Burma’s Misguided Drug War


Draped in botanical clouds of red white and blue, the poppy fields that spread across Burma’s remote northern mountains should be an attractive destination for eco-tourists. And they probably would be except for one thing – these poppies are full of opium sap, and the Burmese government has launched a fresh campaign to eradicate the crop.

In the meantime, the mountains are crawling with military, militias and rebel armies. They are battling away in a three-decade civil war between ethnic Shan and WA and government forces that has long been fuelled by the profits gained from opium harvests. Opium traders, heroin laboratories and the government’s militarization of the region, meanwhile, have combined to condemn the indigenous people to decades of impoverishment.

President Thein Sein’s latest opium eradication campaign began only this year. In February, police units armed with weed-whackers – a two-stroke engine that spins a metal blade – decapitated millions of poppies, while villagers watched in despair as their livelihoods were destroyed.

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With the emergence of  a semi-civilian government after years of military junta in power, the U.S. government and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime are hoping that the signs of a budding democracy will offer an opening for the country to curb its contribution to global drug trafficking.

But while the government presses forward toward its stated goal of “wiping out the opium problem by 2014,” some experts remain unimpressed. “It looks more like a public relations gesture than a serious attempt to tackle the country’s drug problems,” says Tom Kramer, an expert on narcotics with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. Indeed, to some, the anti-opium drive seems more about wooing Western governments into lifting sanctions than getting to the root of the issue.

“It’s a signal to the U.S. for more engagement,” Kramer says.

But the United States isn’t the only country that the Burmese government hopes to impress with its campaign. Equally important to the government’s calculations are its neighbors. Burma is scheduled to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, which has declared that its 10 member states will be “drug free” by 2015. Not coincidentally, Sit Aye, a legal advisor to President Thein Sein, was keen earlier this year to reiterate the 2014 goal.

Yet reaching this target would mean accurately identifying the problem, and that means tackling amphetamines, something that is frequently overlooked with so much attention on opium production and the heroin trade.

Methamphetamine seizures in Southeast Asia increased from 32 million pills in 2008, to 133 million in 2010, according to the UNODC. And while Burma is the second largest exporter of opium worldwide, it’s believed to be the top exporter of methamphetamine tablets. An estimated one billion tablets are believed to have been exported to Thailand alone in 2010.

“There are 12 likely methamphetamine manufacturing sites in the Golden Triangle areas [where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet along the River Mekong],” according to the UNODC, and 50 different organized crime groups involved in trafficking drugs from Burma. The millions of pills manufactured in Shan state circulate in casinos, nightclubs and other markets across Asia, controlled by organized crime syndicates that are in many cases run by Chinese triads.

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