On the Frontline: Poverty, Opium and Militarisation in Modern Burma’s Golden Triangle

On the Frontline: Poverty, Opium and Militarisation in Modern Burma’s Golden Triangle

Ta’ang National Liberation Army soldiers taking tea break during village meeting (Photo: Alec Scott)

Alec Scott (Burma Campaign, UK)


In the past 8 years opium production in Burma has nearly tripled. Ninety-seven percent of Southeast Asia’s opium is produced in Burma, with 92% of production located in Shan State in the east of the country. Shan State is mountainous and home to many ethnic peoples, such as the Ta’ang whose villages and pagodas cover the hilltops of the state’s northern townships. This tortuous landscape of tea plantations and paddy farms has become one of the epicenters of the region’s bourgeoning heroin and methamphetamine trade.

In the poor and largely inaccessible villages of northern Shan State’s Namkham Township up to 80% of young Ta’ang men are addicted to drugs, namely heroin and an Amphetamine Type Stimulant (ATS) known as Yabba. “In our Ta’ang area drugs can be found and bought everywhere and many people are becoming addicts. Because of this the education and healthcare situation is getting very low in Ta’ang communities”, explained U Ban Di Sa, the Buddhist monk and founder of the Ta’ang Monk’s Union. U Ban Di Sa accused the central government of being complicit in the drugs trade, saying that “The central government has used drugs as a political tool to maintain their power.”

Once controlled by non-state armed groups governing Burma’s porous borders with Thailand and China, the state’s growing influence over the drugs trade has played a decisive role in its ability to militarize the country’s borderlands. Seven of Shan State North’s MPs – all members of the military-backed government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – are alleged to be directly involved in the regions drugs business and at least three of these individuals are known for their leading roles in militia networks given free hand by the government in the drugs trade (Shan Drug Watch 2011).

In Namkham Township, state assembly MP Win Maung – AKA Pansay Kyaw Myint – holds sway over the Pansay Militia network that has become the major production source of heroin and Yabba in northern Shan State in just over a decade. According to a number of sources, Pansay Kyaw Myint’s narco-militia receives military support from Burma Army battalions 145 and 45 who allegedly provide permanent security at the militia’s operations headquarters on Pansay Hill. According to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army’s (TNLA) deputy commander, Tar Tu Ku Lang; “Before the TNLA began its anti-drugs operations in the area, drugs were distributed freely from Pansay to Namkham and Mai Vee to almost every village.”

In February this year U Ban Di Sa and U Ar Da Ra, a monk from Momeik led six hundred people at a demonstration in Namkham town where they demanded action from the central government and local authorities on the drug issue. Fifty-three year old U Ban Di Sa’s monastery is just one hour by motorbike from Pansay Hill. “The closer we are the more problems we have”, he asserted. “Before we started the anti-drug campaigns, in these three villages of 250 households at that time over 200 households had drug problems. Some their fathers use drugs, some grandfather, some the whole family, some their son, some their daughter.” When I asked U Ban Di Sa if the situation was improving he explained that “In TNLA controlled areas we can estimate that the drugs problem has been reduced by seventy-five percent. In this area where the TNLA cannot come and stay permanently because we are very near to the Burmese Army camp and very near Pansay, only twenty-five percent has been reduced.”

Poverty, opium and militarisation

At one of the TNLA’s mobile HQs on top of a hill beside an old Pagoda, Tar Tu Ku Lang told me the story of Wen Bek village a place I later visited. Tar Tu Ku Lang had recently travelled to Wen Bek in order to persuade the farmers there not to sign away their homes and remaining land after a Chinese agribusiness company had arrived with an offer to buy the whole village. When I arrived in the village it seemed desolate. The colossal Shwe Gas pipeline gouged a 50m wide scar through one side of Wen Bek while the steel pylons from the Shweli hydropower dam marched across the other, both destined for China. “It looked like they confiscated the whole village”, lamented 46 year old Aiki Ngo as we sat sweating under the baking tin roof of Aiki Ngee’s mud floored home, the two of us taking turns to gently rock the hammock where his baby slept. “If we may get nothing it’s better to take something”, reasoned Aiki Ngo. Over a 10 year period roughly 80% of the men in Wen Bek and a high number of women had become addicted to Yabba and heroin, a reality betrayed on the faces and in the eyes of the villagers I met.

In 2009, the TNLA was formed by its political wing the Palaung State Liberation Front in response to the drastically deteriorating human rights and security situation in Ta’ang villages like Wen Bek. In 2011 they began operations in the field: prioritising highly mobile anti-drugs campaigns; a fledgling crop substitution program; no-interest micro-finances for farmers and arrest and short term detention of drug traders. During an interview in Sein Thon Village Tar A Loi Lau, the 58 year old commander of TNLA battalion 478 stated that “The biggest issue the people are requesting us to act upon is drugs. They are asking us to operate our anti-drug program, rehabilitate addicts and to stop the dealers and producers of drugs. Second, they ask for healthcare and education services for community development … The biggest issue is the drug issue.”

