11 Minutes To Read

Opium’s Calculus (Part 3: An Ordinary Place)

11 Minutes To Read

In the final part of this series, Bobby Anderson elaborates on the realities of opium-growing areas of Chin state, and their divergence from both existing stereotypes and the triage described in Part One and Two.

This three-part series discusses historical and contemporary insurgency and opium cultivation in Myanmar, and the conditions in which the drug trade supports territorial control, either for the state or its rebels. It focuses particularly on northern Chin state—an outlier in that a thriving opium trade there does not finance an insurgency. In Part One, I described the factors that lend to the durability of a given insurgency in Myanmar over time: geography, resources, and people. I then explained this interplay of drugs and insurgency across decades in Myanmar, before turning, in Part Two, to Chin state, Tonzang in particular, to examine how that area fits into the triage of crime and insurgency described in Part One. Part Three describes opium-growing areas I’ve visited, and how they differ from the stereotypes we often hold about such places. This is followed by the conclusion of this series, which considers opium as a proxy indicator for the coerced integration of non-market-reliant peoples into markets, from resource security to cash insecurity.

The reality of Tonzang’s opium-producing areas is that, unlike the imagery of opium we have from the KMT heyday of entire hillsides cleared, a distinct minority of persons in Tonzang are involved in growing opium, and a distinct minority of those persons use opium. The majority of persons in these areas go about their daily lives in the midst of a trade that only figures as one among many. In the villages immediately north of Tonzang town, the start of the January-March opium harvesting season may cause school attendance to temporarily drop, but this isn’t because kids are joyfully getting high under trees. It’s because the payment for field hands at that time is relatively extremely high, at 10,000 kyat a day. Further, the lack of enforcement—indeed, the presence of taxation—removes, in part, the stigma. These people aren’t junkies; addiction here is frowned upon and preached against by churches that retain the power they have lost elsewhere.

The Tonzang-Chikha Road (Photo by Bobby Anderson, IG: @batbitim)

“Village A”

