Burma’s Fastest Growing Business: Drugs

A policeman holds poppy plants after a field was destroyed above the village of Tar-Pu, in the mountains of Shan State, in January. (Photo: Reuters)

One of the unsavory consequences of Burma’s economic rejuvenation is a revival of the country’s reputation for producing and exporting illegal drugs.

A combination of economic pressures and opportunity is fostering an increase in both traditional poppy cultivation for opium and heroin manufacture, and methamphetamine pills, which are being churned out in their millions from hidden miniature factories close to border crossings.

Thailand is the main target market but a UN agency says there is evidence of organized crime links between Burmese traffickers and criminals in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The shadowy nature of the business makes it almost impossible to evaluate accurately, but is believed to now run into several billion US dollars a year.

In 2010, the US Congressional Research Service estimated Burma’s drugs export trade to be worth between US $1 billion and $2 billion per year.

Around two million pills were seized from vehicles by Thai police just this month in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai Province bordering Burma. They were hidden among farm produce and are thought to have been smuggled across the frontier.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg: More than 31 million methamphetamine pills were discovered by Thai anti-drug units between October 2011 and March this year, according to a Bangkok government report. That represents a 45 percent rise over the same period a year earlier.

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says Burma is the source of nearly one quarter of the poppy plants used to make opium and heroin, making it the world’s biggest illegal opiate supplier after Afghanistan. The area under poppy cultivation is growing and is now back to levels last saw eight years ago.

More than 200,000 farming families are estimated to be growing opium poppies across 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) and 90 percent of them are in Shan State, said the UNODC.

“The main drivers behind recent increases in opium poppy cultivation are chronic poverty, decreasing rural food security and regional insecurity due to armed conflict,” said the UN agency.

Burmese local government officials and ethnic militias are accused of complicity in both poppy cultivation and methamphetamine production, according to a recent report in The New York Times quoting Thai border police. Others implicate the Burmese armed forces.

Aided by European Union funding and support from the German government, the UNODC has started a program to encourage poppy farmers to grow other crops to sustain themselves and raise incomes.

Burma remains on the United States blacklist of countries which are failing to deal with the cultivation of opium poppies, but has deferred taking any punitive action because of the country’s progress with political and economic reforms.

Al Jazeera recently named the United Wa State Army [UWSA] as “one of Southeast Asia’s largest drug-producing entities which continues to manufacture methamphetamine and heroin free of pressure from the [Burmese] government.”

The UWSA, based in northern Shan State, has a peace agreement with the Naypyidaw administration.

“The UWSA has more legitimate business interests: Aik Hauk, the son-in-law of founder Bo Yiouxang, owns Yangon Airways … [which] exemplifies how tight the nexus between the black market operators and the legal economy is,” said the Qatar-based news agency.

Burma watcher Prof. Des Ball, of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, has alleged that Burma is the world’s biggest producer of methamphetamines.

For years he was on a military regime blacklist barring him from the country. The ban was lifted in September.

Ball alleges that in spite of political reform in Burma, the military is still heavily involved in the drugs business, especially via their links with the UWSA. Army units control roads, transport and the border and it would be impossible for them not to know about production and shipment, he said.

The US Congressional Research Service has implicated other ethnic groups which have reached ceasefire agreements with the Burmese armed forces in transnational criminal businesses.

But the drugs trade is not just an export business. The UNODC says there is circumstantial evidence that illegal drug-taking is growing rapidly in Burma, especially among young people, and it plans to make a formal study to properly assess the problem.

The Bangkok government recently estimated that there are more than one million methamphetamine users in Thailand.

The drugs business has forced the Burmese government to quietly put back its bold deadline of 2014 for eradicating the problem from the country. The danger is whether setting a new deadline of 2019 will merely allow the issue to expand in the shadows.

6 Responses to Burma’s Fastest Growing Business: Drugs

  1.  Not really surprising given that Thein Sein has history of links to drug lords.

    • Just about all the military guys are nose deep in drug deals and trade.  Every one knows that  It is so impolite to mention it! was it really necessary?

      So what? Shouldn’t stop this wonderful “reform” for such trivial issue  surely.

      Long live Thein Sein! Long live Amay Suu! Long live yaba!

  2. Drug-driven economy? Who will invest in such an illicit economy.Incomes derived from opium,heroin and methamphetamine now in millions, these monies can be laundered into “white “without difficulties to be invested in licit businesses,who can compete them.No serious local or foreign investors will come if drug barons and their offsprings are rubbing shoulders with the law-enforcement officials and their cohorts.Most pathetic of all is the growing numbers of drug addicts among our young people.At a time when we need participation of 30-40 percent our population in national reformation and economic transformation,we cannot afford to waste this vital human resources.All law-enforcements agencies must mobilize to control and eradicate this scourge of our society.

    • Three points.

      First in today’s world, so long as there is money, every one will ignore a little girl raped and strangle right in front. Every single one of these business community in droves in Rangoon knows about the drug scene more than in this article.

      Second, law enforcement officials are the ones dealing it.

      The only reform going on is the military and the cronies are getting deals from around the world as oppose to only the Chinese and the Thai. Quicker and bigger and more importantly they are now kosher.

  3. William Boot,

    The production of drug in Burma is going to be too low for its own consumption in a next few years’ time.

    Look hard at the people. In two years, the greeting question would be how many days have you missed drugs?

    People stop talking about Five Precepts altogether. Monks are busy either globe trotting or demonstrating spreading hatred.

    All talks in town are money, money , money, money, money, money.  The only topic about and in Burma is MONEY.

    That’s how the Chinese are buying Burmese women openly for sex and slavery. There are already shops selling women, children and gays.This is currently already a Phar Naingan. Soon it will be  Phar and junky Naigan. That is not quite news.

