Saturday, 17 April 2021

Martin Smith

“The convenient thesis that Burma is a happy little country, geographically self-contained and psychologically uninterested in its neighbours, does not correspond with the facts of history.'' 1

In the three decades since Dorothy Woodman wrote these words, Burma's international isolation has only increased. Published in 1962, in the shadow of General Ne Win's second military takeover. Woodman's study, “The Making of Burma”,is the only detailed investigation into how the present shape of Burma came to be drawn. But while nobody can seriously expect any substantial redefinition of Burma's external borders today A, it is essential in the present, political crisis to put the clock back and re-address some of the fundamental points that Woodman raised if a lasting peace is ever to be found for-this deeply troubled land.

This re-examination is necessary not only for Burma's neighbours, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and different parties and agencies at the present political
centre in Rangoon. But most essential is the need to reassess the pivotal importance of Burma's diverse ethnic minority peoples who, I want to suggest, are not a peripheral problem but have
become the central problem facing the country today. “Today the term ethnic minority no longer conveys a profound meaning,” a SLORC spokesman recently said.2 In fact, as the constant political violence of the last 40 years so tragically demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

Great hopes have also been raised by the 1990 election victory of the National League for Democracy and its charismatic leader. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has described the present
political upheavals as Burma's “second struggle for independence”.3 But for many citizens post-colonial Burma has yet to find a cohesive national identity which will both bring internal peace and allow the country to take its proper place, with balanced and defined relationships, in the international community of nations.


Though a number of historians and political scientists - notably Michael Aung-Thwin, Robert Taylor and Daw Ni Ni Myint, the wife of Gen. Ne Win - have tried to prove the prior existence of a national Burmese State (dominated by the Burman majority) in the central Irrawaddy plains, historically and ethnically Burma's vast frontiers have always been ill-defined. Squeezed between the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, ethnic minority peoples such as the Zos or Chins (Mizos/Zomis),Nagas,Kachins, Shans(Tais),Lahus and Karens,
live in substantial numbers on both sides of the current borders and in many areas constitute the majority. Even today ethnic Burman influence is minimal in most border regions. Indeed, in
the case of the Shan and Kachin States, the first Burman-majority towns lie several hundred miles away from the present international boundaries.

Across the centuries territory has frequently been annexed or exchanged by different rulers, invaders and monarchs. The Tavoy-Mergui districts of the Tenasserim Division, for example,
were once again under Siamese control as recently as 1792 A.D., while the Shan substates of Kengtung and Mon Pan were handed over by Imperial Japan to the Siam government during the Second World War - and to little apparent protest. Even today the Thai Baht predominates over the Burmese Kyat in many areas Siam formerly controlled, suggesting for many local inhabitants the natural trade routes still lie in other directions.4

The Japanese also considered transferring vast areas of Upper Burma to the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek – a 77,000 sq. mile territorial claim briefly followed by the Communist government in China in the 1950s and still (according to official maps at least) apparently pursued by the Kuomintang government in Taiwan. It is perhaps no coincidence that until the 1989 mutinies the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which Communist China had backed for many years, was most deeply entrenched in those very trans-Salween / trans-Irrawaddy areas that China had historically claimed.5

Similar confusion and transfers of territory or authority have occurred along the India border. For example, Manipur and Assam, which were seized by the British in the mid-1820s at the
same time as Arakan, are presently included within the borders of India, despite strong independence or secessionist movements in both federal states.

Ethnic nationalist leaders thus contend that these frequent shifts in political alignments and allegiance do little to alter the basic justice of the minority cause. 'There is undoubtedly no
community of language, culture or interests between the Shans and the Burmans save religion, nor is there any sentiment of unity which is the index of a common national mind,' claimed the Shan State Independence Army in 1959 at the beginning of the Shan insurrection.6

Nonetheless, though there has continued to be a relatively free movement of migrants and traders across these remote frontiers, the final delimitation of Burma's borders by the British in the late 19th Century (approximating the territorial claims of the Konbaung dynasty) was to have serious implications for the development of virtually all the region's minority peoples who now found themselves cut off on either side. With the twin motives of just security and profit, the mountain water-sheds and great rivers which the British preferred for their borders were to divide many communities and peoples - and often quite arbitrarily. The high mountain passes and rivers, such as the Salween, Mekong and Moei, are rather the natural thoroughfares of the region. Neighbouring Tai (Shan), Lahu and Akha communities, for example, are presently divided between Burma, China, Laos and Thailand and four very different political and economic systems. The Zos (Chins), too, were completely dissected between Burma and India by what the Zo historian Vumson describes as an "imaginary line” drawn by British administrators across the hills from the source of the Namsailung river.7

The British divisions were then further compounded by a second internal, but artificial, separation of several minorities within colonial Burma between “Ministerial Burma", where the monarchy was abolished and a form of Western-style democracy gradually introduced, and the ethnic minority “Frontier Areas” which, in the main, were left under their traditional chieftains, headmen and rulers.8

These, however, were not the only distortions to regional relationships and geography that have had long-running consequences still felt today. For example, once it became clear that no easy trade road would be found into China (which was the original target of British interest), the main focus of British concern always remained with colonial India. Indeed, until 1937 Burma was effectively administered as a province of the British Indian Empire.

