NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — On February 12 1947, in the twilight of British Burma, an agreement was signed between Burma and three other states, which then formed part of a colony. In its preamble, the treaty proclaims that in order to achieve freedom from Britain, it was necessary for Burma’s different ethnicities to cooperate. In addition to Burma proper, the other three signatory states—referred to in the Panglong Agreement as “Frontier Areas”—were the Shan, the Kachin and the Chin states. This agreement, named after the locale in which it was signed, guaranteed all inhabitants of the signatory states full rights and entitlements found in a democratic polity along with the states’ internal administrative and financial autonomy. Essentially, the agreement envisioned the formation of a federal system with a 10-year trial period. The right to autonomy was also ensconced within the first constitution of the newly independent Burma.
However, only months after the signing, Burma’s representative at the conference in Panglong—General Aung San (the father of the Nobel Laureate Aung San Su Kyi)—was assassinated. The succeeding civilian government’s attempt to Burmanize and centralize the country was met with fury. Upon realizing that the terms enshrined within the Agreement and the constitution were being neglected and the right to secede had been denied, ethnic minorities took up arms and Burma descended into six decades of civil war and guerrilla conflicts, the longest-running civil war in the world. The incapability of the civilian government at that time led to a coup d’état which led the country to being ruled by a military junta.
In Shan State, in what is now western Myanmar close to the once infamous Golden Triangle, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), has—over the course of time—amassed the largest rebel army in the country. Presently, the SSA-S numbers at around 6,000-man strong. The predecessor of SSA-S raised their fund to recruit men and to purchase arms via opium trade. Officially, nowadays, the SSA-S professes that it no longer sells opium. Nevertheless, their legacy lingers on.
Despite the SSA-S’s purporting to have stopped engaging in such trades, opium production has not been completely swept out of Shan State. With 57,800 hectares of poppy growing land producing up to 870 tons annually, Myanmar is second only to Afghanistan. So far, this has already necessitated the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to spend $7 million USD to substitute poppy with other crops.
However, there are criticisms that $7 million USD is hardly enough to affect any impactful change, considering the scale of the industry and that 200,000 households are dependent on it. In 2012, 49 out of 55 townships where opium is grown are in Shan State—amounting to 90 percent of Myanmar’s national production. Thus, although this initiative serves the goal of curbing opium production—and a significant amount of land once dedicated to the production of opium has indeed been destroyed—this endeavor may also inflict disastrous consequences upon these 200,000 households, most of them very poor and in debt. Although poppy cultivation may have once upon a time been used to engine the militia insurrection, nowadays many simply grow poppy to subsist. For this reason, it is also imperative to find sustainable alternatives to poppy prior to its eradication to minimize the risk of food insecurity and financial precariousness.
Furthermore, clashes between the government’s army and the SSA-S persist, although more spasmodically. Since its inception in 1996 until 2014, when the Burmese government concluded a ceasefire agreement with the ethnic armies, the situation between the government and the SSA-S remains bellicose. It is also worth noting that there was already one state-level ceasefire agreement signed in 2012 and even one in 1989. Thus, with both the ban on poppy cultivation and the pervasive ambience of violence, the average income in Shan State is barely $76 USD annually; making Shan one of the three poorest states in Myanmar. In addition, one in five children in Shan State also die before their fifth birthday. Due to the lack of easy access to hospitals, maternal death is also common in areas away from the urban centers. Poverty and insecurity have, for decades, forced many Shan to flee into neighboring Thailand wherein they lack official refugee status and are unprotected by the law.
The ongoing conflict in Shan State demonstrates the dire situation in which a marginalized ethnic minority was forced to resort to illicit trade to achieve their political ends. However, having brought themselves into such circumstance, many people find themselves unable to simply abandon this means of earning their living.
Sources: Burmese Classic, Time, The Diplomat, Health Poverty Action, Insight on Conflict, Democratic Voice of Burma 1, Democratic Voice of Burma 2, Security Risks, Eleven Myanmar, Sea Globe, Panglong Agreement, UNODC