Tue 31 May 2005
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
AT the top of Gon Kha hill on the border between Thailand and Burma, the rebels of the Shan State Army shelter inside sandbagged wooden fortifications and dug-outs.
Less than half a mile away at the foot of the hill are six enemy positions.
Between the two, on a steep, grassy slope, the SSA claim that hundreds of their opponents have died. The soldiers argue that they had no choice but to mow them down as they charged up the hill.
After almost half a century of fighting against Burma’s military dictatorship, the SSA is struggling for its very survival.
The rebel group once controlled swathes of Burma’s Shan State, in the notorious Golden Triangle, but has seen its territory shrink to four enclaves, home to little more than 10,000 people.
It is one of the last groups preventing Burma’s military junta from claiming total control of a country that has rarely been fully united during its history.
Now its headquarters at nearby Doi Taileng are under siege by the United Wa State Army, described by America’s Drug Enforcement Administration as one of the largest drug-producing and trafficking organisations in the world.
The Wa, another of Burma’s many minorities, agreed a ceasefire with the generals in Rangoon more than a decade ago, leaving it free to concentrate on making fortunes from heroin and methamphetamines.
Capturing Doi Taileng would give the Wa access to a new smuggling route for the drugs it dispatches across Asia and as far as America and earn the regime’s gratitude for defeating the Shan, one of the last ethnic armies resisting Rangoon’s direct rule.
At last week’s Resistance Day ceremony Col Yawd Serk, the leader of the SSA, said: “We all know what is happening today. Life here is getting harder but we have to go on.
”In the present situation it is not wise to think of our own personal interests. We should think of the big picture – not to let our ancestral homeland fall under the enemy.”
According to Col Yawd Serk, the 800 men ranged against him were from the UWSA’s 171st military brigade, led by Wei Hsueh-kang, for whose capture the America’s State Department has offered a $2 million reward.
Wei is listed as a “drug kingpin” by the United States government. Earlier this year he was indicted in New York on charges of global heroin and methamphetamine trafficking.
Col Yawd Serk said Wei was being actively assisted with men and materials from the regime’s military rulers, the State Peace and Development Council. “All their heavy artillery are manned by SPDC troops,” he said. “The Wa are helping the SPDC. This is a drugs shipping line and if our troops are not here, they can move to and from this area.”
Burmese officials have denied involvement, saying the militias are fighting among themselves. But Debbie Stothard, of Altsean-Burma, a group pushing for reform in Burma, said: “It’s quite clear the Wa army are fighting because of common interest with the Burmese military.”
Col Yawd Serk insisted that he receives “not a penny” from narcotics, even though he and several of his officers are former members of opium-financed armies and he says that barring his own impoverished villagers from growing poppies would condemn them to starvation. “We are waging war against drugs. When we know the main culprits, we hit them hard, so we cannot tax them at the same time,” he said.
The colonel funds his insurgency with $1 million a year from taxes on teak exports, cars and cattle, and some individual foreign donations, he explained.
Nonetheless Nikolas Win Myint, a spokesman for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Rangoon, said: “Over time every group has been involved to some extent.
”It’s hard for anyone to claim that they are entirely innocent, with the history of drugs as complicated as it is in the Shan state.”
After independence from Britain in 1948 the Shan, divided into more than 30 principalities in the sprawling region’s rugged hills, agreed to join the Union of Burma, allegedly with the promise of the right of secession.
But feeling exploited and politically eviscerated by Rangoon, they rebelled.
Col Yawd Serk was defiant, as he needs to be.
If the enemy has bigger guns, “It’s good for nothing if you have no guts,” he said.