Huge piles of freshly cut teak lie on the bank of the Chindwin River. On a massive raft tethered to the shore, an armed member of a local resistance militia, dressed in a T-shirt and black sports pants, leafs through a woman’s documents as she insists that she’s already paid the necessary fine. Another armed man in camouflage watches over them.

A video of this incident in Sagaing Region’s Kani Township was sent to Frontier along with photographs showing trucks and bull-drawn carts bringing more timber to the river.

These scenes are part of a surge in illegal logging since the military seized power in February 2021, with smugglers, regime soldiers and resistance fighters all taking advantage of the breakdown in rule of law to plunder Myanmar’s national resources.

Ko Zarni*, a resistance fighter in Kani, told Frontier that this shipment was sent in August last year. He said the timber was cut from nearby Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, which is meant to be protected from logging.

Ko Zarni’s armed group operates independently of the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup. But he said the militia group caught on camera is a local security team, known as Pa Ka Pha in Burmese, and is under the NUG-affiliated township administration team.

“After the fighting started here in 2021, illegal logging has become common in the area,” he said. “Now, no one can stop it, so illegal traders are taking as much as teak as they can. At this rate, after one more year, we won’t see any big perennial trees in Kani anymore.”

Fighting has broken out across Myanmar since the military overthrew the elected National League for Democracy, with the worst violence reported in Sagaing Region, where anti-regime People’s Defence Forces have carved out rural strongholds. Based on interviews with residents, Frontier understands illegal logging has surged in Kani, Yinmabin, Kantbalu, Indaw and Banmauk townships in Sagaing, as well as in parts of Bago Region, where the junta has more control.

“Smugglers are logging most of the teak and tamalan trees,” said Ko Zaw Min*, an environmental activist from Monywa, the Sagaing regional capital.

Local environmental activists, PDF members and ordinary residents told Frontier that most of the timber is being smuggled to China and India.

“Before the military coup, timber from Sagaing went to Kachin State and was only sent to China. Now they send it to India from Tamu,” said Zaw Min, referring to a Sagaing Region township on the border with India’s Manipur State. “Most of the time they export raw timber logs, but sometimes they process it into lumber as needed.”

The road to India and China

Frontier’s findings corroborate recent investigations claiming that teak is being sent to India before moving on to Europe in order to circumvent Western sanctions. “We import wood from India but it is teak from Myanmar which is processed in India, and then arrives in France,” a company employee told Radio France.

Ko Paing Htoo*, who runs an illegal logging operation in Bago Region, said India emerged as a new timber destination only “after the coup”. Both Paing Htoo and Zaw Min said they believe the sanctions have helped spur the trade to India.

Ko Aye Kyaw*, a trader in Tamu Township and former NLD village chapter chair, said at least 10 trucks full of timber cross from Tamu to Manipur each day. He denied being involved in the trade but said many of his associates are.

“All the Myanmar traders are residents of Tamu. Before they military coup, the worked as traders for other commodities, and there was very little illegal timber trading. Now there are 40 illegal timber traders in Tamu,” he said, claiming that many of the truck drivers transporting the timber are also from Tamu.

He said he believes much of the wood is coming from Homalin, another township in Sagaing on the border with India that has seen fierce fighting since the coup. Aye Kyaw said the timber is sometimes transported off-road, but smugglers also use the Tamu-Aung Zeya highway, bribing the military along the way.

“They need to pay between 5,000-10,000 rupees [US$60-120] for each timber truck at every military gate,” he said. “In this situation, rule of law is collapsing. So, people can easily illegally log and export timber.”

Illegal timber also continues to be sent to China, the preferred pre-coup destination.

“Some Chinese buyers come to buy directly from the illegal logging sites,” said Zaw Min. “They often come and see it for themselves and carry away raw, rough timber in 18-foot trucks.”

Zaw Min said timber cut in Kantbalu Township is typically transported to Kachin State via Banmauk, Indaw and Katha townships, then on to the Kachin capital of Myitkyina and up to the border with China.

“Smugglers can cross freely the gates of the armed groups along the road after paying money,” Zaw Min said. But here, Zaw Min said they must pay fees to the Tatmadaw, resistance groups and the Kachin Independence Army, which operates alongside PDFs in Kachin and parts of Sagaing.

“All those groups are profiting from this and allowing it,” he said.

