Recent gains in respect from the majority of Shan people for the NTA's legitimacy as the representative army of all Shans has brought other ethnic guerrilla groups to discuss possibilities of realignments in opposition to the SLORC. But previous talks with their northern neighbor the Kachin Independence Organization dissolved when the Kachins acceded to agreement with the SLORC, as have ethnic militia of the Pa-0, Palaung, Kayah and Wa, each without surrendering arms. officers of the Karen Mational Union have come to Khun Sa for talks, and contacts have been improved with the Mon and Karenni guerilla armies. Khun Sals media aide Khernsai Jaiyen explains: Khun Sa gained the confidence and trust of other insurgent groups after declaring Shan State independent, late in 1993. "Declaring Shan State independent was the same as declaring war with Rangoon. After that we gained the trust of the Karen and other factions," he said last May. The MTA, well entrenched and locally popular, maintains heavy artillery and surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles, and ground sabotage; high troop morale also, especially due to a take-good-care-of-the- wounded policy. Traditionally the Shan, Kachin, Pa-0, Palaung and Lahu accepted cultural pluralism as a fact of life, despite some competition which occasionally led to armed clashes. Very rugged terrain, infrastructure insufficiencies (especially bulk- transportation facilities), and very strained political relationships, have kept economic potential limited, and feudalistic warlordism entrenched.
In Shan State's Mong T'ai capitol, Ho Mong, (not far from Khun sals previous base at Mong Mai, more readily identifiable on maps, 'though sometimes as Mong Mau), tens of thousands of Shan people are gathered, hoping for improved chances of liberty, justice and economic well-being. Several thousands pre-formed reed-mat houses form dozens of neighborhoods along the main road through the mountain valley, about a hundred miles north of Mae Hong Son, Thailand. The women mostly wear modern clothing; the men and boys are almost all in uniform.
Shan farmers not protected by a local army run high risk of being press-ganged into work as porters and/or land-mine detectors for the Tatmadaw, without pay even in food, usually going into field of battle without protective gear, against their own people. Even in Rangoon the SLORC has press-ganged people from the street; about half a million are forced to work on any given day, with over three million shanghaied so far. Women who care for them or otherwise feel they must do so, follow, in order to provide food. Many porters have died or become severely mutilated while engaged in this work, supposedly for the good of their nation.
Within Shan State Khun Sa faces problems from other dangerous but local enemies, including drug kingpins Lo Hsing-han and Yang Mo Lian, both from the Kokang region (and as with the vast majority of the people there, of Chinese ancestry). In 1973 Lo Hsing-han was the first to offer to sell the Shan opium crop to the U.S. government, two years prior to Khun Sals first such offer. Lo has an arrangement with the SLORC, as do some neighbors not far from his base-town of Lashio, the rather wild Wa guerrillas Some Wa can still remember ancestors who were headhunters, and lived inaccessibly in small villages surrounded by impenetrably thick thorn strands for two decades they were Communist Party members, but now are capitalistic poppy cultivators. The Wa fought against Khun Sals Mong Tai Army until two years ago and now vow to support the Yangon (SLORC's re-name of Rangoon) junta.
Complicating the picture is a proposal coming from international business consortiums and the Asian Development Bank, for new roads and infrastructure arrangements in a "growth quadrangle" to include the "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Thailand and Laos, along with Yunnan, China, where many people share a common ethnic background with the Shans, Thais and lowland, majority Lao people. The proposals would boost tourism, encourage economic imperialism, and facilitate repressive political control. "The formation of the Golden Rectangle is inevitable because of the geo-economic advance of China toward the south," said Thai political scientist Sukhumbhand Paribatra, quoted in the Bangkok Post. "One has to be very careful, because this advance will be linked to the region's powerful local Chinese communities.
