In Arakan State, Concerns Grow Over Rise in Drug Seizures, Abuse

By Khin Oo Tha 24 October 2014

Recent drug seizures and reports of growing drug abuse in western Burma’s Arakan State are causing concern among local residents and state authorities, with some fearing that the developments indicate a rise in drug trafficking through the region to neighboring Bangladesh.

In September, at Nandawgon City Wall of the old Arakan temple complex of Mrauk-U children playing in the area found a hidden haul of some 400,000 methamphetamine pills, Mrauk-U Township police force have said.

Earlier this month, about 600,000 pills were found by Rangoon Division Police hidden in bales of clothes on a bus that was about to leave Rangoon for Arakan State.

Mrauk-U residents said they were surprised to hear that such a large amount of drugs was found in their small community, located some 50 km (30 miles) north of the Arakan capital Sittwe and about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of the Burma-Bangladesh border.

“Police still can’t find the owner. It is the largest drug bust in Mrauk-U so far,” said local resident Maung Than. “Since most of the people in Mrauk-U are poor they can hardly afford such expensive drug. Some youths use expensive drug, but the number is very limited.

“So, the tablets seized at Nandawgon would have been meant for export to the neighboring country, I think,” he said.

Some Arakanese politicians said that in recent years they witnessed an increase in drug abuse among Arakanese youths.

“It can be said drug abuse is the worst in Sittwe. Particularly, the extent to which it has spread among students and youths is a real concern,” Sittwe resident and Arakan State Assembly lawmaker Aung Mya Kyaw told The Irrawaddy.

He said he believed the abuse was linked to an increase in drug trafficking to neighboring Bangladesh, adding, “The state authorities do not pay attention to drug problem.”

Ba Shwe, an Arakanese resident of Maungdaw Township, said, “Those aged between 18 and 25 are using more [drugs]. Since this is a border area, [abuse] is worse and police and authorities concerned do not give serious attention. Everyone knows who buys and sells drug as our Maungdaw Township is quite small.”

Drugs from Shan State, Asia’s biggest region for production of methamphetamine and opium, are known to be trafficked from northern Burma into India’s northeastern states. Reports of cross-border drug-trafficking to Bangladesh through the Arakan region, although often offering scant detail, have appeared in the Bangladeshi media.

Win Myaing, an Arakan State government spokesman, confirmed that illicit drugs were regularly being seized in the state, but declined to be drawn on whether this pointed to a rise in drug trade.

“There have been frequent drug busts, there were also in the past,” he said, adding that most seized drugs were being trafficked from Burma to Bangladesh via Arakan State.

Since 2012, Sittwe and townships in northern Arakan State, such Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Maungdaw, and Buthidaung, have been the scene of outbreaks of bloody inter-communal violence between the Arakanese Buddhists majority of state and the roughly 1 million Rohingya Muslims who live in parts of northern Arakan.

Border townships Maungdaw and Buthidaung are not easily accessible due to a heavy presence of security forces, which have been deployed to guard the border and to enforce a range of harsh restrictions on the stateless Rohingya who make up most of the population in the two townships.

Win Myaing, whose has frequently levelled all sorts of public accusations against the Rohingya, was quick to blame the drug trafficking reports on the stateless minority, especially on the 140,000 displaced Muslims forced to live in crowded, squalid camps around Sittwe and in northern Arakan.

“Since they [displaced Rohingya] have a lot of money provided by international [aid] community, they can deal and use drugs,” he claimed.

In Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of Rohinya refugees live in camps near the border, nationalist politicians and media have reportedly also been keen to link the unpopular group to drug trafficking from Burma.

Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok, told UN news agency IRIN in June that there had been no confirmed reports of Rohingya involvement in drug trafficking, but he added, “Drug trafficking networks … use people who don’t have much to lose to operate in dangerous border areas—this is what appears to be happening between Bangladesh and Myanmar.”

Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.