Illegal logging in Myanmar didn’t begin after the military coup, but Paing Htoo said it’s gotten easier since the coup, with his enterprise now operating in a protected forest in the Bago Yoma mountain range near the Pho Kyar Elephant Camp.

“Before the military coup, we couldn’t log timber from those areas. Now, we can,” he said.

Paing Htoo described a similar pay-off process to that in Sagaing, but with only the military taking a cut in Bago.

“When you reach the mile 23 on the [Koe Pin – Thargaya Road], that’s the main area to work for many smugglers. We have to pay the military to transport the teak,” he explained. “For an 18-foot truck full of timber, we have to pay K400,000 [$190] to the authorities. This guarantees our security not to be arrested all the way to Yangon.”

He said he’s never been threatened with arrest after paying off the military, but he is sometimes asked to “pay a little extra” at other checkpoints on the way to the commercial capital. Paing Htoo also said smugglers used to only ply this route at night, but now feel comfortable travelling openly at any time.

When the timber reaches Yangon, Paing Htoo said it is sold to traders who have licences from the Myanma Timber Enterprise, the state-owned enterprise tasked with regulating the timber industry, which has been sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. The licence falsely indicates that the timber has been logged from a permitted area.

“Because they are licenced, when they buy our timber, it all becomes legal,” said Paing Htoo.

Zaw Min said a similar racket is underway in Sagaing, where traders sell teak and tamalan timber illegally logged in Kani and Yinmabin townships to MTE-licenced timber storage companies on the Alon-Monywa highway.

“When licenced businessmen own the timber, it becomes legal,” he said.

Who profits?

In Kantbalu Township, community leader Ko Kyaw Thu Lwin* said he used to be able to reach the edge of the Thaphan Seik forest in half an hour by motorbike, but as clearing accelerates, it now takes him over an hour.

“They are massively cutting down the trees around the Thaphan Seik area,” he said, claiming both the Tatmadaw and resistance groups are involved in the illegal logging.

He said timber traders hire locals to cut down teak and tamalan trees and have set up makeshift sawmills in the forest to process the logs. Kyaw Thu Lwin claimed there are many PDF and Tatmadaw camps in the area, but smugglers work freely.

“We haven’t heard about any smugglers facing problems with the military or the revolutionary groups,” he said.

This is likely because both sides are profiting from the practice. Residents of Kani, Banmauk and Indaw townships said local parallel administrations under the NUG have permitted illegal logging in their territories and are even deeply involved in it.

“In Kani, the leaders of the community security team in the villages near the Alaungdaw Kathapa forest are timber brokers,” claimed Ko Zarni, who said the NUG’s township administration is also aware of the logging and has given its approval. “Township authorities also get privileges from this.”

Ko Zarni said both members of the civilian administration and security team are receiving personal income from the logging.

Ko Tun Kyi*, a member of an NUG-affiliated PDF operating in the area, said timber smugglers have to pay the security team leader between K1-2 million for every ton of timber they log. Then, they must pay to transport the timber through three checkpoints in Kani Township, and yet again to send off the haul at the Chindwin River. He said the same security team depicted in the video collects around K100,000 per ton of teakwood and K200,000 per ton of tamalan at each checkpoint. Resistance groups told Frontier similar systems are in place in Indaw and Banmauk townships, where the KIA also operates.

The Kani Township administration team told residents they are collecting taxes for the NUG.

“As far as we know, the money collected from the loggers does not go to the NUG,” said Tun Kyi.

Tun Kyi claimed that members of the security team and administration team are sharing between K10-50 million each month, and that it’s mostly being used for personal gain. Members of Tun Kyi’s PDF battalion once tried to arrest illegal loggers last year, causing tension with some members of the village community security team, which is also under the NUG.

Tun Kyi claimed after the PDF ordered the security team to stop transporting timber, they tried to attack the PDF with explosives. “We reported it many times, but the administration team didn’t reply, so we couldn’t stop the illegal logging,” he said.

Tun Kyi said the situation has been reported to the NUG, but nothing has changed. Frontier tried to contact the NUG’s environmental ministry but received no reply.

“I don’t think the NUG’s leaders know what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “The money from illegal logging is going into their pockets. They don’t give it to the NUG or PDFs, they just use it for their own interests.”

*denotes use of a pseudonym on request for security reasons.