ILLEGAL DRUGS AND MYANMAR

ILLEGAL DRUGS AND MYANMAR

Myanmar is the world's second-biggest opium producer after Afghanistan. Methamphetamine production here is soaring as well. Many farmers rely on the drug business. By some estimates drugs once accounted for 50 percent of Myanmar’s GDP. In the 1990s families of “retired” drug lords financed the construction of new hotels, bridges and roads and ran Myanmar’s largest company, Asia World, which operated both of Rangoon’s ports.

In the 1990s, the Golden Triangle between Thailand, Burma and Laos supplied half the world's heroin. Afghanistan now produces much of the world’s supply. In the meantime the drug lords in Myanmar Burma have turned to manufacturing massive quantities of amphetamines and methamphetamines – which, according to The Guardian, can be produced cheaply in small, hidden laboratories, without the need for acres of exposed land.

Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamines in the world, with the majority of ya ba found in Thailand produced in Myanmar, particularly in the Golden Triangle and Northeastern Shan State, which borders Thailand, Laos and China. In 2010, Burma trafficked 1 billion tablets to neighboring Thailand. In 2009, Chinese authorities seized over 40 million tablets that had been illegally trafficked from Burma. Burma is also the 2nd or 3rd largest supplier of opium (following Afghanistan) in the world, with 95 percent of opium grown in Shan State. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Illegal narcotics have generated $1 to $2 billion USD in exports annually, with estimates of 40 percent of the country's foreign exchange coming from drugs. Ethnic militias and rebel groups (in particular the United Wa State Army) are responsible for much of this production; however, the Burmese military units are believed to be heavily involved in the trafficking of the drugs. Efforts to eradicate opium cultivation have pushed many ethnic rebel groups, including the United Wa State Army and the Kokang to diversify into methamphetamine production. +

In the mid 2000s Myanmar was the world’s second largest producer of opium and a major producer of methamphetamines. About 312 tons of opium and millions of amphetamines tablets were produced in 2006

See Separate Articles on the Golden Triangle, Opium, Heroin and Methamphetamines and the Use, Production and Trade of These Drugs in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Myanmar's Drug Problem as of 2013

Tim McLaughlin wrote in the Myanmar Times, “The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has painted a bleak picture of Myanmar’s fight against drugs in its latest report. The agency cited evidence of “rapidly increasing” methamphetamine use as well as opium production, which now accounts for about 10 percent of global output. Despite the rise in methamphetamine use, heroin and opium continue to be the substances most widely used in the country. [Source: Tim McLaughlin, Myanmar Times, November 8, 2013]

Production and trafficking of opium, heroin and methamphetamine remain centered on eastern Shan State. The majority of methamphetamine pills manufactured in Myanmar are trafficked directly to Thailand or via Laos. Most of Myanmar’s heroin, meanwhile, flows to China.

The report said there was a resurgence of ecstasy use in several Asian countries, with the number of ecstasy pills seized in 2012 more than tripling to 5.4 million pills, compared to 1.6 million in 2011.

Drug Trafficking and Myanmar

Prior to the 1980s, heroin was typically transported from Burma to Thailand, before being trafficked by sea to Hong Kong, which was and still remains the major transit point at which heroin enters the international market. Now, drug trafficking has circumvented to southern China (from Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong) because of a growing market for drugs in China, before reaching Hong Kong. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Burmese-produced ya ba is typically trafficked to Thailand via Laos, before being transported through the northeastern Thai region of Isan. +

The prominence of major drug traffickers have allowed them to penetrate other sectors of the Burmese economy, including the banking, airline, hotel and infrastructure industries. Their investment in infrastructure have allowed them to make more profits, facilitate drug trafficking and money laundering.

Myanmar’s Generals and Illegal Drugs

The military regime in Myanmar is believed to (now or at one time) control or have a stake in much of the drug trade in Myanmar, using the money it earns to purchase weapons among other things. In spite of token drug raids by the military regime, opium production doubled and heroin production quadrupled after they took power. While no direct links between drug trafficker and the generals have been made it is widely believed to that laundered drug profits helped keep the economy afloat and the generals in power.

The Burmese government is believed to be making millions from the sale of amphetamines. According to a U.S, state department report, "there are persistent and reliable reports that officials, particularly in the army personnel in outlying area are involved in the drug business." A 1999 report entitles Burma and Drugs: The regime’s Complicity in the Global Drug Trade , Myanmar-expert Des Ball called the Myanmar military a bunch of “drug runners and criminals.”

The U.S. State departments says that it has evidence of "police, customs and army personnel who are paid to acquiesce or participate in drug trafficking" but only "occasional, unsubstantiated allegation of corruption among senior Burmese officials."

An Australian television networks did a piece claiming that it had irrefutable evidence that the Myanmar military regime was dealing drugs. The network aired film of Shan insurgents capturing a a large amount of metamphetamines stored on a Myanmar Army military post. There is also evidence the military regime is guarding methamphetamine labs and escorting caravans carrying drugs.

