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Myanmar’s Shan State: a complex tragedy

by Richard Humphries

THAI-MYANMAR BORDER — Mae Sai is the end of the road in northern Thailand. This is not to suggest that the lackluster town is undeveloped: It does a roaring trade in gemstones (both real and fake), tourist trinkets, snacks and all kinds of contraband. It’s literal. The main street, Pahonyotin, runs north until it reaches the Sai River. Across that waterway, which forms part of the border between Thailand and Myanmar’s Shan State, is a “Friendship” bridge leading to the Myanmar town of Tachilek.

Not everyone in the area has used the bridge to cross the border. Some 300,000 Shans have found other ways to cross into Thailand — and have never gone back. While some were seeking better economic opportunities, many were fleeing any number of human-rights abuses in their homeland, as well as the fighting that has become endemic there.

“In Thailand, we Shans are like a can of worms,” said one undocumented woman. “Open the can and we can spread everywhere without too much trouble.”

She had a point. There is an ethnic affinity between Thais and Myanmar’s Shans, who are called Thai Yai in the Thai language. However, the huge, continuing influx is putting a strain on that traditional ability to blend in. Thailand wants most of the new arrivals to go back home by August. And the most recent border crisis has only made the overall situation worse.

In early February, the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw, seized a Thai military border post at Ban Pang Noon, some 50 km west of Mae Sai. Several Thais were taken prisoner. In strictly military terms it made sense. The Tatmadaw wanted to surround and capture nearby Doi Kaw Wan, a stronghold of its fierce enemy, the Shan State Army.

However, Association of Southeast Asian Nations members are not supposed to be in the business of seizing each other’s territories. An armed force, identified as Thai by local media, quickly evicted the intruders, much to the satisfaction of an enraged Thai public.

Tension mounted when the Tatmadaw shelled Mae Sai on Feb. 11, killing three Thais and injuring others. Thai light tanks were positioned near the bridge, now gated shut, with their turrets pointed north. The border was closed, but accusations flew across. Thai Third Army commander, Gen. Wattanachai Chaimuanwong, was quoted as suggesting that his Myanmar military counterparts “deserve the firing squad” for their actions. Friendship had its limits.

All this occurred during a changeover in the Thai government. Interestingly, the incoming leaders, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and especially his choice for defense minister, retired general and ex-Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, were seen, with good reason, as being more amenable than their predecessors to working with Myanmar’s military rulers.

Some observers thought Myanmar was simply pushing the envelope, testing the new government’s mettle. Others noted that Thai border policy is not so unified, with regional army commands, intelligence bodies, local politicians and business interests all possessing some degree of autonomy. Perhaps the Tatmadaw was trying to get Bangkok to curb that autonomy to Myanmar’s benefit. There are, for instance, disputes over borders and over Yangon’s claims that the Thais support the Myanmar junta’s armed enemies, something that Thailand denies.

Whatever the reason, the strife that spilled across the border and attracted international attention in February was nothing new. Myanmar’s political, economic and social problems are legion, and in Shan State, the largest geographical subdivision, they are and have been truly dazzling in their complexity.

Within the state, Shans make up just over half the population. Myanmars, Chinese, Wa, Kachin, Palaung, Lahu, Akha, Pa-O and other groups also live there. A kaleidoscope of armed militias, their political wings and other political and social organizations jostle for space and allegiance. Motives run the full gamut from idealistic ethnic activism to naked opportunism. And a booming narcotics trade with substantial cross-border tentacles fuels its own wars in the region and defies attempts at description. For baffled outside observers, much depends on the frame of reference chosen.

The central question is, and has long been, the power relationship prevailing between central Myanmar governments and outlying ethnic areas. As for the Shan region, it was once more united, but by the 16th century it had split into several dozen statelets. These were ruled by “saophas,” hereditary princes who, while often bickering among themselves, generally offered no more than nominal allegiance to Myanmar’s kings.

Britain’s colonial overlords had responsibility for both the Shan principalities and Myanmar-majority areas but maintained an administrative distinction. The saophas and their territories were included in the “Frontier Areas” while central Myanmar was managed as “Ministerial Burma.”

The end of British rule and the coming of independence brought matters to a head. In negotiations conducted in February 1947 at Panglong in Shan State, representatives from the Frontier Areas — including Shans, Chins and Kachins (but not Karens) — reached an agreement with Aung San, the Myanmar independence leader. In return for a unified state, ethnic minority areas covered by the agreement would continue to enjoy internal autonomy. That same year, the new constitution for the Union of Burma stipulated that two states, Shan and Karenni, had the right of secession after 10 years.

But instead of achieving concord, independent Myanmar descended into civil war. What’s more, an invasion of Shan State by Chinese Kuomintang forces retreating from Mao Zedong’s armies added more fuel to the fire. The KMT needed funds and supplies. Much came clandestinely from America and Taiwan, more from the revived and expanding opium trade.

To counter the KMT and other opponents in Shan State, Yangon boosted its military presence there and whittled away at local autonomy. It also refused to countenance any plebiscite on secession, despite the constitution. In 1962, Sao Shwe Thaike, an ethnic Shan and former saopha who had been Burma’s first president, tried to initiate discussions about a more equitable federal union. In response, the Myanmar military seized power and scrapped the constitution. Sao Shwe Thaike died in prison under circumstances not yet fully explained. Rising Shan discontent found a voice in an emerging nationalism that, despite decades of factionalism and other problems, survives today.

