The State of Conflict
On October 27 the newly formed Three Brotherhood Alliance of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched a surprise assault — called Operation 1027 — on Tatmadaw (Junta forces) in the northern Shan State of Myanmar. Since then, these three ethnic armed organizations have seized over 150 military outposts and several key towns astride the route to the Chinese border, as well as highways crisscrossing Shan State. They claim to have blocked the Junta’s land access to China. This alliance has been backed by Myanmar’s parallel, National Unity Government (NUG)
These actions have galvanised all other armed groups operating in Myanmar to throw their hat in the ring. A combined force of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), and Kawlin People’s Défense Force have occupied Kawlin and Khampat towns in Sagaing Region (opposite Manipur and Nagaland) as part of Operation 1027. Clashes between the Arakan Army (AA) and the junta’s military have broken out in northern part of Rakhine State and in the southernmost tip of Chin State opposite Mizoram. The Karenni National People’s Liberation Front launched (Karenni Nationalities Défense Force (KNDF), Karenni Army and People’s Défense Forces) launched Operation 1107 in the Kayah state of Myanmar which borders Thailand and have seized a township there.
Many areas of North East and North West of Naypyidaw are in turmoil. The civil war in Myanmar seems to be expanding to engulf the country. There are speculations that the Tatmadaw which is under intense pressure might collapse. There are also assessments in the Western media that the Tatmadaw might be defeated by these ethnic forces and that democracy can be established in Myanmar under the NUG. In my opinion, this is not some great resistance movement with noble ideals to restore democracy in Myanmar. This civil war is a product of an expanding drug economy which has upset the balance in the region. This descent into chaos has just commenced and will continue for the next few years. Understanding the dynamics involved is the key to this game.
Myanmar is rich in minerals, including metal ores, petroleum, and natural gas, and also has significant deposits of precious and semiprecious stones. All these are still firmly under control of the Tatmadaw and form the basic sustenance for it to survive. However, Myanmar is also main source of drugs in the infamous Golden Triangle. The areas of illicit crop cultivation are shown in the map below. The bulk of the Golden Triangle area lies in Myanmar. Understanding the drug economy is the key to the problems confronting Myanmar and in turn India.
The Drug Economy
The Shan state of Myanmar is the largest producer of illegal drugs within the infamous Golden Triangle—a tri-junction at the Myanmar, Laos and Thailand borders. Traditionally the area had poppy cultivation and heroin was the main drug. However, the poppy production in the Golden Crescent doubled soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Resultantly, the cultivation and manufacturing of poppies shifted away from the Golden Triangle. Drug cartels in Myanmar switched from heroin and opium, to synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, which are less expensive, simpler to create and more profitable. Accordingly, acreage under poppy cultivation in Myanmar decreased.
Since the 2010s, production of the more potent and profitable methamphetamine made the Shan region, the world’s largest producer and exporter of this drug. Most of the source chemicals were procured from across the border in China, while some amount also came in from India. Overall poppy cultivation kept reducing further in the Shan state. However, as source chemicals for methamphetamine were smuggled in through Manipur, poppy cultivation started increasing in Northeast India. In Myanmar, this transition from a poppy economy to the meth economy was marked by drug wars termed as ethnic conflicts/civil wars/armed disruptions/political turbulence from around 2005-2015 in which these very ethnic armed groups were involved with the Tatmadaw.
Some kind of a balance was reached between these ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw. Agreements were probably reached to give each group its share in the drug economy. In comparison, the original Mafia is juvenile.
However, the current story starts in Afghanistan. Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan plunged by an estimated 95 per cent following a drug ban imposed by the Taliban in April 2022 as per United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Opium cultivation in Afghanistan fell across all parts of the country, from 233,000 hectares to just 10,800 hectares in 2023. Opium output decreased from 6,200 tons in 2022 to just 333 tons in 2023. Correspondingly opium cultivation in Myanmar has increased. As per UNODC opium poppy cultivation has surged by 33 % in the Golden Triangle and opium yields have the potential to burgeon by 88%! The regional market for heroin is valued at a staggering $10bn, according to the UN.
Simultaneously, ever since the Tatmadaw seized power in Myanmar in Feb 21, there has also been a severe economic contraction in the country. Further, the war in Ukraine has fuelled global inflation which has not escaped Myanmar. This has resulted directly in a scale-up of synthetic drugs. Hence the drug dynamics in the region have changed significantly in the recent past. Overall, the Golden Triangle is returning to its roots of poppy cultivation and also expanding the outsized synthetic drug economy. It is actually a double bonanza for the drug cartels. The stakes are therefore very high for every armed group in the region including Tatmadaw. They are all fighting for their turfs and piece of the expanding drug pie.
The Chinese Interests
Like always, the Chinese interests are complex and deep rooted. One needs to understand that China has a long border with Myanmar with ethnic spill overs. It is also proximate to the drug flow out of the Golden Triangle and has its concerns. Most importantly it has invested heavily in Myanmar through the BRI (CMEC) which are at risk following this armed upheaval. However, one has to understand the historical perspective to get the right idea.
