Hpa-An, 40 kilometers up the Salween River by twice-weekly ferry from Mawlamyine, looks pretty much like any other Southeast-Asian one-water-buffalo town. Dusty ragged streets, tiny stores and restaurants, cheerful children and their watchful mothers, harassed-looking pariah dogs slinking by.
Some things, though, are subtly wrong, subtly off. The rice shop is so stuffed with bags of rice, stuffed to overflowing, that the owner and his clerk do their sums not inside where it’s cool but out on the sidewalk, with more stacks of rice-bags as a desk. The children are particularly cheerful, playing on complicated Chinese- and Thai-made plastic riding toys. My hotel cost $25 a night, twice what I had paid at Mawlamyine, and the electricity, water, and sewage systems are all far from reliable, but the room is provisioned with full-sized tubes of Close-Up and genuine Sprite instead of the local equivalents. There are more hotels in the town than there are tourists (after a day we know the name, nationality, and quarters of any white face we see) but every hotel claims to be full. What is going on here?
It took me over a day, chatting with those of the locals who speak English, to find out. Myanmar is said to be at civil war, has been since at least 1962, by far the longest-lasting war in modern history. Actually, calling it a war is something of a misnomer. It’s more like the warlord period of China before the Communist takeover. Almost every one of Myanmar’s 130 ethnic groups has its own army, and each army constitutes something like a government-without-portfolio in whatever territory it controls. The Burman people, being the majority ethnic group, have the largest and most powerful army, the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, so it gets to be called “the” government, it issues the currency, credentials ambassadors to other country, and so on. It maintains shaky truces with several of the more powerful of the other armies, and puts some effort into combating the rest.
The local Karen people are represented by at least two such armies. The smaller is the Karen National Union (most of the armies use “union” or “united” in their name – the United Wa Army, the United Shan State Army – which you can take as either typical Myanmar irony or typical Myanmar indifference to irony, as you prefer). Almost defeated, the KNU lurk just across the border in Thailand, where they can recruit from refugee camps and train with retired US soldiers, who are there to pick up a few bucks and some jungle cred working as “mercs”.
The dominant army is an offshoot of the KNU called the DKBA, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association. Despite the benevolent name, they are a full-fledged army. I had never seen warlord troops before and was expecting something like a street gang writ slightly large: louche young men in sunglasses and track-suits and flashing useless, ridiculous weapons like Mac-10s and pearl-handled .45s. No, these guys were real soldiers: camo fatigues, badges and patches, a strip reading D.K.B.A. in red above the name-tag. And well-armed with what looked like AK-74s and American Vietnam-era M79 grenade launchers. The closest thing to a gangbanger touch was the staff-car: a big Toyota Cressida professionally painted in a high-gloss camouflage pattern.
The grenadier interested me particularly. He had the grenade launcher, which looked like a fat shotgun with a barrel you could almost stick your fist in, slung over one shoulder and both a bandoleer and a belt full of grenades. But a grenade launcher is not much good for threatening people. At any distance short enough to convey a threat by words or gestures, the grenade is almost as dangerous to the grenadier as to the target. (US Senator John Kerry famously gave himself his “million-dollar wound” by firing his M79 at a badly wounded teenaged VC trying to limp away. In his case, the resulting injury to Kerry was not enough to require a bandage but the Purple Heart he was awarded took him out of the muddy rivers of the Mekong Delta and sent him back to Massachusetts and a life of poodlery to a succession of rich women and Ted Kennedy.)
My theory about the grenades is complicated. The DKBA is financed by smuggling. Since the SPDC controls the border crossing and imposes heavy official and unofficial tariffs, food, clothes, medicines, toiletries, even cars and heavy equipment, are floated across the Moei River from Mae Sot, Thailand, on bamboo rafts, then transferred to buses, ordinary passenger buses stripped of seats. The buses, sporting official DKBA placards in the windshield, are driven to Hpa An, where the goods are loaded on to huge 10-wheeled lorries that have ordinary Myanmar license plates and registrations and therefore can drive all over the country. It’s a rare hour in downtown Hpa An when you cannot watch a bus being unloaded or a truck being loaded. The salaries of the men who do this work, and of the men who guard them, are what keeps Hpa An prosperous; just negligible skimming is enough to keep the shops stocked full.
