Ethnic Armies’ Role in Burma Drug Trade Off Table at Six-Nation Talks

By Daniel Pye & Lawi Weng 7 May 2013

RANGOON — Ethnic armies’ involvement in Burma’s drug trade was not discussed at a high-level meeting in Rangoon on Tuesday, despite a surge in narcotics production over six years concentrated in regions largely controlled by ethnic militia.

Burma on Monday pushed back its drug eradication deadline by five years to 2019 as the world’s second-largest narcotics-producing nation struggles to combat resurgent production of opium and methamphetamine.

Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese government seemed serious about solving the drug problem.

“They’re very forthcoming at the moment and candid,” he said on the sidelines of the conference. “They have committed to maintaining the opium survey and to work with the UN on sustainable livelihoods. They realize it will take a long time to develop [the program] and they can’t just eradicate, there has to be alternatives.”

Officials from China, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam met for several days of talks on Monday. On Thursday, a ministerial-level meeting in Naypyidaw is expected to produce an agreement between the six nations that will include co-operation with the United Nations on drug eradication, alternative solutions for farmers and law enforcement training.

But despite the seeming commitment to combating the spread of illicit drugs in eastern Burma, the Burmese government failed to broach the sensitive issue of the ethnic groups involved in the trade.

“I don’t think they want to discuss” the ethnic issue, Douglas said. “This [forum] is a crucial relationship. They see it as vehicle to advance a common agenda. They certainly won’t discuss it with us.”

Zaw Lin Htun, deputy police chief of the anti-narcotics task force, said after Tuesday’s meeting concluded that the police had discussed individual drug producers and sellers based in ethnic areas, but not in political terms.

“We discussed this issue, but we didn’t focus on the names of the groups,” he said. “We only talked about the individuals who are selling and producing the drugs.

“The six countries agreed to work together with the UNODC to give education, treatment, crop subsidization, and they also will cooperate with the international community to reduce drug production in Burma.”

The drug trade in the region is closely tied to Burma’s long-running conflicts in the Golden Triangle — a region where Burma, Thailand, Laos and China meet. In April, fighting broke out once more in northern Shan State, threatening to bring the Burmese government forces to the brink of open conflict with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), once described as “the largest drug army in the world” by the US State Department.

Ashley South, an analyst and author of “Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict,” said working to resolve the drug issue cannot be separated from ethnic armed conflicts.

“Clauses aimed at working to resolve drugs issues have been included in a number of ceasefire agreements between non-state armed groups and the government, particularly in Shan State,” he said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “Attempts to address drug issues without involving ethnic communities and their representatives are unlikely to be successful.”

As well as the recent boom in heroin production, South pointed to the rise of methamphetamine, known locally as yaba.

Yaba “consumption is increasingly prevalent across southeast Myanmar, causing damage to social fabric and widespread concern among communities,” he wrote. “In Kachin State, the problem is mostly heroin—widespread drug use among youth, and associated spread of HIV/AIDS.”

One section of the declaration due to be signed in Naypyidaw on Thursday morning will focus on battling the spread of HIV and AIDS in drug-producing areas.

Burma has tried as part of its ongoing transition from outright military rule to reach peace deals with armed ethnic groups. Until 1991, Burma was the world’s leading producer of heroin, when it was replaced by Afghanistan. But since 2007, poppy cultivation has risen sharply.

The anti-narcotics task force is hopeful the meeting will be the first step toward better drug trade controls.

“This step is an improvement in the process of drug production reduction,” Zaw Lin Htun said. “We have an agreement with the SSA [Shan State Army] to eliminate drugs in the areas they control.”