When the Communist Party of China drove out the Kuomintang in 1949, some part of it escaped into the Shan state of Myanmar (then Burma). To eliminate them, China massively supported the Communist Party of Burma (in the 1960s and 1970s). Some of the rebel groups trace their history to the communist party. Ever since then China has been supporting all or most the armed groups in the region to keep them under their control. China has always needed these Shan state based armed groups since the area was a sanctuary for Chinese nefarious activity. Chinese criminal syndicates operate from Myanmar into China. Their range of operations includes drug smuggling, brothels, casinos, telecom scams, on line gambling, cyber fraud, and human trafficking. They operate on both sides of the border. Chinese police offer rewards of up to 500,000 yuan (US$68,500) for information on suspected syndicate heads in Shan state. Some of them are Chinese citizens. As per Chinese media, there are five powerful families which control much of the criminal activity in Kokang, which is a region in the Shan state. The original mafia is a pale shadow of what goes on here.
In addition to this, China has a number of BRI projects in Myanmar as shown in the graphic above. China needs to safeguard these assets and investments. The entry into Myanmar is through the Shan State which is the epicentre of the current fighting. If the fighting escalates and movement through this region is affected, it will be hard on China. Hence it has to support some or most of the armed groups. China will also have to pay protection money to these groups. Otherwise, some of them will extract their price. However, at a macro level, it supports the Tatmadaw for its larger aims which includes projects in the hinterland and an entry into the Bay of Bengal through the Kyaukphyu port. China is playing both sides. It has no other choice.
Further China controls all the arms into this area through the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA is not a member of the Brotherhood Alliance. It has declared its neutrality in the ongoing fighting. However, UWSA is the main Chinese conduit and supplier of weapons to all groups in the area. China provides arms at “friendship prices” to UWSA. As per reports UWSA has not provided sophisticated arms from China to the Brotherhood Alliance. The alliance seems to be self-contained and well stocked for now. China may not have played any active part in Operation1027, but it has a hand in it. The UWSA appears to be its surrogate.
China also sees an opportunity to stir trouble in India. The ongoing conflicts In Myanmar provide the ideal conditions for China to meddle in Manipur which has been the victim of self-created political trouble since the past 4-6 months. This is a golden opportunity that China will not miss.
It is reiterated that the main driver of the multi front attacks on the Tatmadaw is the expanding drug economy of Myanmar within the Golden Triangle. Every group is protecting its turf and vying for an enhanced share. The armed groups are regional mafias and are more interested in their stake in drugs. None of the groups have given any clarion call for restoration of democracy. It is the NUG which has aligned itself with the armed groups and not the other way round. The NUG does not have the finances or political heft to unite and lead an insurrection against Tatmadaw at a scale enough to overthrow it.
All these groups, especially those bordering China have been aligned or against it at some point of time. They have also been with or against Tatmadaw at various points of time. Their interests are supreme. Even when there was normalcy, most of these armed groups were not fully under control of the Tatmadaw. Their mutual existence was based on a policy of ‘live and let live’ as also of shared plunder. Tatmadaw cannot control all groups. With increase in revenues due to drugs, all these groups will acquire autonomy. They might not be beholden to China hereafter as probably being perceived.
While most groups depend on drugs/ arms smuggling for sustenance, Tatmadaw has other resources of the country at its disposal – minerals, gas, coal and oil. It is economically far stronger and militarily better organised despite its setbacks. The Army has more technology, heavy artillery and air power on its side which it uses with no holds barred. The Tatmadaw has weathered many such rebellions in the past. There has been no evidence yet of mass defections of soldiers or senior leaders that could lead to its collapse. Also, none of the armed groups have the political motivation or capability to over throw Tatmadaw. In the worst-case scenario, if Tatmadaw falls, there will be utter chaos in Myanmar.
As long as fighting continues China will not be able to make head way. The scale of the drug economy is huge. This reduces China’s leverage to play both sides. It cannot buy off the groups. China is also worried that because the drug trade flows into the mainland. Chinese crime syndicates with deep links to one armed group or the other are also active in this region. So far China has shown no inclination of deploying PLA in the area.
Overall, the situation will remain fluid and in a flux for a long time to come. Myanmar will remain unstable till the armed groups and Tatmadaw get fatigued. It will then lead to some internal truce and sharing arrangement and stability.
Course of Action for India
India will have to contend with the new dimension of the Myanmar problem for a long time. There will be more refugees. India must organise refugee management in conjunction with the state governments in Manipur and Mizoram as also the Myanmar government. India should ensure that it does not get drawn in into the turmoil in Myanmar. Already there are clear indications that some Meitei and Kuki groups have aligned themselves with armed groups or Tatmadaw in Myanmar. They are also procuring arms from the sources in Myanmar. It is well known that all the insurgent groups operating out of Manipur are well ensconced into the drug economy. The quest for land in the hills by some ethnic groups could well be to get a greater share of the poppy economy. India must take a major initiative to provide a social and economic alternate to the lure of poppy cultivation and drug production. Manipur is at long term risk if this is not done. The problems in Myanmar will not allow the ethnic fractures in Manipur to heal unless GOI and state governments rise above themselves. If the problem is not tackled with the seriousness it deserves, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and part of Arunachal will be disturbed. We need to talk more to solve this situation in the nation than the elections in 2024! The situation developing here is far more important for India than in Israel and Gaza; upon which we seem to be fixated! The choices are ours. So will be the consequences of neglect.