Myanmar Touts $200M in Drug Seizures in Military-Backed Militia Territory

By Nyein Nyein 11 March 2020

The Myanmar military has seized more than 121 million stimulant tablets and other precursor materials and equipment used in drug production, valued at 267 billion kyats (US$199 million), over 11 days in Kutkai Township, northern Shan State, according to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services.

Busts at drug production facilities have been ongoing since Feb. 28 and have yielded larger hauls than in years past. The military’s seizures of drugs across all of Myanmar from Jan. 1 to Aug. 15, 2019 were valued at 217 billion kyats.

The army chief’s office said on Tuesday that the recent drugs hauls in Kutkai Township’s Kaungkha and Lwekham villages included stimulant tablets bearing the WY, 88/1 and R labels as well as heroin, morphine, raw opium and Ice.

According to the military, the narcotics included over 121 million assorted stimulant pills, most of them the WY variety, 271 kg of heroin and 443.5 kg of Ice. Authorities also seized 136 kinds of drug production equipment, worth more than one billion kyats.

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, began publicizing the seizures on March 1. The area is largely controlled by the military-backed Kaungkha militia group. There are more than a hundred militia groups supported by the military in Myanmar, most of them armed and operating in conflict zones.

Despite its connections to the militia in the area, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief vowed to take action against drug producers.

“Concerning the seizures of narcotic drugs, measures will be taken to arrest the main culprits and those involved in the cases in accordance with rules and regulations, and the security forces continue regional security measures and searches around the area,” the military repeated in each of its statements this week.

Last Friday, the military took journalists, foreign military attachés and international anti-narcotic organizations to visit Kutkai and displayed the seized drugs and drug-making materials. On their way back, a helicopter with military attachés on board crashed in Kutkai but no one was injured.

One of the drug production facilities and materials seized in Lwekham Village in Kutkai Township, northern Shan State on March 9. / The Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services

The tour included representatives from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board, China’s National Narcotics Control Commission and the Australia Federal Police.

According to army chief’s office, military commanders and the Anti-narcotic Task Force explained to the tour about Myanmar’s strategies for exposing drug operations, seizing narcotics, cooperating with the international community and addressing the role of armed “insurgent terrorists” in drug production.

But according to many observers, Myanmar’s drug eradication efforts won’t work if the military is unable to address the causes of drug production, especially in areas where military-backed militia groups allegedly provide security for drug producers.

According to Kheunsai Jaiyen, an ethnic Shan political analyst and long-time observer of drug issues, Chinese groups have played a key role in Myanmar’s drug trade since the time of U Khun Sa, a prominent drug lord active until the mid 1990s.

Kutkai is also the constituency of the current Union Parliament speaker T Khun Myat, who once led the Kaungkha militia. He was elected to Parliament in 2010.

The speaker has denied allegations that his family members are involved in the drug trade.

“He has denied this for years and when we have talked to people close to him, they said he is not connected, but it’s doubtful that he doesn’t know,” said Kheunsai Jaiyen.

Ethnic and political affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe expressed doubt that large drug seizures will be effective in the long run.

“The military’s drug busts were huge last year and this year they have seized stimulants valued at more than 200 billion kyats, but if they cannot capture the key perpetrators and the deeply-rooted networks, these drugs and drug-making facilities will emerge again,” he said.

U Maung Maung Soe added, citing local news reports, that some 150 people who are not local to the area have been involved in drug production in the area controlled by the military-backed Kaungkha militia.

“Although the experts from Taiwan, China and Russia come to work in the drug production industry in these areas, only the locals who know the area well can manage these businesses,” he said. “In such a situation, it is beyond surprising that the local Kaungkha militia are not aware of this.”

Kheunsai Jaiyen echoed these concerns.

“It is hard for [local militias] to produce such tablets and drugs. The producers are the Chinese traders and Chinese chemists. The militia groups provide security for them,” he said. “The people in the militia groups may change but not the Chinese chemists.”

“There is a balloon-effect, meaning when the authorities crack down on one group or groups without solving the root causes, another group or groups will emerge again in the future. This is because the root cause is political instability. We have to solve this first. Without solving this, [the balloon effect] will continue.”

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