To unravel Myanmar's drug trade and end the decades-long civil war, Tatmadaw-backed militias will need to be involved in the dialogue, experts say.
Tatmadaw-backed militias have long been permitted to indulge freely in the narcotics trade in return for their help fighting ethnic armed groups. These militias have thus far been excluded from ceasefire talks, casting doubt over how lingering problems in Myanmar’s border areas, including the drug trade, will be settled.
The nationwide ceasefire accord – signed between the government and eight ethnic armed groups in October last year – mentions “consultation” on the eradication of illicit drugs. But experts say the agreement is likely to have little impact on poppy cultivation.
“First of all, most opium farmers grow poppies due to poverty, and their needs have not been addressed yet. Second, a lot of opium and heroin production is now in areas controlled by Tatmadaw-backed militias, who are not included in the peace process,” said Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Drugs and Democracy program of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.
Several negotiators at the now-defunct Myanmar Peace Center recognised the importance of including the militias – which possibly number in the hundreds – in the peace process.
Last December, U Min Zaw Oo, then a director at the MPC, said, “In informal discussions, some political representatives thought it would be better if [the militias] were included.”
“We all recognise they should take part,” he said.
He attended the May 8 meeting between State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and prospective members of the new government’s peace negotiating team. But when asked about the new government’s opinion on the inclusion of militias, he said no one had been authorised to speak to the media.
The new government remains tight-lipped about the peace process, which it called a priority in its election campaign. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a second Panglong Conference to mirror the one held by her father Bogyoke Aung San in 1947. She said that ethnic armed groups who did not sign the nationwide ceasefire would also be invited, but made no mention of the Tatmadaw-backed militias.
The Tatmadaw’s right to raise people’s militias is enshrined in the constitution. Article 340 stipulates that “the Defence Services has the authority to administer the participation of the entire people in the Security and Defence of the Union”.
People’s Militia Forces are not part of the military budget. Instead, weapons and ammunition, as well as rations for soldiers, are often financed through illicit trade. This has fuelled the underground economy of drugs and natural resources, while enriching militia leaders and ensuring their central position in the political field.
Several militias wield great influence over the legislature. In last November’s elections, leaders or people connected to several Tatmadaw-sponsored militias were elected to parliament, including some heavily implicated in the drug trade.
People’s Militia Forces are different from Border Guard Forces, though both are Tatmadaw-backed militias. The latter are part of a government scheme introduced in 2009 and are ethnic armed groups that signed a ceasefire with the military government. Unlike the People’s Militia Forces, the BGFs are on the Tatmadaw’s payroll and army officers are stationed within their troops. The border guards have also been linked to the trade of illicit narcotics.
The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) – an ethnic armed group that became a Border Guard Force in 2009 – allegedly controls opium production in parts of Kachin State, according to the Christian anti-drug group Pat Ja San. One of the NDA-K’s leaders, U Zakhung Ting Ying, is an elected Amyotha Hluttaw representative.
Locals are often exploited by militia commanders who levy illegal taxes, grab land or force opium cultivation.
During a meeting of advocacy groups in Yangon last month, U Min Thein, an opium farmer from Kayah State, said that armed groups were partly responsible for his decision to start growing opium, instead of maize.
“We are living in the forest because they come looking for us to work as a porter. That’s why we are sneaking around growing opium,” U Min Thein said. “I feel sad the law considers us as criminals. But all armed groups benefit. They should also be considered criminals, those tax collectors.”
A recent statement released by the Myanmar Opium Farmer’s Forum said now is a “golden era” for militias.
“They have the mandate from the Myanmar army to trade and produce drugs,” the statement said.
Though militias are constitutionally under the Tatmadaw, it is unlikely that the government’s military could command them to put down their weapons and give up their lucrative trade.
“If they are forced to disarm without proper procedures there will be big problems,” said U Min Zaw Oo.
When an early predecessor of people’s militias – the Ka Kwe Ye home guards – were abolished in 1973, some refused to hand in their weapons and instead went underground, exacerbating conflict and opium production.
“Instead of ‘counter-insurgency’, most of these militias became heavily involved in the opium trade and the general lawlessness and chaos in Shan State increased,” said a 2009 report by the Transnational Institute.
Most infamous were the home guards of Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han, both notorious drug lords. Since their deaths, many other militias continue to indulge in the trade of opium and, increasingly, amphetamines.
“If there is a nationwide ceasefire in which the militias are included, the drug problem could be stopped,” said Lieutenant Joe Mung of the Shan State Army-South, one of the signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Most militias operate in Shan State, where about 90 percent of the country’s raw opium is produced. Poppy is also grown, to a lesser degree, in Kachin, Kayah and Chin states.
But the militias are not the only ones involved in the drug trade.
“After decades of military rule, war and ethnic conflict, few of the parties fighting in Shan State, including the Myanmar army, can claim to have clean hands when it comes to the drug trade,” said Mr Kramer from the TI.
In 1999, the government committed to a 15-year plan to eliminate illicit crop production, but the deadline has since been extended to 2019. Myanmar remains the second-largest producer of raw opium in the world and amphetamine production is steeply on the rise.
Troels Vester, country manager of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, said dealing with the drug issue would be pivotal for ending Myanmar’s decades-long civil war.
“One could ask if could there be peace with all these illicit drugs; I don’t think so,” he said.