Lo Hsing Han, emperor of poppy, was laid to rest in a glass coffin, watched over by his wife, four sons, four daughters and 16 grandchildren as top government officials, business leaders and local residents lined up to pay their respects. From his infamous days as Southeast Asia’s biggest heroin trafficker, Lo was brought into the system, emerging at the head of one of Myanmar’s biggest industrial conglomerates. The story, it seemed at the time, held out hope.
But like an apparition in an opium-induced nightmare, the emperor of poppy has been reborn — now called Pheung Kya-shin, leader of an army that has been locked in fierce combat with Myanmar’s armed forces through the eastern Kokang region since February. Fighting, waged with artillery and combat jets, has forced tens of thousands of local people out of their homes.
It’s a faraway war, in a land few in India have heard of — but in New Delhi’s strategic community, the wars in Myanmar are being watched with concern. Insurgents in Myanmar have a long history of running guns to their counterparts in India. Their growing power could breathe life into Indian insurgents now hiding out in the region. In addition, the country is seeing a steady rise in narcotics-trafficking, a lucrative enterprise Indian insurgents could tap into. In a worst-case scenario, cross-border strikes would become the norm.
Ever since 2011, Myanmar has entered into ceasefires with over 15 ethnic insurgent groups, working towards a negotiated political settlement. In practice, however, many of the groups have used the ceasefire periods to expand narcotics-based fiefdoms. From a peak of over 1,50,000 hectares under opium cultivation in 1996, Myanmar reduced the figure to just 20,000 hectares a decade later. The years since, however, have seen cultivation inch steadily back to 57,000 hectares.
The cultivation is most intense in the block of states running north to south along Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand — Kachin, North Shan, South Shan and East Shan. Intelligence reports also suggest new cultivation areas are opening up in Sagaing, adjoining Myanmar’s borders with Manipur and Nagaland.
In recent reports, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has repeatedly flagged record flows of methamphetamines through Myanmar to markets in Thailand — and on to the rest of the world. Law enforcement agencies in Myanmar told the UNODC that they were “restricted in their ability to undertake interventions in the special regions because of the inaccessibility of the areas controlled by the ceasefire groups”.
Estimates put the value of the drug trade at $15 billion — almost a third of Myanmar’s formal gross domestic product. Property prices in Yangon, local residents say, have risen spectacularly on the back of a tide of unaccounted cash brought in by drug-linked businesses. In war-torn Kokang’s Laukkai, there are spanking new hotels, casinos and fashion stores.
Kokang’s poppy empires, painstakingly chronicled over the years by scholar Bertil Lintner, provide a template for how the drug boom happened across Myanmar. In the 1950s, Olive Yang, the convent-educated daughter of a Kokang notable, set up a militia with 1,000 members. Backed by the Kuomintang, which had been thrown out of China by Mao Zedong’s army, Yang funded her militia by running truckloads of opium to the Thai border.
In 1962, Yang was arrested, only to be released two years later. In the 1980s, she was to emerge as a key broker of peace accords with insurgents, working with Myanmar intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt.
Following her extraordinary life, which included bisexual relationships with some of Myanmar’s top movie artistes, Yang eventually renounced the world and became a nun. Her story, however, became a template for warlordism in Kokang. Yang was succeeded by her brother Jimmy Yang, co-founder of the East Burma Bank, and he in turn gave way to Lo.
Lo’s ascendance was built on striking a deal with Myanmar’s army, giving him the right to run opium convoys on major roads without hindrance in return for making his troops available to fight ethnic insurgents. His brother, Lo Hsing Ko, was — conveniently — appointed police chief for Kokang.
From the mid-1970s, Pheung Kya-shin emerged as a competitor — backing the Communist Party of Burma, instead of the government, in return for support for his heroin-running operations. In the 1980s, when the Communist Party of Burma split, its remnants signed a ceasefire deal with the government. In return, it was allowed a free run of the heroin trade. Feud followed feud, until Pheung was forced out of the region in 2009 — only to strike back in February.
There’s little doubt that Myanmar now confronts tough choices. The ceasefires that came into effect in 2011 have brought something resembling peace to the country, but at a high price: drugs and warlordism. The military seeks order — but is unwilling to acquiesce to the kinds of deep democratic reforms that might quell ethnic tensions. The political elite, hollowed out by drug revenues, has little reason to seek a transformation in the status quo.
In essence, the poppy empires are stupefying Myanmar’s state, addicting powerful elements in its polity to the cash from drugs.
Last year, journalist Salai Thant Zin visited the village of Kanzam on Myanmar’s border with Manipur on New Year’s Eve. He came back with a grim vision of the future. He found the chapel, the heart of the village community, locked; the priest had long fled. The village, he reported, had just three men, the rest having died because of their opium addiction. There were also just three children in the local school, whose mothers busied themselves tending to poppy fields and brewing rice beer. Local police chief Myint Lwin told Salai that dealers from Moreh, in India, regularly arrived across the Sagaing division’s mountains to buy raw opium, to be processed into heroin for tens of thousands of addicts in the Northeast.
Though insurgent groups in the Northeast have so far steered clear of the drugs trade, the prospects of riches are certain to lure — and where cash is available, guns will follow.
Flanked to its west by a state flailing in the face of terror, India could wake up to discover it has a neighbour drowning in a sea of drugs.