Drug Abuse Among Myanmar’s Police

In January 2014, Shwe Aung of DVB wrote: “Drug use remains a pressing problem among Burma’s police force, particularly in the northern state of Kachin where opium and meth-amphetamines abound. A total of 36 police force members have been jailed for drug-related charges since November 2013, said Chief Brig-Gen Win Khaung, with many more suspected users still donning uniforms. The arrests occurred all over Kachin state in what seemed a deliberate systematic attempt to tackle the problem. All of the indicted officers, some high-ranking, have received five years prison sentences – the maximum for drug use. “We administered urine tests after suspicions arose,” said Win Khaung. “Thirty-six tested positive and have been sacked.” [Source: Shwe Aung, DVB, January 31, 2014]

The sharp spike in arrest of civil servants is the first sign that the police force has been giving the issue more thought in recent moths. Bauk Ja, renowned Kachin activist and politician, suggested that the problem runs deeper than the police force would like to admit. “Some policemen have connections with trafficking gangs, who tip major drug dealers about crackdowns so they can go into hiding,” she said, “and then they’d go around and arrest innocent bystanders.” Bauk Ja said that about 300 people are currently being detained for drug-related crimes, while the big-time dealers routinely evade authorities.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that 1.5 percent of the population in Kachin and ShanStates are addicted to drugs.

China and Myanmar’s Illegal Drugs

A narrow river is all that divides much Myanmar from China. Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle area in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam is purified into heroin in jungle laboratories and smuggled into Yunnan province in China, where it is delivered to Chinese syndicates who ship the heroin to Kunming and then to Shanghai, Hong Kong and another coastal cities where it is loaded onto one of the thousands of ships that leave for North America, Europe or some intermediary point every day.

Most Golden Triangle opium and heroin is produced in Myanmar. China is now believed to be the main transit point for heroin from Myanmar to the United States. It is now estimated that two thirds of the heroin on the streets in New York originates in Myanmar and passes through China. These days large amounts of methamphetamines produced in Myanmar are also smuggled through China.

The drug deals are often financed by ethnic Chinese. According to U.S. News and World Report: "A broker...might be approached by another broker representing a Hong Kong businessmen who want to invest in a shipment of heroin...the investors strike a deal with a group of ethnic Chinese in the United States---for example, New York businessmen who own legitimate restaurants or retail stores. The heroin may change hands several more times between these U.S. importers and street retailers, who for the most part are not Chinese but Italian-American, African-American and Dominican."

A Chinese national by the name of Tan Xiaolin is believed to have moved three tons heroin between Myanmar and Hong Kong before he was arrested in 2001. He lived in a huge pink-and-green villa in China only a hundred meters form the Myanmar border. The powerful drug lord Liu Ming was killed in Burma after an attempt to arrest him ended in a firefight. He had his own army and smuggled large amounts of heroin from the Golden Triangle into various parts of China.

Wa, the Chinese and Myanmar’s Illegal Drugs

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss, who visited Wa area in Myanmar, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new -- albeit dirt -- roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China. Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars -- they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.” |||

Heroin Smuggling Between Myanmar and China

Most of the heroin and opium smuggled into China from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam are hidden in truckloads of timber, fruits and tea that pass through Yunnan on their way to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Chinese coastal cities. Much of it ends up in Hong Kong or the free-trade zones in southern Guangdong. Smugglers are generally paid around $1,000 to carry a kilo across the border from Muse, Myanmar to Ruili, China or $10,000 a kilo to transport all the way to Hong Kong.

The Burma-Chinese connection began in the 1980s when Chinese migrants began traveling to Burma to work on poppy farms. Some of these people began trafficking. The drug trade has transformed sleepy Chinese border towns, such as Ruili near Myanmar, into boom towns with karaoke bars, hostess clubs, drugs and prostitutes. "Our village used to quiet," a local elder told Newsweek. "Now there's heroin smoking, drinking, gambling. It's gotten kind of chaotic.”

By some estimates 20 percent of China’s illegal drug traffic passes through Lancang Prefecture in southwest Yunnan and 85 percent of the arrests in this part of Yunnan are in the village of Banlao. The price for slipping into Burma and bringing back a backpack full of heroin or amphetamines is as high as $120,000---an inviting temptation in a land of peasants that earn less that $200 a year.

China's economic reforms have created a climate that is ideal for drug smuggling. So many consumer goods are smuggled and legitimately carried in and out China that it is not much more trouble using the same routes to smuggle drugs. Economic freedom given to the 20 or so major ethnic minorities in the Yunnan Province has made it easier for these groups to set up smuggling operation with their ethnic kin in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Drug trafficking has also created a corruption problem. Policemen and soldiers are usually poorly paid and the temptation to accept bribes is hard to resist. Drug dealers say they can usually escape arrest by paying off policemen. Out of fear of attacks from traffickers, the governor of Yunnan is protected by 100 bodyguards.

Drug Smuggling, Wa Traffickers and Myanmar’s Elections

In June 2010, Ben Doherty wrote in The Guardian, Elections in Myanmar “year have sparked an explosion in drug trafficking into Thailand, as rebel armies, fearful of a final, pre-poll crackdown by the ruling junta, trade heroin and amphetamines for guns. Burma's illicit drug trade and the country's flawed electoral process appear set to collide...The ruling generals have vowed to bring the rebel armies under their command, and turn them into border guard forces, before the polls are held.[Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010 <>]

“With the deadline for the Wa to come under central government control gone, its leaders have become increasingly worried about being attacked by government troops. Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang task force, said the number of drug runs had increased exponentially in recent months, as a desperate Wa – outnumbered and outgunned by the junta's troops – prepares to fight. <>

"This year will be the biggest for amphetamines," