Down the Malay Barrier 3.

The Shan State forms one of Myanmar’s ethnic communities.  Located in the northeastern quadrant of Myanmar, it borders southwestern China (Yunnan), Laos, and Thailand.  Under other circumstances, a bunch of forested hills on the inland edge of a no-account country would be of no interest.  In fact, however, it is an important–and increasingly important—link in the international narcotics supply chain.

For one thing, the many small farms grow both produce and opium poppies.  Poppies grow easily in the poor soil often found in hill regions.  Poor peasants value poppies as a cash crop.  For another thing, part of the anti-Communist Chinese Kuomintang Army retreated from Yunnan into the Shan State after the Communist victory in 1949.  Rather than transit to join the other supporters of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, they settled down in Shan State.  There the refugee army embarked on opium and heroin production.  For yet another thing, since 1962 the central government’s effort to suppress autonomy movements has spawned local resistance groups.  As the old saying goes, “For success in war, three things are necessary: money, more money, and still more money.”[1]  Shan autonomists have relied upon drug sales to build up military forces more than capable of holding off the army of Myanmar on most occasions.[2]

If opium and heroin built the foundations of the Shan State drug trade, the producers have been alert to changes in global market conditions and new product development.  Take, for example methamphetamine and fentanyl.  Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant.[3]  “Crystal meth” is an alternative form of methamphetamine.  Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is far stronger than is heroin.[4]  All have become popular “recreational” drugs.  Much of production of the chemical components of both methamphetamine and fentanyl took place in China.  In recent years, pressure from the United States caused the Chinese government to restrict production in China proper.  Producers shifted their facilities outside China, including to Shan State.

New supply chain routes then developed.  Fishing villages dot Myanmar’s long coastline on the Bay of Bengal.  Doubtless the local fishermen feel the same eagerness to profit from the drug trade as do the peasant farmers.  Probably they carry their cargo to ports like Yangon and Singapore, while another route may run down the nearby Mekong River to Ho Chi Minh City.

Myanmar’s war with the ethnic groups has been a murky business.  To offer one example, the Kachin Defense Army, in Shan State, is suspected of having done a deal with the army of Myanmar involving the drug trade.  However, the trouble with criminals—even criminals in uniform—is that they’re dishonest.  The Kachins seem to have been sending some of their product to the Arakan Army on the west coast.  Discovering this betrayal, the army and police launched a series of raids into Kachin territory in Spring 2020.  They hauled in 200 million tabs of meth, 1,100 pounds of crystal meth, 630 pounds of heroin, and almost 1,000 gallons of methyl fentanyl.[5]  The army probably sought to remind the Kachins of the deal, not break the deal.

[1] Attributed variously to Marshal Trivulzio and Raimondo Montecucolli.

[2] You might enjoy and learn from “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000).

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] Hannah Beech and Saw Nang, “Record Raids in Myanmar Point to Shifting Drug Trade,” NYT, 20 May 2020.


Celts[1] (pr. Kelts, not Selts) often have red hair and green eyes.  If a man is involved with a woman of Celtic descent, then he starts thinking about buying her stuff that is red or green.  A dark green dress, for example, or a Mandarin red silk wrap with gold and black dragons embroidered on it.  Or jewelry, if you’re at that stage of life (i.e. career, i.e. income) that allows you to go beyond the basic clear white diamond engagement ring.  Rings, ear-rings (clip or post depending on whether you’ve been smart enough to notice if she’s had her ears pierced), and necklaces.  Green or red jewelry means emeralds or rubies.

Here’s where things get complicated.  The best rubies come from Myanmar (Burma).  Mostly the mines are in central and northern Burma.  These regions fell under British control after the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885).  In 1948, Burma became independent of Britain as a republic.  Subsequently it took the name of Myanmar. It has had a military dictatorship for decades and, more recently, there has occurred the whole unfortunate genocide of the Rohingyas thing.  But that’s another story for another time.

