Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia with a population of about 53 million people. It shares extensive borders with Bangladesh, India, the Peoples Republic of China (incorporating Tibet), Laos and Thailand. Although the country has vast natural resources, most of the population is extremely poor. The country is ranked 145 out of 188 in the HDI – but there is considerable variation in living standards between affluent modern urban centres and the most impoverished rural areas.
Myanmar – formerly Burma – is defined by its ethnic diversity, although the Bamar, the country’s largest population group, dominates. Ever since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, successive regimes have attempted to obtain more unified control over the country. Battles over ethnic identity, as well as political ideology, have been central features of Myanmar’s post-colonial history.
This project focuses on Kachin State and Shan State in the north and northeast of the country. Elites from both states were signatories to a pre-independence document called the Panglong Agreement. This expressed aspirations for a federal political system with significant local autonomy. These aspirations unravelled after independence and both regions descended into armed conflict between various ethnic armed organisations and the national government.
Violent conflicts have persisted to this day, despite various attempts at peace negotiations, including current efforts to secure a nationwide ceasefire agreement. However, underlying political grievances have remained largely unaddressed and periods of fragile stability have often given way to new cycles of violence and mistrust.
Myanmar’s current peace process aims to build upon ceasefire arrangements that were agreed with various ethnic armed organisations in the late-1980s and 1990s. These ceasefires were designed partly to enable the country’s borderlands – particularly regions bordering China and Thailand – to become more firmly integrated into the national economy.
Political and business elites within Myanmar and across Southeast Asia re-imagined these conflict-affected borderlands as resource-rich, untapped ‘wastelands’ targeted for large-scale resource extraction, trade, and infrastructure corridors. National development discourses blame armed conflict on underdevelopment, and claim that development will bring peace.
However, the top-down approach to borderland development has resulted in predatory business investments, environmentally and socially destructive practices, and new rounds of militarisation that have concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a narrow clique of military and business elites.
To date, there remains a still poorly formulated future vision of what ‘development’ might look like in these areas, and in many ways this time of ‘transition’ has also seen considerable reversals and retrenchments. This is despite the emergence of a post-2010 quasi-democratic political system, the launching of a formal peace process in 2011, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election victory.
Numerous factors have favoured the persistence of violent conflict in Myanmar. In Kachin and Shan states, armed organisations can find recruits in most villages – sometimes by force but often due to a sense of obligation towards a shared ethno-nationalist struggle. These groups also benefit from the relative lack of ‘distance destroying’ infrastructure that might enable the national military to gain control (roads, railways and so on), as well as proximity to borders and cross-border economic and political networks.
Furthermore, the upland areas of Kachin and Shan are perfectly suited to the cultivation of opium poppy, which has provided livelihood security in impoverished rural areas but also became a financial pillar to sustain armed conflict.
In recent decades, the relationship between drugs and conflict has become more complex. The issue has extended beyond opium cultivation to the manufacture and supply of other drugs, such as methamphetamines. Local communities are some of those must vulnerable to the harms related to changing patterns of drug use, including increasing levels of heroin- injecting and methamphetamine use.
Paradoxically and importantly, many believe drug-related harms to be the outcome of failed and politically insincere ceasefire agreements and increasing state presence, rather than rooted in armed conflict. National political and economic policies, they say, have focused on pacifying recalcitrant local populations instead of ensuring inclusive and sustainable development. Of course, many at the national level would question this.
Regardless of whether these views are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they have become strong explanatory narratives, which deserve exploration and understanding. This is one of the purposes of our research and of the Voices from the borderlands publication(s).
Shan State is the largest of Myanmar’s 14 administrative divisions, covering almost a quarter of the country. Much of its 60,000 square miles comprise steep forest-covered hills and deep valleys with a few elevated plains known as the Shan Plateau. Shan State shares long international borders with China and Thailand and a short border with Laos. Its estimated population of six million inhabitants are of many different ethnicities and languages.
This diverse population is spread across 55 townships, almost 16,000 villages and a number of small cities – Taunggyi in the south, Lashio in the north and Kengtung in the east. However, the vast majority of people live in rural areas and agriculture is the main livelihood. Following decades of armed conflict and underinvestment in basic services and infrastructure, Shan State remains poor with many rural households suffering food insecurity.
During pre-colonial times, the region was made up of multiple self-governing principalities, which endured under the colonial system of indirect rule through which the British governed the region.
Through the 1950s, the newly independent Myanmar state dismantled these long-standing local power structures as part of its efforts to consolidate and centralise control but was unable to establish functioning institutions to replace the systems it removed. Social, political and economic grievances were aggravated by a shift to assertive Bamar militarism, further eroding the legitimacy of the central government.
Armed resistance, which began in the late 1950s, grew rapidly after General Ne Win’s 1962 military coup established an authoritarian state. Armed conflict across Shan State has been highly fragmented with multiple different armed groups and conflict fault-lines. The region’s opium economy became an important source of finance for many armed groups.
During the 1990s and 2000s, a series of ceasefire agreements, which often included informal arrangements around the drug trade, created a fragile stability throughout much of northern and eastern Shan State. In contrast, large areas of southern and central Shan State experienced violent counter-insurgency campaigns.
