Burma’s Misguided Drug War

Keen to impress the West and get sanctions lifted, Burma is cracking down on opium production. But hundreds of thousands may be left in poverty.

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.

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.

For governments in the region there have been some encouraging recent signs. In January, for example, Thai police seized 3,864,000 yaba tablets and 71 kilograms of ya ice (crystal methamphetamine) near Bangkok. The drugs, which had a street value of more than one billion baht, were believed to have come from Burma. A March raid near the Burmese frontier town of Tachilek, meanwhile, seized an additional 8.7 million pills.

But this success isn’t without costs – especially for poor local farmers, who bear the brunt of the more vigilant anti-narcotic effort. The reality is that the annual opium crop is the main livelihood for several hundred thousand poor farmers and ethnic minorities in parts of Burma.

The crackdown on opium cultivation “isn’t solving the problem,” Kramer says. “It’s only hitting the poor poppy farmers, and it’s high time to re-evaluate these policies.”

Even UNODC’s communications chief in Bangkok, John Bleho, admits that some drug control measures “have driven opium growing communities towards chronic poverty and increased food insecurity.” But he argues that the United Nations still believes that the significantly ramped up opium eradication effort in Burma “is a positive development.”

The Burmese government is said to have a three-year alternative development strategy to promote crop substitution in an effort to help farmers transition from opium production. But this will require time and major international funding. In the meantime, there’s no program to compensate destitute farmers for the loss of their livelihood.

U.N. drug officials admit that unless massive international funding for crop substitution materializes quickly, poor farmers are likely to return to opium cultivation as soon as the next planting season comes round. In a region where medicine is scarce, the morphine-rich poppies provide effective treatment for acute pain, respiratory problems and a range of stomach ailments.

And there’s also the problem of corruption. Government officials have long been accused of complicity in the narcotics business. Kway Myint, a member of Burma’s ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, is a case in point. He reportedly ran for the regional parliament of Shan state on a platform of allowing opium production to continue in his district.

Nway H’noung, a spokesperson of the Palaung Women’s Organization, told the Bangkok Post’s Spectrum: “He promised people who voted for him, that they could grow opium for five years, and they can. He is the leader of the Panhsay People’s Militia, a drug lord and now a government MP. His militia can be seen growing opium and they have the biggest acreage in the area.”

Nway is hardly an anomaly. According to the Shan News Agency’s 2011 Drug Watch Report, no less than seven sitting members of parliament – national and Shan-local assembly – are closely linked to the narcotics trade.

“The little people bear the brunt of any crackdown on drugs,” Kramer says. “But the government doesn’t go after those who make the big money. Nobody talks about the 42 militias in Shan state, who have been used by the state to control the conflict but who have become major players in the drugs trade.”

Few people, it seems, believe the new government in Yangon has the political will or the power to investigate high-ranking politicians, businessmen, militia leaders, and army generals implicated in the drug trade.

“The war on drugs has completely failed,” Kramer says. “It addresses symptoms and not causes. It’s high time to re-evaluate policies. It should address poverty and development issues.”

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.