Smart when you’re old
Diligent when you’re lame (Shan proverb)
This was my second visit to the United Kingdom, that Vladimir Peniakoff aka Popski (1897-1951) of Popski’s Private Army (PPA), a famous fighting unit during the Second World War had affectionately called the Land of the Enchanted Mistress (“as a boy, having loved (her) and broken away, will go on loving her memory all his life”) in his memoirs.
The first was in September 2014, when I was invited to deliver talks on Myanmar’s peace process at the University of London and later at the University of Brighton. (To the Land of the Enchanting Mistress, panglong.org)
This time it wasn’t much about sharing what I know. It was more about learning: About how we can help three best known (for drugs) countries transform from drug/war economies into peace economies.
Nothing short of a tall order.
But that’s exactly what these bright people from the 4 countries have risen in arms to do. And I’m there to support them, because the drug problem is a crosscutting issue in our country’s ongoing peace process. Look at the 5 thematic topics they are discussing: Politics, Security, Social, Economy, and Land and Natural Resources Management. The drug issue is in every one single topic of them.
My hope was that the researchers are able to find out sufficient data as well as a practical solution to it before it is on the table.
That’s how I came to be in England as the cold, cold winter begins to end.
Day One. Monday, 19 March 2018
I fall in love with Britain everyday, with bridges, buses, blue skies….
But it’s a brutal world, man
– Pete Doherty (1979 – present )
Coming from the tropics, I can’t agree more. My watch says the temperature’s -2°C. The highest is said to be 1°C. Especially when I have been traveling almost non-stop from Chiangmai for close to 24 hours since 22:30 yesterday.
The room at our hotel, the Club Quarters, to my delight, offers some books for the guest to read and kill time while he/she is there. One that I pick up is London’s Strangest Tales by Tom Quinn.
It is how I fall in love with Nell Gwyn, favorite mistress of King Charles II, who flourished 1600-1685. Her former home is #58, 3 doors away from our hotel, #61.
Known as “Pretty, Witty Nell,” the book tells us how she got her son ennobled.
One day, Charles was playing with his son when the latter ran off and wouldn’t return. Nell, who was irritated that Charles had so far done nothing for the boy, saw her chance.
“Come here, you bastard!” she shouted. Charles was horrified. “Why do you use that terrible name?” he asked.
“Well, you haven’t given him no other,” she replied.
Charles promptly made the boy Earl of Burford, and later Duke of St. Alban, with land and an income that his descendants enjoy to this day.
What a story! What a woman!
And with that story and a few others, my first day in London comes to a close.
Day Two. Tuesday, 20 March 2018
I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.
– Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
It’s a pleasant 20 minute walk to the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS) from the hotel. Our escort is Dr Patrick Meehan, a young academic whom I have known for several years.
Our Myanmar team is made up of 3 representatives each from the Kachinland Research Center (KRC) and SHAN. I will be finding out later that out of all the partners from the 4 countries, SHAN is the only one that is the least scholastic. But we will have Mandy Sadan and Patrick riding shotgun for us. (How do we know it? Easy. Nobody except SHAN, especially myself, is asking what the Theory of Change means, since the only thing I have learned from my primary school days is the Law of Change. Wasn’t it Heraclitus who said: You cannot step into the same river twice?)
Altogether there are 12 organizations that have formed a partnership in the 4 year project entitled Drugs and Disorder: Building Sustainable Peacetime Economies in the Aftermath of War. They are, apart from KRC, SHAN and SOAS:
- London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
- London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)
- Christian Aid
- Universidad de los Andes
- Universidad Nacional de Colombia
- Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit
- Positive Negative
- Organization for Sustainable Development and Research (OSDR)
We seem to be in good hand. That’s what our project leader’s name implies anyway: Jonathan Goodhand. At least when he begins his opening speech with the words, “I didn’t start (my studies) with this. But I just kind of fell into it,” I feel he’s speaking for me and the rest of the Shan fighters as well. Hadn’t we started with lofty ideas of winning freedom for our people and then somehow drugs were there on the way?
The overarching question, as the PowerPoint presentation that was sent late last year points out, for participants to answer during the 4 year research is:
How can war economies be transformed into peace economies in regions experiencing, or recovering, from armed conflict?
Sub-questions are to focus on:
- Historical conditions
- How drug economies shape the dynamics of state fragility and armed conflict
- How drugs influence livelihoods and health outcomes
- Impacts of counter narcotics and development efforts on conflict, livelihoods and health
- How international policies can be better geared
All the three countries, which together account for more than 90% of all illegal opium/heroin and more than 50% of cocaine share similarities:
- Years of war and conflict
- Complicated and difficult peace processes
- Poverty among poppy and coca farmers
- Different figures of annual output being released by UN, US and national agencies
- Involvement by international actors
There are of course differences too:
- Different histories
- Different states of peace negotiations
- Varying role of international actors
- Different types of conflict, types of states and levels of development
I have noticed also that when people think of Afghanistan, they tend to think of opium. With Myanmar, it’s Yaba (methamphetamines). With Colombia, it’s cocaine. Few people, particularly in the East, are aware than it has also been a major supplier of opium/heroin for the United States. (Will need to find out if it’s the main reason for the falling of opium prices in the Shan State in recent years)
The day ends with a sumptuous dinner at the Marquis of Cornwallis ,where a painting of the general being defeated by Washington in 1781 at Yorktown is hung.