In recent years, these dynamics have been reversed: northern Shan State has experienced renewed outbreaks of violence, while the largest armed group in southern Shan State has signed the government’s nationwide ceasefire agreement. Yet even during periods of ‘ceasefire’, borderland populations have continued to endure multiple forms of violence linked to continued localised conflicts, militarisation and dispossession.
The central government has asserted militarised and direct forms of control over certain areas of Shan State with strategic and economic importance, notably major border crossings and sites of large-scale development projects. In other areas, it has resorted to a more indirect approach to borderland governance, including the negotiation of ceasefires and the creation of army-backed militias. This has created mosaics of power, shaped by diverse sets of actors, interests and political and economic networks – local, national and international.
Since the 1990s, northern Shan State has become Myanmar’s most important overland trade corridor, linking Mandalay to the China border. Vast revenues have also been generated through logging, mining, agribusiness (large-scale land concessions are primarily for corn, rubber and fruit plantations), hydropower dams and other infrastructural projects, such as the oil and gas pipelines linking Yunnan in China with deep-sea ports on Myanmar’s western seaboard.
Many of these ventures are part of broader initiatives to deepen economic integration between China and Southeast Asia. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which forms an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will follow a similar route to the afore- mentioned pipelines. These ambitious development plans are being mapped onto areas of unresolved armed conflict.
Vast revenues also continue to be generated from the drug trade. Shan State produces more than 90% of Myanmar’s opium, which is mainly cultivated in steep upland areas and has provided an important livelihood for an estimated 200,000-300,000 households. Much of this opium is converted to morphine base or heroin within Myanmar’s borders and then sent to China. China became the main market for Myanmar’s opium following rising heroin use in the 1990s and 2000s.
Over the last couple of decades, Shan State has also become one of the world’s largest producers of methamphetamine pills, known colloquially as ‘yama’ or ‘yaba’, and more recently crystal meth or ‘ice’. The growth of methamphetamine production in Myanmar is closely linked to a rise in production and consumption of the drug in neighbouring Thailand. In 2003, the Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra proclaimed a War on drugs, which provided further incentive to move production across the border into Myanmar.
As echoed in the testimonies presented below, many inhabitants of Shan State indicate that harmful drug use and associated social problems are growing in their communities and see the current peace process as an opportunity to begin addressing these issues. However, the embeddedness of drugs in Shan State’s economy and its power structures make this far from straightforward.
Kachin State is Myanmar’s most northerly state and shares borders Yunnan and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, as well as India’s north east states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. According to 2014 census data, Kachin State has a population of circa 1.7 million people.
However, the census was a controversial exercise and large areas of the state, which are still not under Myanmar government control, were excluded from the enumeration. Not all of those who live in Kachin State identify as Kachin and the region has experienced extensive in-migration from other parts of Myanmar in recent years. It is an ethnically, linguistically and culturally very diverse state, although the collective of communities who identify as Kachin lay claim to this region as their ancestral homeland.
According to the World Bank’s multi-dimensional poverty index, Kachin State’s capital, Myitkyina, is relatively prosperous even when compared to other major urban centres around the country. Meanwhile, rural areas, especially in the far north of the country, remain extremely impoverished. Myitkyina’s relative prosperity is partially a result of its strategic location at the northern-most point of the Irrawaddy River and its connections to historical trans-regional trading routes – from China and Thailand to the east and India to the west – and an associated in-migration of businesses from lower Burma, China and elsewhere.
However, the band of economic growth around Myitkyina is very narrow: the railway infrastructure stops at Myitkyina and the roads beyond to the north and west become poor or non-existent a few miles outside the city. Most importantly, locally owned small and medium industries are almost entirely absent. This is despite the natural wealth of the region, including extensive forest exploited for timber, jadeite, gold and other precious metals.
The underdevelopment of the region is related to its marginalisation from the political centre. Armed conflicts have been both a cause and an effect of this marginalisation. Significant challenges to the legitimacy of the Myanmar government commenced with the founding of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 1961. By 1963, the region was in widespread revolt. Conflict was almost continuous for the next 30 years, with occasional hiatus when political settlements were sought and failed.
Until the 1980s, the most significant confrontations were linked to the triangular conflict between the Myanmar army, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was backed extensively by China, and the KIA. In areas at the edges of KIA authority, other ethnic armed organisations also emerged, as well as smaller militia groups such as the New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K). Many of these armed organisations have been implicated in the region’s opium economy, although the KIA later shifted to suppression of opium poppy cultivation as it sought international support.
In 1994, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) (of which the KIA is the military wing) and the Myanmar army signed a ceasefire agreement. This led to 17 years of armed peace and widespread hope for a better future. It also facilitated a dramatic increase in logging and mining, which caused considerable environmental desecration, and large agri-business developments (especially rubber and banana plantations), which relied on dispossessing local villagers of their land.
In addition, many inhabitants believe the ceasefire led to an upsurge in harms caused by drug use. These issues help explain the KIO’s return to conflict against an increasingly assertive Myanmar army in 2011. This was a time when inhabitants elsewhere in the country were building hopes around a national political transition. Kachin State was largely excluded from related opportunities, such as the surge in aid flows to the country from 2015 onwards, since international actors would mostly only work with and through Myanmar government agencies.
This context has made it very difficult for Kachin people to make their voices heard, nationally and internationally, especially in relation to their experiences of drug harms. This is something we hope to address through this report.