One side-result was a massive immigration of labour from India (by 1931 the Indian population had already passed the one million mark, out of a total population of 14,650,000) and this was a major factor behind the fast-spreading Burmese national liberation movement of the 1920s and 30s. Violent anti-Indian riots, in which hundreds died, broke out several times in the 1930s. Eventually in the Second World War an estimated 500,000 Indians were chased out of the country (unknown numbers were killed) by Aung San and the young nationalists of the Burma
Independence Army.9 Subsequently, another 300,000 Indians left Burma following Ne Win's mass nationalisation programmes of the 1960s, and until today little attempt is made to disguise a
strongly anti-Indian feeling in the State-controlled media (see p.17).

Similar tension was felt over the large number of migrants from China, and this was a contributory factor behind the outbreak of anti-Chinese riots in Burma in 1967 and the eventual break-off in all relations between Beijing and Rangoon. This was the cue for China's full military backing for the CPB and a dramatic escalation in fighting in northeast Burma.

Nonetheless, despite these upheavals, from the minority perspective British rule did bring about some integration of the local economy - though this was often at the expense of trading relationships with traditional partners. The northern Shan states, for example, which had previously traded largely with China, now began to move more produce to the west into
Ministerial Burma.

But while the British quickly pushed ahead with a massive expansion of rice production and light industry on the plains of Ministerial Burma, most of the era of British rule in the Frontier Areas was characterised by a deep neglect. With the timber industry paying many of the basic costs for the local administration, few funds were ever invested in infrastructural or economic development and only a handful of new industries were introduced. These included the wolfram mines at Mawchi in the Karenni state (at one stage the world's largest), the lead /silver mines at Bawdin and Namtu in the Shan state, and the sugar mill at Sahmaw in the Kachin hills.10

Somewhat remarkably, despite the proud rhetoric of successive governments in Rangoon, it is pattern of development little changed in the 44 years since independence. Indeed in many minority areas the quality of life has seriously regressed and several historic trade routes, including the Ledo Road, have returned to the jungle. The long-running ethnic and communist
insurgencies, which broke out at independence in 1948, are no doubt a major cause, but many ethnic minority leaders instead put the blame on ethnic Burman leaders in Rangoon who, they claim, have systematically torn up the guarantees in the 1947Constitution and run roughshod over minority aspirations.

Many of these accusations first surfaced in the parliamentary era of 1948-62 when, amidst the chaos of the insurrections, ethnic minority leaders were successively squeezed out of any key role in national political life. But it is, above all. Gen. Ne Win and his creation, the modern Burmese Army or Tatmadaw, whom most hold responsible after their disastrous 26- year experiment with the “Burmese Way To Socialism”. Indeed there are many today who deny the “Burmese Way To Socialism” was any political philosophy at all, but instead claim Ne Win had simply reverted to the tactics of military conquest, following in the footsteps of Alaunghpaya, Anawrahta and other powerful Burman rulers of the past, to reimpose a new central authority by
coercion in the hills. The one-party system of the Burma Socialist Programme Party was, they claim, merely a cover for military rule. According to the historian and former Shan insurgent leader, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, whose father, Sao Shwe Thaike was Burma's first President at independence:

“Ancient Burma was not a modern national state. It was a premodern "mini-empire", a political system based on personalised tributary relations in which war between various rulers was a perpetual feature...Bo Shumaung (Ne Win) chose to rebuild a Burman mini-empire, and to achieve this, he had first to enslave and impoverish the Burman. Only by doing so, was he able to, from 1962 onward, wage an imperial war against the non-Burman.” 11

Seen from this perspective, it is easy to understand the frustration of many non-Burmans with the failure to re-establish normal relations with their neighbours after the British departure. How could any minority party set up a proper political and economic exchange with cross-border authorities or partners when the political centre in Rangoon, which still demands the right to control policy, has been subject to such swings in character and mood? No sustained and coherent foreign or economic policy has ever been allowed to develop. Indeed in 1979 Burma became so non aligned that Gen. Ne Win even left the non-aligned movement.

Thus rather than formulating an equitable basis for the maintenance of Burman / ethnic minority relations, successive governments in Rangoon, including the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League of the 1950s, have simply followed the easy “divide-and-rule” methods of the British in keeping control. This necessarily means determining policy on an ad hoc basis as the circumstances dictate and only talking to people whom you know will agree with you. Many of the worst mistakes of the British have, as a result, been repeated.12


Belying Ne win's attempts to impose a countrywide, one-party system, Burma remains a country of extraordinary ethnic diversity. Over one hundred different languages and ethnic sub-groups, ranging from the Salum sea-gypseys of sub-tropical Tenasserim to the 'giraffe-necked' Kayans (Padaungs) of the Shan/Kayah State borders, are still recognisable today. This, however, has rarely been recognised by international analysts who have preferred to enter Burma through the narrow corridors from Rangoon and accept Ne Win's notion of a unique and unifying 'Burmese' culture, shared by all the indigenous peoples.

The examples of China, where autonomous regions have been created, and India, where federal states have been formed, present interesting models of alternative development for minority peoples, such as the Was, Tais and Nagas, along Burma's eastern and northern frontiers. But in general in Burma, in common with other post-colonial countries in the region (Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia etc.), there has been a tendency by diplomatic observers and analysts since independence to relegate ethnic minority questions to a peripheral or secondary, security issue.

