"The government is bankrupt and the generals have all the money," reported Mizzima News, on 25 April, quoting a member of an International NGO in Rangoon.Earlier, on 15 January, SF Chronicle quoted Xavier Bouan, UN illicit crop monitor based in Rangoon, "Everybody is involved in this trade in one way or the other. Insurgents, militia, government, ceasefire groups; for all of them, in a region where the economy is slowing down, it's one of the only ways to survive and get cash."
Reading carefully between the lines, nothing is more revealing than the above two quotes, when it comes to drugs, because that is what is actually taking place at the ground level, whatever happens in Rangoon with all the spectacular arrests of celebrities connected to the generals since the end of May.
Ordered to live off the land since 1996, army units in Shan State have been trying as best they can "to survive and get cash."
Infantry Battalion 246, based in Kunhing, notorious for killing at least 150 people including a monk who was tied up in a sack and drowned during the infamous 1996-1998 forced relocation campaigns, is a perfect example.
In February, a 20-plus strong unit commanded by Lt Tin Aye (real name withheld on request) was assigned a security mission at the village of Nam Oi, 3 miles west of Kunhing on the road to Namzang. It was at the end of the season's opium harvest and the farmers were picking the dry poppy pods to be used as seeds for the next season. "The soldiers not only came to help us pick the seed pods," said one of the Shan farmers there, "they even warned us that the fields were too near the motor road and we should move them away from it next time."
IB 246 and its sister unit Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 524 lived by taxing on the farmers: 10-30% of the harvest depending on the size of each field.
Last December, SHAN interviewed villagers coming from Kehsi Township, Loilem district. One of them gave SHAN the following account:
Earlier in 2007, villagers were attending a meeting called by IB287 based in Wanzing to receive directives for the plantation of physic nuts, one of the Senior General's bees in the bonnet, when the commander asked, "Do you grow poppies? If you don't, what are you going to eat? Only if you have enough to eat, we (soldiers) can also eat."
Top growers in the area are Lahu, who arrived from the North following the forced relocations. "Then we have Palaung, Lisu and us Shans. We also saw a number of soldiers tending their own fields," said a villager.
Life certainly is harsh even for the junta personnel especially for those at the lower rungs of the strata.
Last September, six policemen from Homong, Mawkmai township, opposite Maehongson, deserted with two pistols and two walkie-talkies and the newly arrived head of the station was ordered to pay for the losses, priced at Kyat 1.2 million ($880) or the equivalent of Senior General Than Shwe's monthly pay. The princely sum was eventually taken care of by Col Maha Ja, head of the local militia and for whom Thailand has issued an arrest warrant on drug charges.
The said officer has been in his debt since. "What could he do?", asked a militia member rhetorically. "His monthly pay is just enough to buy two Hsins (sarong) for his wife."
Maha Ja's Shan State South (SSS) company trucks are reportedly never searched by the local Burmese authorities.
Understandably, the annual poppy lashing campaigns launched by the junta were carried out "only to put on official record," according to a pro-junta militia leader in Mongton township, opposite Chiangmai. "But be careful no Wa fighters are on the destruction teams. These guys don't just thrash the plants like us and the soldiers. They like to pull out the plants from the earth, roots and all."
Likewise, some seizures which really deserve screaming headlines just went by without an audible sound.
Between 4-8 November 2007, a combined force led by police officer Ye Naing came across a heroin refinery located in a gully near the village of Htitan in Hsihseng township, 57 miles south of the state capital Taunggyi. The total haul was estimated to be K2.5 billion ($2million).
The refinery was reportedly owned by Khun Chit Maung, former leader of the ceasefire Shan State Nationalities Peoples Liberation Organization (SNPLO), "who had been paying Kyat 5 million ($4,000) per month to the Eastern Region Command and Kyat 3 million ($2,400) to each of the light infantry battalions stationed in the area, LIB 425 and LIB 426," according to a local source, who had proved to be reliable in the past.
It was not the only case worth mentioning. The year 2007 also saw other cases which were as much exciting if not more:
- On 22-28 January 2007, authorities seized 20 kg of heroin, 50 kg of raw opium, 1 million pills of methamphetamine, 2 million yuan, $38,400 and Kyat 50 million from the Panhsay militia in Namkham township. But its leader Kyaw Myint aka Li Yongqiang, who is said to be close to the regional commander, remains untouched.
- On 27 May, 5 officials who had detained Yaw Chang Wa (Yaw Chang Hpa), an officer in the ceasefire Kachin Defence Army on drug charges, were ambushed and killed. But the group remains scot free.
- On 18 September, a joint patrol of LIB 553 and LIB 554 waved down a four wheel drive vehicle between Punako and Mongtoom, Monghsat Township, opposite Chiangrai. It found one slab of heroin (350gm, two slabs make one block, called jin in Chinese), which they were said to have brought as a sample to a prospective customer. The 5 militiamen on the truck were detained but were released on 5 October, when the group's leader Ja Ngoi returned and met the authorities concerned.
"The only damage caused by the incident was the removal of the refinery to a new location," said an informed businessman from Tachilek. "It is just one and a half miles north of Hpak Ha village, which is guarded by LIB 553. It therefore seems inconceivable the Burma Army knows nothing about it."
It appears that the longer the generals so needlessly continue expanding their armed forces, the drug problem is here to stay.