Meth crisis will only get worse

Myanmar’s Shan State supplies methamphetamines to the planet and exports are due to rise as billions are channelled into improving regional infrastructure, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned.

Large areas of Shan State are controlled by multiple armed militias and narco-states, some with the patronage of Nay Pyi Taw’s government forces.

The Shan “golden triangle”, extending into Laos and Thailand, is already the world’s second-largest heroin-producing region, after Afghanistan, and many poppy pickers are now partially paid in meth pills.

“Good infrastructure, proximity to precursor supplies from China and safe haven provided by pro-government militias and in rebel-held enclaves have made it a major global source of high purity crystal meth,” said the report, Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State.

The formidable United Wa State Army (USWA) controls an autonomous narco-state on the Chinese border that no Asean army is equipped to challenge.

“Production takes place in safe havens held by militias and other paramilitary units allied with the Myanmar military, as well as in enclaves controlled by non-state armed groups,” the ICG report said.

Seizures of Shan meth in the last two years beyond Myanmar have included 1.2 tonnes in Western Australia; 0.9 tonnes in Melbourne; 1.6 tonnes in Indonesia and 1.2 tonnes in Malaysia.

Japan and Australia offer the highest street prices for meth in the world.

The Thai media carries regular reports of huge meth busts with the quantities rising consistently.

Myanmar’s largest bust last January involved 1,750kg of crystals meth, 500kg of heroin and 30 million “yaba” (crazy) pills, which are a mix of meth and caffeine. The drugs were estimated to be worth US$54 million inside of Myanmar, where prices are far lower than elsewhere.

Seizures are estimated to make up less than 10 per cent of the total trade, suggesting annual production is in excess of 250 tonnes, the ICG said. In the Mekong states, the meth trade is estimated to be worth over US$40 billion a year.

Law enforcement knows the drug smuggler will always get through.

“These record seizures [show] the scale of the problem rather than of any genuine success in addressing it,” the ICG said. “Despite massive seizures, prices of crystal meth have remained stable, a clear indication that they are a small proportion of total volumes.”

The costly China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) should improve roads, provide high-speed rail alongside the oil pipeline from Kunming in Yunnan state to Kyaukpyu on the Rakhine coast, linking southern China to the Bay of Bengal.

Patrick Winn, an observer of Asean’s organised crime, said: “China needs to have a decent relationship with all of those [rebel] groups so they don’t bomb the pipeline or block the roads. Its infrastructure dreams give China an incentive to have good working relationship with the armed groups.”

Shan State is closer to Yunnan than Yangon, with many residents using Chinese mobile networks and conducting their transactions using yuan.

When the world’s most powerful trading nation, numerous heavily armed autonomous groups and the host nation all benefit from the flourishing drugs trade, surely it is time admit defeat.

While drug seizures may provide journalists with an easy way to fill the news pages, tackling the drugs is trade is clearly an impossible challenge.

“In the recent history of the golden triangle, increased trade and improved infrastructure have expanded rather than narrowed opportunities for illicit profiteering,” the report said. “People in northern Shan State with detailed knowledge of the drug trade suggest that is likely to be the case in that area with CMEC.”

The trade in ice, meth pills and heroin, which dwarfs all other Shan businesses, also hinders efforts to end Myanmar’s numerous long-running ethnic conflicts.

Militias with links to government forces can engage in the drugs trade without fearing retribution while providing the army with a degree of deniability, the ICG reported.

Myanmar’s President Wun Myint chairs an anti-corruption commission but it does not have the authority to investigate the all-powerful military, which is like trying to end traffic accidents without reference to vehicles.

China, which supplies the chemicals to manufacture meth, had “almost never intercepted shipments crossing its border with Myanmar”, the report said.

It is hard to see how the study’s recommendations could be implemented.

“The government should redouble its drug control and anti-corruption efforts, focusing on major players in the drug trade,” the ICG argued. “Education and harm reduction should replace criminal penalties for low-level offenders. The military should reform – and ultimately disband – militias and other pro-government paramilitary forces and pursue a comprehensive peace settlement for the state.”

This is never going to happen while the military continues to control Myanmar’s government. It would take inspirational leadership to unravel decades of conflict and distrust and extend the rule of law throughout Shan State.

In the meantime, it is time for Asean’s governments to acknowledge that meth is here to stay and work to inform their populations about its dangers. The rules of supply and demand tell us the trade will continue as long as people want to consume the drugs.

Myanmar’s police report regular drug busts. Picture credit: Asean Economist