I have a very interesting conversation with two ladies from Colombia. One thinks FARC made a terrible mistake by laying down their arms. “People don’t feel protected from the Army anymore.” Answering my question whether it can become a regional government, she says, “No, not even a local government.”
The other lady is also a great admirer of the Dalai Lama like me. So we share a few firsthand experiences that we have had with him.
Day Three. Wednesday, 21 March 2018
However difficult life may seem
there is always something you can do
and succeed at.
– Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
Today we discuss about the challenges. Here are some of them:
- Security in Kabul preventing access to research sites which can also pose as a problem to other partners in their respective countries
- Which calls for the need to engage authorities, both state and non-state, for access. Agreement on ground rules for field researchers may be necessary
- In Myanmar, presence of more than one armed group in a single township is not unusual. For example, in Namkham township, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is reputedly all out against drugs, while a certain government supported militia force is reported to be deeply involved in the business
- Sustainability, not just about “pack our bags and leave” when the final report is submitted
We also discuss at length about the Theory of Change, which I have never heard until last month although it was developed some 20 years back. It defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions, which I think makes a lot of sense. At the same time, I feel that to understand it better will require a lot of work and experience on my part.
The day ends with a dinner invitation by a young Shan from Monghsu working in London.
Day Four. Thursday, 22 March 2018
Old age comes with wisdom.
Only sometimes age comes alone.
– Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
This morning we start early than usual, 08:00 instead of 09:00. We find that we from Myanmar are the only group there to listen to the presentation by Alcis’s Richard Brittan on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a mapping technology designed to capture and analyze both spatial or geographic data. In other words, what is popularly known as satellite imagery technology. And the project is really fortunate in procuring his expertise.
I listen to him with my best attention. But, coming from the 19th century mentality, I can catch very little of what he says. Nevertheless, I manage to ask him a question that has been in my mind for years: How reliable are the satellite photos?
According to him, they have their own limitations. To decide whether or not the field in the photo is a poppy plantation depends on the resolution. “Crops look different at different times,” he says. The suggestion therefore is to verify the fact by on-the-ground survey.
All in all, I think that’s the only thing I learn from him.
Mandy seems to notice my shortcomings and suggests it’s okay for me to wander off from the workshop and visit the bookstores. I politely decline. I’m there to learn, am I not? While it’s true I may not understand everything that is being discussed, I still pick up a little here and there. At least something is better than nothing. It’ll be a waste of my time and jet-lag, not to say the expenses involved, if I just walk off the room, won’t it?
In the end, I manage to stick to the workshop to the end. And I’m not disappointed, because I do pick up some gems while it lasts.
Like the world’s major producer of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be mixed into heroin and cocaine, as well as used on its own, causing deadly overdoses, is said to be China.
The natural question therefore is: Is the Middle Kingdom turning the table on the West?
In the afternoon, we are invited by a Burmese language tutor (who is British) to his class of 6. To talk to them in Burmese so they can gauge their own proficiency in the language by themselves. Two of them, guess how I find out, are from Thailand. “You’ve come a long way to learn it,” I tease them.
I spend the evening rereading my notes to find out how much I have learned. I find out that I can’t make head or tail of on many of them. It isn’t a surprise. But it isn’t pleasant to realize the fact, either.
Day Five, Friday, 23 March 2018
Without chaos, whence come heroes?
– War of the Three Kingdoms, Chinese series
Today is the last day.
A presentation on data management (DM) is given by a bright young lady. My only regret is that the time allotment is too limited, as we have been very much looking forward to the presentation.
The next discussions are on how we should approach our three main activities: research, capacity building and advocacy. Most of the discussants being scholars, it also take some time to come to an agreed conclusion.
Here are the excerpts:
- Without publication, no credibility.
Without credibility, no influence.
- Who’s the author is also important.
- Democracy’s a great thing.
But sometimes you need a decision (real bad).
The workshop is followed by an official launch of the project in the evening. Among the speakers are a UN representative and the Colombian ambassador. Among the attendees is a long time friend Dr Martin Smith.
Here are some of the notes I have taken there:
- Drugs affect every single aspect of life. 4 decades of War on Drugs need to be rethink and revised. Because if we continue to do the same, we can’t expect different results. A new approach is in order.
- I cannot claim to be a great speaker. My hope is that, by the end of my presentation, you will become great listeners.( Dan Seng Lawn, KRC)
For the next two days, we visit Oxford, Epsom and London, escorted by Patrick Meehan, Ben Dix, Helen Porter and two young Shan friends, Sai Teun Kherh and Sai Aung Pay.
It is a pleasant journey back to Bangkok. I spend most of my time reading two of the books I had brought from London:
- Unraveling the History of Tai Yai, by Sao Noan Oo
- The Opium War, by Julia Lovell
A lot of think pieces in both. I enjoyed them. I hope you will too.