Myanmar at the heart of Asia’s synthetic drugs boom
www.theedgereview.com – app/digital magazine available here (subscription required)
YANGON – Located at the intersection of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the Golden Triangle has long been a legendary cocktail mixing the real and the mythological. Verdant and clotted jungles and remote mountainous terrain – havens for an alphabet soup of anti-junta militias and oppressed tribes – made for a heady romanticism that sometimes obscured the deadly reality of the region’s chief cash crop.
Until the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the region supplied much of the world’s heroin, sourced from poppy-fields in eastern and northern Myanmar. The drugs came, and come, from regions sometimes in and sometimes outside of central government control, and have long been a source of income for corrupt officials and soldiers, as well as ethnic minority druglords and warlords.
And despite losing top spot to Afghanistan, a significant proportion of the world’s heroin can be traced back to the region still. Laos and Myanmar together accounted for 18% of the global total opium production in 2013, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
A 13% spike in opium cultivation over the same year suggests that despite Myanmar going through a sort of diplomatic rehab – with a civilian government now 3 years in office and the track marks of western sanctions fading fast – the once-hermetic nation is finding it hard to ditch the habit.
Myanmar’s opium production is now almost 3 times what it was back in the dark junta days of 2005 and is being increasingly supplemented by burgeoning synthetic drugs cottage industry, targeting moneyed nightclubbers in Bangkok and Shanghai and beyond.
Rather than visible, static poppy fields covering chunks of Shan State, Myanmar’s drug barons have a more nimble and possibly lucrative option. Easy-to-hide and easy-to-move metamphetamine factories, a pill-making cottage industry that – going by the news reports and police accounts of seizures in neighbouring Bangladesh, China and Thailand – sees the product smuggled across borders in massive quantities.
“The rapid rise of ATS [amphetamine type stimulants] seizures over the years is primarily attributable to the increase of methamphetamine seizures which about tripled from less than 12 tons in 2008 to 36 tons in 2012,” said the latest UNODC research on synthetic drugs, released last Tuesday.
The report said that while there big jumps in seizures in China and Thailand over a 4 year period up to 2012, much of the pills, known popularly as “yabaa,” are likely coming from Myanmar.
“In 2008 all methamphetamine seized in Thailand was perceived to have originated in Myanmar. Since then, methamphetamine seizures reported in Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar itself have been perceived to have originated in Myanmar,” the rreport read, before outlining much the same nexus for the vastly-bigger Chinese market.
Thailand’s police regularly showcase drug seizures and arrests, such as a recent capture of 3 men from a Myanmar minority group. The 3 Lisu, caught with 250,000 yabaa pills, were paraded – packages and peddlers together – in a tawdry photo-op of the kind regularly seen in Thailand’s press. Even poorer, Muslim-majority Bangladesh is getting in on the act, with local press now running similar stories of metamphetamine seizures involving pill-laden Burmese citizens crossing the porous frontier.
The scale of the yabaa industry in Myanmar is difficult to assess however, and the UNODC is somewhat tongue-in-cheek about acknowledging this. Noting the disparity between the yabaa seizures in Thailand, which are likely the thin end of the wedge, and the fact that only 6 methamphetamine laboratories have been discovered in Myanmar,, the UNODC reported that “this number is relatively small in view of the fact that there have been reports of sizeable amounts of methamphetamine seized in a number of countries in the region, among them China and Thailand, that originate in Myanmar.”