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Doing Wrong to Do Good

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

The ethnic Wa party says its nationalist agenda is not funded by the drug trade, but is that the real story?

The United Wa State Party: Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party?, by Tom Kramer. East-West Center, Washington. 2007. 98 pages.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It is not either/or: it is perfectly possible to be both. Fifteen years ago, observers argued whether Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army was a narco-army or a basically political organization. It was also both.

Many Shan nationalists flocked to Khun Sa because he had power and money, and they were not the slightest interested in his Golden Triangle drug trade. But there were also others, mostly ethnic Chinese, for whom the trade in narcotics was more important than preserving Shan culture.

Likewise, the United Wa State Party and its army bring together Wa politicians—with a real concern for their people—and drug traffickers, who also are mostly ethnic Chinese.

But it is wrong to assume, as Tom Kramer does, that “powerful Chinese syndicates, not the armed groups in Shan State such as the UWSP, control the narcotics trade.” This only echoes the view of Col Hkam Awng from the junta’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, who is quoted as saying, “…most syndicates are Chinese…they have good connections and financing from abroad. It is difficult for us to penetrate their circles.”

A recent study, “The Chinese Connection: Cross-Border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China” by Ko-lin Chin and Sheldon X Zhang, also challenges the syndicate view: “We have thus far found little evidence to suggest any systematic linkage between drug trafficking and traditional criminal organizations. This observation does not suggest that no individual member of triad societies was ever part of the drug trade. However, we are fairly certain that triad-type criminal organizations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the US are not active players in cross-national drug trafficking operations.”

The triads would risk other, more lucrative investments in China if they dealt in drugs. The drug trade from Burma to and through China, Chin and Zhang argue, “is primarily dominated by loosely connected individuals” who operate independently of the syndicates.

In fact, any independent operator who wants to manufacture heroin or amphetamine-type substances (ATS) inside the UWSP’s territory must get permission from a committee consisting of the top leaders of the organization, mainly chairman Bao Yuchang and his brothers. For this, they pay a fee and that is how the UWSP and its allies finance their activities, apart from income from their own laboratories.

Drug revenues are not always used in an enlightened way. Millions have been invested in private bowling alleys, luxury hotels, casinos and transvestite shows—not exactly what the impoverished hill tribe population of their areas need the most.

The strength of Kramer’s book is that it is based on first-hand interviews with actors in the field. The weakness is that he tends to take what people like the UWSP’s leaders, and Col Hkam Awng, say at face value. But there are instances when Kramer questions what he has been told. He quotes, for instance, UWSP stalwart Xiao Min Liang as admitting that there were heroin refineries and ATS factories under their control “up to 1998,” but “after that we banned all heroin and ATS refineries in our area.” But then Kramer states that in September 2005, seven years later, Burmese authorities confiscated 500 kg of heroin that was coming out of the UWSP’s territory. Vast quantities of heroin are still passing through northern Thailand and Laos. And it all comes from laboratories in areas controlled by the UWSP and its allies.

Demonizing the UWSP serves no purpose, as Kramer points out, and it is clear that the organization is more than a narco-army. But a more critical view of the UWSP would have been welcome. It is, for instance, dubious whether the relocation of tens of thousands of Wa farmers to the Thai border is part of “opium eradication strategy.” It cannot be a coincidence that poppy cultivation in southern Shan State has increased since the relocation began in the 1990s.

Nor is Sino-Burmese drug fugitive Wei Xueggang, as Col Hkam Awng asserts, “an individual who is just doing business.” He is the UWSP’s finance minister, and it is people like him who ensure that the narcotics operation in the organization stays on top of whatever nationalist agenda some Wa leaders may have.

This review first appeared in the The Irrawaddy, December, 2007

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