Given the scale of the regional insurgencies over the past 40 years, this is partly understandable. But in Burma's case, at least, this is wrong - and on two major counts. Firstly, as the heavy fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Union (KNU) which broke out in the Irrawaddy Delta in October has graphically reminded, whatever the present political map under
the 1974 Constitution says, few areas of Burma can be described as ethnically exclusive and many parts of the country remain in considerable, social flux. Regional loyalties can often supercede ethnic loyalties and a complex process of change and assimilation is constantly taking place.13 Indeed the main body of ethnic Burman migration into Lower Burma only occurred in the second half of the 19th Century after clearance of the 'frontier region' of the Delta for rice cultivation was begun by the British.

In addition, though often overlooked, there are over 1.5 million ethnic Chinese and Indians intermingled into many communities across the country where they have long played a vital role in business life - a role they have been quick to resume following the economic reforms introduced by the SLORC. Until the upheavals of the Second World War, Rangoon itself was a highly cosmopolitan city with ethnic Burmans a minority amongstthe various Indian, Chinese, Karen and other communities.

Secondly, since much of Burma has officially remained off-limits to outside visitors, there has been the temptation to scale down the size of the ethnic minority problem from the Rangoon perspective and confine it as a remote issue, lost somewhere in the mountains on Burma's most distant borders- Open discussions of the very real problems of political representation have thus been few and far between and when, in 1962, the legally elected representatives of the Shans. Kachins and Karennis tried, with other ethnic minorities, to proceed with the 'Federal Seminar' to give these issues a proper hearing, Ne Win's response was to seize power in a military coup.14

This, however, does not mean that life has come to an end in these regions - in fact quite the reverse. Occupying half the land area and making up at least a third of Burma's 42 million population, local ethnic, communist and other insurgent forces have continued since independence to take control of and run much of the local economy and administration. Several, such as the KNU and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), maintain substantial
infrastructures and governmental organisations of their own.

This has not been lost on Burma's neighbours which, recognising their authority and strength, have always received different insurgent delegations from across the border for economic, political and military talks. Concerns for the local economy have always been a prime factor. By the early 1980s the 'illegal' trade by some of these groups with their neighbours - whether through jade, timber, opium, luxury or other black market goods - was massive, more than demonstrating the ability of minority groups to develop and successfully manage their own economies, despite the exigencies of the Burmese Way to Socialism.

Into the early 1990s insurgent 'liberated zones' along the border have often been more prosperous than Tatmadaw-control led territory. To quote just one example, in the peak year of 1983 the KNU Finance Minister, Pu Ler Wah, estimated income at 500 million Kyats (£50 million at the official exchange rate), an astonishing figure in an otherwise impoverished backwater.15 Local army officers, villagers and traders in Thailand have thus frequently preferred to do business with insurgent forces than the Rangoon government; as a result, vital arms' purchases for many years have been extremely easy to arrange.

The picture has been similar on the China and parts of the Bangladesh borders. The fact remains that for much of the last 40 years the land borders of Burma's seven ethnic minority states -the Chin, Kachin, Karen. Kayah (Karenni), Mon, Shan and Rakhine - as well as many border crossings on the Tenasserim and Sagaing Divisions have been under the control of forces in armed opposition to the central government. Government-controlled border towns, such as Myawaddy in the Karen State and Tachiiek in the Shan State, have been remarkably few. With the Burmese Army largely concentrating on holding territory in a defensive ring around the central plains, it has therefore been the predominantly ethnic Burman Tatmadaw columns which have more often been seen as the invader in the hills.

The contrast with the days of the British, when on the eve of the Second World War just 40 members of the colonial government were administering the entire Frontier Areas, is staggering. The British, ofcourse, skillfully employed the tactics of "divide and rule' to rely for the most part on the traditional chieftains and rulers.

Quite how the new minority strategy currently being developed by the SLORC will fare is, for the moment, unclear. Though the SLORC has appeared to recognise the legitimacy of the several insurgent, ethnic Wa, Shan, Palaung, Kachin and Kokangese groups along the China border with which it has declared ceasefires since 1989, it has so far baulked at calling these 'political' agreements. The SLORC has still not announced, despite the result of the 1990 election in which 19 ethnic minority parties won seats, who will be responsible for drawing up Burma's new constitution. Important insurgent forces such as the KNU and KIO still remain in armed opposition.

There are therefore many aspects to the ceasefire treaties which are very reminiscent of the discredited Ka Kwe Ye (KKY) home-guard programmes of the 1960s and 70s. In allowing insurgent forces to keep their arms, these agreements gave free licence to opium-producing militia and syndicates to expand their trade. Indeed several of the key figures in the current round of deals, including Hso Ten, Lo Hsing-han and his brother, Lo Hsing-min, are all former KKY commanders.16 In all these methods, there are thus disturbing precedents for the piecemeal approach to minority affairs adopted by earlier governments in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.Hopefully this time the warnings should be clear.


Nonetheless, if the situation remains confused along the borders, the early indications are that all of Burma's neighbours welcome the greater interest shown by the SLORC in regional and border development schemes. Self-interest is undoubtedly a major factor: China and Thailand, in particular, have been quick to take advantage of some extremely attractive conditions for business, including low prices for natural resources such as timber, fisheries and precious stones.

Only along Burma's northern border with India (predominantly amongst the Nagas) do armed opposition movements appear to be currently working in tandem. There is little prospect, however, of joint border operations. Of Burma's immediate neighbours only All India Radio appears to have come out in outright opposition to the SLORC.