Aside from the Tatmadaw, there are three influential political groups and three Shan armies in the state. Half are “above ground” in the sense that they operate with Yangon’s acquiescence. One, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, is composed of MPs elected in the 1990 elections that were won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. The SNLD won the most seats in Shan State and is in the unique position of being able to talk to different sides in Myanmar’s political impasse. With Yangon watching, though, it has had to be more circumspect in recent years.

Not legal in Myanmar, the Shan Democratic Union is a political organization formed in 1996 by emigre Shans. It includes highly respected figures from the nationalist struggles of the ’60s and ’70s. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, a son of Sao Shwe Thaike, is an important adviser. The SDU’s position is that Shan State already has theoretical independence and that any acceptable future union depends upon a referendum and on reviving “the spirit of Panglong.”

Two of the three armed Shan groups are also in the “legal fold,” to use a term favored by Yangon. These are the northern and central wings of the Shan State Army, which are effectively separate groups with different histories, existing under the same umbrella. The southern wing requested a similar ceasefire with Yangon but was ignored.

The Shan State Army (South) has a political component called the Restoration Council for Shan State. Although a Shan group, it hopes other minorities in the state will join it on a basis of equality. At an interview, Aung Mart, the council’s vice chairman, said that their goal was “to establish Shan State as an independent nation and not as part of a federal union.” Stated objectives include “prosperity, peace, establishing a democratic system and combating drugs.”

The drug question is a pressing one. While opium is still grown in the Shan hills, transported to border refineries and processed into heroin, methamphetamine production has skyrocketed by comparison. Known in the area as “yaa baa” (madness drug), this variant of speed is both cheap to buy and simple to make. Easily transportable, it is causing a profound social crisis in Thailand. Senior Thai officials have repeatedly threatened drastic action against drug traffickers.

Myanmar’s state-controlled media like to pin the label of “drug dealers” on the SSA (South), citing its officers’ previous allegiance to opium warlord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army. How much merit there is to the allegation, like so much about the drug trade, is not clear. Yet, it must be added, persistent questions have been raised about Tatmadaw officers’ involvement in, and certain benefit from, that trade. The SSA (South) has attacked and destroyed several narcotics refineries in the region and insists it is committed to eradicating the scourge. This has earned it the quiet approval of some Thai military commanders. Speaking at Doi Kaw Wan, Colonel Yawd Serk, RCSS chairman and SSA (South) leader, asserted: “We are not being used by the Thais to do this. It is what we should do and is our group’s antidrug policy. Drugs are not just Thailand’s problem or one for the Thai Yai [Shan] but a global one.”

With the KMT armies long gone and Khun Sa in supposed retirement in Yangon, the largest, though hardly the only, narcotics power in Shan State is now the United Wa State Army. Originally, ethnic Wa were used as foot soldiers by Myanmar’s communists. When that party imploded in 1989 mutinies, the USWA came into being and quickly agreed to a ceasefire arrangement and de facto alliance with the Tatmadaw. The Wa army is large and powerful, with over 20,000 well-equipped soldiers. Described by the U.S. State Department as “the world’s biggest armed narcotics trafficking organization,” it does not lack for funding.

The Tatmadaw’s consistent point of view is that strong central government and state unity are the prime objectives. Independence — or even significant autonomy — for ethnic minority states is anathema. The means justify the ends even if they include savagery and concordats with narco-militias.

In Shan State, human rights are very often replaced by human wrongs. Between 1996 and 1998, some 1,500 villages were uprooted and over 300,000 villagers in central Shan State were forcibly relocated by the Tatmadaw to what might be termed “strategic hamlets.” Empty areas were declared “free-fire zones.” That meant if you stayed, you died. The ostensible purpose was to deprive the Shan State Army of supporters, recruits, supplies and a staging area, but the net effect was immense privation and brutalization. Myanmar soldiers wreaked havoc with numerous extrajudicial killings, rapes and systematic extortion. Concentrated populations also provided a very convenient source of forced labor. Thousands fled to Thailand.

After their ceasefire deal with the USWA, the Tatmadaw encouraged the Wa Army to attack Khun Sa’s forces in southern Shan State with the inducement of “you fight for the land, and you’ll get it.” After Khun Sa’s surrender, the Wa asked for and received two township sections, Mong Hsat and Mong Ton, north of the Thai border. Since October 1999, over 150,000 Wa have moved south from their homeland in the northern Wa Hills. A similar number are expected in further planned migration phases. At Mong Hsat, according to the Shan Herald Agency for News, a border news agency, “some of the migrants moved to open land, while others, maybe military people, took over people’s houses. Some people were paid, but others were chased out at gunpoint.”

Refugees continue to cross the border. Since March 27, over 600 Shan and Akha villagers have arrived in Thailand from just east of Mong Hsat. “We hope we are not driven back in a hurry, because we won’t be able to go back to our old homes and farms,” one refugee said. “They have been taken over by the Wa.”

Decades of discord in Shan State have not produced any enduring solutions. Endless cycles of violence, factionalism and repression have seen to that.