Myanmar's drug 'exports' to China test ties
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - As military-ruled Myanmar prepares to unveil its new political cast,
an enduring link between the junta and the country's notorious drug lords is
poised to come under the spotlight.
Among the candidates who won in the Southeast Asian nation's first election in
20 years on November 7 are six suspected drug barons. They represented the
Union Solidarity and Development Party, the junta's political front, which
triumphed comfortably in the poll.
The bespectacled Kyaw Myint is among this group of six who emerged victorious
in a poll - clouded with questions of fraud - for
the estimated 1,163 seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies
that were up for grabs.
The elected national and regional legislators are to begin their new role in
Myanmar by the first week in February. The opening of the new parliament 90
days after the November poll is the sixth step in the junta's seven-step
political roadmap to create a "discipline-flourishing democracy" in Myanmar.
Prior to slipping into his role as a legislator, the 51-year-old Kyaw Myint was
better known as a junta-backed militia chief "notorious among local people as a
drug dealer in the Shan State North’s Namkham township", reveals the Shan
Herald Agency for News (SHAN), a media organization run by journalists from
Myanmar’s Shan ethnic minority.
"Many ferry crossings on the Ruli River that serve as a boundary between China
and Myanmar are guarded by Kyaw Htwe [also known as Li Yonping], younger
brother of Kyaw Myint," adds SHAN.
Yet this political identity for Kyaw Myint, with the junta's blessings, will
test the growing economic bonds between Myanmar and its giant northeastern
neighbor China. According to official figures released by Myanmese officials,
China has pumped in over US$8 billion in foreign direct investment this year to
tap Myanmar's resource-rich environment.
The investments by Chinese state-run companies in the oil and gas, hydropower
and mining sectors mark a dramatic increase from what Chinese investments were
five years ago - some $194 million.
"Myanmar and China have grown closer over the past four years and Beijing is on
the verge of displacing Thailand as the country that tops investment in
Myanmar," says a Southeast Asian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But one Burmese "export" to China has Beijing concerned, the diplomat added.
"Beijing is worried at the increase in drugs flowing from Myanmar to its
southwestern Yunnan province."
United Nations officials confirm this. "Yes they [Beijing] are concerned not
only with ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants] but also with heroin," says Gary
Lewis, East Asia and Pacific regional representative for the United Nations
Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The spike in the number of methamphetamine pills seized in China in 2009
underscores such worries. "In 2009, China reported total seizures of more than
40 million pills. This represented as almost six-fold increase from 6.25
million pills seized in 2008," UNODC says in a December 2010 report on the ATS
trade in Myanmar, whose northeastern part comes within the narcotics-producing
Golden Triangle region.
"The Chinese government has been reporting a sharp increase of drug trafficking
into China from the Golden Triangle region by means of constantly changing drug
trafficking routes and methods," states the 45-page report, “Myanmar -
Situation Assessment on Amphetamine-Type Stimulants”. "Reports have pointed to
transnational drug syndicates attempting to sell stored drugs, with a resulting
sharp increase of drug smuggled into China."
"The seizure of 3.2 tons of heroine and approximately the same quantity of
methamphetamine in Yunnan province accounted for half of the total quantity of
illicit drugs seized in China in 2009," the report adds. "Three of the
self-administered regions in Myanmar are located on the border with Yunnan
province. Methamphetamine pills seized in Yunnan province are - at the very
least - trafficked through these special regions."
Myanmar's rise as a major production center of methamphetamine pills, with the
drug factories located in the northeastern Shan State, adds to its previous
notoriety as a supplier of opium and heroin.
Myanmar's emergence as an ATS producer followed a decision by the junta to
launch a 15-year drug elimination program in 1999. The Drug Elimination Plan
(DEP) targeted the poppy fields in the northern and eastern regions of the
country, which accounted for 163,000 hectares under opium cultivation in the
Before the DEP, Myanmar was known as the world's largest producer of illicit
opium, "accounting for approximately 700 tons annually between 1981 and 1987,"
according to UNODC. "[That dropped] to 21,600 hectares in 2006, the lowest ever
However, this 83% decline in poppy cultivation under the DEP has not seen a
change in the cross-border trade of ATS, which follows the routes once
frequented by drug caravans that moved heroin from Myanmar into China.
"The border is very porous and there are no markers to say where the Burmese
border ends and the Chinese border begins," says an official from Thailand's
Central Narcotics Control Agency. "It is easy to move drugs from Burma's [Shan
State into China's Yunnan province in remote areas where there are no
"The caravans move at night. They take the drugs in backpacks," the official
tells Inter Press Service on condition of anonymity. "The Chinese government is
faced with a problem because the domestic market is large."