Satellite on … And all questions unanswered

In Myanmar, many things are puzzling: among them, the role of the warlords in opium cultivation and forced relocations

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released satellite imagery showing disappeared villages in Myanmar. What they don’t show is why these villages disappeared. While it’s relatively clear where the villages are on the satellite imagery – it’s less clear which areas which armed group is controlling at any given moment.

The organization compiled images from the OrbView, Ikonos and DigitalGlobe satellites, taken over a number of years from opposition groups, showing the destruction of villages, as part of the Science and Human Rights program.

The conclusion that the satellite images "According to experts" show, "how the Burmese militar is acting against its opponents" can be blamed on certain media rather than AAAS – the latter were far more cautious in their statements.

The among other things of the mirror as causer mentioned "ubiquitous military" is in the affected areas far less "ubiquitous" as shown. The assertion that the regime is the country’s "firmly in the grip" is true only for the heartland. In border areas, either fighting or autonomy agreements have been reached, leaving warlords in control of areas.

Satellite on ... And all ask openly

Traditionally, a central government makes a better boss for the mass media than the picturesque Burmese "Liberation Armies". However, the more sellable bosewicht in mass media is not necessarily the really bosewicht. In cases like Kosovo, the representations of the events turned out to be highly problematic in retrospect – and the cure ultimately more harmful than the disease.

Myanmar, Burma, Burma, or "Warlordistan"?

On 4. January 1948 Burma became independent. In the process, the border areas administered separately by the British were added to the country, which resulted in guerrilla wars that continue to this day. Under the current head of state, General Tan Shwe, the guerrilla wars in the border areas of the country, which was renamed Myanmar in 1989, were successfully contained from 1992 onward. However, this has come at the price of granting the local warlords such extensive autonomy rights that the central government has very little to say there.

Depending on the numbers, up to 135 different ethnic groups live in Myanmar – most of them in the border areas. Apart from the Bamar (Burmese) people, who make up about 70% of the population, the most important are the Shan, who are closely related to the Thai and make up about 10% of the population, and the Karen, who are predominantly Christian and make up 7% of the population. Other important groups are the Khmer-related Mon, Wa and Palaung, the northern Kachin, the Indian-based Naga, the Lisu, who also live in China and Thailand, and a Chinese minority.

Satellite on ... And all questions open

Political structure of Myanmar. Map: Wikimedia Commons The image Administrative divisions of Burma is taken from the free media database Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The author of the picture is Aotearoa.

The country is divided into seven districts inhabited mainly by the majority Bamar people "taing-myar" (provinces) and seven "pyi ne-myar" (states), each of which has a minority population. The language of the Rakhaing (Arakanese), who have their own state within Burma, is often considered a mere dialect of Burmese. A Tibeto-Burman language is also spoken by the Chin, who also have their own state.


The Kachin state was already created in 1948. It is settled in the mountainous area of Kachin, in many valleys of Bamar or Shan. At the beginning of the 1960s "Kachin Rifles", who had been integrated into the Burmese army from the British colonial army in 1948, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and its political arm, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which has dominated the hill country in Kachin State ever since.

Economically, it differed from most other guerrilla groups in that it financed itself not only by growing poppies and trading opium, but also by mining and smuggling jade. In this respect, the conquest of the most important jade mines by "Tatmadaw" – Government troops of the "State Peace and Development Council" (SPDC) – the key to a 1994 cease-fire that gave the KIO extensive autonomy rights. However, there are also armed groups in its official territory that are deeply hostile to the KIO, including the New Democratic Army Kachin (NDA-K), which controls an area on the Chinese border.


The Mon state was created only in 1974. It was intended to take the wind out of the sails of the Mon National Liberation Front (MNLF), which had been fighting since 1962. Nevertheless, the armed struggle of the MNLF continued until 1995. Then the guerrilla group signed a treaty with the government that gives its political arm, the New Mon State Party, dominion in the parts of Mon State it controls.


The record holder in long-term guerrilla warfare is the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has been fighting the central government since 1948. The Karen resistance is also fed by the fact that they, like the Kachin, are predominantly Christians. In some cases, this resistance also took on terrorist forms, for example in the case of the God’s Army, a splinter group of the KNLA that existed from 1997 to 2001. She gained notoriety among others for the hostage-takings in a hospital in Ratchaburi, Thailand. A minority of Buddhist Karen seceded under the leadership of Monk U Thuzana to form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which was allegedly promised rule of Karen State by the government.


In the mid-1880s, the British integrated 33 Shan-Furstentum people, or "Kachin" "Mong’s" qua indirect rule into its colonial empire. At the Panglong Conference, Shan (as well as Kachin and Chin) elites agreed to integrate their states into the Union of Burma. In 1959, the Shan princes were deprived of their power. Most of them subsequently left the country, but from exile they staged resistance against the central government. Ne Win was therefore able to justify his coup in 1962 with the threat of the Shan State falling away.

The power vacuum was filled relatively quickly: Khun Sa, the "King of Heroin", as ABC Television called him, led a force called for by the military government in the 1960s as part of the Ka-Kwe-Ye program against the Shan guerrillas. It is disputed to what extent this demand also included toleration of poppy cultivation and the opium trade. When he was powerful enough, he refused to support the central government, established a drug empire he controlled in Shan State, and proclaimed himself the "liberator" of the Shan from.

