After a three-day trek through the jungles of Myanmar's Golden Triangle this past February, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army's (TNLA) Battalion 101 finally reached an objective that had been in its sights for years: the poppy fields, heroin refineries, and methamphetamine labs of the Pansey Mountains.
"This," said one TNLA sergeant, "looks like Mordor."
The area is a natural fortress, situated at an elevation of more that 6,000 feet and nestled near the Chinese border. Only poppies still grow in the deforested, high-altitude region, which is overseen by a man named Kyaw Myint. He is not only an alleged drug lord and militia commander, he is also a business tycoon, state-level parliamentarian, and member of the same majority political party as Thein Sein, the current president of Myanmar.
Less than 30 minutes after the TNLA entered the area, they exchanged fire with two militiamen who appeared to be protecting an opium farm. After 10 minutes of fighting, the militiamen fled, and the Ta'ang soldiers decided to make camp, killing a few chickens for dinner. After positioning guards around the farm for security, Tar More Seing, the commander of Battalion 101, walked into the farm house. There, a soldier handed him documents left behind by the owner.
"You see, he is not even Burmese — he's Chinese," Tar More Seing said of the man who owned the farm. "In addition, he is a member of the military political party and the chief of the village."
Tar More Seing paused, looking around the house.
"It's really a nice farm," he said. "We will sleep inside tonight and burn it down in the morning."
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The north of the Golden Triangle, in the Shan State in Myanmar, is a lawless and rugged region that's home to many different ethnic groups, including the Shan, Kachin, Kokang, Wa, and Ta'ang. They all have longstanding martial traditions — except for the Ta'ang. Though they were among the many ethnic groups who took up arms against the Burmese army half a century ago, they'd historically been known as peaceful tea farmers living on top of mountains and in hard-to-reach valley, choosing to seek out remote areas rather than fight against the Burmese or their Shan and Kachin neighbors for control of more accessible and fertile valleys.
But the Ta'ang homeland may be one of Myanmar's richest regions in terms of natural resources and hydropower. This hasn't been a blessing for the Ta'ang, however; as the mining of rubies in Mogok and silver in Mantu has demonstrated, profits from natural resources on their lands have largely gone to ethnic Burmese elites and Chinese investors.
"During World War II, a British officer came to my grandfather's village asking for the men to join the Allies against the Japanese," explains Tar Aik Phone, the TNLA's current chairman. "My grandfather explained to him that Ta'ang people do not fight. The British officer answered that as long as Ta'ang people refuse to fight, they will always be slaves."
Four years ago, a group of 60 men led by Tar Aik Phone decided to fight for control of their territory under the flag of the TNLA.
"We were ready to start fighting before, but we needed to wait for the proper moment," Phone explained. In 2011, the re-emerging conflict between the Burmese Army and two other armed ethnic groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), presented the TNLA with the opportunity to expand its operational area quickly without being countered by the beleaguered Burmese.
Benefitting as well from the military and logistical support of the KIA and SSA-N, the TNLA rapidly grew into a force that today may number as many as 3,500 guerrillas. Armed with assault riffles and RPGs — they say they pay for equipment with revenue from a few mines they control and with money sent home by Ta'ang living in China and Thailand — TNLA soldiers control or patrol in a wide swathe of territory that stretches from the Irrawaddy River valley to the Chinese border.
The Ta'ang battle an insidious problem. The Golden Triangle is today the world's largest producer of methamphetamine — known locally as yaba or the "madness drug" — and the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan. Not all of the product is exported to foreign markets, and so like most of Myanmar's border areas, the Ta'ang region sees massive amounts of drug addiction. In some villages 70 percent of men over 15 years old are addicts.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that use of heroin and methamphetamine in the Golden Triangle has more than tripled since 2012. Drugs there are cheap; yaba tablets sell for as little as $1.
"Our village looked like a graveyard," one monk in a village in the remote Tar Moe Nyae region told VICE News. "No men were working on the fields, and the rate of robberies and domestic violence increased."
Despite what Tar More Seing described as frequent shelling by the Burmese Army, the TNLA has been patrolling the region for four years. Infantry battalions destroy poppy fields belonging to independent farmers and force drug addicts they come across to quit cold-turkey.
"We have to let those two go now, we can't bring them to combat," Tar More Seing said at one point during the three-day march into the Pansey Mountains. He was pointing at two ethnic Chinese men the patrol had picked up after they were caught with drugs at a check point. Tar More Seing and his men had forced both men, each with ropes tied around their necks, to march with them for two days.