At the anti-drug demonstration in Namkham in February a woman held a sign-board that read: “Because of the drug problem children have lost their right to education” and another held one stating: “Women have become the head of the house taking care of the whole family because of the drug problem.”

Although the TNLA’s anti-drugs campaigns receive popular support, alternative livelihood strategies to opium cultivation do not exist for many families in this largely inaccessible area where logging companies, lowland land grabs and large-scale development projects enclose the land around impoverished communities. Last year the TNLA began providing farmers with 50,000 K (approx. US$ 50) loans for charcoal production which has recently replaced tea cultivation as the main income source. “We know producing charcoal is unsustainable”, Tar Ku Lang stated plainly, “It is allowed because the farmers are better to do that than farm poppy. We are planning for other substitutes, but we have a limited budget consumed by war.”

For subsistence farmers opium cultivation is not a lucrative business but a way to cover their children’s school fees and put food on the family table. In Namkham Township thousands of farmers continue to be pushed deeper into poverty by growing inequality, displacement from arable land and an almost total lack of necessary infrastructure such as all-weather roads, schools and hospitals. Among the farming communities of northern Shan State, while poverty remains unaddressed and alternative income sources absent opium cultivation will continue.

“Now is no time to be afraid”

In 2007 Lway Kyim managed an opium farm. “I was 14 years old, at that time. I supported and fed my family.” After the opium harvest, young Lway Kyim left her home in Na Aw Lay village to focus on her education. Now at the age 21, she has witnessed first-hand the impact of drugs not just in her community but also on her own family. After Lway Kyim returned to school, her brother Mai En Nyam who was once a hardworking tea trader became addicted to heroin. “He no longer had money, then the domestic violence began. . . . His situation got worse and worse. Our mother got sick, and his wife and children got sick because they didn’t have enough food.” As her family began to break apart Lway Kyim was forced to abandon her education and return to her village to support them, returning to work in the tea field. “I have made a big mistake growing opium, even if we are looking for income for our family we have to be very careful because the drug can destroy not only our character, not only our culture, it can also destroy life.”

Lway Kyim now manages the family home following the deaths of her parents. Speaking in the Ta’ang Student Youth Organisation’s library in Lashio, she has renewed plans to continue her education and will try and support herself. She says that “Now is no time to be afraid.”

Violence in war and peace

Burma’s borderlands have, throughout history, been far from central state control, be that under British colonial rule or in post-independence Burma. The Burmese junta that took power in 1988 officially signed 17 ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups – some, such as the Karen, had been fighting protracted civil wars with the Burma Army since independence in 1948. An economically driven ceasefire process followed as the state extended its influence towards Burma’s borders using a mixture of military pressure, and offers of trade concessions, protection and impunity for non-state armed groups. March 2011 saw a new military-backed civilian government come to power led by ex-General Thein Sein with a reform agenda and a new round of peace talks. Ceasefire agreements have resulted in a decrease in human rights abuses and armed conflict, yet the majority of ethnic peoples such as the Ta’ang continue to be marginalized from a peace process which continues to focus on military matters and economic trade-offs over political dialogue as land use rights and poverty alleviation remain elusive.

The military state has increasingly relied on the drugs trade in order to “buy loyalty and finance its miltarisation of the country’s borderland regions” (Meehan 2011). The Burmese Army’s extension and fragmentation of state influence into the borderlands of northern Shan State and into the networks which lace the borders together relies on informal coalitions with facilitators such as Pansay Kyaw Myint. These many “facilitators” connect the Burma Army with Chinese companies seeking land concessions in areas such as northern Shan State, in exchange for impunity and protection in drug operations. This development model threatens to destabilize chances for lasting peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most war torn communities, as groups like the TNLA are forced back into armed conflict with the state.

Further Reading:

Lintner, Bertil. 1999. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Lintner, Bertil. 2000. The Golden Triangle Opium Trade: An Overview. Chiang Mai: Asia Pacific Media Services.

Meehan, Patrick. 2011. Drugs, insurgency and state-building in Burma: Why the drugs trade is central to Burma’s changing political order Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 42(3), pp 376–404 October 2011.

Shan Drug Watch newsletter. 2011. Druglords in Parliament, Iss. 4, October

Smith, Martin 1999: Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Michigan: University Press.

Transnational Institute (TNI). 2012. Financing Dispossession – China’s Opium Substitution Programme in Northern Burma. Amesterdam.

Transnational Institute (TNI). 2012. Bouncing Back – Relapse in the Golden Triangle. Amsterdam, June 2014


Alec Scott is a lead researcher for Burma Campaign UK specializing in forced displacement, militarized development and land use rights in Burma (Myanmar). He has over 6 years of Burma and Thailand-Burma border-areas research experience and an MA in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies. In the last 2 years he has conducted field work in Burma in both state and non-state areas in Mon, Karen, Karenni, Shan and Kachin.