The War of PSLF/TNLA on the drug trade and their National Liberation Duty

Written by Phyu Phyu Ko; translated by Mai Aik Phone; May 17, 2013

The Burmese government wrote there are two kinds of Palaung: Shwe (golden) and Ngwe (silver) Palaung on the basis of their insignia. But the Ta’ang people don’t like this instead they ask to be called as per the name “Ta’ang” instead.

Burma is a land where there are eight dominant ethnic nationalities and over one hundred other ethnic nationalities that live in Burma. Barmar, are the majority of them, became to form the state that is a sole sovereign state. The minority ethnic groups don’t accept this system, so they continue to fight for their national freedom. The struggle for freedom cannot be implemented in a bigoted manner. In this struggle, there must be initial aims and objectives and then there should be essential obligations based on the change of people’s interests.

In accordance to this opinion, the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF)/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) initially aimed to attain national equality and autonomy. But, due to the current increase in opium plantations and subsequent drug addiction in the region, the TNLA operates two objectives jointly: a war on opium and the drug trade and for national liberation at the same time, TNLA officials say.

The Ta’ang (Palaung)are mostly settled in northern Shan State and in border areas of Mandalay division and Kachin State, especially in the townships of Namhsan, Mantong, Namkham, western parts of Kutkhai region, and northern parts of Kyaukmae, Moemeik, Moegote, and Namtu Townships.

The TNLA estimates the population of Ta’ang people to be at about one million, but the government lists them as only over six hundred thousand (600,000).Their main livelihoods are made on tea plantations. From the British era to the Burmese governments, the people were encouraged in their businesses through systematic capital aid. But, the beginning of military dictatorship in 1962, the Ta’ang people were politically oppressed. In response to this the Ta’ang people founded the Palaung National Force (PNF), on the 12th of January 1963 in the struggle for national freedom. The Palaung State Liberation Army, (PSLA) was reformed in 1976.

The Palaung (Ta’ang) PSLA was recognized as a special region (7) after the cease-fire agreement with the government in 1991. This region consists of Namhsan, Mantong and Namkham Townships, the western part of Kutkhai, the northern part of Kyaukme, Moemeik, Moegote and NamtuTownships.

Due to the pressure of the Burmese government, the PSLA, led by U Aik Mone, surrendered to the government in 2005.The consequence of the surrender was that the security measures in the special region (7) would begin decreasing. The people in the Ta’ang regions said that after the surrender, there a lack of rule of law in the region and that drug trafficking and criminal cases began mushrooming. The PSLA signed the cease-fire agreement with the government in 1991. However some members did not agree with this agreement, so they set up the PSLF (Palaung State Liberation Front) in 1992. The current TNLA derives from the PSLF. The TNLA, are the only Ta’ang liberation army with about 2,000 members, it is one of the member organizations of UNFC and it is also an allied organization of KIO and SSPP.

The TNLA needs to deal with the problems of the economic crisis of the people and its side affects in addition to its army operations. The problem is the farmer ‘substitution of planting opium instead of tea on their plantations. The economists pointed out that after 1962 military dictatorship, governance and nationalization of private businesses and the state economy was descending. It turned Burma into one of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) of the world. The Gen. Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist economy reached to its end in October 1988. The BSPP handed over its state power to top brasses. The new government set up U Pai Ltd. for its benefits for over 20 years. It created poverty, unemployment, misused natural resources, and implemented incorrect economic systems. This rule had severe repercussions in the Ta’ang regions.  The Ta’ang people make their living on paternal tea plantations. But, lack of technology, equipment and market space made a trend of a lower economic situation, which decline is the government’s responsibility. The tea farmers’ lives are hard to sustain because they used the old planting methods and production of tea leaves. This affects the livelihoods of the tea farmers.

One of the regional people of Namkham said that the starting price of 1 Viss of tea is 5,000 Kyat but in reality the price is only 2,500 Kyat. It is worse in the rainy season; the price goes as low as 1,000 Kyat. This decrease in tae price makes it harder to be a tea farmer. But the price of 1 Viss of opium is 2 million Kyat. If you think look at the radical differences in the income of tea compared to opium you can see why there has been a dramatic rise in the amount of farmers turning to opium as an answer to their financial crisis. The other reason for the rise in opium plantations is that farmers are given encouragement to grow narcotics by the local authorities. For example, the drive for opium plantations in the Pansay region of Namkham Township is being led by U Kyaw Myint, who is in fact a Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP)’s MP. They give the farmers gratuity on trafficking and freely let them plant opium. This shapes the broad range of opium plantations.

These developments, like creating an opium war, force the disappearance of Ta’ang people, one Ta’ang social groups says. According the research of the TNLA, in Mantong, Kutkhai, Namkham (Pansay), and Lashio Townships, the amount of opium plantations are on the rise compared to the few plantations that were hidden in the past. The worst of all is that the opium consumption of women is also rising at the same rate as drug production.

