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Another Great year for Burma’s Drug Trade

By Burma Partnership  •  May 27, 2014

Nov-22-2013-Jpaing-IrrawaddyIt is of no surprise that the latest report from the UN’s Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on synthetic drugs finds that methamphetamine production in Burma continues to rise. Burma is already the second highest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan and the fact that production rates of both opium and methamphetamine are increasing year on year points to a more complex picture than simply increase in demand. Poverty, displacement, conflict, and government complicity are all factors in this miserable state of affairs.

According to the UNODC report, “2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment – Amphetamine-type Stimulants and New Psychoactive Substances,” that was released in Tokyo, Japan on 20 May 2014, seizures of methamphetamine in Asia have tripled over the past five years. The report highlights how most of the methamphetamine seized in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Burma itself, originates in Burma, while Jason Eligh, country manager for UNODC Burma states that, “according to expert perception, a large share of methamphetamine pills seized in China in 2012 originated from Myanmar.” This report complements a UNODC report on opium production in Burma released six months ago that showed a 26% increase from the year before, the highest recorded levels since monitoring began in 2002.

The majority of opium is grown in Shan State, northern Burma, which is also the main location of methamphetamine factories. Production is largely controlled by militias, both those seen as ethnic rebels by the government, and government-aligned people’s militia forces. Intrinsically linked to the production are issues of ethnic conflict and poverty. Decades of conflict and little investment in health, education and infrastructure has left much of this region extremely poor. Most opium farmers live in poverty, and are often left with little choice but to grow opium as a high-yield, cash crop and sell it on to militias and organized crime gangs.

The government, however, is complicit in the drugs trade, especially in areas which it has never had substantial control or been able to administer. For decades deals have been struck between the government and respective ethnic militias to give the armed groups free reign over swathes of territory in exchange for support against other ethnic armed groups. Thus, parts of Shan State have been historically a victim of divide and rule tactics, with different militias carving out their own fiefdoms to produce opium, and now more increasingly, methamphetamine.  In fact, one of the leaders of a people’s militia force that is active in Namhkan Township in Shan State and has had control over opium production in the area for over ten years is Panhsay Kyaw Myint. Panhsay Kyaw Myint is also a MP for the military-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). According to Palaung Women’s Organization, Panhsay Kyaw Myint told farmers during his 2010 election campaign that there would be no taxation for five years on growing opium if they voted for him. Despite announcements of programs and public shows of opium field destruction, the fact that the current government consist of a well-known drug lord with a private army of 400 soldiers reveals the level of involvement the government has with the drug trade in Burma.

Furthermore, as demonstrated with the rising production levels, the situation is getting worse. The last few years have seen even more cooperation between the government and armed groups in Shan State as the Burma government seeks to present itself as pursuing peace. As renowned Burma expert, Bertil Lintner points out, the recent increases are down to the actions of the Burma government; “Since 2011, the government has tried to lure many of the rebel groups, various armed groups back into what they call the legal fold, essentially to neutralize them as a potential threat to the central government. But in order to do so, they must offer them something in return.” This can be seen with the government backed Border Guard Force militia in Karen State. According to a recent report by Karen Human Rights Group, they have been actively involved in the production and sale of methamphetamine since the ceasefire was signed, with debilitating social consequences.

Poverty, conflict and government complicity are all drivers of methamphetamine and opium production in Burma. This is compounded by increases in demand for narcotics in Asia, as highlighted by the latest UNODC report. There will be no quick fix to the drug trade, neither in Burma, in Asia or in the world as a whole. Burning of poppy fields or the occasional seizure of methamphetamine is just the tip of the iceberg. Drug production in Burma is intrinsically linked to sustainable peace, livelihood opportunities and a political will to tackle the problem. So far we have seen little efforts to address these issues. That a known drug lord is part of the government is incomprehensible, and the international community must do more to pressure the authorities to end the cosy relationship between drug lords masquerading as local security services and the Burma government. This is not just a problem that is confined to Burma or even the region. The heroin and methamphetamine that come from Burma are eventually sold into global markets everywhere and the international community must take a tougher stance on this most pressing issue.

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