Machine Guns and Opium (Shan State, Burma)

History of Shan State – The Land of PoppiesInle LakeTravel Philosophy

Burma.  This is the name political activists use to refer to this country.  The military junta (SLORC) calls it Myanmar, claiming that Burma is a vestige of colonialism.  Oddly, enough they are correct.

Burma comes from an English mispronunciation of Barmar, and it only refers to the Burmese people who make up 70% of the population.  The SLORC party consists of Burmese people, so the name Burma is representative of the rulers’ ethnicity.  Why would they change it?  I can’t tell you for sure, but if it’s in the name of ethnic inclusion then it’s a thinly veiled attempt at hiding what the Burmese Military really thinks about the minorities in Myanmar – it wages war upon these ethnic minorities to rob them of their resources and their political power.

The truth is that Burma is surrounded on all sides by violent ethnic insurgencies, most notably in Shan State.  If you look at a map, Shan State refers to the mountainous region between central Burma and Thailand.  Shan is a Burmese mispronunciation of the word Siam, the former name of Thailand.  Lots of mispronunciations, eh?  The point is this: the Shan People are ethnically closer to the people of Thailand and Laos than the Burmese.  They live high up in the hills, isolated from the rest of Burma and politically and geographically separated from each other.  When the British first explored these hills they made a few conclusions: the terrain was so rugged, it would be impossible to build the roads and railways necessary to directly govern the area; the Shan people were entirely different than the Burmese; and the people in the hills scared the explorers shitless – the Wa people were cannibals who lined the village streets with the decapitated heads of their enemies.  So the ever-rational Brits decided to let the Shan people govern themselves in an autonomous region.  Good call.

While the Brits left the Shan to themselves, SLORC prefers direct occupation.  They destroy Shan temples and attempt to replace Shan culture with Burmese culture.  The Shan people desire their freedom, and they have been waging a war for independence for the last half century.  The government has responded with brutal force, the systematic rape of Shan women, and – worst of all – they use their enemies to serve as human mine-detectors.  That’s right; they make these people walk through minefields, blowing up dozens of people in the process.

Why all this warfare?  Why not just give them their freedom.  Two reasons: Shan State is flush with resources, and the hills provide the only natural barrier between Burma and their ancient enemy of Thailand.  And the resources are the most profitable kinds: rubies, teak, and opium.  The rubies here are some of the world’s finest.  Teak is a rare type of wood known for its durability and coveted by many.  And the hills are the source of the world’s white heroin, not the lower-quality black variety from Afghanistan.  The border between Shan State, Laos and Thailand forms The Golden Triangle, and for years this was the world’s capital for opium.  Fifteen years ago, a single Shan warlord named Khun Sa supplied 1/3 of the world’s opium and commanded a standing army of 20,000 men.  Thailand has stamped out opium production but the trade still flourishes in Myanmar.  The Shan people want their independence and the sale of opium provides money to purchase weapons to fight the Burmese.

But it hasn’t always been this way.   Opium is a relatively new phenomenon.  It actually originated in the hills of the Eastern Mediterranean and was eventually spread east by Arab traders.  The British colonists rediscovered it and unloaded tons of on the Chinese, resulting in the famous Opium Wars.  It was around this time that the opium spread to the Shan hill tribe people, who began cultivating the drug for their own use.  It was not exported until after the 1962 coup d’état, when the Shan starting selling it to fund their armed resistance.  The battle between the Shan and the Burmese has raged on ever since.

If opium funds the resistance, it is the teak forests and the ruby mines that arm the government.  The forests here are being clear cut at appalling rates.  Teak is a very rare wood, yet it is being chopped down and sold to China for cheap.  Oil, gas, and rubies are the same – sold to China at extremely low prices in exchange for political protection in the UN.  Thus every time the US tries to pass a sanction against Burma the Chinese protect them with their veto power.  As a result little progress is made in solving this humanitarian problem

I visited Shan State twice, restricted though I was to a small pocket of the state where the insurgents had signed a truce with the government ten years back.

The first place I visited was the famous Inle Lake.  Most people who come here for two weeks only visit four places: Yangon, the temples at Bagan, the “exotic” city of Mandalay, and the stunningly beautiful Inle Lake.

Inle Lake was incredible.  Its beauty makes it easy to understand why the Shan fight for this land.  The lake is a beautiful blue color, hemmed in by blue mountains that fade away in the distant clouds.  The land surrounding sinks into impossibly green rice fields and canals before surrendering to the vast lake itself.  Small stilted hamlets and white pagodas float upon the rice paddies and the distant lake is covered with floating villages and monasteries.

It was raining, so I didn’t take a boat tour to the center of the lake and decided to rent a bike and peddle around its perimeter instead.  The rain drizzled down and I sheltered under large foliaged trees, gazing over the rice paddies and relishing the silence.  Village children roped water buffalo, dragged them from the water, and rode them off into the forest where their father was splitting wood.  Old men squatted along the canals, quietly smoking their cigarettes in the early morning sunlight.  Eight-year old novice monks filed past with smiles on their faces and large, black alms bowls in their arms.  In the distance, the village hummed to life as fishermen loaded up their boats with supplies.  In the other direction old women fished from their shallow dug-out canoes, standing on the bow like a surfer hanging ten at Malibu.  It was magical.  So magical that I slid down a muddy hill and fell into a canal while attempting to take one of these pictures.  So enjoy them, it took quite a bit of effort!

But it was raining.  And as I said before I had an inexplicable desire to move on, to move forwards to whatever it was I was looking for.  I was feeling restless.

Everyone has their own theory of traveling.  Some people think that you need to stay in a place for a month a time to actually see anything.  I’ve met people who go to small villages and spend weeks in silence, meditating with monks in local monasteries.

Others think it’s all about seeing the sights.  They spent their limited time darting around countries, snapping pictures and buying souvenirs in an attempt to somehow bring these sights back home with them.  There is truth to both these theories, ya gotta see the sights and ya gotta chill out and meditate from time to time.

But for me, looking out of the widow of a bus is mediation.  As the bus leaves the big city and moves through rural villages I keep my glaze fixed on the moving picture, as if it is a living television of sights and sounds.

I spend hours hanging out of the sides of trains, waving at smiling kids and feeling the breeze sweep through my hair.  That is what I enjoy, the movement, the change, the progress.  But all this movement ultimately got me sick and fatigued, wondering what it was that I was progressing towards.  I knew I had to change my travel philosophy, or all this movement was going to wear me down.

But I moved on despite my doubts.  North to Mandalay, that city I was so excited to see.

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