Analysis: The drug problem – An ongoing political challenge in Burma
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Analysis: The drug problem – An ongoing political challenge in Burma

Despite an overall ‘stable’ global drug use situation, an increase in Southeast Asia’s markets for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and a continuing rise in opium cultivation pose growing human security and public health challenges, according to a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Report released on 26 June 2013.

Afghanistan accounted for 74 per cent of global illicit opium production in 2012 and remains the world’s leading producer and cultivator of opium, while Burma is the world’s second largest, accounting for 23 per cent of the land used for illicit poppy cultivation and 10 per cent of global opium production, says the UNODC.

Methamphetamine remains the top illicit drug threat in East and Southeast Asia, according to a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report – “2012 Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs, Asia and the Pacific” – which was made public in December 2012. Seizures of methamphetamine pills have increased more than five-fold since 2007, says the UNODC, noting that amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are now either the number one or number two illicit drug of use in 13 of the 15 Asia-Pacific countries surveyed in the report.

Burma remains the top source of illicit methamphetamine pills in East and Southeast Asia, and is also a source of crystalline methamphetamine, according to the UNODC report, which says that ‘significant quantities’ of crystal meth are also produced in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, with ‘large-scale manufacturing’ reported in Cambodia.

Reported methamphetamine use increased in 11 of 15 countries surveyed in East and Southeast Asia. The use of methamphetamine in pill form increased in all six countries that comprise the Greater Mekong Subregion – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Vietnam.

According to the UNODC Report, Burma remains a major source of methamphetamine pills and opiates in Southeast Asia, most of which are manufactured in Shan State in the eastern part of the country. The report also says, for the first time, a crystalline methamphetamine manufacturing facility was seized in 2012. Large amounts of methamphetamine in pill and crystalline form originating from Burma continue to be seized in neighbouring countries.

The report also highlights that in the region, Burma has become one of the key sources of methamphetamine for a number of illicit drug markets in the past decade and a half or so. Most methamphetamine manufacturing in Burma takes place in the mountainous and remote terrain of eastern Shan State, a region affected by drug trafficking and political instability for much of the past six decades.

According to the UNODC, methamphetamine in pill and crystalline forms – as well as heroin – manufactured in the Shan State is trafficked overland and via the Mekong River, primarily to illicit drug markets in China, Thailand and, to a lesser but possibly increasing extent, Bangladesh (UNODC 2010). Methamphetamine is also smuggled from Burma into Yunnan province in southwestern China (NNCC 2012b). Some methamphetamine is also trafficked within Burma to supply the domestic drug market (UNODC 2010).

A report – Journey of RCSS Anti-narcotic Activities – recently published by the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) says the tripartite cooperation with the government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) is most important in the ultimate solution of the long standing drug problem in the country, Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.) reported last week.


The cover of 82 page booklet – Journey of RCSS Anti-narcotic Activities – which presents in three languages: Shan, Burmese and English. All the data included in the report are before June 2013, before the RCSS/SSA leader Sao Yawd Serk made his historic trip to meet President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw, where he discussed the drug issue with the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).(Photo: SHAN)

The 82-page report in three languages – Shan, Burmese and English – is based on information gathered before June 2013, before RCSS/SSA leader Sao Yawd Serk made his historic trip to meet President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw, where he discussed the drug issue with the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).

“Although the eventual solution of the drug problem rests with the political settlement, the drug situation among the people is so severe, the solution for the drug problem should be sought simultaneously with the search for a political solution,” reads the Shan version of the report.

The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army had signed a 9-point agreement with the government and UNODC on 28 October 2012 for a pilot project in Mongnai and Mongpan Townships, in southern Shan State. However, a lack of finances and hostilities between the Burma Army and the SSA South have hindered the implementation of the plan.

Most illicit methamphetamine manufacture in Shan State takes place in small, mobile facilities located in border areas near China and Thailand, primarily in territories controlled by active or former ethnic insurgent groups, many of which now operate as criminal syndicates rather than politically motivated insurgents, the report says.

Additionally, the UNODC 2012 report says that opium poppy cultivation has increased in Burma for six consecutive years. Opium poppy cultivation is at far lower levels than in the mid-1990s but is on the increase.In 2012, an estimated 300,000 households were involved in opium poppy cultivation in Burma.

According to the Shan Drug Watch 2012, if political settlement of long-standing ethnic dissatisfaction is not reached, the armed conflicts that fuel Burma’s drug epidemic will never end.

To stop growing poppy, an alternative cash crop must be provided. According to some political analysts, poppy growing and opium production in Shan State have increased over the past two years due to political volatility and growing economic despondency caused by cronyism, corruption and unprofessional conduct of the government.

According to Shan Drug Watch’s Khuensai Jaiyen, the Burma Army controlled ‘People’s Militia Forces’ (PMF), set up by the government supporting its operations against rebel forces, have become key players in the drug trade, both heroin and ATS. However, government authorities’ involvement in the drug problem is being ignored by the international community since it embraces Burma’s President Thein Sein administration.

According to the Shan Drug Watch report, at least six well-known drug lords represent the ruling party and have held parliament seats  since the 7 November, 2010 elections,

Unless the strategies of the government’s peace deals are transparent, the drug trade will continue to thrive. Thus, negotiated resolutions to the ethnic and religious conflicts in the country need to be found as soon as possible.

The drug problem has intertwined with the country’s long-lasting political challenges since Burma gained independence in 1948. Underestimating the impact of drug-trafficking throughout the country may severely damage the ongoing attempts at reform supported by Western democracies.