The best emeralds come from Columbia.  The tectonic plate movement (up-thrust and subduction) along the western edge of South America pushes hot rock and gases up through yielding sedimentary rocks.  Those gases include beryllium, chromium, and vanadium.  They flow into gaps in the sedimentary rocks, cool, and harden into emeralds.  As it happens, most of these deposits are found in the Boyaca (pr. Boy-yaka) and Cundinamarca districts, which lie on the eastern slopes of the Andes.  Much of this territory was first explored by Spaniards under the command of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1496-1579).  (Jimenez led several disastrous-to-catastrophic expeditions into the interior, then died of leprosy.[2])  Much later in the bloody history of Columbia, a conventional civil war between left and right[3] molted into a decades-long struggle between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, and drug cartels.  Tens of thousands of people have died.  The leader among the left-wing rebels is the “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia or FARC).  They started off as peasant Communists sponsored by Fidel Castro’s Cuba back when it was trying to export its own revolution.  Communism didn’t work out, so they turned to Capitalism[4]: dealing drugs and kidnapping people for ransom.  Not that FARC was alone in the resort to drug dealing.  Columbia soon became the major source of cocaine imported into the United States.[5]

Nor was FARC alone in the kidnap and ransom trade.[6]  They were just very good at it.  The movie “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000) examines the business.  The movie is about Columbia, thinly disguised at the fictional country of “Tecala.”  During the filming, Meg Ryan had a steamy interlude with Russell Crowe.  Her eyes are blue, not green.  He would have given her sapphires.  So much for the hoped-for symmetry in my little essay.

Control over the emerald mines has become a key source of wealth for all the combatants.  A black market has developed.  Hence, Columbian emeralds are considered “conflict gems.”  Tiffany’s and Cartier don’t sell emeralds.  Hard thing to learn at Christmas.

[1] People who trace their distant ancestry to Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

[2] See:

[3] See, La Violencia:  A version of this appears in the novel by R.M. Koster, The Prince, as “La Rabia.”

[4] Kind of like post-Communist Russia and the Peoples’ Republic of China avant le fait.

[5] For one aspect of this issue, see Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2015).

[6] See: and

Incarceration and decarceration.

In the 1970s crime sharply increased in the United States. In the 1980s there came an epidemic of “crack” cocaine use. Americans legislatures and courts responded by “getting tough on crime.” Sentences for all sorts of crimes were increased and about half the states adopted “three strikes and you’re out” laws that could put people in prison for a very long time for a series of comparatively minor crimes.[1]

In 1980, there were 320,000 people in local, county, state, and federal lock-ups. Today there are about 2.4 million in prisons. (About 40 percent of them are African-American.) As a result, while Americans represent only five percent of the world’s population, Americans represent twenty-five percent of the world’s imprisoned population. (See: “The Senator from San Quentin,” October 2014.)

In theory, the “War on Drugs” isn’t responsible for most of the prisoners. Only 17 percent of the prisoners are there for purely drug crimes.[2] However, the “War on Drugs” led to a “War for the Corners” in many American cities. The “War for the Corners” then had other violent effects. One came in the up-arming of many neighborhoods where the drug trade is carried out. A second came in multiplying personal feuds and quarrels. If you put those latter two together, violence and danger increased. If you step-to a man today, you’re likely to get more than a broken nose. Try explaining to a hospital that you walked into a door in the dark when they’re digging 9-mm rounds out of you.

At the same time, all sorts of violence increased to alarming levels from the 1970s to the 1990s. Drug-related violence hardly accounted for all of this. I don’t yet have an explanation for this spike in violence. However, half of the prison population is made up of burglars, armed robbers, rapists, and other violent or career criminals. Moreover, the majority (60 percent) of people released from prison are back inside within three years for parole violation or new crimes. This suggests that there are a lot of habitually violent people among the rest of us in America. (See: “Legacies of the Violent Decades,” January 2015.)

Prisoners cost a lot of money. The monthly average in California prisons is $2,600 per prisoner. The total cost for American taxpayers is $80 billion a year. Inevitably, the public has begun to demand a cut in the cost of government in this area as in other areas. States and the Federal government are beginning to respond.

People—me, for example–like to heap ridicule on Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a one-time clown in the Republican presidential primary. However, Perry also got the state legislature to devote $241 million to paying for drug treatment alternatives to prison and expanded probation programs. The Texas prison population has decreased by three percent since 2010, while the crime rate has dropped by 18 percent. This suggests that it matters who you release or spare from prison. This is but one of a number of experiments in trying to reduce the size of the prison population. A bipartisan Smart Sentencing Act is making its way through Congress to cut the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by federal courts.

If someone wants to look for the dark cloud around this silver lining, they could consider a previous reform movement. Once upon a time, lots of mentally ill people were warehoused in awful state mental hospitals. Liberals pushed for out-patient care. Conservatives saw a way to cut spending. We got de-institutionalization and street-people living over heating grates.

[1] “Opening the prison door,” The Week, 24 April 2015, p. 11.

[2] Thus, a recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to release non-violent drug offenders in federal custody will reduce the prison population by 46,000 people or about 2 percent.