In the final of her series, Scarlett Hawkins wishes much for Myanmar, but most of all that the hill tribes will be given more say in the future of their country.


When one speaks of criminal motivation, the obvious question, even if we do not realise it is explicitly what we are asking at the time, is always one of status. Does the lawbreaker have it? If so, why would they turn to crime? If not, what else is to be expected?

When criminal motivation actualises into paramilitary mobilisation against one’s own government as in Myanmar, factors like status become less important than those of circumstance, tribe, and the motivator of so many other acts both good and bad, wealth.

Poverty is rife not only in the hill tribes, but across the entire nation of Myanmar. Whilst the regions of Shan State and Kachin State are resource-rich, their people enjoy none of the spoils. Shan State is highly successful in agricultural production and limestone mining, whilst Kachin State boasts jade mines and banana plantations that pay generously, relative to the average income. In the jade mines, a month of “blasting” – the plugging of holes with, and activation of, dynamite – can bring in an income of $200 USD a month; quite the stark contrast from Western wages, where the same job brings in something in the vicinity of $100K a year. However, the mines belong to Myanmar in only the most administrative sense of the word.

Much like in the west, management of the mines has been outsourced. Chinese resource companies are granted, essentially, a free reign over the day-to-day machinations of the mines, paying their dues and taxes to a government that circumvents any trickle-down effect to the local economy. With Myanmar only second to Afghanistan in production of opium across the entire world, it is no surprise that narcotics have become a large source and contaminant of local industry. Instead of affluence, there is addiction.

My second source worked in the mines in the early turn of the century. They shook their head with dismay at the recollection. They speculated that the addiction rate among the miners to either heroin or pure opium was somewhere between 75 or 80 per cent. They defined the accessibility of such drugs as nefarious in intention and revealed the Chinese mining managers provided staff with the option to be paid in either kyats or opium.

“Ten years ago,” another source added, “drugs were an even worse problem across all the hill tribes. The government destroyed a lot of the poppy plants and now the problem is not so bad. But don’t destroy the poppies in Kachin State. The freedom fighters there are stronger. It is good for them if the people there are addicted.”

Such tactics may seem altogether too malevolent for a government to implement in reality, but the ever-shifting nature of the conflict means that such theories can never, and should never, be wholly disregarded.

At the time of writing, the English language New Light of Myanmar newspaper presented a press release from the Myanmar government on its front page. The press release stated its condolences to the Chinese government for the deaths of four Chinese nationals as a result of a Burmese airstrike against rebel groups that exceeded the territorial boundaries of Myanmar, from a region presently under martial law. To wit, Myanmar bombed an ally. Tension has festered between the two nations as a result of this diplomatic disaster, putting the Myanmar government in a very precarious position. To explicitly state the need to attack rebel groups by air is to legitimise said groups’ tactical advantage on land. However, to place blame on the individual pilot of the plane, the pilot’s commander, or any other aspect of the Myanmar Air Force is to confirm instability in a system that requires absolute credibility. So what can a nation do, short of apologise and make general statements about righting wrongs? Not much, it would seem, because this is where the official apology from Myanmar has trailed away.

The complicated relationships between freedom fighters and individuals from various ethnic tribes are cloaked in mystery, the most obvious dynamics of such, nobody dares utter aloud. A member of the pacifist Lisu tribe denied any knowledge or interest in the ongoing conflicts. “Myanmar is a democracy now,” they said with a smile, “We are all very happy.”

But what of the bottles of water that my driver managed to manifest from the ether on that scorching, peculiar day? What did that say of the true state of Myanmar?

And so the motorbike drove on, encountering no further difficulty. My mind stewed on nothing but water. That a person could produce not one, but two bottles of a finite resource within minutes of wandering through a random patch of scrub says so much, without saying anything. But that, in itself, is telling.

“I am very sorry to be from an ethnic minority tribe,” one of my sources admitted, “It is a hard life. We are a weak people against the government.”

Yet regardless of how staunch the denial of civilian involvement in conflict, the tribespeople are no fools. There is skin in the game. Why else would someone be invested enough to scatter supplemental resources away from the beaten path, other than to bolster the bands of freedom fighters who roam through? Such care packages must not be too difficult to find for the sharp-eyed and discreet passerby.

I couldn’t tell you for sure where the loyalties of my driver lay. Even if I had known how to phrase the question, it was evident that I couldn’t rely upon an honest answer. But he knew where to find the bottles of water. He knew.

With a country that’s always changing, “if” thoughts are easy to lapse into. As I bumped and jostled my way through the wilderness, I felt confident wagering only this much: that if the hill tribes were granted a meaningful platform in the nation’s political discourse, Myanmar would make great leaps in terms of empowering its people. With elections looming, perhaps the new government needs more of what makes its ethnic minority groups such a fascinating collective of individuals: inclusiveness, graciousness, modesty, and intellect…but with the steely core of people who are always, always surviving.


This concludes Scarlett’s in-depth examination of life in modern Myanmar. We hope you’ve enjoyed it – we certainly have! Feel free to leave your comments below.

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