The regime’s biggest threat for the past half-century, besides Aung San Suu Kyi, has been rebel armies from various ethnic groups. For decades the regime has worked to increase its presence in these rural areas by building paramilitary allies in hostile regions. The local militias suppress rebel activities in exchange for the freedom to produce and transport drugs with full military co-operation. As the military brokered more deals, its obsession with power quickly took precedence over its war on drugs. Now the regime is more powerful than ever, due to a survival strategy that is largely subsidised by Burma’s multi-billion-dollar drug trade. Perry Santanachote examines that trade, the people who benefit from it and cover it up, the victims and those caught in between.
Welcome to Shan State: land of the drug lords
Aung Min, like many in Rangoon, grew up poor. He enlisted in the Burmese army in 1999 at the age of 18 with ambitions that he would one day join the ranks of his commanding officers. By 2003 he was a second lieutenant stationed in Laukkaing Township in Shan State and led a group of 20 men – his pockets filled reliably with drug money.
Opium production has been an economical lynchpin in eastern Shan State since the late 1940s when military leaders refused to honour the Panglong Agreement that granted autonomy to ethnic states. Rebel armies grew as their drug trade took over the region, and then the world. Shan warlord Khun Sa dominated Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle with his heroin enterprise through the 1980s and 1990s. By 1995, the Golden Triangle, the mountainous region where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, became the world’s leader in opium production. His 30-year revolutionary war ended in 1996 but heroin continues to flow out of the state, albeit at a lower rate, with a new breed of drug lords.
Despite acknowledgement by the US State Department that poppy cultivation in Burma today is less than 20 per cent of what it was in the mid-1990s, it’s still an annual multi-billion-dollar business. Burma remains the world’s second-largest opium producer after Afghanistan, and processed 330 metric tonnes, or 17 per cent, of last year’s world supply, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2010 World Drug Report. Poppy cultivation has also been on a steady incline for the past three years.
Other pages in the report show that Burma is also Asia’s largest producer of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), which include methamphetamine, distributed in the form of the cheap and chemically dirty pills, most commonly known in Thailand and the region as ya baa (crazy drug); and the more expensive and cleaner crystalline form known as Ice. Burmese production of methamphetamine coincided with reduced opium production, but producers did not necessarily switch over.
“There has been more production last year when it comes to stimulants because of the increased involvement by the junta-backed militia groups,” Khun Seng, an editor at the independent media and research group Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), said. “When the militia groups support the political aspirations of the junta they are also supported by the junta in their drug activities.”
“And if you’re the drug boss,” he added. “You’ll do anything that’ll bring in money. If I’m producing more meth it is because of the market – the buyers. Right now, for two years in a row, opium production has been down so there is less production of heroin than in other years, that’s all. They are not intentionally switching from heroin production to meth production.”
Pornthep Eamprapai, director of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board in Chiang Mai, said heroin and opium production was down because of climatic conditions and drought, not because of eradication. “Meth” quickly filled that gap in recent years, he said, because consumer demand in Thailand is high due to economic and social instability. Thais are becoming addicted to ya baa at an alarming rate, while they were never too keen on heroin.
“Making meth is so much easier too,” Pornthep said. “Cooking up meth or Ice doesn’t require any crop.”
Another big difference between today’s drug trade and that of the Khun Sa era, is that it is now increasingly controlled by the government. Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt engineered a series of ceasefires with major drug-producing militias in 2003-2004 and incorporated them into the economy and constitutional process, creating an environment conducive to drug production and collusion between military personnel and drug traffickers. The regime has been suspected of involvement in the drug trade in the past but never at the level seen today.
In the past decade, the military regime has prioritised keeping it under wraps and making it appear as though it has waged a war on drugs. In 1999 the military inducted a 15-year drug-eradication programme, made lofty promises to the international community to crack down on trafficking, publicised some token drug busts and even opened an anti-drug museum. But these acts were all sleight of hand – an illusion to placate the international community. Although, they may have worked.
The UNODC commended the junta for its “considerable decrease in the area under cultivation and a strong decline in potential opium production” in its Opium Poppy Cultivation Report last year and budgeted US$7.7 million for the eradication programme between 2004 to 2007.
“It’s just another attempt to get the international community to pay for ordinary development programmes instead of using the state budget for that purpose,” said Chiang Mai-based author Bertil Lintner, who chronicled the history of Burma’s heroin warlords in his book, Burma In Revolt, and more recently the multi-billion-dollar methamphetamine trade in Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle.
“And most of the UNODC’s programmes are just that – ordinary development programmes that have little or nothing to do with drug eradication,” Lintner said.
Pornthep says the Thai government gives Burma 20 million baht (US$625,000) annually every year for opium eradication.
“Their [Burma’s] government isn’t doing enough because they don’t have the resources,” he said. “Therefore they need co-operation and aid from other countries.”
Eleven years later, drug lords continue to operate with impunity and the Burmese Army remains closely involved in the lucrative opium economy, using it as leverage against ceasefire armies. As its deadline approaches, Burma is nowhere near being a drug-free nation. Only 13 townships of the targeted 51 can claim to be poppy-free, while the others are still growing, according to the 2009 Shan Drug Watch Report.