The Shan, an ethnic group living in eastern Burma, have been at war with the Burmese government for decades. Civil war has been waged since the late fifties, when ethnic minority political parties took up arms against the Rangoon-based Burma government shortly after Burma gained independence from Great Britain. The Shan originated in China and migrated south into Burma during the twelfth century. Today, the Shan fight for their existence with AK-47s, and manage to survive on many native crops such as coffee, tea, rice, cotton, and unfortunately – opium. It is estimated that nearly fifty percent of the world’s opium is produced in the Shan State of Burma, second only to Afghanistan. Ninety Four percent of opium produced in Burma originates within the Shan State. Much of the revenue from the sale of the narcotic funds the four major armies, the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), Shan State Army South (SSA-S), United Wa State Army, and the National Democratic Alliance Army. Despite a ceasefire agreement penned in the late 1990s, skirmishes continue and the drug trade festers in the tropical mountains of eastern Burma. In fact, production of opium is up – nearly twenty five percent – over the last four years. Drugs fund armies that fight for the autonomy of it’s people. Such is the way of life for the Shan for over fifty years.
But what about the children?
It’s a fascinating conundrum. For the children with connections to the Shan State Army – South, life, education and socialization takes place at the National High School at Loi Tai Leng. Approximately 800 children, some orphans, attend the facility adjacent to the military headquarters of the army. Despite the military influence, all children, after reaching the mandatory age of 18, are free to decide whether to pursue a path in the military or become teachers or administrators – there is no mandatory service.
Still, many more children have little to nothing. Many lose their parents in the fighting. Some are disfigured from violence. Skirmishes between Shan villages and Burma soldiers are common, and families are constantly on the run, sometimes sliding across the border into Thailand where they will join the approximately 150,000 other displaced people from Burma. The Thai government is tolerant, but limited in resources to effectively manage the situation.
How will it all end?
It is clear that the military junta in charge, formerly known as the State Peace and Development Council, will not relinquish its power. Elections in 1990 were won by a significant margin by the main opposition party, but the rulers dismissed the results. A similar result occurred after the 2010 elections, and again was dismissed by ruling party. This time the newly formed Union Solidarity and Development Party was declared the winner. The only problem – the USDP is the alter ego (i.e. non military) of the SPDC, and is headed by the existing head of the Burmese government, President and former General Thein Sein. In other words – nothing has changed. The future of Burma is unclear. For the oppressed minority groups, over 130 in total, the road to peace remains a distant dream.
To read more on the minority groups of Burma, I strongly suggest reading ‘Ethnic Groups in Burma’ by Martin Smith.
Shan villagers living along the Burma-Thailand border.