Myanmar has a drug problem
Myanmar’s war on drugs, tacitly endorsed by the UN, has failed to stem a scourge linked to the country's many unresolved ethnic armed conflicts
There is little disagreement that Myanmar, despite a recent shift from military to semi-democratic rule, remains one of the world’s largest producers of illicit drugs, including opium, heroin, methamphetamine and other synthetic narcotics.
Two recent reports promote fundamentally different approaches to the deep-seated drug problem, which has its roots in decades of civil war in frontier areas between government troops, ethnic rebel forces struggling for political autonomy and other warlord armies that are in the fight mainly for the money.
Myanmar’s “war on drugs”, however, has always had more to do with counterinsurgency than suppression of the narcotics trade – a guise that the international community has increasingly accepted as it becomes more intimately involved in the government’s donor-driven peace process.
It is an official narrative fuelled by the mostly false notion gaining currency among Western diplomats and other observers that ethnic resistance is driven more by a desire to exploit rich natural resources in frontier areas than genuine political aspirations for federalism.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which works with the Myanmar government’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCADC), highlights in a report this month government efforts at poppy eradication and the introduction of alternative income schemes as major accomplishments in the fight against narcotics.
The Drug Policy Advocacy Group Myanmar (DPAG), which works with the Transnational Institute, Médecins du Monde, the Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum and other nongovernmental groups, wrote in a February report that “Myanmar’s drug polices are outdated and inadequate.”
It quoted former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as saying “I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”
Wrongheaded policies may explain why Myanmar, even after the UN and other donors have for years poured in millions of dollars on “drug-eradication” and “crop substitution” programs, is still awash with illegal drugs.
The UNODC report also reaches some questionable conclusions which reflect the limitations of working directly with a government that is widely accused of having links to the narcotics trade.
In a press release before the UNODC’s report’s release, Police Brigadier General Kyaw Win from the CCADC stated that “villages not engaged in opium poppy cultivation typically have better access to government services and perceptions of safety and security.”
Opium cultivation, in his estimation, “often happens in villages that are isolated and that cannot get other products to market.” Kyaw Win’s proposed solution to the drug problem is “to expand our work with development partners like UNODC to scale up sustainable development programs to reach more communities.”
But even UNODC maps in the report detailing where opium cultivation is still rife point toward an entirely different reality.
In Kachin state, opium is grown mainly in an area near the Chinese border controlled by Sakhon Ting Ying, the commander of a state-recognized local militia opposed to the anti-government Kachin Independence Army. Independent observers say heroin is also produced in the area under the state-backed militia’s control, which is located near Myitkyina, Kachin state’s capital and a major market town.
Ting Ying was an elected member of the upper house of Myanmar’s parliament until he was expelled last June for violating election laws, including alleged physical intimidation of rival candidates. Last year, vigilantes from a community-based drug eradication network, known as Pat Jasan, clashed with Ting Ying’s militia backed by state police forces when they marched on the area to destroy the poppies.
In Shan state, according to the UNODC map, there are no poppies grown in areas controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its allies, some of which are engaged in heavy combat with government forces. On-the-ground sources say there are still major fields of poppies under cultivation in northern Shan state, where one of the major known trafficking organizations, the Pansay militia, is also a local government-allied force.
The militia’s leader, Kyaw Myint, was until the election a member of the Shan state parliament. His controlled area is located close to important market towns like Namkham and Muse, both along the Chinese border. Drug eradication efforts in that area of Myanmar are now being carried out by rebels from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which frequently clash with government forces and their Pansay allies.
The UNODC map also shows widespread poppy cultivation close to Taunggyi, the Shan state capital and another important market town. The map’s “poppy belt” stretches from areas controlled by former rebel groups now in ceasefire agreements with the government down to hills immediately east of the national capital, Naypyidaw.
All of these map points run contrary to the UNODC’s analytical conclusion that “restoring governance and security might help reduce opium poppy cultivation, as it will make it more difficult for drug traffickers to conduct their business with impunity.”
UNODC supported government policies — and the government’s simultaneous collusion with known drug trafficking militias — have thus arguably sustained more problems than they have solved.
The DPAG report rejects the government’s “punitive approach”, which it claims fosters corruption within law enforcement agencies and local governmental bodies. It advocates instead for harm reduction and cooperation rather than hostility towards communities which are dependent on opium cultivation for their livelihoods or adversely affected by drug use.
Although the Myanmar government and UNODC pay regular lip service to “alternative development projects”, little progress has been made on the ground. In 1999, the former ruling junta announced a 15-year master plan to make Myanmar “opium-free.”
According to UN figures, however, opium production more than doubled from 21,600 hectares under cultivation in 2006 to an estimated 55,500 in 2015, the last year of available statistics. Areas under cultivation have even spread to western Chin state, where poppies were barely grown in the past.
The situation is not likely to improve as long as the government, including the autonomous Myanmar army which controls all security related agencies, view local drug trafficking militias as useful allies in their counterinsurgency campaigns against ethnic rebels.
DPAG concludes that “it is time for Myanmar to…prove that more humane and effective drug policies are not only possible in distant countries but also in Myanmar.” But the question is whether authorities are truly interested in solving the drug problem or would rather use it to win international support for its bid to tame volatile frontier areas, where rebels rather than opium poppies are seen as the chief enemy.