“At the moment, the question about opium users has changed. In the past, the question was to know who was using, but nowadays, the question we ask is who is not using opium, because in one Ta’ang village, over 70% of the young people and about 92% of all males were identified as opium users. Among them, over 4% of the women who did not use it before becomes the victims of opium” said PWO, in reference to the results of their survey. There are two main reasons for the rise of using opium of the women:

  1. They act perversely to their husbands and
  2. They become opium producers resulting from being unemployed.

People from various Ta’ang regions have said that some employers even pay opium as wages instead of money. The women try to erase fatigue by consumption of opium. This is why the number is rising and of course, the problem of opium use is becoming higher and higher under the current government than from the previous dictatorship government rule. The army, intelligence and police officials are all complicit in this drugs circle, so that it is very hard to remedy the problem. There are no functioning operations to counteract drug trafficking.

Some people in the region have said that the governmental and army columns, intending to oppose the trafficking, entered into the region, but they only collect money from the opium farmers rather than taking legal action to prevent the production of drugs. Therefore, the people who face problems to earn a living are daring to grow and use more opium. According to the current situation, the PSLF/TNLA needs to take on the duty of eradicating these drugs. The drug problem is the main enemy of all our Ta’ang people; together with the people, we must destroy them to be free from the drugs. According to the interests and benefits they have for the military dictatorship, they let all opium farmers and producers freely operate and they participate in some parts of its production in the Ta’ang regions. To make all drug problems disappear in the Ta’ang regions, we must make it a national cause to participate in all eradication operations. On the basis of rule of law, the plan on eradication of drugs in the Ta’ang regions should be systematic, visible and assessable to the governing body.

Extract from PSLF/TNLA manual

From 2012, the TNLA started its first phase of a four year plan for the eradication of drugs. It is said that the rise in the number of opium plantations started after the decline of tea production in 2005-2006. The facts which have led to the increase in opium plantations are:

1. Planting other crops is difficult, especially in the remote areas and areas with poor transportation links. So they opt to plant opium as is easy to transport.

2. The authorities do not tell the farmers to grow the opium, but they do not hinder them when they plant it. They ignore the opium farmers making it easier for the number of plantations to steadily rise.

3. Five Viss of green tea leaves shrinks down to 1 Viss when it is dried. It takes long time to pick 5 Viss of green tea leave and it costs more in transportation charge than opium. So, the people do not want to pick Tea leaves, said people from Namkham.

By the middle of 2012, the TNLA operated was on the third stage of the eradication of drugs.

Firstly, we educated local farmers about the danger of the drugs and counseled them not to grow it. We also warned them about the taking action on that, this phase took about 3 months to implement. After that, we took serious action on the traffickers. We did not take personal actions on farmers, but we did destroy their plantations and we warned them not to grow opium again in the next year.

However, we could not take any action on the drug users. It will take 4-6 years to tackle this problem because in the last 8 or 9 years, there were few plantations and few drug users, but now it is the opposite of previous years. If we entered into the opium users’ villages, we could easily find 98 out of 100 houses inhabited by drug users; 95% of young people in these villages are drug users too. All of them are victims of the drug and the drug trade. In order to help them recover from their addiction and to eradicate drugs in our area we need a much longer timeframe. The more drug addicts there are the more security and rule of law are needed to keep social control. The drug addicts need for drugs becomes higher and thus they cannot afford to feed their habit and they turn to crime to raise the money to buy drugs. The number of cases of theft and domestic violence has begun to increase, as is the number of women drug users. Families are being torn apart as the drug addicts sell their belongings to cover the cost of drugs. So, the women begin to take opium just as their husbands do after their husbands do not follow their requests to stop taking the drugs. The social environment is being destroyed. The drug users steal new sarongs and shirts and exchange them to buy opium. The Ta’ang people have a strong culture, but now it has gone – it is impossible to say what our people resemble but they have stopped behaving like human beings and lack any empathy for the pain they inflict on others, all they can think about is their next drug fix and this situation is set to get worse in the next couple of years.

As the TNLA are trying to deal with these problems head on we get no backing from the government who continue turning a blind eye and do not take an action despite signing many international anti-trafficking treaties pledging their commitment to fight against the drug trade in Burma, again paying lip service to an international audience while in reality the people continue to suffer the detrimental effects of narcotics.

In reality, it seems that the people who depend on drugs for their income have become a pro-government group and thus, they will oppose TNLA and accuse us of behaving in an aggressive manner. A leader of TNLA has noted that if the both sides do not take serious action against drugs, nobody need kill the Ta’ang people as they will ruin themselves and die of drug related issues. This situation resembles to the British policy on China in the 18th Century were their policy pushed the Chinese people into being opium addicts as a solution to their trade problem, and increasing their dependency on the British. Therefore, the TNLA has to oppose the policy like in the Chinese Opium Wars.

The power of TNLA becomes higher and higher. Not only on international political matters but also allied ethnic forces and organizations inside also support us fully in our actions to eradicate drugs in our area.

With strong support from the Ta’ang people and international communities, the PSLF/TNLA strongly believes that we can meet our goals soon on war on drugs and on spurring a national liberation movement.