Drug Control Efforts in the days of Myanmar Kings
The records of Dutch Indies Co. showed that the first sale of opium was around 1613 at the Hanthawaddy (now Bago) port in Myanmar. King Bodaw Paya (also known as Badon Min, 1782-1819) strictly banned the sale and trade of Bein (opium), Bin (cannabis), Kazaw (rice brew), Hlawza (fermented rice gruel) and other intoxicants in the country by issuing a royal edict. From the days of Myanmar Kings, “Bein Sars” (opium smokers) are looked down and shunned by the society. The habit of eating, drinking and smoking opium not a Myanmar tradition, and was Introduced into the country by foreigners from abroad. This was clearly mentioned in the following royal edict of King Bodaw paya, which was found in the Office of the Royal Record Keeper: –
“The act of eating, drinking and smoking opium is not traditional habit in the Kingdom of Myanmar. Make no arrests in public to those Indians and Chinese of foreign origins. The Interior Minister (Myo Wun) is commanded to arrest and sentence those Myanmar opium eaters and drinkers. Let there be no opium sellers. Confiscate and put all the seized opium in the royal treasury His Majesty’s Exchequer is commanded to confiscate all opium possessed by the Chinese and put into the royal treasury.”
Foreigners from abroad with their contraband of opium arrived at the coastal cities of Hanthawaddy, Danyawaddy, Ramar-waddy, Dwara-waddy, and Mega- waddy of lower Myanmar and from those coastal cities, they spread to the Royal City of Amarapura in steamers by the Ayeyarwaddy River. In order to ban the import of this odious substance, King Bodaw Paya in the 37th year of his reign issued the following edict and it could be, found in the Records Office of the Royal Record Keeper :- “Traditionally, there never was any opium smoking or opium drinking in the Myanmar Kingdom, and yet there exist today those who dare commit these offensive acts. For the benefit of posterity it is decreed that those offenders are to be arrested, jailed and made to sign agreements that they would not commit these acts, again. For the benefit of posterity, strict orders banning opium eating, smoking and trading are to be issued. Those offenders disobeying the Royal Orders are to be given capital punishment.”
In dealing with the offenders, it is known by these records that the Myanmar Kings like King Bodaw Paya took action in three steps. First, by asking them to promise not to commit the offence, and secondly, if they, repeat the offence they will be sentenced to jail. Lastly repeated offenders will be given capital punishment. This clearly show’s that during the days of the Myanmar Kings, and according to the religious practice and social ethics, Bein, Bin, Kazaw, Hlawza and Liquor were banned and those offenders were even given death penalty.
Also, the state government of the Kings usually levied taxes on land, salt, metal ore, forest products, court and fishery but never was it found that they levy excise tax. Because of this fact, John Crawford who reached the Myanmar capital Ava in 1827 recorded that “Excise tax was not levied in the Kingdom of Myanmar. As the Myanmar laws strictly prohibit as does the religion, the nationals never to use liquor, opium and other narcotic drugs.”
Drinking “Thay”(fermented drinks, toddy palm juice) was well known since the Pagan dynasty. The earliest use of word “ah-yet”(liquor) was found only in the Ava era, and it was discovered on Saw Ohnma monastery stone inscription (AD.1429) where it clearly stated ” – -three troughs of “ah-yet”-“. Also, it was found in the sonnet describing the everyday civilian life of Ava era by the famous Poet Monk Shin Maha Ra Hta Thara. So it can be said that though there was mention of liquor, there never was any prohibition of opium nor-anything of opium based products in those early days of Myanmar history. As there was no mention of opium in the Royal edict of King Alaung Paya (Konebaung Dynasty) prohibiting liquor, it was accepted that opium was not available during that era. This belief was confirmed more so because the word opium did not exist in the “Kawi Letkhana” Myanmar spelling dictionary. If opium was actually available in Myanmar at that time, then it would be said so only very sparsely in the coastal regions of Rakhine and Tanintharyi Mon States.
Thus the earliest historical record concerning the presence of Bein (opium) in Myanmar can be traced only to the era when King Badon Min (Bodaw Paya) reigned the country. In the royal edict issued on 12 February 1728, the day when King Badon officially took possession of the throne it stated that “I took possession of the throne and the royal realm and rule the Kingdom justly. Let there be do production and business dealing on toddy liquor, spirit, wine, beer, opium and other narcotic substances in all the cities, towns and villages of the realm and also in the Shan State and Yun State (parts of present day Thailand and Laos). Illegal animal slaughtering husbandry, and gambling of all sorts are prohibited and offenders will be punished severely”.
