A prominent armed group in Myanmar fighting the military regime that seized control of the country’s government last year denies claims in a U.S. court complaint of conspiring with Japan’s yakuza crime syndicate to buy surface-to-air missiles with a mix of cash and drugs.
The claims surfaced after the arrest this month of four men in the United States accused of trying to broker the drugs-for-weapons deal for a trio of Myanmar’s many rebel groups: the Karen National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army-South, and the largest of them all, the United Wa State Army.
The ethnic minority-led groups have been locked in a struggle for autonomy with Myanmar’s central government for decades and control patches of territory along the country’s eastern border. The KNLA, the military wing of the Karen National Union ethnic group, also has been one of the few rebel groups to join a popular armed resistance to the military since it seized power from a democratically elected government in February of last year, coming under repeated air attack from the military in return.
Speaking with VOA by phone last week, the general secretary of the KNU, said he would wait to have the English-language court complaint translated before commenting on the details. But he insisted the KNU had “zero” involvement in the country’s well-established drug trade.
“That is our policy, so that is what I can say,” Tah Doh Moo said before hanging up.
KNU spokesperson and head of foreign affairs Taw Nee was more emphatic.
Also speaking with VOA by phone, he denied that the KNLA had any connections to the drug trade or the yakuza or any interest in acquiring surface-to-air missiles.
“The KNLA is under control of the KNU — it is the military wing — and we don’t have any dealing with this issue. We don’t know it, because our policy is clear that we don’t participate and we don’t deal with this issue, so we don’t know anything. We were very surprised [when] we heard about this news; nothing to do with it,” he said.
The UWSA and the SSA-S could not be reached for comment, but the UWSA has denied involvement in the drug trade before.
The U.S. Treasury Department has called the UWSA “the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in Southeast Asia.” Authorities in Thailand have in recent years also made a number of large drug busts near stretches of the Myanmar border where the KNU has long held territory.
‘One way or another’
According to the court complaint, the arrested suspects, a senior yakuza member and three Thai nationals, had arranged with an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent to ship hundreds of kilograms of heroin and methamphetamine produced by the UWSA into the United States. The suspects allegedly also arranged with the agent to buy an array of weapons, including automatic rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and portable surface-to-air missiles.
The complaint says the suspects “conspired to broker the purchase from [the agent] of United States-made surface-to- air missiles (“SAMs”) as well as other weaponry, for at least two different ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar, the Shan State Army and Karen National Union (“KNU”), and to accept large quantities of narcotics for distribution as partial payment for the weapons.”
It goes on to add that the UWSA was also shopping for weapons, that two “high-ranking KNU military officers” had joined some of the videoconferences held to arrange the deals, and that the KNU specifically asked to trade for some of the weapons with heroin.
Myanmar has long been a major producer of heroin’s main ingredient, opium, and dominates Southeast Asia’s $60 billion trade in methamphetamines. Most of each pours into neighbors Laos and Thailand and onto markets farther afield out of eastern Myanmar’s Shan state, a hive of rebel groups and military-allied militias.
Jeremy Douglas, who oversees the region for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said there was no way many of these groups and militias were not profiting off that trade, whether by producing or trafficking or simply taxing the traffic that passes through their fiefs.
“Moving shipments in any direction from Shan to Thailand or Laos requires trafficking from or through territories of different groups, and it is impossible they are in the dark and not making money one way or another,” he said. “They all deny involvement and point at the others — impossible.”
Douglas said the vast profits Myanmar’s rebel groups and militias earn off the drug trade are surely helping to fuel the post-coup fighting, as it has for decades.
"Drugs are by far the largest source of income for militias and armed groups in Shan, and they have been and continue to be a way to pay for guns, soldiers and conflict,” he said.
‘An absolute game changer’
Even so, the resistance forces now aligned against the junta remain heavily outgunned. An arsenal of portable surface-to-air missiles in particular could help them put a major dent in the military’s air power, said Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst and senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
“Anyone who is currently in active conflict with the Myanmar military would find MANPADS to be extremely useful,” he said of the missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems.
After more than a year of fighting, the military has failed to put down a nationwide armed resistance stitched together from a handful of established rebel groups like the KNU and dozens of so-called peoples defense forces whipped up by the coup. With its fleet of fighter jets and helicopter gunships, though, the junta has inflicted deadly damage on contested towns and villages and driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.
The U.N. has accused the junta of deliberately bombarding civilian populations from both the ground and air in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The junta claims it is fighting “terrorists” in order to restore peace and stability.
Horsey said the UWSA and some other rebel groups are believed to have a few portable surface-to-air missile systems already.
The UWSA has not joined the post-coup resistance. But the Kachin Independence Army, another rebel group, has, and Horsey said it likely used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a military helicopter last May.
More of the missiles, he added, could significantly help the resistance both deter more air attacks and make it much riskier for the military to move soldiers and supplies by helicopter to remote areas hard to reach by land.
Deployed in larger numbers, he said, “surface-to-air missiles would be an absolute game changer.”