Burma’s Drug Problem Gets Worse as Its Politics Get Better

As Burma undergoes a historic transformation, a new problem with vast consequences arises.

An interesting recent piece by Agence France Presse, reporting from a major drug production area of Burma,  coincides with the visits to the United States by Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s president Thein Sein. The article points out one of many challenges that are going to remain in Burma, if not get worse, once the euphoria over the dramatic reforms of the past two years ebbs a bit. In this case, the problem is surging narcotics production and use, which (when it comes to injectable drugs) is also linked to rising rates of HIV/AIDS. The reporter notes that the country is facing skyrocketing rates of methamphetamine production, which is harder to track and stop than opium/heroin, and that addiction rates are rising as well, in part because of a near-total lack of social-welfare spending on addicts in areas like the northwest. The local authorities have little money for methadone or other treatment options, and the fastest-growing group of users is under eighteen years old. The United Nations last year showed that methamphetamine use has gone up every year in Burma since 2005, according to the AFP report.

As Burma’s politics open up, it is likely that the drug problem is only going to get worse. In a period of a power vacuum, organized crime will flourish — particularly in the northwest, the major drug production area. And in a country with such vast needs, and a wildly overstretched budget, it is likely that treating addiction will fall to the bottom of priorities, as it often does even in developed countries.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick