A man squats to smoke an opium pipe in Maw Hai village while children look on. (Photo: Tor Norling)
By TOR NORLING
The Irrawaddy News
PANGHSANG, Burma — “I had two choices. The first was to escape to Thailand, the other was to hide out here,” said 20-year-old Sandimar, one of two young Buddhist monks standing outside a temple in Panghsang, the unofficial capital of Wa State, an unmarked, lush, mountainous region shown on maps as eastern Shan State.
Backed up against China’s Yunnan State and within a day or two’s mule ride to the Golden Triangle, the undeveloped Wa State was once the world’s largest producer of opium and, by implication, the greatest source of heroin.
However, nowadays the region is undergoing a series of transformations that is causing friction between leaders of the Wa armed forces and the brutal clique that rules from Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw.
Sandimar and Sai Sai fled from Rangoon after last September’s monk-led demonstrations were violently suppressed by the military authorities. Sandimar says he was among the crowd of monks that took to the streets to ignite the uprising.
On the night of September 28 he faced the consequences for his bravery—his temple was surrounded and attacked by hundreds of heavily armed soldiers. “The soldiers came at 4 am. They pointed their guns at us and told us not to move,” he says. “Those who didn’t follow the instructions were beaten. More than 100 monks were arrested at my temple.”
Dressed in their saffron robes, the monks were marched at gunpoint onto a bus and, in the darkness, driven to a school in the suburbs of Insein, in the northwest of Rangoon.
‘When we got there it looked like they had arrested every monk in Rangoon—there were thousands of us,” Sai Sai says.
He and Sandimar were locked in a classroom along with about 800 other monks. “We received food once a day, but we were never allowed to leave the room, even to use the toilet. The smell in the room became unbearable,” he said.
According to Sandimar, many of the soldiers were obviously uncomfortable with their orders as they had been brought up to look up to the Buddhist sangha (monkhood) with great reverence. Beating and abusing monks was a great sacrilege.
“However, other soldiers were extremely brutal,” Sandimar said. “They didn't care if we were monks or not. The guards made the monks disrobe and dress in civilian clothes. They told us this made it easier for them to harass us,” he said.
“All we could do was pray,” said Sai Sai. “But if the guards heard our voices they threatened to kill us.”
Sai Sai witnessed more than 100 monks taken aside by the guards and beaten up. ‘‘It was strange—they only hit them on the heads and told them the treatment was a ‘special present,’” he said.
Their nightmare lasted a week. Then Sai Sai, Sandimar and about 70 other monks were released and told to leave the city. The journey to the Wa mountains took Sandimar and Sai Sai four days.
“We are safe in Wa State, the regime has no influence here,” said Sandimar.
That the rugged Wa hills would be a sanctuary for monks and activists was by no means guaranteed, however, because the Wa region is unpredictable—it is currently an area in flux.
Wa State is controlled by the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), once dubbed the most heavily armed narcotics traffickers in the world by the US State Department. Although Naypyidaw’s generals have little influence in the region, a long-held ceasefire, and the fact the UWSA and the Burmese military occasionally join forces to do battle with the insurgent Shan State Army has led to the perception that the UWSA has become a firm ally of the Burmese regime.
Jiao Wei, a 46-year-old colonel responsible for the organization’s publicity and head of the Wa television station, is quick to dispel that notion.
“We have not criticized the regime publicly, but in our hearts everybody here is angry about what has happened. We don't support what the Burmese government has done, but we are independent of them, so we have no influence. However, we hope they can do a better job for their population,” he says.
The Wa area has never been fully tamed. British colonizers failed to conquer the almost impenetrable mountains and Burma’s rulers were also similarly thwarted. Shortly after Burma won independence, a tribal leader was asked by prime minister U Nu whether the Wa wanted education, good food, clothes, good housing and hospitals. “We are very simple people.
We don't appreciate these things. We just live by ourselves,” was the response.
Mostly animists, living in isolation and numbering only half a million people (an estimated 400,000 more live in Yunnan on the Chinese side), the Wa remain one of Burma’s most mysterious and least-documented ethnic groups.
During the first British expeditions to the area in the late 1800s, the Wa were labelled simply as naked, dirty, dark-skinned, poor and barbaric. Their tradition of hunting for human heads—used as totems in the villages to secure good harvests and to protect against disease—persisted until the 1970s, added to their ferocious reputation. It was no small wonder that this ethnic group became widely known as the ”Wild Wa.”
In the 1970s and 80s, with backing from China, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB)—which was established in 1939 to spearhead the struggle against British colonialism—constituted the largest military threat to the regime in Rangoon.
The Wa provided the bulk of the CPB’s ground forces. Thousands were killed in spectacular attacks in which waves of CPB soldiers threw themselves against Burmese positions. According to some observers, more than 25 percent of Wa soldiers died in the fighting and the prospect of losing more made several Wa leaders rebel.
At the same time, Beijing’s support began to wane. A 1989 split in the CPB led to the creation of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the armed wing of the United Wa State Party.
The UWSA then signed a ceasefire with the Burmese authorities, who, weakened by the 1988 democracy uprisings, readily accepted the UWSA’s terms. In addition to self-rule, the UWSA was allowed to keep its weapons and trade in whatever it wanted.
The only foreigners allowed to enter the region are a small group of aid workers and only Chinese are allowed to pass through the official border crossing with China. Even representatives of the Burmese regime need permission from the Wa authorities before they can visit what is known in Naypyidaw as “Special Region 2.” An illegal border crossing, about 400 metres upstream from the official point of entry and manned by remarkably casual soldiers, is the only option for foreign journalists or observers who wish to enter the area.
It did not take the UWSA long to remember that the most lucrative business in the Wa hills was the production and sale of illegal drugs, a trade that had long vexed the CPB.
“The Wa hills are a strange place. Opium grows very well, but rice doesn't grow at all,” says Jiao Wei.
In 2001, Burma was the world’s largest producer of opium. The UWSA dominated the industry and also produced large quantities of methamphetamine—known in the West as “speed” or “crystal meth”—a highly addictive drug that has spread like an epidemic in Thailand where it is called “ya ba,” meaning “crazy medicine.”
Under pressure from China, the United States and the United Nations, the UWSA’s supreme commander, Bao Youxiang, promised that the Wa State would be free of opium by 2005. And, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, that's what happened.
“The US always says we are terrorists. That's a mistake,” argues Jiao Wei. “We stopped producing and selling drugs in 2005. We hope the world can agree that the Wa hills have become a good place and that the situation is not like it was before.”
Jiao Wei is particularly infuriated by the indictment of eight UWSA leaders by a US federal court in 2005. In addition it is believed that more than 20 people with connections to the UWSA are sought by the US on drug charges. For the capture of the UWSA’s top leaders the bounty is said to be several million dollars.
Wei says he is disappointed the drug ban has not had more support from the international community. “We have asked our farmers to grow rice, tea and rubber, but it doesn’t offer enough revenue. They don’t have enough food and need help,” he says.
“Most farmers are against the ban. The poverty creates tensions. We feel a growing pressure from our people.”
Poverty in Wa villages is at a level that is difficult to compare to the relative comfort in nearby Yunnan or Thailand. One hour’s drive west of Panghsang is Maw Hai, a muddy hamlet of about 50 shacks made from corrugated metal, bamboo and wood, with cattle and pigs roaming freely. Malnourished children sit in the dirt.
“There used to be opium everywhere,” said village leader Ai Nap, pointing to the fields surrounding the village. He said that the village was always poor, but now the situation is worse.
“Before the ban we did at least have some income to buy food and medicines. Today, we don’t have enough to eat. The rice only lasts for five or six months of the year,” he says.
Of the 146 people living in the village, most are children. ‘‘Last year many children died, but this year has been a bit better,” says Ai Nap.
This is about as good as it gets in a Wa village. The farther they are from the road and Panghsang, the worse the conditions are. At least Maw Hai has electricity and the World Food Programme has established a water supply and sends in a few sacks of rice. Ai Nap confirmed that they are close enough to Panghsang to send the children to hospital when they get sick. ‘‘But often when they return from the hospital they die,” he says.
It is easy to criticize the Wa leadership, who live a life of luxury in Panghsang while their people starve and suffer, but the UWSA did warn the international community in good time that alternative sources of farming and income would be necessary if the ban were to be sustained. For the most part, this humanitarian disaster-in-the-making is devoid of international aid workers. The few in evidence are reluctant to speak to journalists, fearing critical reports could upset the Naypyidaw regime, which, in turn, could hinder their operations.
Burmese aid workers are more helpful. However, an employee of one of the UN’s two offices in Panghsang says aid workers are not always welcome in the villages. ‘‘There have been some incidents and misunderstandings. Many believe we are coming to monitor whether we are growing opium, so it’s difficult to be accepted,” he says.
The suspicion that several people in or connected to the UWSA are still active in the drug industry is also a deterrent to outside help. Despite Jiao Wei's assurances, there is little doubt that large quantities of opium and methamphetamine continue to be channelled through the Wa hills.
Although trading in illegal drugs is still possible, a source connected to the drugs industry said that the ban has made it harder. Increased controls in China have also constricted supply. The source said he remembers the days when truckloads of opium left Panghsang for Yunnan. A few days later the trucks returned with hard currency. “To make a deal today you need both power and money. Money alone makes you vulnerable, as you have no power to protect you. Power is not enough as you don't have money to be in the market,” he said.
When a deal does go down, it is usually big and the risks are high.
A 20-year-old woman who runs a hotel in the border town of Mong La says her mother was jailed after Chinese police searched her family’s property in Yunnan two years ago. The quantities of heroin discovered were so large that no attempts to bribe the police succeeded. She was executed. The young woman’s husband escaped the death penalty but is serving life in prison. She said that although she is still wealthy, she is alone looking after her two-year-old daughter.
