Solving Southeast Asia’s Drug Problem
Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Plo

Solving Southeast Asia’s Drug Problem


The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

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Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highways serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

Brian Eyler is deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and co-founder of the website.

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