Northern Shan State, nominally within Myanmar’s borders but where the Nay Pyi Taw authorities have little control, has become an East Asian methamphetamine hub, spreading the addictive, dangerous drug across Asean and beyond.
Since 2015, the region is thought to have become the world’s biggest meth market and, if Asean is going to address the issue, it will need to formulate a coordinated response.
The Thai media is filled with stories of meth seizures and the prosecution of low-level drug runners. Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took power in mid-2016, the streets of the archipelago’s cities have run with the blood of thousands of alleged users and pushers who have been slaughtered by the authorities and vigilante groups in poorly disguised executions.
A similar crackdown is being conducted in Bangladesh.
The murder of users will not address the demand for meth nor the problem of the supplies flooding out of Myanmar on an industrial scale.
Myanmar has long been the missing economic link in the region, blocking the potential land routes between India, China and Thailand. But this prized strategic location, rather than allowing trade to flow, has instead created a meth empire, which now extends as far as Australia.
A perfect storm of porous, undulating forested borders and numerous armed rebels – which when combined outnumber Myanmar’s armed forces – make for a seemingly insurmountable problem.
The so-called Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, is increasingly shifting its emphasis from heroin production to synthetic meth. It has now become one of the world’s largest production hubs for crystal meth and meth pills or “yaba” (crazy) in Thai.
Prices have fallen to as little as 20 US cents for a single pill as well-armed militias become increasingly professional at producing the dangerous narcotic.
In 2013 the meth and heroin markets were estimated to share an equivalent market of about US$15 billion in East Asia and the Pacific region, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
An estimated 450 million meth pills were seized in East Asia last year, compared to around 250 million in 2013. Over the same period, seizures of more costly crystal meth rose from 14 to 33 tonnes. The confiscations will only make up a slim fraction of the drugs in circulation.
The numbers have risen further across the region this year.
The trade flourishes in Myanmar’s lawless border regions, where the military and its militias often battle ethnic armed groups for control.
The drug issue is deeply entwined with the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to push ahead with the peace process.
Official Burmese exports are dominated by agricultural products like mung beans and rice, generating tiny amounts of GDP for the impoverished republic.
However, Myanmar’s illegal exports are far more lucrative: jade, drugs, endangered species, rare timber, sex workers and trafficked refugees. The country remains a major destabilising influence throughout Asean, despite holding a “democratic” election three years ago.
If the drug-enforcement authorities venture into the forested hills, producers are made aware of their presence and move on.
Since 2010, ceasefire deals with rebel groups have stopped much of the open conflict with the military while not allowing the government to police the war-torn border regions. The lawless expanses make a perfect home for meth labs.
Infrastructure has also improved. Shan State’s Kutkai has a smooth new highway allowing chemical ingredients to be imported from China and meth to be driven out in large quantities.
Meth labs require special equipment, including pressure cookers, hydrogen-gas containers, large generators and highly specific chemicals.
A key ingredient, hydrochloric acid, explodes if heated to the wrong temperature but there have been no reports of accidents, suggesting manufacturers have become highly sophisticated.
Money is thought to be laundered through casinos and restaurants owned by armed groups.
Analysts believe the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) is at the centre of the meth empire.
The group controls large pockets of land between China and Myanmar with about 30,000 troops. The UWSA (pictured) has been labelled the world’s largest international criminal organisation and enjoys total independence from Myanmar.
Shan opium farmers and jade scavengers in neighbouring Kachin State are often paid in meth pills, which enables them to work punishing hours.
The addictions have often travelled back with labourers to their home villages across the impoverished union. A shocking proportion of Myanmar’s working age population shares the glassy stare, gaunt features and twitches of meth addicts.
It is hard to see how any government in Nay Pyi Taw – be it civilian or military – can persuade the population to embrace a peace dividend when it is crippled by addiction.
One politically intolerable response might be legalisation. If meth was sold openly, it could be tested for safety and users would be spared exposure to life-threatening toxins.
The current approach of arresting or executing – in the case of the Philippines and Bangladesh – low-level dealers is palpably unsuccessful. Meth floods the streets of Asean’s cities, regardless of the heavy jail terms being handed out. The pill will always get through, as long as the demand remains.
If Asean’s governments want to begin to control the meth trade without widespread legalisation, they will need to enforce peace on the border regions and enable a new democratic government in Nay Pyi Taw to extend its authority throughout its hilly border regions.
Anyone with a knowledge of the indelible hatred for the Burmese military will know that powerful drugs barons and their private armies will not surrender to their long-time adversaries in Myanmar. No army in Asean wants to deploy against the UWSA.
The status quo is not working and the problem is growing. A new approach is needed and Asean’s governments will need to work together.
Narcostate? The United Wa State Army. Picture credit: YouTube