Burma’s Growing Illegal Trade May Include ‘Designer Drugs’ to China

By William Boot 13 February 2014

Illegal trade across Burma’s borders is increasing, according to a researcher, as concerns are raised that demand in China is fueling the trade in so-called designer drugs.

As well as drugs, studies say the mushrooming illicit trade flowing over the country’s frontiers involves food, consumer goods, rare timber and wildlife, drugs, weapons and people.

But the drugs trade is the most lucrative, and it is growing despite assurances by the Naypyidaw government that it was taking action to curb it.

“Drugs are very much likely to be Burma’s most important illegal cross-border trade in value, especially of course when prices and production are high,” the author of An Atlas of Trafficking in Southeast Asia, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, told The Irrawaddy this week.

Illicit trade is expanding on Burma’s borders with Thailand, China and India, said Chouvy of the French government-funded National Center for Scientific Research.

In his 2013 book, Chouvy says: “The most active illegal border trade between Burma and Thailand occurred and still occurs at three points: Mae Sai, Mae Sot and Ranong. Goods traded illegally across the Thai-Burmese border were and are still extremely diverse.

“The dominant imports of Thailand from Burma have been wood and wood articles, especially teak, and gems.”

In an emailed comment to The Irrawaddy he declined to put a figure on Burma’s illegal border business, saying it “would not be serious due to a lack of reliable data”.

However, last October, Burma’s Ministry of Commerce estimated in a report based on seized tax-avoiding consumer goods and drugs that smuggling across the border with Thailand was worth over US$200 million just over a three-month period from July.

Burma’s borders with China have long been porous for two-way trade and valuable timber such as teak and sandalwood continues to move northwards, with little sign that it will stop when a national ban on raw timber exports is due to begin in March.

Much of the illicit business skirts round the legal cross-border exchange of goods which is concentrated with China’s Yunnan Province and Thailand but includes 14 official trading points also including India and Bangladesh.

Just this month, official Naypyidaw figures recorded that Burma’s legal border trade for the April-January period last totaled $4 billion.

The biggest of the official cross-border trade place was Muse on the Chinese Yunnan frontier, said China’s news agency Xinhua. Muse accounted for $3.12 billion of the total, Xinhua said.

But the rise of a richer urban youth in China may be creating demand for a more valuable commodity from Burma—so-called designer recreational drugs.

“With money to burn, China’s non-stop party people are turning to drugs in unprecedented numbers, turning neighboring [Burma] into a meth lab [methamphetamine laboratory] and driving a resuscitation of the bad old days of big-time trade in the Golden Triangle’s devastating narcotic, heroin,” said a special report in January by Al Jazeera television.

“Intercepts of the methamphetamine Ice or the ingredients necessary for its manufacture are toted up in tonnages. But given [that] authorities only manage to uncover a fraction of the trade that begins in [Burma], and pours into China, a deadly dangerous drug is in overwhelming flood,” said the TV station’s reporter Stephen McDonell, who went on patrol on the Yunnan side of the border with Chinese anti-drugs police.

Chinese demand for methamphetamines is a new trend. As recently as 2012 the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified Thailand as the main destination for methamphetamines produced in isolated mobile factories in the Burmese jungle.

The Indian authorities say there has also been a growth in illicit trade across its 1,650 kilometer-long border with Burma, which the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi recently described as “extremely porous.”

“The border runs along hilly and inhospitable terrain which grossly lacks basic infrastructure,” The Times of India newspaper quoted the ministry saying in a report.

“Opium as well as heroin travel from western [Burma] to India’s north eastern states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. From here the drugs travel to Kolkata via Assam and are finally shipped to the rest of the Indian subcontinent,” said Riddhi Shah of the Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi in a study.

Riddhi said the value of Southeast Asia region’s cross-border trade in drugs, weapons and people alone could be counted in billions of dollars, based on UNODC figures

The report said the growth of such trans-border business indicated a failure by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations organization (Asean) to coordinate regional action and could be “blamed on domestic factors of corruption, poverty and lack of resources.”

The Naypyidaw government is the 2014 chairman of Asean but is preoccupied with managing scores of association meetings being held across Burma throughout this year, including two major summits of the 10-country association.