Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

A poppy field on one of the hillsides of the Koubru range

History of the Golden Triangle and How its Expansion is Now Manipur’s New Nightmare

The Manipur Government’s anti-drugs campaign, grandiosely named “War on Drugs”, is almost as old the BJP’s six years in power in the state under Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh. On March 21, the government completed a year in its second term, yet six years down the line, the way ahead on this battlefront does not seem any shorter, or the challenges any smaller.

Manipur has had a drugs problem for decades, thanks to an ancient trade route that connects it to South East Asia, therefore to the infamous Golden Triangle not too far away from its eastern border. In geographical terms, this is a tri-junction where the Mekong River at a confluence point splits the landmasses of three nations – Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. In the decades beginning the 1970s, this had become the focal point of an international network of illegal opium and heroin trade.

Shelby Tucker has a good account on how this came to be so in his book “Burma: The Curse of Independence”. It is intriguing how this predicament was a fallout of geopolitics of the time – more specifically the Cold War between the Capitalist West and Communist East Blocs. The latter bloc was then gaining influence in East and South East Asia prompting the West, led by the US to attempt halting this march, opening a Cold War front in northern Myanmar’s Shan state in a profound way.

At the end of the Second World War even as China’s struggle against Imperial Japanese ended, a bitter internal struggle for power between Mao Zedong’s Communists Red Army and those of Chiang Kai Shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party, Kuomintang, took off. The Kuomintang were soon put on the retreat and two divisions of their army ended up taking refuge Myanmar’s northern Shan State in 1950.

According to Tucker, as the Kuomintang troops in Myanmar, assisted by the US, waited for a retake of China, for their upkeep, they turned to streamlining poppy cultivation and refining practices already prevalent. Myanmar ultimately complained to the United Nations, and international pressures coupled with the growing realisation that China cannot be retaken, led the US to pressure Taiwan to evacuate the Kuomintang from Myanmar. The drugs infrastructures they left behind were taken over by local warlords, the most infamous being Khun Sa. Thus was born the notorious Golden Triangle.

The final blow to the Kuomintang fightback against Communist China came no sooner. Tucker notes that as the US itself began facing trouble in Vietnam, towards 1970 when a rift appeared between the then USSR and China, it jumped to grab the opportunity and began sending out friendship overtures to Mao’s China. After a China visit by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1971, President Richard Nixon also did so the following year.

Manipur has always been a natural and major transit route for the Golden Triangle drugs. Since the late 1970s, the state has had more than its fair share drugs addiction problem and related scourges such as HIV/AIDS infection, spread mainly from needle sharing amongst heroin addicts initially. The problem became compounded by high level of youth frustration and rootlessness at the time, leading them to either political radicalisation to take the path of insurgency, or else fall to the lures of drugs and alcohol. A state with population less than 3 million people by 2015 came to have 24,457 people living with HIV/AIDS, according to an estimate by National Aids Control, Programme, NACO. While spread of HIV/AIDS is somewhat under control now, drugs problem is not.

In the last few years, the problem has yet acquired another dimension. From just being a transit route and suffering its collateral damages, today a new culture of illegal poppy cultivation has arrived in a big way in its hills, therefore poised to also become a source and not just a route of this international drugs trafficking network. The administrative lull because of extended nationwide COVID lockdowns starting March 2020, and equally Myanmar plunging back into chaos and lawlessness since the February 1, 2021 military coup, are probably additional factors accelerating Manipur own descent into the darkness of this nether world.

This new poppy cultivation culture is now getting progressively more complicated. The challenge is hence no longer just about narcotics control, but also of extensive and severe deforestation of hillsides, intensive use of pesticides and fertilisers contaminating springs and streams, and ultimately rivers and lakes, faceoffs between forest administrators and villagers who are found to have encroached into previously uninhabited forested hillsides declared as protected forests or reserved forests under the Indian Forest Act, often for the purpose of poppy cultivation. In this mushrooming multiplicity of related issues, the Biren government’s “War of Drugs” has often tended to get diverted from its central focus.

The flashpoint came on March 10. Civil society organisations of Kuki tribes held peaceful rallies at different places to protest government eviction notices served to villages deemed to have encroached into reserved forests. One of these rallies turned violent and clashed with police. The government in response called an emergency cabinet meeting, and made some tough decision, one of which is rather rash. The first said, the government would not be taking back its decision to evict encroachers from reserved and protected forests. The second reaffirmed its drive against poppy plantation will continue. The third said the state government would be pulling out of the Suspension of Operations, SoO, agreement with two Chin-Kuki militant groups, the Kuki National Army, KNA, and Zomi Revolutionary Army, ZRA.

The government has not said the three decisions are related but their juxtaposition is too close to not be read otherwise. While the earlier two are understandable, and indeed seem to have received the nod from New Delhi, the last is where the state government may end up embarrassed. The SoO is a tripartite agreement between the central and state governments, and 25 Kuki militant organisations in all. Can a responsible party then unilaterally pull out without prior notice. Indications are, the Union government has said no to this. The state government biting off more than it can chew is one thing, but the deadly Golden Triangle now seems to have expanded its boundaries, bringing with it its peculiar brand of social woes to burden all unfortunate to come within it. Manipur’s cup woes is overflowing yet again.

This article was first published in The New Indian Express. The original can be read here

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