Chinese trading and finance houses dominate financial activities in Southeast Asia, including the black-market economy of Burma. The families frequently have been expatriated for centuries, and are essentially apolitical. But their creed, "commerce is commerce", pays little heed to the legality or morality of the merchandise -- quite understandable given the historical facts of two wars brought by Westerners with the express purpose of imposing upon China the narcotic trade, and other more recent political absurdities (for instance demands for employment policies in China which are known to be poorly enforced in regards to Chinese people in America). Chinese family connections are a mainstay of the region's narcotics trade. Khun Sa is half Chinese, though he presents himself to be Shan nationalist. Mr. Jaiyen dismisses this as a problem,. "We had some propaganda attack by both the Burmese and the Thais because Khun Sa is not of pure Shan blood. The Burmese are plainly forgetting that their paramount leader Ne Win is half Chinese, while the Thais are also overlooking the fact that their country itself was freed from the Burmese yoke by the efforts of King Taksin who was of Chinese descent. That Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and the Deputy Chamlong Srimong come from Chinese immigrants. But, they have been able to govern without any problems about their having alien blood, because they are not working for China but for Thailand. It's the same with the Shans. Do you think Khun Sa would have stayed long in power if the people believe he's not working in their interests?"
According to Sombst Raksakul of the Bangkok Post, "Khun Sa... is cleaning up his drug image by making it appear that his income is from the gem trade... employing about 100 workers to cut raw gemstones and make jewelry... also selling valuable raw materials to Thai merchants". The recent discovery of a ruby stone source in Mong Hsu, Shan State, has gem miners and traders who operated along the Thai-Cambodian border moving to the Thai-Burmese border towns of Mae Sot and Mae Sai. Mae Saio the northernmost point in Thailand, is opposite Tachilek, where the MTA has recently been in ongoing armed confrontation with the Tatmadaw. In the fall of 194, the border there was open to tourists, although non-Thais could go no further than the town itself. The Burmese currency, kyat, was not in use there, but only Thai baht. It was rumored, then discounted in the Thai press that the Wa had opened a gambling casino there. Tachilek reportedly had as many as 14 heroin refineries in the past; now it has a Tatmadaw base and a busy market with a plethora of cheap Chinese goods, also a resort hotel under construction. Clearly Khun Sals threats against the city are an important card in his hand. While it is unclear whether he owns heroin refineries or merely taxes them, it has become clear that the bulk of Shan State heroin now comes from Kokang and areas under Wa control.
The Chinese government has sold the SLORC junta F-7 fighter- bombers (copies of the Soviet MiG21) and other military hardware, including two frigates likely to be fitted with surface-to- surface missiles. It has not sold helicopters, which could be used more effectively against insurgents. In return for any further assistance, they want from Rangoon a naval base, or at least refueling rights for submarine and aircraft carriers, in the Bay of Bengal, on Coco Island in the Indian ocean, and also Zedetkyi Kyun (St Matthew's Island) off Tenasserim, close to the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca, which would lead to a much strengthened degree of influence for China in the area. The growing influence of large oil and gas companies could supply additional pressure in this direction.
Thailand has just opened it's first road-bridge with Laos, and also held talks with China on road links to Jinghong, Yunnan, through Sipsongpanna (the "twelve kingdoms" legendary birthplace of the Tai race). Two options were for passage through Laos and northern Burma; a longer third possible route bypasses Burma. So far most roads in Northern Burma and Laos are barely passable for 4-wheel drive vehicles. Coca-cola just opened a bottling plant in Kunming, Yunnan; serious commercialization of the region is not likely to lag far behind. However, so far, the SLORC's leader Ne Win's "Burmese Road to Socialism" has well preserved the independent uniqueness of Burmese culture, regardless of consequent material losses.
Burma's northernmost state, Kachin, bordering Tibet in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the world's most minerally rich areas, with much gold and high-quality jade. Their opium production was substandard, though, due to primitive extraction methods, and they no longer produce it. Kachin State remains poor and sparsely populated, with some of its rugged sub- Himalayan areas virtually uninhabited. Still, teak and other hardwoods are flowing from those mountainous areas through Thailand to Japan, alarming rainforest preservationists.