“Most people I know come from families like that,” said the source. ‘‘Even if you are rich you will have lost a lot. Many here are extremely wealthy but because of their fear of getting killed or arrested, they never leave the Wa hills. Instead they bring here what they need from the outside world.”
Most of the food in Panghsang is imported from China. The cars, for the most part Land Rovers and Japanese pick-ups, have been smuggled in from Thailand. Sometimes the place of origin of goods is confusing. Pepsi is imported from China, while Coca-Cola comes from Thailand. The Wa apparently think Coca Cola produced in Thailand tastes better than its Chinese counterpart.
There is a throbbing nightlife centered around the town’s rundown casino. The women offering their services in a number of brothels in the surrounding streets are mainly Chinese. The nightclub “Babe” could be in New York or London. An advanced laser system illuminates the dance floor. Two DJs brought in from China are playing hip-hop.
Cheryl, 20, says the youth of Panghsang are looking to the United States when it comes to music and culture. ‘‘I love black hip-hop and the NBL [National Basketball League] is my life. I don't know why. Maybe we look to black American culture because we are so much darker than the Chinese,” she says.
Cheryl has a university degree from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, and runs a fashion store in Panghsang. As the daughter of a high-ranking officer she has little to fear economically, but she grew up in poverty. She remembers her childhood in Ying Pan, a village three hours’ drive from Panghsang, when the mountains where covered with opium poppies. She used to go to the fields with her aunt during the harvest season to gather opium, which she sold at the local market for pocket money. In the mid-1990s her father suddenly became rich and today she lives in a huge wooden mansion in the centre of Panghsang.
“I have been very lucky and I do my best to help the people in my home village. When I go home to my village I always take clothes and presents for the children. They always come to visit because our house is the only one in the village that has a TV,” she says.
Cheryl claims the local authorities are doing a good job in helping the population but admits there is a huge gap in wealth. ‘‘In the Wa State, a few are extremely rich, everybody else is extremely poor.”
In Maw Hai, the noticeable difference is not so much rich and poor, but young and old—there appears to be no teenagers. The mystery is solved in Panghsang. At the entrance to the military academy a group of soldiers stand around. Many of them are girls and many are very young. Nika, 18, said he was forced to join the army.
“Every family with more than one child must give a child to the army—that’s the law here,” he says. A boy in a uniform that is far too big for him says he is 12. Another soldier explains that you can be recruited from the age of 10. The soldiers earn between 30 and 40 yuan ($4.40 to $5.85) a month.
The fear of an attack from Naypyidaw is, according to observers, the reason why the Wa leadership maintains its army. Even though the ceasefire has held for almost 20 years, the relationship between Burma’s generals and the UWSA is not without complications. ‘‘Nobody here trusts the Burmese,” says Jiao Wei.
A recent attempt by the regime to move Wa settlements away from the Thai-Burmese border has inflamed tensions, for instance, and there are worries about Chinese influence.
“The Burmese authorities don’t want more Chinese in Wa State; but most of the economy comes from China, so we welcome them,” says Jiao Wei. He says Naypyidaw has no business in telling them what to do. “If they attack, we will retaliate. But we will not fire the first bullet,” he says.
With that he declares the interview over and cracks open a bottle of whisky containing pulverized tiger bone. ‘‘This will keep you healthy,” he toasts.
Sandimar, meanwhile, hopes the Wa State will continue to offer him a safe haven. He says about 300 monks, most of whom are originally from the Wa hills, have come from Rangoon recently, along with a group of student activists, among them 23-year-old Aung. A long scar on his forehead bears witness to the treatment he received in prison.
“I had never seen this kind of brutality,” he said, and explains that he was arrested when soldiers attacked a demonstration he was taking part in. He tried to escape but was surrounded. Forced to lie on the ground, he was repeatedly beaten with sticks and rifle butts. “They hit me in the back and the head several times. Then they asked me to stand up, only to strike me down again. I was bleeding all over the place. Then they put the barrel of a gun in my mouth. I was sure they would kill me.”
Aung was released after a week and, like Sandimar and Sai Sai, traveled directly to Wa State. He is aware that he has swapped one military regime for another; the UWSA is by no means a democratic institution. “At least the Wa leaders care somewhat about their people. They don’t conspire to kill you,” he says.
“If you really want to confront the Wa leadership, you may get into trouble, but you can discuss and talk about whatever you like. They appreciate a well-informed critique,” he added.
Whether the Wa leaders remain so open-minded if the public pressure from the opium ban continues to grow or if Naypyidaw acts on its irritation about China’s involvement in the region remains to be seen.
For now the Wa have gone beyond their Conradian image as headhunters to become the unlikely protectors of Burma’s saffron revolutionaries and a key player in the global crackdown on drugs.
Tor Norling is a freelance journalist from Norway who covers South and Southeast Asian affairs.