Where is Burma’s 'war on methamphetamine'?

When police raided a house in the Burmese border town of Tachilek last week, they discovered a stash of around 8.7 million ecstasy tablets, most likely bound for Thailand. Alongside the pills was a collection of guns – AK47s, M16s and a handgun, as well as drug-making paraphernalia. On the same day, a Chinese official told media that border towns in southwest China, where Yunnan province meets the frontiers of Burma’s Shan and Kachin states, had seen a rise in synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, and even drug-making facilities. Keen to stamp out the scourge that an influx of drugs to towns like Ruili has triggered, Beijing will draw up plans for a crackdown on the trade, the China Daily reported, as media speaks of a “resurgence” in the Golden Triangle’s most derided commodity.

In truth however drug production in this region never really declined from its heyday in the early 1990s, when Burma provided for the bulk of the global opium trade; instead it has just diversified. The quantity of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) being trafficked across Southeast Asia is so great that Burma expert Desmond Ball thinks the country could now be the “the largest narcotic state in the world”, when combining the amount of synthetic drugs being produced there (which, according to the US State Department, also includes ketamine) with the ongoing opium output. The latter reached 610 tonnes in 2011, thus keeping Burma as the world’s second biggest producer behind Afghanistan, but it likely leads the way in methamphetamine.

Yet somehow, opium still hogs the limelight. Armed with tailor-made trimmers, authorities last week took to the mountains of Shan state, Reuters journalists in tow, to reinvigorate Burma’s ‘war on opium’. The region has an abundance of poppy fields, and society there has for decades been scarred by the fallout from the drugs’ industry – both the conflict that has accompanied it, as warring factions vie for control of the market, but also the rates of addiction among inhabitants. (And the problem is not limited to Shan state – several years ago, a survey at Myitkyina university in Kachin state found that around half of students there were addicts, mostly using heroin. French NGO Medicine du Monde thought the crisis so bad that it provided special bins around the campus to dispose of needles).

Shock exposés like this had catalysed calls for tough action to be taken by the former junta, but the results were half-hearted: at the peak of production, most of the opium was produced by ceasefire groups like the United Wa State Army (UWSA), or the business-oriented rebel Mong Tai Army, who cut deals with local officials that allowed them to continue the trade – officials would profit from taxes paid by these groups for permission to grow poppies, whose fortunes from the trade allowed them to build up heavy weapons’ arsenals used to fend off competitors. But along with political reforms now underway, Reuters claims the administration of President Thein Sein has “dramatically accelerated a campaign to eradicate opium poppies and shed Myanmar’s [Burma’s] pariah status as one of the world’s top drug producers”.

But the anti-opium crusade somewhat obfuscates the real problem. Ridding the land of poppies is well and good, should it prove to be true (unlike past efforts), but tackling at the source a problem that now plays second fiddle to a larger and more complex crisis must be diversionary. Where, you might ask, is the ‘war on methamphetamine’, surely a more pressing concern now given the level of output, but also because of Burma’s looming chairmanship of the ASEAN bloc. Non-interference has long been the cornerstone of foreign policy in this part of the world, but the patience of member states, particularly Thailand, has been tested by the increased flow of drugs south from Burma. Several years ago Thailand labelled methamphetamine addiction as the country’s biggest crisis, and quietly pointed the finger towards Burma. Burma has only two years before it must cast itself as a responsible leader, yet problems with endemic corruption and domestic instability continue to spill across its borders, plaguing neighbouring societies.

Even if elements within the government are genuinely seeking an end to the trade, the hurdles they faces are daunting, and strike right at the heart of the ‘new’ Burma. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the rhetoric and the current state of play is evidence of official complicity in the trade – an investigation last year by the Shan Drug Watch monitoring group  found that at least seven standing MPs, all of whom are from the ruling Union and Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are implicated in drug production and distribution. Take for example Lui Guoxi, a current USDP parliamentary member, whom renowned drugs expert Bertil Lintner claims was a “key operator” in a narcotics ring run by the ethnic Kokang militia in Shan state. There is also T. Hkun Mya, who by day chairs the House Bill Committee in the People’s Parliament, but on the side maintains close dealings with a group involved in protection and transportation of drug shipments passing through the town of Namtu in Shan state.

Like many other watchdogs, Shan Drug Watch has noted a gradual increase in the amount of acreage used for growing poppies in the eastern state, but it goes where investigations by the likes of the UN fear to tread, to the realm of government complicity. This is now especially pertinent for the methamphetamine market, which government-backed militias are believed to be playing a greater role in, as they have been with opium production (in contrast to the years following the collapse of the Burma Communist Party in 1989, when various ostensibly ‘independent’ militias – but which were more interested in business than aligning themselves with the armed opposition – fuelled the expansion of the opium trade).

Moreover, the government can wax lyrical about its elimination of poppy fields in certain areas – even taking the likes of Reuters along for a demonstration – but going deeper into unravelling the forces governing the methamphetamine market, not to mention the manpower and intelligence it would take to locate and destroy the many clandestine labs in the Shan Hills, is a task one doubts the government has either the capability or inclination to carry through. Journalist Joshua Kurlantzick says the Burmese military is “closely involved in the shipping of the drugs out of the country and into Thailand and Laos, where the army units help move the drugs past checkpoints and ensure security from raids by Thai forces and DEA [US drug agency] units that work with them.” Since the army introduced a ‘self-sufficiency’ protocol, whereby troops on the frontline are forced to sustain themselves, a hand in the lucrative drugs trade has become a necessary means for survival (the lowest-ranking troops often earn just $US10 per month).

The only way a government like Burma’s, which has amassed extraordinary wealth through its hand in criminal activities, stands to benefit from eradicating drugs is the slap on the back it will receive from foreign leaders. The country’s rulers have never expended much energy on tackling the trade unless it could be used as a pretext to maneuver troops inside opposition territory. This renewed ‘war on opium’ can then be seen as an exercise in propaganda, akin to the annual drug burning ceremonies that are attended by gleeful staff from the UN and foreign embassies (does the billowing smoke consistently cloud the fact that production is climbing year on year?).

Another problem that few analyses of Burma’s drugs industry pick up on is the international element at play – the groups pumping out millions of pills each year are serving a market run by organised crime syndicates across East Asia and beyond who process the money through casinos, hotels and so on. “Black money is laundered white, playing an important role in the local economies of countries that produce or consume narcotics,” writes Lintner in his 2008 book on the region’s methamphetamine explosion, Merchants of Madness. He goes on to cite Hong Kong researcher Yiu Kong Chu, who believes that organized crime rackets such as the Chinese Triads “are indeed an integral rather than a mere predatory element of many sectors of the economy”. The forces that would then like to see Burma’s drug trade flourish are far-reaching, from the minions in the processing labs to the powerful international stakeholders, via, of course, Burma’s parliament.

The raid last week that netted 8.7 million tablets will go some way towards satisfying Thai authorities that at least something is being done, but it really has little significance in the wider picture – some analysts believe the annual output of ATS pills from Burma could surpass one billion in the near future, and as Kurtlantzick warns, the ceasefire deals being struck with ethnic armies come with new rewards, “including essentially longer periods of time in which [the armies] can run their [drugs] operations without much government interference”.

This, coupled with evidence that the trade is being tolerated at the highest levels of government, and aided by members of a parliament viewed by the west as a nascent democratic forum, suggests quite the opposite of what the ‘war on opium’ supposedly proclaims: the country’s drugs industry is not being stamped out, but instead institutionalised, and homing in on opium serves to distract from the real issue at hand – the methamphetamine market – which has the fingerprints of President Thein Sein’s government all over it.

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