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From Opium Wars to a New ‘Ice’ Age

Methamphetamines and the Changing Landscapes of Drug Cultivation in Myanmar 

By Lewie Clough

Changing local and regional drug habits are sustaining conflict and supplying several of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) with vast revenues. In a region long synonymous for its opium cultivation, Myanmar remains the second largest producer of opium in the world, with large swathes of remote, mountainous areas that remain outside of government control providing a haven for opium farmers.

However, the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar fell 25 per cent from its 2015 estimate to 41,000 hectares in 2017, and significant decreases in opium prices have been observed over the last five years [1]. In the meantime, there has been an explosion in the production (and consumption) of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) in Myanmar and the wider region. Unlike opium, production of ATS does not require a large labour force and can be made in relatively small labs. The neighbouring pharmaceutical giants India and China guarantee a steady flow of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine (commonly used to treat colds), and other affordable, mass-produced cutting agents and precursor chemicals. Myanmar’s porous borders act as ideal channels for the importation of these chemicals and perfect locations for illicit ATS-producing labs.  Myanmar itself has no significant pharmaceutical industry and the production of ATS in Myanmar is entirely reliant upon external chemical production and trafficking. [2] These labs are concentrated in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State, where their produce can be easily transported into Thailand, Laos, China, and beyond.

In May this year, a record-breaking drug bust in Malaysia made regional headlines with the country seizing 1.2 tonnes of crystal methamphetamine in a shipment from Myanmar. Other record seizures of various forms of ATS have also been made in the neighbouring countries of Thailand and Indonesia, even as far away as Australia. [3] This is of course reflective of the exponential growth in the production of ATS in Myanmar and South/Southeast Asia as a whole. These ATS range from “Yaba”, a mixture of methamphetamines and caffeine in pill form, normally consumed locally, to crystal meth (ice), which is largely exported to wealthier countries. 

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The majority of the ATS moves south-eastwards is smuggled into Thailand through United Wa State Army (UWSA) controlled territory shipped down the Mekong river (which acts as the Myanmar-Laos-Thai border). Transport into India and Bangladesh through Sagaing Region and Rakhine State is also common. The involvement of the UWSA, the largest EAO in Myanmar with roughly 30,000 troops and close links to China, in drug production and trafficking is the driving force behind this shift. The UWSA’s origins can be traced to the break-up of the drug-reliant Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989 and the merger of CPB splinter groups. The Myanmar military (known locally as the Tatmadaw) supported the UWSA as a proxy force in the mid-1990’s against the rise of opium kingpin Khun Sa and his militia forces. Combined with the region-wide explosion in opium cultivation in the 1990s, this allowed the UWSA to establish themselves as the principal actor in the narcotics business in Southeast Asia. [5] The diversification from heroin to methamphetamines has also been led by the UWSA, but the UWSA is by no means the only large-scale producer of ATS in the region. Yaba in particular is produced by many small-scale Tatmadaw-supported People’s Militia Forces and several other EAOs in Myanmar, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). 

Drug policy in Myanmar has largely centered around supply reduction, most notably opium crop eradication which is often carried out at the expense of small-scale poppy farmers. [6] Public drug burnings are commonplace, but offer only a symbolic resistance against the transnational narcotics network. However, Myanmar has received considerable praise from commentators and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) upon the launch of its new National Drug Control Policy in February 2018. Although much of the policy focuses on conventional supply and demand reduction, it is notable that the policy attempts to integrate harm reduction policies and and compliance with human rights norms, offering one of the regions' only health and rehabilitation-orientated drug policies. [7]

The acknowledgement by the government that tackling the country’s drug problems cannot be overcome through the efforts of law enforcement resulted in the development of a multi-sector approach that focuses on health, social, and economic development is encouraging. [8] Nevertheless, incarceration of drug users is common, and roughly 48 per cent of Myanmar’s prison population is detained for drug related offences.[9] Moreover, President Win Myint’s establishment of a Special Anti-Drug Reporting Centre in June 2018 (which falls under the authority of the President’s Office) and its focus on promoting and financially rewarding drug informers has caused concern that a potentially violent, vigilante-style crackdown on drug users could occur. [10]

The rise in ATS production not only poses huge problems for public health and law-enforcement in Myanmar, but also for the country’s fragile peace process. The government is  currently trying to condense multiple bilateral ceasefire agreements between the military and EAOs into one Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). So far, 10 out of 21 EAOs have signed. However, conflict creates opportunities for groups such as the UWSA and the MNDAA to make billions of dollars supplying Southeast Asia with heroin and methamphetamines, with some estimates putting Myanmar’s narco-economy at around US $4 billion [11]. These EAOs are also yet to sign the NCA and commit to establishing peace in Myanmar. However, there is little to suggest that those involved in narcotics production in Myanmar will wean themselves off something that has made them incredibly wealthy.

Myanmar’s peace process is entirely nationally-owned (despite increasing calls for Chinese mediation). However, multilateral projects focusing on the relationship between narcotics trafficking, the illicit economy, and conflict by organizations such as the UNODC, ASEAN or the Asian Development Bank can also support Myanmar’s new drug policy and influence the peace process itself. Bilateral efforts between between governments, NGO's and agricultural businesses looking at increasing and re-establishing development and alternative livelihoods initiatives in areas controlled by EAOs can also provide a new avenue for international engagement in Myanmar’s peace process and help reduce a lucrative source of funding for key armed actors. [12] The future of Myanmar’s peace process remains uncertain, but what should be clear to all is that this rapid rise of ever more profitable ATS production exacerbates instability in Myanmar’s borderlands and remains an obstacle to bringing key armed groups to the negotiating table.    

References
[1] UNODC (2017). Myanmar Opium Survey 2017: Fact Sheet. Available at:
https://www.unodc.org/document...

[2] UNODC (2013). Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: A Threat Assessment. Available at: http://www.burmalibrary.org/do...

[3] Reuters (2018). Malaysians Make Record Bust of Crystal Meth, Shipped from Myanmar. Available at: https://ca.reuters.com/article...

[5] Lintner, B. and Black, M. (2009) Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

[6] Transnational Institute (2018). The 9th Asian Informal Drug Policy Dialogue. Chiang Rai. Available at: https://www.tni.org/files/publ...

[7] Parameswaran, P. (2018). What Next for Myanmar’s New Drug Strategy? The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/0...

[8] Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2018). Myanmar Drug Control Policy. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/document...

[9] See note 7.

[10] Slow, O. (2018) Myanmar’s Meth Menace. US News. Available at:
https://www.usnews.com/news/be...

[11] Routray, B. P. (2018) Narco Economy in Myanmar: From Opiates to ATS, ISPSW Strategy Series: Focus on Defense and International Security, 552.

[12] Douglas, J. (2018) Asia's New Methamphetamine Hotspot Fueling Regional Unrest. CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/0...