There is both good news and bad news for Myanmar on the drug front: a sharp decline in opium cultivation and a shift toward synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine.
In the past 20 years, opium cultivation has declined to 41,000 hectares, a 75 percent drop from 163,000 hectares in 1996, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s statistics.
However, the main concern today for regional governments and the UNODC is methamphetamine, mainly manufactured in the Mekong sub-region of East and Southeast Asia. According to the UN agency, “Myanmar is perceived to be the main country of origin.”
An anti-drug operation launched in June 2018 by the Myanmar President’s Office seized US$132 million (211.1 billion kyats) worth of methamphetamine tablets and “ice” (crystal methamphetamine) within four months. Most of the drugs, along with opium, heroin, and other amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), were found in conflict areas in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states. Precursor chemicals used in ATS production were also found, mainly in conflict areas in Shan State.
According to UNODC regional representative Jeremy Douglas, the synthetic drug trade is worth billions of dollars and involves some of the larger transnational organized crime groups.
Once known as a center of the opium trade, the Golden Triangle area, where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, has re-emerged as a center for synthetic drug production and trafficking. Transnational organized crime groups utilize Myanmar’s internal conflicts for their own interests, as lawless conflict zones are the best place to produce man-made drugs, which unlike opium crops don’t require labor-intensive cultivation and are not dependent on the weather.
High-purity crystal methamphetamine from Myanmar has been found on New Zealand’s streets. The New Zealand Herald wrote about the world-class chemists involved in drug production in Myanmar. “Aided by state-backed militias, high-tech meth laboratories and factories employing world-class chemists are fueling a US$40-billion regional drug economy,” it reported.
Since early 2018, seizures of Myanmar-produced drugs in neighboring countries including China, Thailand, Bangladesh and India have grown. Narcotics control officials from Bangladesh said various Myanmar separatist groups produce yaba at 37 factories in Shan state—which borders China, Laos and Thailand—and smuggle them to different countries to raise funds. The Myanmar military discovered drug labs during a raid in a conflict area in northern Shan State in February this year. Vast amount of drug precursors and lab equipment were found during the raid.
As mentioned in the national drug control policy paper, Myanmar is involved in a “two-way trade of precursors and drugs”, importing precursors from neighboring countries and producing synthetic drugs to be trafficked around the region.
A trade born of conflict
Myanmar’s drug trade emerged along with the internal armed conflicts in the 1940s. Duan Xiwen, a general with China’s nationalist Kuomintang forces, was famously quoted as saying, “We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”
Not all ethnic armed group leaders who seek political power or territorial control will agree with Duan’s statement, but the reality is that the longer an armed conflict lasts, the more resources the armed groups involved need in order to survive. Participating in the drug trade and collecting tax from drug traffickers are ways for armed groups to fund their existence.
Under military rule in the 1990s, the government granted a certain level of protection to insurgent groups involved in the drug trade in exchange for signing ceasefire agreements. As author Patrick Meehan from SOAS at the University of London observes in Drugs, Insurgency and State-Building in Myanmar, “Over the past 20 years the state has created a system of rents within the drug economy through numerous mechanisms. Most obvious has been the state’s willingness to offer legal impunity to groups involved in the drugs trade following their signing of ceasefire agreements.”
Among 20 drug kingpins listed in the 2009 book Merchants of Madness by Bertil Lintner and Michael Black, many are still active armed group leaders who took part in ceasefire agreements from 1989 onwards.
Of course a ceasefire doesn’t mean the end of conflict. Rather, it can inflame the drug trade in the region. If we study UNODC’s data on annual drug seizures in Myanmar from the 1990s to the 2000s, there is no data related to methamphetamine seizures before 1996. Statistics on the drug first show up a few years after the Myanmar military and several armed groups signed ceasefire agreements and began sharing control of territory and business interests. Conflict was absent in the so-called special region areas along the border with China, Laos and Thailand, but statistics show the drug trade has been on the rise since then.
The cross-border drug trade has a long history in the area. In the mid-1800s, opium was used to promote international trade when the West, led by Britain, forced China to open its market after the Opium Wars of 1839-60. The French also brought opium to China from Afghanistan, India and Hanoi. In the 1950s, a joint operation by the Kuomintang and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency against the Chinese communists was at the forefront of the opium trade in the Golden Triangle. In the 21st century, Asian methamphetamine has begun to replace opium in the world market. In fact, drug money could be said to make the world go round.
In Myanmar, production of ATS drugs has increased almost 10-fold since 1996. It has reached alarming levels in the region as a major transnational organized crime activity.
Complaint mechanism established
The Drug Activity Special Complaint Department of the President’s Office was formed in June 2018 with the aim—as stated in the state media—“to prevent and eradicate the dangers of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances”. The complaint mechanism works in two ways: The department receives complaints from the public and relays the information to the Ministry of Home Affairs, and then the Tatmadaw and Myanmar Police Force carry out separate investigations on drug complaints, search and arrests at border gates, and searches of vehicles, acting upon tip-offs.
The move by the President’s Office seems to have encouraged civilian participation in drug eradication and increased scrutiny of security officials’ involvement in the drug trade. Some military and police officials have been arrested for their involvement in drug trafficking. Significant amounts of drugs and precursor chemicals have been seized. It turns out that the country is facing a serious drug problem on many levels, not only as a distribution country but also as a major consumer.
However, the anti-drug operation has reached only limited areas controlled by the government. Certain areas along the border are the scenes of ongoing conflict and are still controlled by armed groups. The president’s anti-drug operations are tantamount to cutting down a bush without digging up its roots.
Women in the drug trade
Whether it’s insurgent groups or drug organizations, men usually run the drug trade because of its high-risk nature. As in Afghanistan, Myanmar women’s involvement has mostly been limited to opium cultivation, but recent statistics show that women are increasingly being exploited to facilitate the drug trade.
More than 1,200 women were arrested during the recent anti-drug operations launched by the President’s Office. That’s equivalent to 14 percent of total arrests for drug trafficking. These women get involved in drug trafficking for a range of reasons, from being drug abusers or victims of human trafficking to the desire to escape poverty.
According to UNODC data, of 98 countries that provided sex-disaggregated drug-related crime data for the period 2012–2016, some 10 per cent of those arrested for drug-related offenses were women. The ratio of women arrested in the drug supply chain in Myanmar is higher, but women in this country have very limited access to resources to treat drug-related harms.
According to official statistics, the government has set up 26 major and 47 minor drug-treatment centers, as well as 51 methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) sites, but very few of them have facilities catering especially for women.
Furthermore, these services do not yet cater to meth users. “These services need to be expanded to address methamphetamine use and other drugs-related harms,” the official national drug control policy document states.
Man-made drugs, man-made conflict
Although demand is shifting from opium to synthetic drugs, the conflict situation in the country remains unchanged. A shift toward man-made drugs is a serious threat not only to Myanmar but also to the whole region.
Conflict reduction is as important as drug supply, demand and harm reduction in Myanmar. In the national drug control policy paper, one of the priorities is listed as “strengthening cooperation mechanisms on drug control and rule of law with ethnic armed groups”.
Offering legal impunity to armed groups involved in the drug trade should no longer be viewed as a solution; the evidence shows it has failed. The question now becomes: What do we offer the drug lords, whose only law is the law of the jungle?
Mon Mon Myat is a freelance journalist and graduate student in the Ph.D program in peace-building at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.