But it is worth emphasising here that, contrary to popular belief, several of Burma's other neighbours have in the past become heavily involved in supporting-Insurgent movements inside Burma. Indeed the full restoration of relations between Rangoon and Beijing in 1989 was only-possible after the-break-up (due to ethnic mutinies) of the CPB's 15,000-strong People's Army, which China itself was wholly responsible for building up and arming (see p.6). The speed and vigour with which the local Chinese authorities at that time leapt to this task, supplying arms, training, officers, engineers and even roads, two hydro-electricity plants and a radio station across the border, have left an indelible reminder of China's willingness to meddle in Burma's internal affairs, whatever may be publicly said in Beijing. This ambiguity continues today. Three of the breakaway CPB leaders who are currently negotiating with the SLORC – Lin Ming Xiang (U Sai Lin), Li Ziru (U Liziyu) and Zhang Zhi Ming (U Kyi Myint) - are in fact former Red Guard volunteers from China.

Similarly, in the 1950s Thailand developed a border policy of surrounding itself with anti-communist buffer-states. In the 1950s the main beneficiaries of this policy in Burma were the Kuomintang remnants from China who had fled into the Shan State. But in the Vietnam War era of the 1960s and 70s this policy was expanded to include the KNU. New Mon State Party, Karenni State Progressive Party, Shan State Progress Party and Khun Sa's Shan United Army who until the present day are still looked on favourably in several military circles in Bangkok. In the late 1960s the Thailand government even permitted the former prime minister U Nu, Bo Let Ya, Bo Yan Naing and other heroes of Burma's independence struggle to enter Thailand to launch, with the ClA's tacit backing, the Parliamentary Democracy Party movement to try and overthrow Ne Win by force. Even today insurgent forces remain the de facto government along much of the Burma-Thailand border.

In the fast-changing world of the 1990s many of these struggles have an increasingly outdated look, but this does not lessen their significance. In the main, however, though both Thailand and China have considerably increased official trading with the SLORC since 1988 (including a 1.2 billion dollars arms deal by Beijing), all of Burma's neighbours have reverted to the role of interested observers in watching the development of Burma's internal, political affairs. This does not mean they might not have any political role to play. In 1963 and 1980, for example, China was instrumental in arranging peace talks between the CPB and Ne Win; then in 1989 Thailand's army chief. Gen. Chaovalit, personally conveyed the offer of peace talks from the Karen leader, Bo Mya, to the SLORC chairman, Gen. Saw Maung.17


Turning to specific issues, it can be safely guessed that in the coming decade five major topics are likely to dominate all discussion of Burma's relations with its neighbours. The first, of course, is the ethnic minority question and ongoing state of armed conflict which continues to take a terrible toll of human life. In the last three years fighting has frequently spilled over Burma's borders, notably in several failed cross-border attacks on the KNU base at Kawmoorah in which the Thai border town of Wangkha, across the Moei River, was destroyed by the Tat mad aw. The Thai inhabitants demanded, but did not receive, 20 million Baht in compensation.18

The second worrying problem for Burma's neighbours is closely connected to the fighting - the growing--refugee crisis. Refugee statistics are contentious, especially as in the last three years increasing numbers of 'illegal' emigrants have joined the refugee exodus from Burma due to the deteriorating social and economic conditions in many parts of the country. Officially, diplomats have preferred to deal with this as a 'government to government' issue - i.e. between Rangoon and Bangkok or. More recently, Rangoon and Dacca - but again it is Burma's ethnic minority peoples who have been the most adversely affected. To date, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, has taken no public part in this issue other than to give UNHCR 'persons of concern' status to some 1,600 students (mostly ethnic Burmans) in Bangkok. Given Thailand's alarm, however, even this has proven poor protection, and during 1991 two UNHCR students were killed by local policemen and over 40 forcibly repatriated to Burma when the patience of the Thai authorities temporarily ran out.19

Emergency relief for ethnic minority refugees, many of whom have escaped the most appalling acts of brutality by the Tatmadaw, thus has to come from an ever-changing array of foreign non-governmental organisations who themselves face many difficulties operating as guest agencies in host countries such as Thailand and China. In the meantime, a heavy burden is placed on local cross-border communities who, despite their own poverty, have often been generous in the extreme, providing land. food and temporary shelter for the exiles. The fact that they are sometimes (though not always) from the same ethnic group - Jinghpaws, Shans, Karens etc. - does not alleviate the problem.

Presently there are some 55,000 refugees, mostly Karens, Karennis and Mons, in official camps in Thailand, over 40,000 Muslim refugees in makeshift camps along the Bangladesh border, and an undocumented number of refugees (probably 3-5,000) in India. But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. There are an estimated 50,000 Kachin refugees displaced along the Chinese border and, according to the ethnic minority National Democratic Front, over 100,000 Karen, Karenni, Kayan, Mon and Pao refugees internally displaced close to the Thai border. All of these, insurgent leaders claim, could well cross over into Thailand if the fighting escalates any further.

