As everyone knows, the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing granted the release of over 1,600 prisoners nationwide on the day of the Burmese New Year, April 17. Among those released were many sentenced under the Army and Police Discipline acts, yet also those imprisoned on drug charges.
Most prisoners convicted on drug charges will bribe prison authorities to live like kings whilst incarcerated, using their own, or their organization’s, cash to turn a prison into a palace. As I understand it, their lives do not belong to the outside world because the inmates themselves spend most of their time in and out of prison — a lifelong process which endows them with skills useful on the inside; profiteering off the backs of other prisoners, and the bribing of prison authorities.
This year’s amnesty was not granted to appease the thousands of homes across Burma wishing each day for snatched family members to be returned. The junta leader played his game, leveraging his own personal laws to show a middle finger to both Burma’s political prisoners and the international community calling for their release.
In my opinion, Burma’s thousands of political prisoners will stay behind bars as long as the dictator fails to hold the upper hand in the political game. His soldiers are currently facing unprecedented hardships on the battlefield; I do not hold out hope that my brothers and sisters will be freed in the military’s amnesties.
Something clear to all Burmese: Min Aung Hlaing and his allies are driven purely by self-interest; they will not do anything which they cannot drive a profit from.
We can easily surmise that those released have been done so for a cunning purpose, and we must look into why those with drug convictions are useful to Min Aung Hlaing and his entourage.
I had a second chance to investigate this situation while spending eight months in Myeik Prison following the coup. I discovered that around 70 percent of inmates were inside on drug charges. During my two years of imprisonment in Yangon’s Insein Central Prison — over 10 years ago — those on drug convictions constituted but a small group of convicts. Held in Myeik, I found the situation had changed quite radically.
From this experience, I began taking on much hearsay about the drug world and soon discovered, like many before me, that the military’s generals and top allies are, themselves, driving Burma’s drug trade.
How could the drug world and the military be related? Allow me to share some information from interesting people I encountered in prison.
One of the men I interviewed was employed to drive a passenger speed boat from Myeik to nearby islands. He later became a trafficker for ketamine and methamphetamine, transporting his cargo from Myeik down the Andaman coast to Malaysian shores.
My interest was piqued when I asked where the drugs came from. He told me he did not know who was behind the trade as his drugs had been trafficked in varying steps, through different locations for reasons of security. What he could tell me was that he was working in cahoots with a high-ranking military official in Mandalay who even owned private aircraft, yet he did not disclose exactly who this was.
Now, this is not a story heard only in Myeik Prison; the SAC, its representatives in the USDP, and its friends on the country’s borders have long been shown to be the key architects of the Burmese narco-state; but let me describe how this system works in the waters of Tanintharyi.
My investigations show that drugs are transported with military owned FAW trucks until reaching a port on Myeik’s Kan Nar Road. Traffickers, lining the route, are lent weapons from Burma Army soldiers which are returned after each successful shipment. A round trip from Myeik down the Malaysian coast takes one full week; the main trafficker behind the venture receives K6,000 lakh (US$32,400) for a successful delivery. Others amongst the crew receive roughly K150 lakh (US$8,100) per person — there are around five to six people manning a boat per trip.
The owner of the boat is a native Malay speaker, those receiving the cargo at the boat’s destination are intimately connected to individuals in the Malaysian army.
My acquaintance on the inside was unlucky, but his story is typical of those involved in the military’s drug trade: Neighbors had become envious of him and his family as their lifestyle became evermore lavish; such criticisms upset him; he started to use the meth crystals he was charged with transporting. Later, he was caught with drugs and weapons.
After a case was filed to the court, the military, upon hearing that an insider had been taken by police, switched the weapons he had been caught with to remove evidence of the army’s complicity. Now an unreliable mule and a user, he received 10 years prison time.
In another notable case in Myeik, local authorities seized a gigantic K270,000 lakh (US$14.6 million) worth of meth discovered on a boat docked at the town’s Kwei Ku village in January 2020. I remembered the news in detail as I had been charged with covering the story at the time.
So, while in Myeik Prison in March 2021, I continued my investigations. I found out that all of those arrested — except for the boat’s unfortunate fall-guy captain, who had received 10 years imprisonment — had been released within a year and were nowhere to be found. High-ranking military officials had become involved in the case, I was told, resulting in the speedy release of the traffickers.
Everyone I spoke to told me that the military was deeply involved behind the scenes in Myeik’s drug cases; some even told me that methamphetamine could be openly purchased from inside of a large military compound near the town. Others revealed that drugs were stored inside the home of a captain in the compound of the Coast Guard HQ, and that those operating the base were free to take the narcotics whenever the need arose.
Much of this information comes directly from people who the military asked to sell drugs on its behalf. Some of those spoken to shared with me how they had used drugs with generals in private hotels in Naypyidaw, and that the manager had fitted rooms with seating specifically for drug use. The hotel even provided the paraphernalia necessary to inhale the drugs.
Despite being handed terms of 10 years in court, these convicts were released in an amnesty after spending only three years behind bars. When asked what they would do upon their release, most will happily report that they will return to the drug world. In their view, there are no other businesses where such profits may be found.
Information from drug dealers inside the prison led me to become deeply acquainted with the names of the military leaders and drug chiefs of Myeik township. There are multiple infamous cases of people arrested at least three times for drug offenses, yet each time released after bribing the court in Myeik. I also found out why some drugs are seized, while high-level traffickers remain at large.
The multi-million dollar drug industry of Tanintharyi, which continues to grow and prosper without any threat to traffickers, is not only proof of how prevalent narcotics are within Burma, is also suggests that the industry is a key, if not the primary, income generator for the country’s military.
No matter how many countries put sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing and his generals in their attempts to make it more difficult for them to buy weapons or bring in foreign exchange, the junta will always have its drug trade to fall back on.
From my time inside, I have concluded that the SAC — in providing Burmese new year amnesties to those jailed on drug charges — is strategically releasing those stooges that it knows can bring in millions of dollars for the junta on the outside.
Everyone is aware that the junta needs a lot more money to consolidate its coup. Iranian aircraft carrying raw materials for printing new bank notes to airports in Yangon and Naypyidaw are proof of this. It is something we must consider harder as capos, middlemen, and street dealers that work directly with the military are released. As long as the military is under attack, we will see an increase in Burma’s drug trade under the regime of Min Aung Hlaing which has no precedent in history.
The international community and Burma’s revolutionary organizations need to infiltrate this nexus, to identify the military’s drug production and distribution teams if they are to take down the SAC and Min Aung Hlaing. Only by taking the institution apart from its roots will the regime fall.