To the south, the Karen and Mon maintain insurgencies, with just a bit of international media attention and some outside aid. The possibility of their cultural survival seems very much in question. A natural-gas pipeline in progress to supply Thailand, Baptist and other Church organizations, non-governmental relief organizations, business interests and tourism are all having some impact. The Karen National Liberation Army until recently rivaled Khun Sals in size, but is short of supplies, transportation for which they still use a few war elephants.
Khun Sals efforts in Ho Mong have led to recently established mushroom and silkworm farms, pineapple plantations, textile and garment production, a hydroelectric dam, a Jewelry factory and booming gem emporium. In the pleasant Market and well-stocked stores, dry-goods are mostly Thai, and only Thai money is used. Schools and medical facilities are readily in evidence, as are two small hotels. There is hardly any need to lock doors, as there is virtually no crime.
Meanwhile along the Thai border with Karen state, many international tourists trek to "undeveloped" Karen villages to photograph the occasional "long-necked woman" (perhaps from the small Padaung tribe, perhaps one born under a full moon, but however, one with many brass rings covering the neck and depressing the collar-bone). Such tourism seldom benefits the ethnic people, especially financially. What little they might gain they are soon destined to lose. Exploitation and manipulation by the rich and influential in the area typically involves little governmental interference.
For over 20 years refineries in Shan State have produced most of the world's supply of the 90% pure heroin (known as "Number 411); this is the area's primary hard currency earner. The product travels through China and/or Thailand, according to Alfred McCoy in "The Politics of Heroin," often in the care of tChiu chaul dialect speakers (originally Swatowese, that is, from the seaport of Kwantung in SE China, arrived in Hong Kong via Shanghai and now somewhat scattered abroad). Ethnic Yunnanese Muslims called Panthays, or "Huill in Chinese, and the Thai "Haw" are also blamed (but poorly identified, except as expatriate Yunnanese), and it is easy to run across mention of "triads," the legendary Chinese secret societies. However supplied, illegal heroin is available virtually worldwide, also flowing from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Laos, Lebanon, Mexico, Sudan, and recently in most, if not all, of the southern ex-Soviet states. Even Columbia recently has begun to produce the high grade #4. It is thus questionable why American law enforcement would think capture of Khun Sa might have any impact on narcotic's street availability or price. It is also questionable why crop substitution or eradication is deemed necessary, as there is important medical utility, and internationally sanctioned narcotic production in India, Iran, Turkey, and more recently, Tasmania, Australia.
Early in this century, the Shan were already selling opium to the Yunnanese, who transported it down the Yangtze and sold it to the French. The Shan were then divided into 34 small principalities, and had no concept of rigid border demarcation. Frequent forced 'taxation' by roving warlords has discouraged most other forms of farming for market. Trade has been ruined to the point where salt is expensive and goiter is a widespread problem. Indeed, without opium, the entire consumer economy of Burma might grind to a halt, as most of what is available for sale has been brought in on the backs of returning opium-caravan mules.
Clearly the Shan people wish to enter the modern world with the respect and the dignity merited by capable and industrious people, which they indeed are. The commerce in narcotics doesn't generate much profit for them, except insofar as it keeps at bay a powerful external threat. The SLORC is a powerful threat, though it has done little so far except to keep out the big business concerns that eventually may present a more real and disruptive danger to the peoples and cultures of Northern Burma. Modern infrastructure can be doubly dangerous in this area, tending as it does to bring governmental repression and corporate exploitation. A direct relationship clearly exists between poverty and the narcotics problem, but Khun Sals aide Khernsai Jaiyen expresses no interest in the parallels with problems in South America, or in contacts there. Shan State may never be able to have more impact on the world beyond its confines than it does now, through its narcotics, and it is unclear how much outside people should feel obliged to become involved in internal Shan State affairs. But with drug addiction a problem of the magnitude it has become, it can easily seem to be a problem of either influencing the situation, or being influenced by it.
