Although it is grown by indigenous people-hill tribes such as the Wa, Lahu, Akha, Lisu, and Palaung-in Burma the opium poppy is not an indigenous crop. It was introduced to Southeast Asia by Portuguese and Dutch traders in the sixteenth century and was commercialized in the nineteenth century during the British Empire's economic development of Burma. The term "foreign mud" was used by the Chinese to disparage the opium that Britain forced on China, and it was for the Chinese market that Burma's hill tribes began to grow opium.
Opium poppies thrive in the northern mountains of Burma, where the steep, rocky land is unsuitable for rice paddies. The hill-tribe people cultivated opium poppies, and Shans (a valley-dwelling ethnic group related to the Thai) and Chinese traders acted as intermediaries for the China trade. Even in those days, the tribespeople usually got a raw deal for their raw opium. A British officer made these observations of the Wa tribe in the 1890s:
The chief crop of the Wa is the poppy, and it demands constant attention. The hill-tops, or rather the sheltered slopes, are white with the blossom in February and March. One can march for several days through nothing but opium fields. These have not only to be thoroughly cleared, but weeded as well, and when the harvest time comes round the capsules have to be scored with the three-bladed knife at sunset, and at daybreak next morning the sap has to be collected. The Wa are, in fact, a conspicuously industrious people. They ought to be very well off and even wealthy. The amount of opium they produce ought to bring in a lot of money, but it is not impossible that the Panthays [Chinese Muslims] who come for it, and the Shans, do not pay lavishly. In this salt figures conspicuously, for the Wa find salt more to their taste than opium. It is possible opium is handed over weight for weight for rock salt. Shans are confirmed chatterers, and the Chinese Mahomedans who come so far with such heavy weights, are certainly overbearing and have some trust in the eighteen extra inches of height that they can claim, and also in their much better supply of guns.
Still, during the colonial period there was relative peace in the frontier areas, and the tribespeople were able to live in established villages and engage in commerce in a variety of commodities besides opium. The silver rupees one still sees ornamenting tribal women date from this period of free trade. World War II disrupted life in the northern mountains completely. While the majority Burmese (Burman) ethnic group of the central plains supported the Japanese invasion, many frontier tribespeople provided vital support to Allied forces. The opium trade continued under Japanese occupation, and in the remote north the substance became a form of currency. British and US troops routinely used it to pay tribal guides and informants.
The frontier areas have not known peace since World War II. That war fanned a blaze of ethnic animosity between the Burmese, who gained an upper hand in post-independence Burma, and minority groups. In Shan State, where most opium is grown, instability increased in 1949 with the arrival of Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) Army remnants fleeing the Communist takeover of China. KMT forces, with Thai and US assistance, settled in Shan State and became involved in the lucrative opium trade, eventually setting up their own operations for refining the raw opium into heroin and using connections with international Chinese crime syndicates to establish worldwide marketing of the Golden Triangle's most famous product.
During the 1960s, the Burmese government-a military dictatorship ruled by General Ne Win - franchised militias in Shan State called the Ka Kwe Ye. These militias gave chosen warlords, mainly Chinese, license to traffic in narcotics so long as they also preyed on ethnic minority rebels. Such notorious figures as Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa benefited from this arrangement to build small drug kingdoms with private armies and refining operations. Meanwhile, the Burmese Communist Party recruited a large army of hilltribe soldiers in the Wa's prime opium-growing area and drifted deeper and deeper into the drug trade, subverting ideology to the extent of commercial arrangements with the KMT warlords.
When the Ka Kwe Ye became something of a battery of loose cannons, the Burmese government officially curtailed the scheme. The liaisons continue to this day, however. Additionally, several of the ethnic minority rebel forces became involved to some extent in the opium trade. Although amateurish, the effect was inevitably corrupting. The interests of the tribal and Shan people-the goals of liberty and autonomy-would become hopelessly lost in a miasma of opium trade alliances and refinery base compromises.
The tribal people, caught in the midst of constant warfare, suffered. The Burmese Army increased its presence in Shan State through its counterinsurgency and anti-KMT campaigns, terrorizing and abusing the indigenous people. The hill tribes lost their moorings as they fled farther and farther into the border mountains. Hundreds of thousands sought dubious sanctuary in Thailand, China, and even Laos.
