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The Membrane Domain

Ethnic Survival in Burma Supported by Heroin Trade

Ethnic Survival in Burma Supported by Heroin Trade.


Joel Barlow.

Email address : Joel Barlow

The bulwark of heroin supply originates in places where people need the income for survival. East of Mandalay in the Shan State, profits from poppy cultivation and narcotic refining are the backbone of resistance to Rangoon's oppressive, arguably racist military regime. The armies protecting production areas and trade routes, however, have been more competitive than united against the junta, the State Law and Order Reclamation Committee (SLORC).

The SLORC renamed its country Myanmar, supposedly in order to display inclusion of the country's many ethnic groups. The name, like the junta, is a bit questionable. The name of the national airline, Myanma, would be better, referring as it does to the majority lowland rice cultivators. Preferable should be "Bama," which gives inclusion to all the tribal groups.

Here is a map of Burma ... provided by our CIA. Nationwide elections in 1990 showed overwhelming support (outside of Shan State, which voted for Shans) for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now six years under house arrest. Her father was independence hero Aung San, who persuaded independent ethnic leaders to accept his negotiation for terms ending Britain's colonial rule. He promised choice for secession, after ten years, to the Shan and Kachin states, which had never submitted to authority from Rangoon. He was assassinated before independence, however, and his promises were made void. She is English educated, married to an Englishman, and her children are in England. This English influence is of deep concern to military leaders, the foremost of whom date from the country's colonial days.

Burma contains perhaps 135 ethnic groups (over twice as many as China). Besides the Myanmars or Burmans, there are the Kachin, Karenni (Kayan), Karen, Chin, Arakanese, Mon and Shan, for which states have been named, other tribes of some relation to one of them, and tribes of Mongoloid origin, including Mizo, Lahu, Palaung, Naga and Wa. Most of these have their own ethnic independence armies; additionally there are descendent remnants of the Kuomintang Chinese (KMT), the now mostly defunct Burmese Communist Party, an All-Burma Students Democratic Front, and totally mercantile opium-trade protection organizations and small groups of armed bandits, of which in the last few decades there have been several hundred. The total of ethnic or ideological rebel armies once exceeded 26, but 14 of the remaining have now agreed to a cease-fire with the government, in hopes of development help. Non-governmental armed, trained, organized and active forces are estimated from approximately 75,000 to above 125,000 (some merely boys); figures quoted for insurgent fighters are much lower as these do not include the opium armies. In the SLORC's army of almost 300,000, the Tatmadaw (pronounced Tah-mah- doe), moral is not high, especially as there is little if any civilian support (except from many families dependent on army money). If the insurgent armies would unite, overthrow of the SLORC could happen. Variant politics, however, along with lack of geographic commonalty, historic animosities, communication difficulties, religious differences, and conflicting financial support bases make this very unlikely. For example, in addition to entrenched and opposed Buddhists, Moslems, and Christians, there are animistic and charismatic cults, and many strong clan rivalries. Most Karen and Mon are decidedly anti-narcotic, but also competitive, even sometimes combative, with each other, and sometimes even internally, as seems to have been the case with the recent fall of the Karen headquarters at Mannerplaw, due at least in part to Buddhist soldiers' dissatisfaction with their Christian leadership.

The largest insurgent forces in Burma, the Mong Tai Army (MTA), also referred to as the Shan United Army (SUA) (since recent Khmer Rouge defections it is the largest insurgent army in Southeast Asia) is headed by Zao Khunsa (referred to in media usually as Khun Sa, originally named Chan Cheefu or Zhang Qifu, and heriditary Loimaw headman). He is on America's "Most Wanted" list, although he has never set foot on American soil. A Brooklyn, New York court indicted him on heroin trafficking (narcotics racketeering) charges. He is a charismatic leader and protector to millions in Shan State. For almost twenty years he has offered to eradicate Shan opium/heroin supply in return for such security and stability, for his people, that at present only narcotics trade efficiently supplies. The price for this is but a tiny fraction of the "street value" of the product, or American tax dollars spent in response to the narcotics problem (on surveillance, interdiction, incarceration, rehabilitation, hospitalization, etc). But such requests for help with crop substitution, schools, hospitals, and some infrastructuring have prompted little response.

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