The following exerptions provide meaningful insight:
From The Shan of Burma, Memoirs of a Shan Exile, by Chao Tzang Yawnghwe (alias Eugene Thaike, a Shan noble and son of Burma's first President) Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1984, pgs 48 - 50:
The... struggle for control in Burma involves the question of
autonomy or the degree of autonomy to be given to other ethnic
groups. This struggle which has taken the form of open warfare
between Rangoon and the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and so forth,
has unfortunately been branded by the West in general as nothing
more than a tribal uprising. This is due perhaps to the
inability of the West to grasp the fact that the concept of a
bureaucratic nation-state is relatively new. In Asia, the
traditional form of governance is one based on the loyalty of a
person to the nearest overlord, and so on up the ladder, and
finally, to the person of the king. Hence, it is not easy, even
among one people who share a common language and culture to bring
about a national loyalty focused on an alien and impersonal
bureaucratic arrangement. The difficulties are further
compounded when a nation-state is composed of different ethno-
Such being the realities of history, the stand taken by most
Western scholars and historians that the Burmese power centre
equals an "egalitarian, modern state", while Shan nationalism is
"reactionary feudal tribalism" is untenable. Such an attitude is
certainly not scholarly since it ignores the historical and
qualitative factors governing the status and development of the
various ethnic groups in Burma, especially the major ones.
It must also be remembered that before the impact of the west,
there was no such concept as national unity in Burma or elsewhere
in Asia. There was the king and his court in the golden capital,
and there were vassal lords and princes who may, or may not have
been of the same ethnic group as the king. When a king was
strong and dynamic, vassal lords and princes enjoyed less
freedom, and more often than not, such a king would invade
neighboring kingdoms. The aim of engaging in foreign wars was
not for country or nation, but for reasons of personal glory.
The Burmese, like the Cambodian, the Siamese, the Shan, the
Indian, even the Chinese, were not, prior to the nineteenth
century, conscious of nationalism or nationhood in the sense it
is understood today.
Such being the realities of history, the stand taken by most Western scholars and historians that the Burmese power centre equals an "egalitarian, modern state", while Shan nationalism is "reactionary feudal tribalism" is untenable. Such an attitude is certainly not scholarly since it ignores the historical and qualitative factors governing the status and development of the various ethnic groups in Burma, especially the major ones.
It must also be remembered that before the impact of the west, there was no such concept as national unity in Burma or elsewhere in Asia. There was the king and his court in the golden capital, and there were vassal lords and princes who may, or may not have been of the same ethnic group as the king. When a king was strong and dynamic, vassal lords and princes enjoyed less freedom, and more often than not, such a king would invade neighboring kingdoms. The aim of engaging in foreign wars was not for country or nation, but for reasons of personal glory. The Burmese, like the Cambodian, the Siamese, the Shan, the Indian, even the Chinese, were not, prior to the nineteenth century, conscious of nationalism or nationhood in the sense it is understood today.
From True Love and Bartholomew, Rebels on the Burmese Border by Jonathan Falla, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pgs 360-361:
In 1827 Dr John Crawford... was sent on an embassy from the
Governor-General of India to the Burmese Court of Ava. He
The conduct of the Burmans on their predatory excursions is cruel and ferocious to the last degree... 'You see us here', said some of the Chiefs to Mr Judson, la mild people living under regular laws. Such is not the case when we invade foreign countries. We are then under no restraints, we give way to all or passions, we plunder and murder without compunction or control. Foreigners should beware how they provoke us when they know these things.'
In 1988 Amnesty International published a report on the treatment of the Karen and Kachin in Burma which showed that little had changed. It is full of accounts of the destruction and viciousness brought by Burmese soldiers to Karen villages - of people shot in the back as they unsuspectingly worked the fields, of daughters seeing their fathers buried and burnt alive, and young men having the flesh stripped off their shins with bamboo rollers to make them talk...
"You dare not say anything, your friends are taken away in the night, never seen again.
Perhaps the above is best tempered with an excerpt on pg 366:
Marshall's 1922 (p. 157) description of Karen war parties: The organiser of the foray did not go in person with his men, lest he be killed and thus unable to dispense the spoils, but remained at home to receive and reward the valiant fighters on their return with the booty.