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Like most TNLA soldiers and officers, Tar More Seing says he loathes the drug militias as much, if not more, than the Burmese Army. Technically under the supervision of the Burmese Army and made up of people from various ethnic groups, the militias are more accustomed to jungle warfare than ethnic Burmese troops, who mostly come from the arid plains of central Myanmar. The militias also provide intelligence on the insurgent troop movements, and control outposts in remote ethnic regions.
The militias are known to be involved in the production and traffic of narcotics. In addition to supporting the lifestyles of their commanders — opulent homes in Burmese and Chinese cities, luxury SUVs — narcotics production allows the militias to self-finance their operations against the ethnic insurgents alongside the Burmese Army. The army also reaps benefits from the narco-trade, though they don't necessarily have any direct involvement in production. Instead, the army taxes the militias for the security the army provides and the permission it gives to use government-controlled roads to export narcotics. Burmese officers take a personal cut out of these taxes, making an army posting in the Golden Triangle highly desirable despite the ongoing conflict.
Local leaders and TNLA officers see another objective in the production of narcotics: using addiction as a weapon to destroy the social structure of the ethnic populations that overwhelmingly support the insurgents. The army, said one head of a civic organization, has started to use drugs as a "silent bullet."
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Tar More Seing didn't order his soldiers to burn down the farm after all — the unexpected arrival of the farmer's wife in the evening changed his mind. After getting over the shock of finding 30 armed men in her house, she successfully begged the commander, with a picture of her children in hand, to spare the home.
But Tar More Seing's benevolence had its limits. The following day, he ordered his troops to eradicate opium poppy crops on neighboring farms. The terrified ethnic Chinese farmers were forced to burn their own crops, though Tar More Seing's men didn't appear to use physical violence to compel them to do so. Cultivating one of the only crops able to grow in the harsh mountains, a typical poppy farmer in the region earns less than $500 per year and is dependent on the price drug traffickers set for the opium harvest.
In the evening, the battalion found another farm in which to take shelter for its second night inside enemy territory. As the Ta'ang were preparing dinner, militiamen and Burmese soldiers based on the other side of the valley launched an attack. After creeping through the dark, they had reached the ridges of the mountain and taken the high ground above the TNLA positions. Once there, they began firing RPGs.
The first RPGs exploded near the farm, taking the Ta'ang by surprise. After grabbing their guns and bags — and leaving behind the Chinese farmers — the soldiers all managed to run out of the house shortly before a rocket destroyed it. (The fate of the farmers was unclear.) Still under fire, the Ta'ang sprinted through the poppy fields to find shelter in the nearby jungle. After regrouping, the battalion climbed up toward the ridge to engage the army.
One Ta'ang sergeant, enraged over having to abandon his dinner, led a group of men on an attack after launching RPGs at the army's position, the explosions the only real illumination in the pitch-black night. Thirty minutes later, the Burmese soldiers and Chinese militias pulled back, leaving behind the bodies of several of their dead.
Afterward, the Ta'ang soldiers camped on a nearby summit, ensuring they wouldn't be surprised from above again. But the wind and cold temperatures, which approached freezing overnight, prevented any of them from getting much sleep.
"We were very lucky last night, no one got wounded except him," Tar More Seing said the next morning, pointing to a soldier who had a small scratch on his left knee. "If the bullet had flown one more inch to the right, we would have had to amputate his leg."
Like most of the TNLA troops, the soldier was a former drug addict who joined the ethnic insurgent group after being forced by the TNLA to quit cold-turkey.
The Ta'ang marched back down into the valleys to engage army reinforcements who had been dispatched from nearby military bases during the night. Snipers remained on higher ground to cover their comrades below.
One sniper took aim at a farm in the valley below.
"The militias lost a man there yesterday night, and they will soon come to pick up his body," he said. "We're going to wait until they're carrying the body so they are heavier and slower."
Less than 5 minutes later, a group of militiamen appeared on the opposite side of the valley. Once they started to carry their fallen colleague down a hill, the Ta'ang sniper opened fire. A minute later, three of the militiamen lay on the ground, apparently shot dead.
Battalion 101 eventually had to pull back when Burmese artillery being fired from the mountains blocked their advance. No Ta'ang were killed, and most civilians in the area had already fled. The 80mm and 120mm shells were being fired seemingly indiscriminately all around the valley, sometimes landing on poppy fields.
"Since the [army] is destroying the poppy fields for us, we might as well leave — it's too dangerous to stay here anyway," Tar More Seing said.
Evading Burmese soldiers sent to cut them off, the TNLA troops took three days to reach their base 20 miles away. The battalion was then immediately dispatched to neighboring Ta'ang villages in the region to prevent any potential retaliation by the army.
"That must have really annoyed Kyaw Myint," Tar More Seing said with a laugh, standing in a village he'd been sent to protect. "He must have given a lot of money to the [army]. But we'll be going back there again until finally there is no more opium."