Book Details Coming Struggle to Kick Burma’s Drug Habit

By Bertil Lintner 24 March 2016

The publication of the book, “The Chinese Heroin Trade: Cross-Border Drug Trafficking in Southeast Asia & Beyond,” could not have been timelier. As members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are about to take over most ministerial posts in the government in Naypyidaw, this will be one of most difficult issues they will have to face: the flow of illicit narcotics across Burma’s borders as well as rapidly increasing drug addiction at home. In this book published last year, Ko-Lin Chin, a Burma-born Chinese who is now a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark and Sheldon X. Zhang, professor of sociology at San Diego State University, have done a tremendous job outlining the political realities and the dynamics of the trade in narcotics—heroin as well as synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines—in Burma.

Even after decades of international efforts and millions of dollars spent on various UN-sponsored programs, Burma remains the world’s largest producer of illicit narcotics after Afghanistan. Opium poppies are grown in the north and the northeast, and refined into heroin in laboratories in the same areas. In recent years, there has been a shift to methamphetamines, but the production of heroin remains important, and that particular narcotic rather than methamphetamines is smuggled in vast quantities to China, a country that has its own production of crystal meth and, therefore, is not dependent on imports of such drugs. Methamphetamines are smuggled to Burma’s other neighbors, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh.

The focus of the book by Chin and Zhang is the heroin trade, and it is refreshing to note that their findings differ considerably from the standard view presented by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and its local partner, Burma’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC). In “The United Wa State Party: Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party?”, authored by Tom Kramer and published by the East-West Center, Washington, in 2007, then CCDAC boss Col. Hkam Awng is quoted as saying that powerful syndicates control the narcotics trade, and “most [of those] syndicates are Chinese … they have good connections and financing from abroad. It is difficult for us to penetrate their circles.” This echoes the view of the UNODC, which often attributes its failures to the activities of “highly sophisticated international drug syndicates.”

Chin and Zhang, however, “found little evidence to suggest any systematic linkage between drug trafficking and traditional criminal organizations. This observation does not suggest that no individual member of triad societies was ever part of the drug trade. However, we are fairly certain that triad-type criminal organizations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the US are not active players in cross-national drug trafficking operations.”

The triads would rather risk other, more lucrative investments in China such as nightclubs, the movie industry and the construction business if they dealt in drugs. The drug trade from Burma to and through China, Chin and Zhang argue, “is primarily dominated by loosely connected individuals” who operate independently of the syndicates.

In fact, one would not have to look very far to find those individuals. Some of them are even public figures. This was highlighted when, earlier this year, a contingent from Pat Jasan (“prohibit, clear”), a community-based Kachin drug abuse eradication network, confronted a local militia led by Zahkung Ting Ying in eastern Kachin State. Ting Ying, a former commander of a local Communist Party of Burma (CPB) unit in Kachin State, made peace with the government in 1989 and turned his force into the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), which now has become a government-recognized Border Guard Force. Moreover, he is a member of the Upper House of the Burma Parliament, and was re-elected in November after banning the NLD from campaigning in his territory.

Following the 1989 peace agreement with the government, Ting Ying and his henchmen were allowed to engage in any kind of business, which, in the beginning, was massive timber exports to China. When the forests in their area were gone, they planted poppies—and began producing heroin. They also brought in machinery from China and established a gun factory in their area. The guns, including semi-automatic weapons, are sold mainly to rebel groups from northeastern India.

Pat Jasan action was mainly symbolic, to show official complicity in the narcotics business, and that coming in a state ravaged by drug addiction over the past few years. And Ting Ying is not the only present or former parliamentarian who’s involved in the drug business. Another is Kyaw Myint, alias Li Yung Shau, the leader of the drug-trafficking Pansay militia and a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). He served in the Shan State legislature from 2011-16, but did not seek re-election last year.

The relationships between militias like Kyaw Myint’s and the military have been overlooked by various EU diplomats and assorted Western observers who seem to believe that Burma’s civil war is being kept alive by rebel forces defending their business interests. Hence, those rebel groups are not interested in signing ceasefire agreements with the government, the narrative goes.

In reality, it is the other way around. Groups that have entered into such agreements have been able to prosper economically. This can be seen in the aftermath of the signing of what was meant to be a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” on Oct. 15 of last year. Two of the groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), have since then been given lucrative business opportunities.

The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), which, like the NDA-K, emerged from the now defunct CPB in the late 1980s, was able to build up its drug empire because it entered into a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which had a ceasefire agreement with the government from 1994 to 2011, saw many of its officers become rich and corrupt during that period. Since the government broke the ceasefire in June 2011 and launched a massive offensive against the KIA, many, but not all, of those commanders were sidelined and a new, younger leadership whose primary interest is not to make money, has come to the fore.

Chin and Zhang do not go into detail about those relationships, but provide us with accounts of the social organization of the traffickers, the retail market in China and even women in the heroin trade. The only weakness here is that the authors seem to underestimate the importance of the drug trade to the Burma economy. They found no evidence that “revenues from the drug trade made up a substantial percentage of the country’s overall economy.”

That may be the case today as Burma’s economy has become more diversified, but in the 1990s, drug money provided the then ailing economy with a significant boost, which helped the country survive sanctions, boycotts—and gross mismanagement by the ruling junta. In 1989, the Burma government decided that they would no longer confiscate bank deposits and foreign currency earnings of dubious origin deposited locally or brought in from abroad. It opted instead for a “whitening tax” on questionable repatriated funds, levied first at 40 percent and later reduced to 25 percent. Narco-funds previously held in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong flooded back into Burma. Proceeds from the drug trade thus helped finance the formation of local companies involved in retail trade, infrastructure development and numerous construction projects—or just to pay for lavish lifestyles.

How the new NLD government will tackle the internal as well as external trade in narcotic drugs remains to be seen, and it is an issue that concerns the country as well as China, a major recipient of heroin produced in Burma. Chin and Zhang describe the relationship between China and the Burma nation and people as “an ever-evolving love-hate affair,” and China has both before and after the November election sent several positive signals to the NLD and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But can she deliver? There may, in fact, be little it can do about it as the ministers of defense, home affairs (which includes the police and law enforcement) and border affairs will be appointed by the military, not by any elected body.

That does not bode well for the future and the drug trade may well turn out to be yet another issue where it will become obvious that Burma’s first democratically elected government in half a century will have very limited power. It could also become an issue where the military will be able to undermine the authority as well as the credibility of the new government. We can only wait and see—while drugs are pouring out across Burma borders, not only to China but to other neighboring countries as well.

The Chinese Heroin Trade: Cross-Border Drug Trafficking in Southeast Asia & Beyond

By Ko-Lin Chin and Sheldon X. Zhang

New York and London: New York University Press, 2015

320 pages, US$55