With international attention increasingly coming to focus on this problem, it would be quite wrong to think of the refugees as simply a recent phenomenon. For example, most of the Karen refugees in Thailand have only arrived since 1984 when the Tatmadaw made its first major breakthrough in the northern Dawna Range, overrunning the strategic KNU stronghold at Mae Tah Waw. But since the early 1950s, virtually unrecognised by the outside world, a steady stream of other ethnic minority refugees have also been fleeing across the mountains to escape the conflict in Burma. These exiles include Shans, Akhas, Lahus and several thousand Chinese KMT soldiers who had originally escaped into the Shan State from China after Mao Zedong came to power.

Many of these refugees have long since settled down, married and brought up their own families. Until the mid-1980s, while the Thai Army continued its policy of using the KMT, KNU and other minority forces as anti-communist bulwarks, their legal status went largely unnoticed. Even today, when compared to the Laotian and Cambodian borders, the Burma frontier remains relatively unpoliced. However since the hijacking by Burmese students in November 1990 of a Thai Airways flight en route from Bangkok, the Thai Ministry of Interior has begun an investigation into the real number of inhabitants from Burma who have settled in Thailand, and in the Sangkhlaburi, Kanchanaburi and Mac Sot areas is now contemplating mass repatriations during 1992. Realistically, it would appear an impossible task; one Thai Intelligence officer with three decades experience in monitoring the cross-border traffic privately estimated that if the true number of refugees from Burma was known it would reach “at least half a million”.20                                

An equally daunting problem in any mass repatriation scheme is that in the past refugees have generally been free to return to any cross-border location they choose - whether it is controlled by the Rangoon government or armed opposition forces. However, with the Tatmadaw now permanently occupying more and more territory along the Thai border as a result of a sustained military offensive since 1988, if refugees are to be forced back there are far fewer 'safe' localities to pick from. Already, to the concern of human rights' organisations such as Amnesty International, in 1991 hundreds of refugees were several times forcibly sent back to Burma against their will at the border-crossings of Ranong and Myawaddy.21

Similar confusion has existed along the Arakan border since independence, highlighted in 1978 by the mass exodus of over 200,000 Muslims (sometimes also known as Rohingyas) from the Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung regions into Bangladesh amidst widespread allegations of Army rape, murder and robbery during the Tatmadaw's heavy-handed Naqamin census operation.22 The effect of this offensive was to bring an end to a lingering Mujahid campaign for the secession of the old Mayu Frontier Division into its Islamic neighbour, and after a rare intervention by the United Nations most of the refugees were allowed to return. Subsequently, however, many Muslims have complained of continuing harrassment under Burma's strict citizenship laws B and left Burma again for exile in other countries across the Muslim world where they have been dubbed Asia's “new Palestinians”.23

The further flight of another, 40-50,000 refugees since November 1990, when the Tatmadaw began a major operation relocating dozens of Muslim villages in the northwest frontier region, shows this problem has yet to be resolved. In November 1991 the SLORC and Bangladesh Foreign Ministries agreed, in principle, the repatriation of all those who had fled, but the Muslim question is likely to remain a cause of major instability well into the next century. Though for the most part locally-contained, Buddhist-Muslim tension is undoubtedly the most volatile communal problem Burma faces today and has not been helped by a series of articles in the SLORC press, entitled 'We Fear our Race May Become Extinct', which has accused 'Kalas' (Indian foreigners) of taking 'Burmese wives', giving birth to 'impure Burmese nationals' and a faster birth-rate.24

As a result, many Muslims fear the Tatmadaw leadership has long had a secret agenda to clear north Arakan of all its Muslim inhabitants. The intensity of this campaign has also created a back-lash, causing problems for Buddhists (mostly Rakhines) who have historically always lived on the other side of the Naaf River boundary, and over the past 20 years many Buddhists have left Bangladesh and headed in the opposite direction for Arakan where they have generally been welcomed by the Buddhist majority.

The third and, in the eyes of many observers, most disturbing cause of concern for Burma's neighbours is the country's intractable narcotics crisis which recently has become closely intertwined with south and east Asia's burgeoning Aids epidemic. Burma today is the source of an estimated 90% of the raw opium cultivated in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region and is the main refining centre for illicit heroin and morphine. As Burma's poverty continues, so opium production continues to soar. By some estimates output has more than doubled since 1988 to a current peak of over 2,000 tons per annum today making Burma, along with Pakistan, the world's largest producer of illicit heroin. This is causing increasing problems for all of Burma's neighbours, especially Thailand and China, which lie on the traffickers' main routes.25

Most longtime observers are agreed that the twin problems of narcotics and insurgency are inseparable. But with the failure of international drug agencies to halt the traffic, there is a tendency to put the blame on local nationalist forces or impoverished hill-tribe farmers who see little of the money made from the trade. The real profits are made elsewhere. In the 1980s, for example, a -joi (1.6 kilos) of raw opium which sold for as little as US$20 (the farmer's price) in the Shan State, could fetch as much as $200,000 on the streets of New York after refining into pure heroin.26

The fact is that the drug trade spawns a long trail of corruption, inextricably linked in a complex web of intrigue from the hills of northeast Burma to the streets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and New York. Tragically for Burma's minorities, most of the opprobrium attached to the trade comes to settle on the most vulnerable link in the chain - the poor farmers who
plant and harvest the poppies. But no amount of co-ordinated interdiction - whether in Thailand, Yunnan, India or Hong Kong - is going to work if there is not a political settlement at the root of the problem in Burma. International intelligence and drug enforcement agencies have long known that far more money is made out of the drugs trade by Chinese syndicates and in influential circles amongst Burma's neigbours than is ever made by the minorities in the Shan and Kachin States. Political expediency however has meant that eyes have been turned elsewhere.