    Law and order. Oh! That is a TV series.

  4. George Than Setkyar Heine

     “Burma watcher Prof. Des Ball, of the Australian National University’s
    Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, has alleged that Burma is the
    world’s biggest producer of methamphetamines”.
    Now he is saying and rightly of course as well!
    “Ball alleges that in spite of political reform in Burma, the military is
    still heavily involved in the drugs business, especially via their
    links with the UWSA. Army units control roads, transport and the border
    and it would be impossible for them not to know about production and
    shipment” he said.
    The UWSA led by ethnic Chinese DRUG WARLORD Boa Youxiang with US $ 2 Million Bounty on his head today has SIGNED the CEASEFIRE with Thein Sein’s outfit at Naypyidaw.
    And the drug warlord declared Thein Sein has NO JURISDICTION over WA STATE – administratively, politically, economically and others – as he would run the enclave on his own and at his discretion as well.
    Note: UWSA is PROXY to China as Bao Youxiang is an ethnic Chinese lording over the Wa State since the drug barons Lo Sing-han and Khun Sa left the scene and taking up residence in Rangoon, Burma, under the patronage of Than Shwe former military dictator of Burma and now his CLERK (Thein Sein).
    And UWSA is MASS PRODUCING and MARKETING/TRAFFICKING the illicit drugs worldwide as known today. 
    The Burmese army controls the roads, transportation and border areas as well no doubt.
    What more do you want for that matter?
    And the drugs are FLOODING the WORLD MARKET today. Right?
    Hence, Prof. Des Ball is NO GOD as even a CHILD KNOWS the fact the BURMA ARMY is HEAVILY INVOLVED in the DRUG TRADE of course.
    Today, MOST of the YOUTH in Burma are DRUG ADDICTS as well.
    According to a very RELIABLE SOURCE at hand the Burmese authorities are SYSTEMATICALLY DESTROYING the YOUTH of the country by HANDING OUT DRUGS to the YOUTHS for FREE as well in order to KEEP THEM OUT ON THE STREETS as DRUG ADDICTS  in place of IN THE CLASS ROOMS and DOING THEIR JOB specifically POLITICS widely professed by Burmese youths today since the late Gen. Aung San’s days until today (Min Ko Naing, his colleagues and amongst most Burmese youths).
    The military rulers know the fact, the STUDENTS are BEARERS of the FIGHTING PEACOCK EMBLEM – INSIGNIA depicting DEFIANCE against AUTHORITARIAN/MILITARY RULE since the colonial days until today.
    And our late Gen. Aung San was a FREEDOM FIGHTER since he was a student in the University of Rangoon. He eventually WRESTED Burma’s INDEPENDENCE from the British colonialists and THREW CAUTION (HIS LIFE) to the WINDS – he was assassinated by a British stooge on July 19, 1947 – for that matter no less as known worldwide.
    Ne Win the late military despot/dictator DREW FIRST BLOOD – killing hundreds of students during the FIRST CLASH with the students on July 7, 1962, when the students of the University of Rangoon and other higher institutes of learning Medical College among others) challenged Ne Win’s military regime (Rovolutionary Council) for seizing the power of the country on March 2, 1962 via peaceful demonstrations held in the premises of the Rangoon University. 
    And the HISTORIC STUDENT UNION BUILDING in the premises of the Rangoon University WENT INTO OBLIVION on the early 6:00 AM  the next morning of JULY 8, 1962, DYNAMITED to RUBBLE of course and killing unknown number of students taking refuge in the building in the wake of the carnage on July 7, 1962.
    Thus the Ne Win led BURMA ARMY DECLARED WAR on the Burmese students since July 7-8, 1962, and is still ongoing until today.
    Of course Than Shwe inheriting Ne Win as head of the Burmese military even went further by killing not only the students and people but also the Buddhist monks as well.
    Than Shwe’s military regime EMPLOYED not only RAPE as WAR WEAPON but also DRUGS as well to DESTROY the YOUTH of the COUNTRY in order to PREEMPT THEM from INVOLVING in POLITICS and CHALLENGING his MISMANAGEMENT/MISRULE of BURMA culminating in ONE of the PAUPER STATES on this EARTH from the RICHEST in Southeast Asia before the military takeover of the country.
    The military dictators running BURMA today are certainly APPREHENSIVE of the Burmese students since day one (July 7 1962) until today as well.
    And they showed their ANIMOSITY on the Burmese students by INCARCERATING (throwing the students in the dog houses while in detention among many tortures dished out to the students. Many untold numbers lost their lives in prisons as well) THEM for LONG PERIODS of TIME ( some more than 20 years) and there are unknown number of students held in detention until today.
    Of course some high profile students like Min Ko Naing and his colleagues amongst others were FREED on conditions as well with an ULTERIOR MOTIVE of GETTING the SANCTIONS LIFTED with a view to LAUNDER THEIR ILL-GOTTEN WEALTH while  HOODWINKING the US led WEST under the facade of a pseudo-civilian (quasi-military) rule backed by the military professing to UPHOLD a MILITARY DOMINATED CONSTITUTION to GUARANTEE Than Shwe’s CRAFTED/ENGINEERED MILITARY HIERARCHICAL RULE to OUTLAST eternity even.
    Yes, Prof. Des Ball HITS the BULL’S EYE no less saying the BURMA ARMY is HEAVILY INVOLVED in the DRUG TRADE.
    And Than Shwe and his CLERK masquarading as PRESIDENT of BURMA today are the BOGEYMEN for Daw Suu and ALL, SACRIFICING  and STRUGGLING for Burma’s DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS as evidenced as well LEST PEOPLE FORGET specifically, the US led West and Australia NO EXCEPTION as well for that matter I say.

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