Counter-Terrorism: Burmese Border Battles Annoy China


December 19, 2009: In Myanmar (Burma), tribal rebels in the north and east have resumed  opium and heroin production. This is a result of a military offensive, whose aim is to finally bring these independent minded areas under government control. The tribes have been fighting the Burmese for centuries, but a decade ago, the government cut peace deals with most of the tribes. The main group that continued to resist was the Shan, which had some 10,000 men under arms as the Shan State Army (SSA). For decades, the Shan financed their rebellion by producing opium. A decade ago, they said they had abandoned the drug trade. Partially this was because other tribes, which had made peace with the government, had gotten into the business. The Shan have been pushed towards the Thai border by army operations. As the only major tribe still resisting, the Shan was the primary target of army efforts. The government also enlisted the help of the Wa State Army. Eventually, the Shan agreed to a truce.

Recently, Burma sent the army into the nearby Kokang territory, and destroyed the 1,500 man Kokang militia. For decades, the Kokang had plenty of drug profits to buy weapons, hire lots of gunmen and bribe Burmese officials. No more, and many of the Kokang people appear to be fleeing into China. The Chinese government isn't happy with this, but at least Kokang is no longer a source of heroin, and other drugs, for southern China (where addiction and drug related crime have long been problems.)

The other two rebel groups near the Chinese border, the Wa and the Kachin (a large local tribe that was never into the drug trade in a big way), had a mutual defense (against Burma) agreement with the Kokang. But the Burmese offensive cleverly cut off the routes into Kokang territory, and forced thousands of Wa and Kachin gunmen to retreat.

Now the Wa are the next target for the Burmese army. The Wa are likely to be defeated and largely disarmed. This will end the heroin trade in the Golden Triangle. Actually, the heroin business here has been in trouble for the last two decades. This region dominated the world market for heroin, starting in the 1950s, and that ended only in the last decade, with the arrival of more government military pressure, and the emergence of the cheaper Afghan product.

Afghan leaders know about the Golden Triangle history with heroin. The drugs (opium and heroin) made the drug gangs powerful enough, in their remote homelands, to resist military efforts to stop the trade. Even before heroin was invented in 1874 (via a chemical process that turned opium into the more powerful new drug), opium had been coming out of the Golden Triangle for centuries. But this was an expensive drug selling into pre-industrial cultures (where most people just got by). But as economies grew, worldwide, after World War II, opium and heroin addiction became a growing problem in the nations adjacent to the Golden Triangle, and then worldwide. This gave rise to more and more vigorous efforts to shut down the drug trade.

But now the situation has become more dangerous, as Chinese (illegal) migrants and investment money has poured into these border areas. The Wa, and many of the other Burmese tribes, are ethnically Chinese. While China is not about to intervene militarily, the ability of Chinese money, migrants, and goods (including some weapons) to cross the border, makes it more difficult for the Burmese government to finally pacify their border tribes.






Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close