emphasis on “periphery diplomacy”, Burma is a priority country where China strives to restore influence, repair ties and mend its damaged reputation.

SHAN editorial of 18 February is also of the same opinion. It writes:

No doubt many across the border sympathize with their ethnic cousin on this side in his crusade to reclaim his homeland, especially after his interview given to the Global Times a few months back, as confirmed by SHAN sources. But that doesn’t mean Beijing is ready to pull all its stakes out from Burma to aid a handful of its cousins there. If it were, then Kokang would now be firmly under Peng’s sway again.

And so if the lessons of anti-Chinese riots in the sixties is to be taken into account, or to be learned and avoided, the regime's recent whipping up false nationalistic fevour would do more harm than benefit and should be avoided, at all cost.

The short term benefit for the regime might that it could solicit Bama nationalism against foreign invasion, which is highly overstated, implicating the MNDAA, with an extention on UNFC members like KIA, SSA-N, TNLA and non-UNFC armed forces like UWSA and Mong La as abettors of the foreign scheme. Furthermore, speculations are also rife that the USDP-Military regime knows pretty well that it would lose out to the NLD and ethnic political parties in the forth-coming national election within this year and like to create a situation to avoid the election, so that it could hold on to power.

In short, the regime should refrain from giving out statement like that the BA troops “are protecting sovereignty and ensuring territorial integrity,” and “vowed not to lose an inch of Myanmar’s territory owned by the successive generations”, for this is an overstatement and illogical approach to the issue.

With the rejection of the government to consider MNDAA as a negotiation partner and continue calling for its total surrender, the ongoing armed conflict would likely escalate. It would be even worse, if the regime is to declare war on all ethnic armed resistance; for this would inevitably means the end of the peace process.

To this end, the regime might need to rethink its “peace-meal” short term solution of group survival and instead focus on a bigger picture based on “all-inclusive national reconciliation through peace process”, according to the desire of all ethnic nationalities, Bama included.

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor

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