Burma Druglords Could Cash In on Afghan Decline

By Francis Wade 13 December 2012

BANGKOK—Declining heroin and opium output from Afghanistan could provide strong cash incentives for Burma’s drug warlords to boost production, thereby threatening the further growth of a trade that is already considered a key component in Southeast Asia’s expanding organized crime world.

Despite Burma producing 690 metric tons of opium this year, shipments of the drug from Afghanistan account for around one-third of the total opium and heroin being consumed in Southeast Asia. Yet poor harvests and a US-backed eradication campaign in the Middle Eastern country have seen production decline in recent years.

“We are concerned about the [resulting] changes that may occur in the marketplace in Myanmar and Laos, where production could increase,” said Gary Lewis, Southeast Asia representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Laos is the world’s third largest producer of opium and heroin, behind Burma and Afghanistan. “If the opium coming from Afghanistan drops by a third, then it could well increase by that much here.”

Added to that is the markedly different costs of opium: in Afghanistan, a kilo goes for around US $165, while in Laos it can fetch $1,700. “There already is an incentive to produce more here, and that’s going to be the problem,” says Lewis.

Tackling the trade in Burma has proven difficult for the UN, which has acknowledged that more work should be done to target the “kingpins and white-collar accomplices” rather than gauging progress on the number of arrests of street-level players in the market. That said, the UN believes the Burmese government has eradicated up to one-third of its poppy crops in recent years.

The UNODC released a report on Wednesday detailing the evolution of Southeast Asia’s methamphetamine market, whose rapid expansion has taken the shine off gains made in the suppression of trade in other narcotics.

“The bottom line is that we have a problem,” Lewis said of the growth in methamphetamine production. “We need to be very concerned—in 11 of 15 countries in the region there has been an increase in seizures of amphetamine-type stimulants [ATS].”

The UN estimates that 8.8 million tons of crystal methamphetamine alone was seized in Southeast Asia in 2011, a rise of 23 percent on 2010. While Burma’s Shan State is considered the principal source of ATS in the region, compounding the problem is continuing shipments of drugs from Iran. One methamphetamine pill, for example, can be sold in Malaysia for five times the price it would fetch in Iran, thereby increasing the push to export to Southeast Asia.

Lewis told The Irrawaddy that while the Burmese government had cooperated in opium eradication campaigns, the issue of joint anti-methamphetamine efforts had been harder. Yet while he believes Naypyidaw has “no interest in seeing its reputation continuously sullied by association with drug production,” others are more pessimistic.

“There is no incentive for the government to really crack down on drug production,” says author and journalist Bertil Lintner, who has covered the regional drugs trade for nearly two decades.

Behind the majority of the region’s methamphetamine output is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which controls territory in the mountains of Shan State in eastern Burma and is estimated at 20,000 troops.

Under the 2008 Constitution, the group was granted autonomy over six townships in the region of Shan State bordering China, where the majority of its methamphetamine laboratories are believed to be located.

The UWSA maintains a ceasefire with the central government; some suspect this has given the Wa plenty of room to continue manufacturing heroin and methamphetamine.

“If the government were to move seriously against methamphetamine production they would have a war with the UWSA and they don’t want that because the UWSA is too well armed,” says Lintner.

The UWSA’s arsenal is believed to contain surface-to-air missiles, positioning the group as the most well-equipped and financed ethnic army in Burma. “See how badly the government is doing in its war against Kachin [in northern Burma]—they don’t have nearly the same weaponry as the UWSA,” Lintner says.

Analysts have warned that the ceasefires being signed between the government and ethnic armies, particularly those in Shan State, could allow them more space to manufacture drugs. “That’s exactly what’s happening. The government doesn’t want to interfere—if it disturbs business then they’ll fight again,” says Lintner.

Lewis acknowledged that “there are reasons why one has to be concerned about that,” but that the UN would keep careful watch of developments in ceasefire areas. “In any region where there is a toxic mix of guns, drugs, money and politics, there are going to be questions raised about various levels of complicity.”

Regional anti-narcotics agencies appear to be fighting a losing battle with ATS. Seizures of crystal methamphetamine in 2011 nearly doubled those of 2009—given that the drug is produced in laboratories and cannot be aerially surveyed in the same way opium production can, seizures are the key indicator of the health of the market.

The UN is concerned that as a stronger middle class emerges in many Southeast Asian countries, more young people will have a disposable income that could go towards buying drugs.

The evidence appears to warrant this fear, given that all countries in the region have reported increases in the use of crystal methamphetamine. In Thailand, consumption reached record levels in 2011, which according to the UNODC report, reflects both a surge in manufacturing in Burma and rising demand among the country’s expanding drug user population.