The substantial profits from this traffic support the army and, I suspect, pay the large franchise fee owed to Yangon for the dispensation to operate. The DKBA is in a shooting war with the KNU. In fact, the head of the KNU, Pado Mahn Shar, was assassinated two years ago, allegedly by DKBA operatives (although my own sources claim it was rival KNU officers, which would make it a local civil war inside a provincial civil war inside a national civil war). The war is at some level a religious one: the KNU is too Christian for the DKBA purists.
To continue winning the war, the DKBA must protect their smuggling monopoly and keep the KNU from getting any of the revenue. By the terms of the treaty (which is probably unwritten and maybe even unspoken), the SPDC forces are not supposed to detain DKBA transports inside the Karen State, a provision that must sometimes be upheld by force of arms against overzealous SPDC checkpoint commanders, and the checkpoints certainly would certainly stop any KNU trucks they find, but the jungle is shot through with roads and paths where the KNU might run their own competing smuggling operations. Rather than maintain their own checkpoints there, I think the DKBA dispatches patrols to engage any KNU convoys and use their superior firepower – here’s where the grenade launchers come in – to enable the KNUers to discover for themselves which local theories on reincarnation are correct.
One might ask why the SPDC blocks DKBA trade at the border, but not in the interior of Karen State? Just to save face with the Thai border guards? Conversely, why do they bother to establish anti-smuggling checkpoints even after they agreed to let the only actual smugglers through? Perhaps the DKBA wants it that way, so the SPDC assists in suppressing competitive smugglers; perhaps the SPDC is genuinely hoping to maintain a semblance of order.
There are a lot of theories but I have developed a standard and very satisfactory answer to all these questions: this is Myanmar, things just happen.
The simplest economic arithmetic says that trade cannot go in one direction. What goes out to pay for all the stolen Toyotas, the toothpaste, the rice that come in? If you ask in Bangkok, everybody knows: drugs. While the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, any Thai will tell you, most of the world’s opium came out of Myanmar. Now that the less-efficient Americans roam the Kandahar hills, letting the poppies bloom, Myanmar has been forced to branch out: methamphetamines, MDMA, even Rohypnol.
Some Thais told me that a similar process occurred in another line of trade. In the 1990s, pornography was suppressed in the Kingdom and so, supposedly, pornographic videos were produced inside Myanmar and smuggled south alongside the bales of opium; the recent easing of restrictions in Thailand on producing adult material helped force Myanmar to the production of synthetic psychoactives like MDMA. Having seen the frankly pathetic conditions endemic to Myanmar, I don’t believe this. Even if the video production survived electricity and equipment shortages, the underfed performers and shabby settings would make any product far more depressing than erotic, even to a jaded taste.
In Hpa An I asked about the outbound drug trade. Everyone assured me that it was the neighboring Shan people who did that, no Karen would stoop to trafficking in drugs. In Yangon, I had been told it was the Wa people who controlled the drugs, an even more implausible suggestion, as the Wa are on the border with the thinly-populated Yunnan province of China. Smuggling there wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a long trip to any airport or seaport or even a city wealthy enough to indulge in smack and meth.
Despite the heavy presence of warlord troops and DKBA stevedores, Hpa An is a remarkably clean town. I don’t mean physically: it has the usual Myanmar snowfall of litter and plastic everywhere. But there are no bars, no brothels or street-girls, no drugs, at least none visible to the casual observer, and the only casino is a closet-sized arcade of video-poker games and pachinko-like pinball machines. The players are mostly chain-smoking local boys, too young even for a warlord army.
Perhaps the discipline and order that marks Hpa An comes from the DKBA leader, a man known as Seado, “the Abbot”. He’s called that not from any (un-Karen-like) sarcasm, but because he is in fact the abbot of the Hpa An monastery. The prior of some dozens of monks, the pastor to much of Hpa An’s population, the commander-in-chief of a respectable-sized army, the caudillo of a territory twice the size of Connecticut, the Godfather of a large and effective smuggling ring, and, I was told, something of a real-estate developer – he must be a busy man; I didn’t meet him, but I saw his picture: he looked unexpectedly serene.
Disclaimer: this report was written 29 months ago, so many things may have changed (the ferry’s been canceled for one). Moreover, it was written from week-old memory, I did not take notes at the time. I doubt that Myanmar secret police are any more efficient than the electricity ministry, but am not curious enough to try to find out the hard way. The people I talked to were not, of course, native English speakers, far from it, and in any case were often relaying rumor and third-hand information. You should therefore regard any statement herein with due skepticism.