There are growing indications that the Aids crisis, spread rapidly and easily across international borders through prostitution and intravenous drug use, is forcing a change in this complacency. In China's Yunnan Province the authorities have recently begun the public execution of alleged drug traffickers, including several from Burma, as an apparent deterrent. But amidst the present political chaos, such draconian measures are likely to have little impact. Health-workers in Thailand believe any preventive measures now introduced may already be too little, too late for millions of citizens across the region.

After denying there was any Aids problem in Burma (cartoons in the country's only newspaper, the Working People's Daily, depicted it as a foreigner's disease), in 1990 the Burmese health authorities did begin to announce low rates of HIV infection, causing their neighbours in Thailand to complain of Burma's inadequate response. Indeed when 17 out of 19 Shan teenage prostitutes from Burma, none of whom had any knowledge of Aids, tested HIV positive last April after a raid on a brothel in Chieng Rai, the Thai Minister in the Prime Minister's Office in Bangkok, Mechai Viravaidya, alleged, 'Out neighbours are coming over the border and taking the virus back. This is not just a health issue, it's a social issue. We are fighting a lot of ignorance and vested interests.27

By some estimates Burma, one of the world's poorest countries and one with little Aids/HIV expertise, may now have as many as 80,000 people suffering from HIV, including soldiers in the Burmese Army.28 But all experts are agreed concerted international action will be the only way to cope with this threat.

The fourth inextricable problem for Burma's minorities is the growing environmental crisis which, like the narcotics/AIDS and refugee issues, cannot be looked at in isolation. As a result of the economic policies introduced by the SLORC, several of Burma's once abundant natural resources are currently under threat. For example, fish stocks have already been seriously depleted by the mass invasion of Thai trawlers into the Andaman Sea and many local fishermen (predominantly Mons, Burmans and Tavoyans) have been put out of business. Local community leaders insist that they were not consulted, nor do the licenses sold by the SLORC to foreign concessionares bring any compensation to inhabitants whose lives have been disrupted; these are lucrative business transactions made over their heads between Rangoon and Bangkok. Indeed after fighting broke out in the area, in late 1990 a number of refugees from the Kambauk area arrived at the Thai border claiming that their boats had been destroyed on the orders of senior Tatmadaw commanders to prevent them getting in the way of this new trade with their Thai partners.29

However it is, above all, the massive new timber trade by the SLORC with its neighbours that is giving the greatest cause for concern. Logging currently continues at an alarming rate in ethnic minority regions along the Chinese border with the Shan and Kachin States but remains largely unwitnessed by the outside world. So for the moment it is Burma's new timber trade with Thailand that is attracting the few world headlines.

In an increasingly interdependent world, it is foolhardy in the extreme to think that any environmental problem can be simply contained within international boundaries. The history of the timber trade between Burma and Thailand, however, tells a tragic tale. In January 1989 the Thai government was forced to declare a countrywide logging ban after a series of natural disasters in which over 350 people died. But having brought their own country to the edge of disaster by years of indiscriminate over-felling, more than 30 Thai logging companies were quick to take advantage of the bargain-basement prices for concessions offered by the SLORC to begin exporting problems of their own.

It would be hard to find any situation in the world today which parallels the cynicism with which the forests in southeast Burma are currently being felled around their indigenous inhabitants. Many of these logging operations are located in minority areas which have never been under the effective control of any central government in Rangoon - be it British, Japanese or Burman. To deal with this problem the SLORC has developed a simple two-fold strategy. The Tatmadaw clears the way, then the Thai loggers move in. 'Partners in Plunder', headlined the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 1990.30

For example, in December 1989 I was with a team from Britain's Channel Four which filmed a Tatmadaw unit looting the Karen village at Sitkaya which they had attacked, without warning, the previous day. At least seven villagers were killed, 20 captured and over 200 escaped, including several wounded women and children, by swimming across the Moei river into Thailand.
Despite the sympathy and sanctuary offered by the local Thai authorities, within a week Thai loggers had moved in to set up operation.

Given the dangers in reporting the situation (Thai journalists who have tried to report on the trade have been threatened and attacked 31) , much of the evidence of the logging trade remains necessarily anecdotal. But some of the worst clear-felling is known to have happened in the mountains south of Myawaddy, hastened by the SLORC's capture of a string of KNU bases along the border. In one forest reserve which I visited west of Wale, for example, over 100,000 trees (mostly teak) were cut down in 1989 alone. The effects of this drastic over felling were soon felt. In this year's monsoon season, heavy flooding occurred (local villagers say for the first time ever) in the valleys directly to the west of Wale near Kyainsekkyi in which, according to incomplete reports, over 60 people were killed.

This incident was mirrored by an identical disaster close to the China border in the Kachin State where heavy felling has taken place in the watershed of the Baknoi river around the Kambaiti pass controlled by one of the ex-CPB forces which has declared a ceasefire with the SLORC, the New Democratic Army led by Ting Ying. Tragedy struck in June this year when at least 83 people were killed in resultant flashfloods downstream which washed away 22 villages and a field hospital.