The experience of a village— which in the interest of anonymity I’ll call Village A— is typical. This is a Tedim Chin village of twenty-six households, of whom a minority might be involved in opium cultivation in the surrounding hills. Village A sits upon a picturesque ridgeline overlooking surrounding hilltops, at the end of a cliff-hugging dirt track an hour off the Chikha—Tonzang road. The village was founded eighty-five years before, when the ancestors of today’s residents abandoned their land further east, near modern-day Tonzang town, after they’d exhausted the soil there. While the ridge Village A occupies provides beautiful views, its position, like so many other Chin villages, was chosen as a defensive one. That position of safety is now one of isolation; the households here contain 160 residents, most either very old or very young. This is a residual population, with a majority of residents, working age men in particular, living and working in Kalay or further afield; some are in India and Malaysia, with select members of this diaspora only returning for occasional familial, religious, and cultural obligations. There is no phone signal here, no secondary school, no permanent health clinic, and no shops; there is, however, a small primary school and a mobile health clinic that arrives every few weeks from Chikha. The village teens live with relatives or board in Chikha town, where the nearest secondary school is. Village A’s people grow corn and raise livestock for their own needs, but those so inclined also grow poppy for cash. In 2009, Khonumthung reported 500 hectares under cultivation in the area, although interviewees here describe cultivation decades earlier. The 2019 price of one kilogram of dried opium here is 15 lakh kyat: enough for a year’s needs. But the trade here is not merely subsistence: it has organizers, and some of those villagers now resident in Kalay, people imply, have nice cars and big houses. Still other purchasers are Burmese and Indian, and the end destination for the product is India. The purchasers come to Village A directly. Village A’s farmers here are encouraged by unmentioned persons to cultivate poppy, but they don’t report being coerced. Those in agreement are provided tools and seed on a contract farming model, but tellingly, with less exploitation than what is found in contract farming of licit crops. In other parts of Myanmar, and Thailand as well, contract farming often results in indentured servitude in all but name, and yet oblivious groups continue to “sell” it as the future of farming. The global professional services firm KPMG, for example, shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the nearly systematic abuse that occurs in the contract farming model.[1] The opium poppy crop produced in Village A is also taxed locally by local elites, described as “strong people.” In recent years, government actors have arrived in Village A to eradicate the opium crops on the hills near the village, but they have not made arrests. In a surprisingly progressive manner, those unmentioned persons who supplied the inputs for poppy cultivation did not consider the growers liable for the loss. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, landless sharecropper families would become enslaved for just such an outcome, and the implicit involvement of the Americans in such eradication actions undoubtedly lent support—and landless, indebted recruits—to the Taliban.[2] In Village A, as elsewhere, the alternative livelihood policy is simplistic, based on sentiment rather than action, and talk of untested quick fixes abound. Government extension agents and others have visited Village A and promised to return with Arabica seedlings and expertise, but they have not. Sandalwood trees have also been suggested. This is clownish, and reminds me of the way saffron was bandied about as a miracle cure for poppy cultivation in northwestern Afghanistan, where I worked in 2005-2006. That crop proved too nuanced and too labor-intensive for all but a small number of successful farmers; here, Arabica might prove more durable. But a paradox remains. These villages were founded in a time before they were integrated, or sought to be integrated, in cash-based markets. Their positions of isolation were selected on the basis of defense and this is inimical to roads being built to them, or services provided to them, in an affordable manner. The track connecting Village A to the rest of the world, and which connects opium growers to opium buyers, requires near-constant maintenance—maintenance undertaken by the Tatmadaw, which has a ubiquitous presence along the track. This is not to imply they are buyers; if they were, I wouldn’t have been allowed within miles of them. This is a border area, and therefore sensitive, and soldiers function as free labor. I came across a group of them at the foot of the road to Village A, on a training exercise, unloading light mortars and wooden crates of shells from a truck. Another group further up the track lay smoking and reading newspapers in the morning light, their rifles laying at their sides, alongside grass cutters. Village A is lucky; so are nearby Village B’s 11 households, with the Tatmadaw maintaining their track as well. Like Village A, they grow rice and corn, and raise goats and pigs; others grow oranges and monkey leaf and taro. They tried and failed at potatoes. Coffee grows wild in the surrounding hills but none knew what to do with it until three enterprising families planted new coffee in an organized manner. Two years remain before the first harvest, and this is another lesson for those who speak of alternative livelihoods: farmers aren’t stupid. They seek out and embrace new products and technology, but the key to their absorption of new products and new technologies is not their ambition and intelligence so much as it is tenure over their land. With tenure, crops like coffee, which take years before the first harvest arrives, can be cultivated. But without tenure, short-term crops such as opium are the logical choice, and the safe one, in an area where opium cultivation is encouraged and laws aren’t enforced. While the Tatmadaw might maintain the tracks to these villages, a track is not a road. These are red earth trails that disintegrate with every monsoon season. Villagers here would trade an opium crop for a road, hands down, but one will never be built because of the small population and the high cost. This means that all but the hardiest crops, like opium or coffee, will be too damaged to sell by the time they arrive at market. The future of these villages isn’t sandalwood or coffee, so much as it is subsistence and continued marginalization or relocation. This is one “blind spot” of many that people involved in alternative development projects often have. When they speak of alternate crop introduction, they describe it in terms of market linkages, but they don’t take into account the necessarily remote locations of communities involved in opium. Without a road, it’s not about market linkages, but food security and nutritional diversification. These are good, but they do not replace the value of the ultimate cash crop. And that’s the secret, revealed in Thailand over decades: what ultimately stopped farmers from growing opium wasn’t alternate crops. It was the coercion that could occur at the hands of the state once the state’s security actors were disentangled from the drug trade across decades. The late king Bhumibol Adulyadej insisted that alternative development programs start long before eradication and arrests began. Those programs ran for a decade and a half before wholesale eradication started in 1984. And while the alternative development program had some success in some areas, opium was still cultivated and sold. In 1984, Thailand’s hectares under cultivation approached an all-time high, and with the king’s reluctant approval, the army began a scorched earth campaign across cultivation areas in the northwest. A hill tribe friend who was a child in 1985 still has nightmares about it. Cultivation plummeted and communities took to alternate crops when it became clear that the Leviathan had two ways of doing things, one less sanguine than the other.

The irony of decriminalizing the state so that it may criminalize the communities it once profited from the sweat of remains.

It wasn’t only eradication that worked: over this period, the state arrived in the lives of hill tribes in more beneficial ways. Civil servants were stationed in remote tambons; health clinics and schools were built, and teachers arrived to teach the Thai curriculum. Electrification and telecommunications and transportation infrastructure encroached upon these communities, binding them within the web of the state and the market.

Although it is a cliché to say that Myanmar’s countryside, its peripheries in particular, are much like the highland Thailand of seventy years ago, there is some truth to it. The transition of farmers away from opium will take decades, and is determinant upon a continued consolidation of territory by peaceful or warlike means, in places that have nothing—and everything—to do with Tonzang.

Sunset in Khumnuai (Photo by Bobby Anderson, IG: @batbitim)


In Myanmar’s frontiers, Tonzang is more the rule than the exception. It is relevant in that state-building and “development” occurs there in a so-far uncontested, and therefore, unobserved manner. It fails to attract attention because the typical bromides that hack journalists seek to utter across Myanmar find no purchase there. But in Tonzang and along the entirety of the country’s frontiers, the Union of Myanmar has spent the last seven decades in a state of gradual consolidation, and this continues, not only in the violence and stalemate of Northern Shan and Kachin and Rakhine States, but in myriad other corners undistinguished by air strikes and refugees, where we can still discern the less sanguine moving parameters of an ongoing colonial endeavor by an ambitious outside power, of which an implicitly Bamar Union is only the latest incarnation.

