Since the 1950s, various Myanmar Governments have officially created and sanctioned the operations of militia forces in the county’s ethnic states. These groups have been used primarily as a military force to fight against ceasefire and non-ceasefire ethnic groups, to control the lives of ethnic populations, and to further secure the country’s border areas.
These militias have become notorious for drug trafficking, taxing the local population, illegal gambling, and a wide variety of human rights abuses. They have been allowed to do this with the express permission of local military commanders who have themselves earned money from the variety of illegal activities that the groups operate. In fact, article 340 of the 2008 constitution states that ‘With the approval of the National Defence and Security Council the Defence Services has the authority to administer the participation of the entire people in the Security and Defence of the Union. The strategy of the people’s militia shall be carried out under the leadership of the Defence Services.’
Numerous militias operate in Shan State which, according to the UNODC’s Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2015, remains the centre of the country’s opium and heroin trade, accounting for 91 per cent of opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle alone.
Many studies have shown opium production to be more pervasive in government territory than in that held by other armed ethnic organisations, and authorities allow, if not tacitly work with, people’s militia forces (PMF) in the drugs trade.
While the UWSA is still considered to be the largest trafficker, it is these local militias that now play a significant role often with the permission of local Myanmar Army commanders. In a report on the drug trade in Shan State, Shan Herald Agency for News noted that
‘Burmese military commanders [are] giving the green light to People’s Militia Forces (PMFs)- the paramilitary forces built up among the local populace by the Army – to establish their own drug production plants and trafficking networks and thereby wrest the market away from the ceasefire groups.’
Shan Drug Watch, reported that ‘On 27 March 2010, militia leaders who were attending the 63rd anniversary of Burma’s Armed Forces Day ceremony in Tachilek were reportedly told by the Tachilek area commander Col Khin Maung Soe on the side-lines, “This is your great opportunity. You would do well not to let it slip by. My only advice is to sell as much drugs as you can across the border (i.e. in Thailand) but not on this side of the border.’
And that, there was, ‘A massive increase in poppy cultivation, and heroin and methamphetamine production in the Myanmar Army-People’s Militia controlled areas, far more than in areas under rebel-ceasefire control.’
One of the main opium producing areas in northern Shan State is the high Pansay mountain range between Namkham, Kutkai and Mantong. This area is controlled by the Panhsay Militia, which according to SHAN, is led by Kyaw Myint who is also a Member of Parliament. The militia is believed to consist of 300-400 armed men. SHAN Drug Watch alleges that the group gives protection to local opium growers and traders, in exchange for hefty taxes.
While many have suggested that Armed Ethnic Organisations continue to be involved in the drug trade a number of them have actively launched anti-drug campaigns.
On 9 May 2013, units of the Myanmar Army attacked the base of the RCSS/SSA-S Task Force 701 in Namkham Township on the Chinese Border. Local Myanmar media stated that the reason for the attack,
‘. . . was due to the SSA’s territorial expansion, forcible recruitment and collection of illegal tax ‘
However, the area is notorious for its lucrative logging and narcotics trade and it is likely that this was the main reason for Myanmar Army intervention in an area in which the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and both the Namkham Myoma militia, and the Panhsay militia all operate. According to Maj Lao Hseng an RCSS spokesperson there may have been three possible reasons for the attack,
1) The SSA Task Force base was on the Sino-Burma border, 2) The SSA was implementing a drug-free zone and 3) The SSA base was also located close to the route of the Shwe gas pipelines.
But, it is more likely to be the second. In April the Panhsay militia was attacked by a group comprised of troops from the SSA-S, the SSPP, and the TNLA. Three bases were destroyed and 55,171 methamphetamine tablets, 6 ½ viss (10.4 kg) of opium and one penicillin bottle of heroin were eventually burnt at the Task Force 701 H.Q. Considering the loss to the Panhsay militia and the influential position of its leader, it is more than credible that the presence of Task Force 701 was a hindrance to local business activities.
While there is no doubt a number of armed ethnic organisations are involved in the drugs trade, the most obvious being the UWSA, it is, in fact, local militia units that pose the biggest threat. Almost all villages in ethnic states have been forced to recruit local militia units in their respective areas. Senior General Than Shwe, when Chairman, instructed local military authorities to form 1 militia battalion in each quarter of a town and each village tract. Burma has 13,725 quarters/village tracts. Although the Myanmar Army has not been able to reach this goal yet, the aim appears to be having a militia battalion per township, and this is a serious problem the new Government will also have to tackle.
This article first appeared in Mizzima Weekly on 18 February 2015