Both sides of the Burma-Thailand border are rapidly becoming an environmental disaster zone. By some estimates within ten years Burma's teak forests, once the largest remaining in Asia, will have gone. This will undoubtedly have the most serious economic and environmental conseguences throughout the region. But for the moment in the worst affected areas of Burma there appears to be no longterm plan for reforestation at all—and certainly none which involves the local population. Indeed many ethnic minority leaders allege that the SLORC's attack on the forests has a sinister dual-purpose - namely as a counter-insurgency measure to undermine the financial viability of the minority regions. The cruel irony is that until these new timber deals were struck in late 1988, many forest reserves, most of which date from the days of the British, were still being relatively well preserved in the midst of conflict.

With the logging trade as a model, similar concern is now being felt in minority communities over several other joint- projects currently being proposed between Rangoon and Bangkok - notably hydro-electric schemes which will involve building several dams along the Moei and Salween rivers. These will inevitably cause extensive flooding in areas presently at the centre of the Karen insurgency. Another proposal that has come in for criticism is the construction of a gas pipe-line through Mon territory around Three Pagodas Pass where thousands of villagers have been threatened with forcible relocation. Quite how any of these projects can be undertaken without the support of the local people and while the political turbulence continues remains to be seen.

This raises the final issue between Burma and its neighbours- the question of cross-border economic development. Given the brief life of many of these proposals and the basic lack of statistics and information, it is difficult to make any safe generalisations. Along the borders, however, there have been several distinguishable and significant changes in the pattern of trading. While the free trade in many items was banned under the BSPP, previously much of the cross-border traffic in basic commodities and luxury goods went through areas held by insurgent forces which controlled much of Burma's once-thriving black market. By one estimate, in 1988 as much as $3,000 million or 40% of Burma's GNP annually changed hands on the black market.32 Clearly much of this trade now goes through government-held territory and, hastened by a flood of Chinese capital into the country, trade has mushroomed - especially between Mandalay and China's Yunnan Province.

However there are already once again the same warning signs of the dangers of the central government trying to bi-pass the local people. Two examples - one from the China border and one from Thailand - illustrate the piecemeal and chaotic way in which the SLORC is trying to control the natural course of cross-border trade.

Since the mid-1980s the Chinese government had, in fact, already targeted Yunnan Province for a major expansion of legal trading across the 2,100 km border with Burma. In 1987 the Frontier Trade Division of the Yunnan Province Export Corporation drew up a list of 2,000 items for trade - mainly agricultural, mineral and forestry produce for exchange with manufactured goods, such as bicycles and household goods, from China. In 1987 the value of this trade was estimated at 1,000 million dollars, but it was only after the SLORC coup and the 1989 collapse of the CPB that the trade really took off, reaching some 2.000 million dollars that year.33

Following the CPB break-up, as part of the SLORC's 'Border Development' plan several 'open border trade regions' were agreed with the Chinese government with legal trading permitted allowed on three different basis:

  1. trade agreements between the Chinese provincial government and the local SLORC authorities
  2. small-scale border-trade between commercial companies in towns on both sides of the border
  3. free trade on both sides of the border.

From the Burmese side few figures have been released. But according to the Chinese authorities along the 503.8 km border of the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Nationalities Autonomous Prefecture this new trade rapidly expanded, showing a 29% increase in the first five months of 1991, to 530 million Yuan, over the same period of 1990. Most of this trade reportedly fitted into the second category of business.34 It was, however, hardly a trade of equals and has had immediate and disturbing repercussions in local communities along the Burmese side of the border.

Firstly, with an exchange rate that has increased in China's favour from some 100Kyats = 10Rmb in 1989 to the present 100Kyats = Rmb5.8 - 6.2, Chinese traders promptly began buying up anything that was locally available, from rice maize and pulses to gems, timber and metals. Secondly, the new trading contracts were not available to all would-be entrepeneurs but only to local traders favoured by the SLORC, especially Kokangese traders sold licenses by Pheung Kya-shin, the Kokangese leader and former insurgent commander who had led the first defections from the CPB in March 1989. Pheung Kya-shin's traders, too, immediately began buying up all the maize they could lay their hands on at high prices with which no local could compete. The cumulative effect of these measures was skyrocketing inflation and the emptying of traditional markets by the sweeping purchases of these new cross-border traders. In particular, with the shortage of feed, eggs and chickens became prohibitively expensive and virtually disappeared from sale.

Finally, on 25 October 1991 the SLORC's Ministry of Trade issued a notification prohibiting the export of some 30 items in the cross-border trade, including rice, maize, teak and gems. Quite how the Chinese authorities will react to these unilateral restrictions (a thriving black market trade still continues) nor how the Kokangese traders will fulfill their contracts is for the moment uncertain. But it all points as further evidence of Rangoon's inability to institute reforms which will both understand and develop the local border trade. This has led to a joke by local traders who describe themselves as the 'economic underdogs': 'What we provide the Chinese with is precious and lasting (i.e. gems, timber and metals), but what we get from them is only transformed into urine (beer) and smoke (cigarettes).'

An even more remarkable situation developed at the Myawaddy border-crossing with Thailand in late November 1990 when the Tatmadaw garrison closed down the border after a bomb "exploded wounding eight civilians. The SLORC put the blame on the KNU and demanded Thailand take stern action. But after the KNU issued an uncharacteristically firm denial and the customs and immigration posts remained closed. Thai traders became suspicious. Rumours that it was in fact a bomb planted by SLORC's undercover Military Intelligence Service (MIS) were not helped by reliable reports that MIS agents have, on occasion, exploded bombs elsewhere in the past.

