Opium and Coercive State Formation: Strongmen and Armed Conflicts in Burma’s Shan State (1948-1996)

The predominance of the state is overstated. In Burma and other countries, pockets of territory remain under the control of non-state actors. The processes through which these counter state orders emerge are varied and often not well understood. This paper examines the conditions under which the presence of resources presents opportunities for the emergence of counter state orders led by powerful strongmen. To do so, it looks at the role of opium in Mainland Southeast Asia in the period from 1948 to 1996. During this period, the sub-regions of northern Laos, Northern Thailand, and the Kachin and Shan States in eastern Burma all experienced booms in opium production and encountered societal dislocation producing by armed conflicts. Contrary to expectations that the presence of opium provides resources useful for the establishment of counter state orders, it is only in the Shan State that political authority fragmented into dozens of non-state armed groups of which powerful autonomous strongmen were the most pervasive. This paper considers the strategies pursued by strongmen to accrue opium revenue along with the implications of these strategies for their exercise of social control. It provides a basis for reconsidering the role of resources and their impacts on militarized violence and state formation.

John Buchanan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. His research interests included armed conflicts, state formation, and civil military relations in Southeast Asia. His publications include Militias in Myanmar for the Asia Foundation. John recently defended his PhD dissertation, which examines the role of powerful strongmen in Burma’s Shan State.