The British before them sought to consolidate the lowlands with the assistance—indeed, favor—of highland peoples, and since independence, the Tatmadaw and the civilian government have flipped this on its head. What occurs now is reminiscent of the Konbaung dynasty—the indigenous colonizer that pre-dated the British, and which conquered Assam, the broad and fertile plain to Tonzang’s further north. The British vilified and then destroyed the Konbaung dynasty in part because they recognized the tanner-faced colonialism of a kingdom which regarded itself as superior, and which their own empire, with a similar self-regard that required a monopoly on such ego, could therefore not countenance.

If we compare Monghsat, Eastern Shan State—the original “heart of darkness” penny-a-liners sought to travel up—to Tonzang, we glimpse that the missing ingredient in Tonzang may have been exactly that globalized political instability that was begun not by colonialism or World War II or the Cold War, but by the unbridled metastasis of capitalism itself. In Tonzang, Zomia continued. In Monghsat, it mutated, and poppy cultivation exploded like a virus-infected cell. There the KMT behaved in a manner no different from those early modern brigand capitalist statebuilders that Charles Tilly described in his classic 1985 essay “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” As for the KMT’s distant forefather-godfathers in the drug trade, William Jardine and James Matheson, those instruments of empire were the Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Amado Carrillo Fuentes of their time. It is in those high-altitude topographies where populations are low compared to resources that opium is often traditionally found, and those same topographies are shrinking as states expand and migrants encroach. The volume of opium cultivation in such an area at a given time might serve as a proxy indicator for the transition of that same area to a market economy, where persons useless to “the market” are compelled to enter it. Through this process of capitalist terraforming, wealth measurements shift from resources to dollars. In this the market domesticates us as we domesticated wolves thousands of years previously, rendering them as dogs. An exponential rate of cultivation can be seen as a transitional market-linked infection in the form of those “violent entrepreneurs” who pioneered capitalism, which set upon a stable and swiddened landscape, overran it, and when the infection cleared, “licit” monocrops blossomed in their stead. Rice deserves special mention here: it is a staple food of coercion, as described by James C. Scott, where captured and immobilized populations tend a large-scale fixed crop with a long post-harvest shelf life, one easy to confiscate, store, and tax; a food for slaves. Such monocrops give the illusion of order, of stability. They are actually the opposite, almost a folding down of dimensions from three to two. We regard monocrop landscapes as natural because our baseline is only within our own experience, but our distant ancestors would see deserts where we see life. Order and stability came from the variation provided by the swiddening system which monocropping annihilated, exposing people to market shocks, and nailing their futures to kyat, dollars or baht. If those people who underwent this transition could have chosen such stability or instability unprodded by rifle barrels, which would they choose? Let’s step away from this anarchist finger-pointing though, and see the market for what it has become: a brutally insecure coping mechanism for an exponentially growing human population that rapidly outstrips the resources that can support it. Here globalization is a scrambling ICU of beeping machines and defibrillator chest paddles, with the rate of opium cultivation represented as just another spiking histogram on one of a room full of monitors.[3] Zomia is dead, but in some areas, it still gasps. We see this transition, this reckoning, not just in the landscape, and in the opium and insurgency that rose from it, but in the families and personages who adapted as well: Lo Hsing Han, Olive Yang, and other notable personalities are individual emblems of collective struggles divorced from morality. Perhaps they were not so much criminals as nodes in which various survival strategies coalesced. Robin Corey’s words ring here: “Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.” And the warlords and sociopaths who did find their niche in the places where borders did not quite stretch—Khun Sa and others—also formed the building blocks of the state. It is the co-option and legitimation of such people, and such wealth, that has strengthened states, ever since states emerged as dominant coercive organizations after the Thirty Year’s War. Indeed, the state system was created by such organized criminals. The man in the wheelchair eventually looked up from his game and asked me where I was from. Aung San looked down upon us, his hands burrowed into the pockets of a greatcoat made for the bulk of some beef-fed English elite rather than a skinny Burmese upstart barely into his 30s. I wondered what he would think of this mess; if he had any idea what a puerile man Ne Win was, a peasant thug cut from the same stained cloth as Ceausescu, one who treated an entire country as a neighborhood to terrorize with baying dogs and slurred threats. “New York,” I answered. He shrugged. It had no meaning for him. He bent his head back down, to return to his game, and I did likewise.

Bobby Anderson (gletkin@gmail.com) is a Myanmar-based Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He thanks Jasnea Sarma for her comments on an earlier draft.


[1]  KPMG. 2015. Myanmar’s Untapped Opportunity: How Agribusiness can Transform its Economy. Singapore: KPMG.

[2]  Based on conversations with colleagues in Helmand, Uruzgan, and Badakhshan, amongst other provinces, 2005-2007.

[3] One monitor might well display the effects of climate change. Across the next century lowland Bamar areas will bear the brunt of the deleterious effects of such change, and we can anticipate yet another wave of flight to such upland areas—the final one, the state so many Zomia highlanders had fled finally arriving in force. If the Tatmadaw doesn’t possess a classified white paper addressing climate change contingency, it will soon.