A recent report by the International Crisis Group places northern Myanmar at the heart of a $40 billion annual trade in methamphetamine-based drugs exported throughout East Asia and as far as Australia, overtaking natural gas and gemstones as the country’s major export. Nicholas Nugent reports
Myanmar, or Burma as it was previously known, has long been notorious for its illicit drug production. During the 1970s the country was the world’s major producer of heroin. Eastern Burma and adjacent regions of Thailand and Laos, where raw heroin was processed into opium, was known as ‘the Golden Triangle’ for the wealth the trade generated.
Some of the refined opium reached the United States,smuggled in body bags by US soldiers returning after serving in the Vietnam War. More fuelled the opium dens of South East Asia. The notorious drug warlord Khun Sa ran an empire responsible for flooding the US and the region with opium.
The Golden Triangle lost its dubious accolade in the 1990s when Afghanistan overtook Burma as the world’s main source of heroin.But now drugs produced in Myanmar are again circulating throughout South East Asia and beyond. This time it is methamphetamine, a synthetic drug produced from raw chemicals smuggled in from China, whichhas put Myanmar back on the map as the centre of this illegal trade.
Methamphetamine is produced in small laboratories in the jungle along the China-Myanmar frontier, where chemicals are mixed and then ‘stamped’ into easily-transported pills that can be moved across borders undetected. Unlike heroin-producing poppy fields which are visible from the air, these labs are hidden from view.
A January 2019 report from the International Crisis Group(ICG) says‘profits [from drugs] are now so vast that they dwarf the formal sector of Shan State’. Based on drug seizures, which the report calls ‘the tip of the iceberg’, the ICG asserts that ‘the total value of the Mekong [region] drug trade is estimated at over $40 billion per year and rising’.Methamphetamine-based drugs have overtaken heroin as Myanmar’s major illicit export.According to the ICG report, ‘production takes place in safe havens in Shan State held by militias and other paramilitary units allied with the Myanmar military, as well as in enclaves controlled by non-state armed groups’.There are drug-producing laboratories all along Myanmar’s 2200-km border with China where Shan and Kachin states border Yunnan province, and an unknown quantity of the narcotic feeds Chinese addicts in nearby Kunming and other southern cities.
It reaches its market in two different forms. The purer version is Crystal Meth,known colloquially as ‘ice’ due to its crystalline form. Crystal Meth is in demand in the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Australia. There are regular customs seizures in Malaysia, a transit country which borders Myanmar: the drug is found in shipping containers, often packed in tea boxes.
A rougher and cheaper version made by mixing raw methamphetamine with caffeine is known as ‘yaba’, a Thai word meaning ‘crazy drug’. Yaba is widely used in Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh. The little pink pills alleviate fatigue,enabling workers in tedious jobs to function for long periods without sleep. In Bangladesh they are popular among factory workers and long-distance lorry drivers. Yaba is similar to the drug known in the West as ‘speed’.
Jungle labs are under the control of one or other of the tribal groups that inhabit the area. The Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, has long fought so-called ‘insurgencies’ against tribal armies for control of the borderlands, though they can also cooperate. The ICG report tells how the Tatmadaw turned some of these tribal militias into Border Guard Force units to police the border and provide protection to another border industry, Chinese-run casinos which attract gamblers from across the frontier. Other illicit cross-border activities include prostitution and the smuggling of animal parts for use in Chinese medicine.
This writer has himself visited one of these Chinese enclaves in easternShan State. Officially part of Myanmar, it operates on Chinese time –two hours ahead of Myanmar time – and only Chinese currency, the Renminbi, is used. It is said that gambling is a means of laundering the proceeds of the trade in drugs.
Bangkok-based journalist Patrick Winnhas written that drug production traditionally associated with Shan State is now also a thriving industry in adjoining Kachin State. In his book Hello, Shadowlands, Winn says while the Tatmadaw controls Myanmar’s central plains, management of the mountainous area close to the China border is contracted out to the ethnic militias, some of whom make a business of manufacturing and trading drugs. Winn quotes Thura, a former army officer in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, on these ‘narco-militias’: ‘They’re not merely bribing the army, they belong to the army. These drug-producing militias are the children of the military.’
The militia most famously associated with drug production is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which Winn says controls an area of borderlands ‘the size of Belgium’and has close links with China. The Wa, one of many Shan State tribes, have been a thorn in the side of the country’s rulers since British colonial times.
Winn visited an area of Kachin State controlled by ZahkungTing Ying, formerly a member of Myanmar’s national parliament. Ting Ying created the 1000-strong New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) to rival the more traditional Kachin Independence Army (KIA).He has accumulated enormous wealth dealing in jade mining (which is legal) as well as Crystal Meth production and heroin cultivation. In an effort to wipe out the KIA, Wills says Ting Ying brought his militia ‘under the army aegis’.
It is clear that large parts of Shan and Kachin states are awash with drug laboratories producing Crystal Meth and yaba. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Myanmar may be producing as many as 6 billion yaba tablets annually – which Winn suggests, with tongue partially in cheek,is more than the number of Big Macs that McDonald’s sells each year worldwide.
If ICG estimates are correct,and most narcotics in South East Asia and beyond originate in Myanmar, the country’s drug exports far exceed in value its legitimate annual exports of around $14 billion –certainly when calculated by end-user value. It seems Myanmar has won back its place as Asia’s number one supplier of narcotics.