Thus in retaliation, one week later the Thai authorities also shut down their side of the border. Day after day army officers from both sides of the border argued, but only when the crossing finally reopened after a financially ruinous interval of one month did a possible reason for the closure emerge. Angry Thai traders, who estimated the value of the cross-border trade
at Baht 30-40 million (US$1.2-1.6 million) a day prior to the shut-down, alleged that the SLORC had used the closure to tighten restrictions on the import of luxury goods, apparently to appease Korean and Singaporean firms which had signed expensive contracts for the export of goods by sea to Rangoon.35

Whatever the real reasons, local Thai traders who in 1988 had originally been welcoming SLORC's new 'open-door' approach, agreed it was an extraordinary way to do business.


While no one can expect that the answers to Burma's many and deep political problems will be easy, the evidence from all these grave issues sends the one simple message that no real progress will be made until a peaceful settlement is brought to the current state of armed conflict in the countryside and political deadlock in the cities. For the ethnic minorities this means the full restoration of the economic, social, cultural and political rights which they were promised by Aung San in 1947 and the chance to reassert control over their own destiny. For Burma's neighbours this will mean the normalisation of relations which have suffered over a century of upheavals and disruption. It is in the interest of every ethnic group and party to solve this issue soon, because the failure to do so now, at this historic time of transition, could well mean another 40 years of conflict.


A. There have been several minor adjustments to Burma's borders with its neighbours  since  independence  in  1948,  notably the  1960 Boundary Agreement, signed by Ne Win and Zhou Enlai, under which three Kachin villages commanding the Hpimaw Pass and the Panhung-Panlao region of the Wa substate were 'returned'  to China in exchange for the Namwam Assigned Tract, which the British had leased. More recently,in 1985 another joint Burma-China border survey was instituted. Minor adjustments are also currently being mooted along the Burma-Thailand border - largely to take account of natural changes in the course of rivers. However the situation is more complex in the far north along the Indian border since China still claims parts of Arunachal Pradesh.

B. Under a 1982 citizenship law which exempts 'indigenous' races, such as the Shans or Burmans, full citizenship is restricted only to those who can prove ancestors resident in Burma before the first British conquest in 1824 - a practically impossible task in north  Arakan  where  Muslim  and  Buddhist  communities  have historically intermixed on both sides of the Naaf River border.



  1. Dorothy Woodman, The Making of Burma (The Cresset Press, London, 1962) p.11.
  2. Rangoon Home Service,6 August,  in BBC,  Summary of World Broadcasts, 8 August 1991.
  3. Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (Zed Books, London, 1991). pp.420-21.
  4. For example, in one journey along the Tenasserim River in late 1989, the writer could not find one trader or store-keeper then willing to take Burmese Kyats.
  5. For a more detailed discussion on ethnicity and the demarcation of Burma's borders, see. Smith, Burma, pp.27-44, 156-7.
  6. Quoted in. Ibid., p.36.
  7. Vumson, Zo History (Aizawl, Mizoram, 1986), p.107.
  8. Smith, Burma, pp.44-8.
  9. Ibid., pp.43-44.
  10. Ibid-, pp.42, 47-8.
  11. Committee of One For Democracy, Vol.11, No.2, November 1991.
  12. For example, when the Karen National Union boycotted elections to the Constituent Assembly of 1947, the AFPFL drew up an unrepresentative agreement with sympathetic elements of the far less influential Karen Youth Organisation. The result was that the
    KNU remained outside the political process and this led, eventually, to the outbreak of the Karen insurrection in January 1949. Similarly, following Ne Win's seizure of power, a ceasefire treaty was drawn up in 1964 with the small, breakaway Kawthoolei
    Revolutionary Council faction, led by Saw Hunted Tha Hmwe, causing a widening split in the KNU movement and convincing Karen leaders of BSPP insincerity.
  13. For examples, see e.g.. Smith, Burma, pp.27-39.
  14. Ibid., pp.195-7.
  15. Ibid., p.283.
  16. Ibid., pp.95-6, 315, 376-80.
  17. Ibid., pp.207, 318, 413.                           
  18. Ibid., pp.408-9.
  19. Article 19, State of Fear: Censorship in Burma (London, 1991),3.5.
  20. Interview, 19 December 1990.
  21. See e.g.. Amnesty International,Thailand:Concerns about treatment of Burmese refugees (London, 1991).
  22. Smith, Burma, p.241.
  23. M. Smith. 'Burma's Muslim Borderland', Inside Asia, July-August 1986, pp.5-7.
  24. Working People's Daily. 20-27 February 1989; Article 19, State of Fear, 9.8.
  25. See e.g. United States General Accounting Office, Drug Control: Enforcement Efforts in Burma are not Effective (USGAO, Washington, 1989); Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 March 1991.
  26. Smith, Burma, pp.314-5.
  27. Burma Alert, June 1991.
  28. World AIDS, July 1991.
  29. Interviews, 7 December 1990.
  30. Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 February 1990.
  31. Article 19, State of Fear, 3.4.
  32. Smith, Burma, p.98.
  33. Ibid. p.361.
  34. Beijing Review, 19-25 August 1991.
  35. Bangkok Post, o December 1990; Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 December 1990.



Draft Copy: Not for quotation or citation without the express permission of the author.