Moreover, King Badon was also keen to collect ancient Medical books, manuscripts medicinal plants and herbs. In the “Warhara Linathta Dipani”, a Myanmar encyclopedias on words, Maha Zeya Thinkhaya stated that “During the reign of the Lord of Amarapura (King Badon) the king showed the Bein and Bin plants to the Sinhalese monks from Ceylon, and queried about those flora. They explained to him that Bein was called “Ah-hi Phela” and Bin “Binga”. Due to this episode, the origin of those words could be traced to these of Margada language (Indian) “. Originally, Bein (opium) was used as one of the ingredients in certain medicines and it was found in one of the royal edicts that King Badon allowed every soldier in the royal army to carry one pe (l/16 of a tical) of opium in the battlefield to prevent against disease and for use as medicine.
After the first Anglo-Myanmar war ended in 1826 when Rakhine and Tanintharyi states fell under the British rule, opium was imported into the country from Bengal. There were occasions in those early days when opium was given free and demonstrations were held on how to smoke or eat opium as the Myanmar nationals did not know the use of opium yet. Licensed opium dens were even allowed to open in Rakhine State and the licensees were chinese or British nationals. As opium dens multiplied and the number of opium addicts increased, the Sanghas and local populace of Rakhine State petitioned and requested the officials to stop the issuance of permits for the opium dens to operate. As the British colonialist rulers wanted to sell opium which they produced and the benefit from the excise tax which they levied on the opium importers was substantially large, the request of the petitioners fell on deaf ears. The rules on opium imports and operation of opium dens were drawn in such a way that they could be twisted and interpreted in many ways, and it could be said that the British rulers of those days did not prohibit the use of opium in the country in any effective manner.
During the Second Anglo- Myanmar War of 1852, King Bagan issued the royal edict for those soldiers going into the battlefields against the British. In it, the King ordered the authorities to prohibit the soldiers strictly from gambling, drinking and using narcotic drugs like opium. After the Second Anglo-Myanmar War, upper Myanmar was ruled by King Mindon and King Thibaw who succeeded him. King Mindon took great efforts to build the country and worked for the development in economic and social fields and also for peace. He was also the principal benefactor of the Buddhist religion and Sangha and worked for the prosperity of the religion. His concerted efforts in the aforementioned sectors also had tremendous effects and results in combating narcotic drugs. King Mindon was totally against drinking and using drugs, and was so determined to combat those despicable vices that he was once not amused with one of his ministers, the lord of Yaw and stripped the latter of his rank because he wrote in the “Yarza Damma Thingaha, Kyan” that one should consume spirit for health benefits.
During the reign of King Thibaw, a law entitled the “Law of Five Narcotic Drugs“ was promulgated and the use of narcotic drugs in the realm was banned totally. Officials in towns and villages were empowered to punish those offenders who strayed from the royal prohibitions.
On the other hand, and also in King Thibaw’s reign British colonialists tried to legalize the trade of opium in Myanmar as they did in China King Thibaw was weak in administering state affairs and gambling was rampant during this era. Officials of the court as well as ordinary citizens became addicted to this vice. And at a certain stage, the addiction became a problematic issue among the court officials, and orders were issued in the palace. In the court orders issued to the two royal bed chamber officials Nawyahta Kyaw Khaung and using the narcotic drugs while on duty, and if found guilty, to be severely punished. But form the list of customs duties levied in that era, the price of opium was found to be K30, per viss and by this, it is learnt’ that like in China, King Thibaw’s regime had already consented to the British colonialist’s requests.
If we look at the overall view of narcotic drug suppression issue in the days of Myanmar kings, it can be said that marijuana and opium were already in existence during the Koneboung dynasty, the last dynasty of Myanmar. On the other hand, as the lower Myanmar was then already under the British rule, the habit of using narcotic drugs must have filtered in slowly and little by little into upper Myanmar even then. As the King ruling upper Myanmar was weak in administration and lacked the qualities of a good leader, the government could not combat the scourge of narcotic drugs effectively and there was no evidence whatsoever of promulgating a law and punishing the offenders seriously during this period. Therefore it can be said that the British colonialists used military, economics, social, health and moral strategies to colonize the country and in order to fulfil their aim of enslaving Myanmar, they planned methodically to destroy the national as well as its individual pride and character.