From Pyusawhti to the Present
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Tuesday, April 23, 2019


From Pyusawhti to the Present

By Pho Thar Aung JAN, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.1

Burma’s history of militias immersed in corruption dates back a long way. According to Burmese legend, a sun god married a female dragon and from their union a warrior prince was born. Named pyusawhti, the warrior prince rose in the second century to defeat the enemy and become king. Hoping to relive the glory of the legendary tale, Burma’s ruling regime established small local militias called pyusawhti, in 1955. Designed to repel insurgents in rural areas, the pyusawhti were based ideologically on so-called levy troops: armies built to defend collective settlements in the Middle East. In the 1950s, several Burma Army officers traveled to Israel on training and observation missions, and they returned with new ideas for their forces in Burma. Aung Gyi, who had commanded a levy troop in Israel, along with Ne Win and Maung Maung, was one of the founders of pyusawhti. Pyusawhti were poorly equipped. Their unsophisticated firearms were usually stolen from insurgents. Officers in pyusawhti units usually worked without salary or uniforms. Local authorities were charged with providing their food and supplies. Soon the units were adopted as personal militaries for local leaders of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a union of patriotic forces formed in 1944 that originally included Gen Aung San’s Burma Independence Army, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) and the Communist Party of Burma. Eventually pyusawhti became militant servants of AFPFL lords in the countryside. The pyusawhti rampaged rural areas to support their increasing greed, oppressed rural people and forced votes at election-time. Rigging elections and slaying opposition cadres became their specialty, robbery and rape their pastimes. They influenced the election in 1956 and were exposed for coercing voters to turn out during the ballot in 1960. Things changed for the pyusawhti at the turn of the decade. Having lost the confidence of the public, they soon became irrelevant. Ne Win and the BSPP separated from the AFPFL. As head of the Burma Army, Ne Win seized power in 1962. The following year his ruling military established its own militia units. Known as the kakweye or KKY, the units were designed to control Shan rebels and the communists to the northeast and east of Shan State. As communist forces in Shan State strengthened during the 1960s and 1970s, the power and influence of the kakweye also grew. Forced by the junta to be self-reliant, the kakweye units often had to arm and feed themselves, or, like their pyusawhti predecessors, rely on local support. Not surprisingly, the kakweye turned to drug barons and later became involved in the trade themselves. Heroin production and trafficking in the area intensified, and the top military brass and kakweye leaders prospered in collaboration with new drug traders. Lo Hsing Han was one kakweye leader and his lieutenant was Khun Sa. The two names have become synonymous with Burma’s illegal opium trade. As the kakweye became an integral part of illegal drug running, a new name appeared on the world map: the Golden Triangle. The scene was set for an expansive drug racket in the northeast of Burma. As in any Hollywood film, its actors, directors, and producers worked in concert. Junta leaders preferred to ignore that many of the kakweye leaders were linked to the Kuomintang, a China-based socialist movement. Most of the action took place along the Thai-Burma border in eastern Shan State where Kuomintang troops had maintained a controlling presence since the 1950s. Always vulnerable to insurgents, this area had been hard for Rangoon-based authorities to control since independence in 1948. Populated mostly by Shan and Lahu, the area was hill country that provided fertile soil and a perfect climate to grow poppies. The rugged terrain meant the area was virtually inaccessible to authorities and other outsiders. Thus crime, war and a lucrative drug trade spiraled out of control. In a military effort to contain the southward spread of communism, a convoy of military vehicles relocated Kokang and Wa warlords and landlords from Tangyan to mountain areas closer to the border. The increase in traffic meant that heroin could transit freely in mule caravans from Tangyan to Doilerng under military protection. The genie was out of the bottle. Khun Sa and his army set up a sovereign kingdom of their own in places once haunted by the Kuomintang. With profits from the burgeoning drug trade, Khun Sa could rest easy in his mountain kingdom. It wasn’t until 1973, when the international community begged for something to be done about Burma’s flourishing drug trade, that the junta dissolved the kakweye. But the junta’s response was too little, too late. And though there has been campaign after campaign against armed opposition forces, the Burmese army has never called for a serious military campaign to quell or wipe out drug barons.

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