The infrastructure for commerce in traditional food crops collapsed. Roads became impassable or were occupied by threatening, extorting armed forces, and markets were reduced and restricted by Ne Win's "Burmese Way to Socialism." The narcotic resin of the opium poppies became the only viable trade crop in much of Shan State; traders would travel in armed convoys to purchase it at the source. Women and children in hill tribes such as the Wa and Lahu worked long hours cultivating opium, and the men became the ill-paid foot soldiers of insurgent groups or drug caravan escorts.
The opium growers profited little. Addiction increased, sapping village life, and traders paid out a pittance in shoddy trade goods-blankets and sandals, simple tools, and patent medicines-for the product of a year's arduous labor. The tribal areas, often characterized as "rebel held," are in reality victim zones. Opium convoys come and go sporadically in Shan State, offering minimal protection against Burmese Army abuse. The Burmese military often demands rice quotas and taxes from the tribal people; if they do not have enough, the tribes trade opium to buy rice for the quota or simply pay off Burmese Army officers with opium.
A controversial antinarcotics program, the spraying of US-supplied 2, 4-D herbicide (a 50 percent ingredient of Agent Orange), was directed by the Burmese Army at hilltribe areas during 1985-1988. The program was used in conjunction with strategic hamlet operations and other counterinsurgency initiatives to create a depopulated buffer zone between Burmese Army garrison towns and possible insurgent areas of Shan State by driving out the "security risk" hilltribe people. The traditional way to subdue a hilltribe village was to plunder and burn it. US aid gave the Burmese Army an impressive variation on this: the ability to use aerial saturation spraying of a powerful herbicide to destroy an entire year's trade crop as well as vegetable crops, forest, livestock, and the occasional opium-harvesting child.
The areas sprayed were limited and expandable, usually belonging to the poorest tribes unable to pay off the Burmese Army and unprotected by armed insurgents. The opium trade flourished, reaching more than 1,000 tons per year in the late 1980s. There was more than enough being grown to keep the warlords' refineries operating at capacity, and it was a buyer's market. Shan and Chinese villagers increasingly have moved into the mountains to avoid the Burmese Army and, like the hill tribes, have taken up opium cultivation.
The hilltribe people do not appear to have any deep cultural regard for opium growing. They have festivals for the harvest of mountain rice, but not for the poppy. Opium is used as medicine-but only because of the lack of less hazardous cures such as aspirin and antibiotics. They say they grow opium poppies only because their grandfathers did and that they don't know any other way to trade for the things they need to survive. A 63-year-old Akha farmer said, after his village fields had been sprayed with 2, 4-D: "Sure, we will plant everything all over again. What are you going to eat if you don't do any planting? What the government did is not good. Whatever we do, they don't see us as human beings. We are looked down on like dogs and pigs. The government is useless. There is trouble all over the country. I'm very sad and downhearted. Come rain or sun, we must stay here. We must bear it all".
The 2, 4-D program ceased when the United States suspended all aid to Burma in protest of the Burmese Army's brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in August-September 1988. A General Accounting Office investigation initiated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that the program was inefficiently implemented, that safety procedures were not followed, and that "eradication and enforcement efforts are unlikely to significantly reduce Burma's opium production unless they are combined with economic development in the growing regions and the political settlement of Burma's ethnic insurgencies". Recently, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, speaking in Congress, stated, "It has come to my attention that some Members of Congress support renewed assistance to the Burmese regime for drug defoliation and eradication. Talk about having the fox guard the chicken coop. The Burmese generals profit from the Golden Triangle drug trade. When we supply them with Agent Orange-type compounds, they use these only to cement their dominion over the drug trade-and against the ethnic peoples of Burma".
During 1989, the breakup of the Burmese Communist Party into warlord-led subgroups has led to an intensive effort by the Burmese government to revive the Ka Kwe Ye in the northern Shan State. The Burmese Army and the warlords continue to exploit and victimize tribal opium growers. The ever-expanding opium fields are a handy source of income for anyone with weapons. The tribal people themselves want more than this, They want to live in their own established villages without harassment, engage in free trade in goods and crops other than opium, practice their religions, educate their children in their own languages, enjoy good health. They ask for peace. Instead, they have opium.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.