In 1985 he united his Shan United Army (SUA) with two other groups under his leadership to form the Muang Tai Army (MTA). In the late 1980s, he caused a worldwide stir when he offered the U.S. government his entire heroin production for sale or in exchange for recognition of the independence of his Shan state. In 1996, the drug lord surrendered to the government after a mutiny and was punished with a villa, golf dates with the generals, and a license to operate buses in Rangoon.

The Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) was formed from Khun Sa’s MTA under the leadership of Yawd Serk. It is in a state of war with the Tatmadaw and controls an area with the capital Loi Taileng, which is not recognized by the government as an autonomous region. On the other hand, the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), which controls an area in the north of Shan State, signed a ceasefire with Rangoon.

However, the two armies are far from the only ones controlling territory in Shan State. In fact, the area is now a patchwork of rule by a wide variety of armed bands-not only Shan-led ones such as the National Democratic Alliance Army Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS), the Shan State Nationalities Peoples Liberation Army (SSNPLA), and the Shan State People Army (SSPA)-but also those of other ethnic groups such as Kachin, Chinese and Wa.

Satellite on ... And all questions open

Khun Sa


The mortal enemy of the SSA-S is the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Khun Sa and his Muang Tai Army (MTA) fought bitter battles with the UWSA – not only for settlement areas, but also for shares in the drug business

Linguistically related to the Mon, the Wa are culturally very different from them: Not so long ago, they were considered headhunters, whose village entrances were decorated with galleries of piles of pikes.2 Even today, they are predominantly adherents of their folk religion. Buddhist and Christian missionary efforts could achieve only very modest successes with them.

Since the cease-fire in 1989, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the civilian arm of the UWSA, has had an autonomous region in Shan State on the border with China, where a family that gained power and influence through drug trafficking rules largely according to its own will. As "President" acts Bao Youxiang, the founder of the UWSP. Administration and militar are controlled by his brothers Bao Youri and Bao Youliang.

The treaty granting autonomy to the USWP contains a clause that it will apply only until a new treaty for Myanmar is passed. A move by the military government that could potentially cause political changes to reignite conflicts.

Ein Hauptkonkurrent der UWSA ist die Wa National Army (WNA) des zeitweise wegen Drogenhandels inhaftierten Wa Maha Sang, die von der thailandischen Provinz Mae Hong aus operiert.

Opium cultivation and resettlement

The USWA was heavily dependent on opium in the past – economically. Drug cultivation and trafficking were considered the most important economic factor in the past. The U.S. government classified its autonomous region as an area ruled by drug lords in 2003 and 2005. As a result, the Bao brothers banned the cultivation of opium and set about enforcing the ban with resettlements.

One reason for the Bao brothers’ willingness to give up poppy cultivation, however, could also be that the production of another drug causes less international stir and nevertheless promises high profits: Thailand accuses the UWSA of flooding Southeast Asia with the substance, which is known in Europe and the U.S. as "crystal meth", or "Hitler Speed" and in Thailand as "Yaa Baa" .

In any case, the Chinese government donated 180 million yuan to demand the conversion from opium to tea and rubber plantations. Sugarcane, rice, fruits and vegetables are also to replace opium cultivation. For this purpose, villages will be relocated from the mountains to lower-lying regions. The relocations will also take place in areas on the Thai border controlled by the USWA warlords Ta Htang, Ta Rong and Wei Hsiaokangs.

However, not all of those affected seem to be as enthusiastic as the UN, which called for this restructuring. Some resettlements are therefore said to have been carried out by force – there is also talk of human rights violations. Groups living in the south of Shan State are said to have fled to Thailand because of the settlement of Wa.

Destroyed Dorfer and built illusions

The destruction of 3,000 villages denounced by American senators like Dianne Feinstein may therefore have been due in no small part to an old demand of her government – the effective fight against opium cultivation. When fields were destroyed in Bolivia and Colombia, Feinstein was less petty. There, the U.S. buried such takings as a legitimate means in the "War on Drugs".

back to the satellite images: Particularly with regard to what Spiegel called "Particularly impressive pair of pictures" In the example from Shan State, which shows a recording from 2000 of 24 houses that were destroyed seven years later, there are some indications that the responsibility might have been more likely to fall on local guerrilla groups, due to the power relations in the recording region: The affected areas in Shan State at the time in question were likely contested not between government forces and the SSA-S, but between the SSA-S and the SSNPLA.

It is more likely that Tatmadaw was directly involved in the pictures of destroyed villages from Karen State. But here, too, the situation is far too unclear to be able to deduce more precisely from the pictures what the perpetrators, victims and motives are.

Papun district in northern Karen State is fiercely contested – some areas are under KNU control, others under Tatmadaw rule, and still others are held by the DKBA. Toungoo and Dooplaya counties are also fiercely contested.

Who is responsible for the presumed forced resettlements and the destruction of villages and fields is therefore just as uncertain as the reasons for which they were carried out. In addition to the destruction of infrastructure for military reasons and the expulsion of other ethnic groups, the fight against poppy cultivation could also be considered.

As part of the ASEAN agreements, the Myanmar government decided that poppy cultivation and the opium trade should be completely eliminated from the country by 2014. A goal that China, among others, is insisting be met.

In fact, there are indications that the formerly important economic factor is increasingly fading into the background: In the heyday, 70% of the world’s opium production is said to have come from Burma and the neighboring countries to the north and east. In the meantime, the country, with 8% of the world’s opium production, is far behind the leader Afghanistan, which has been able to increase its opium production considerably since the American invasion.

In tomorrow’s second part of the series: the role of the monks and burning mosques

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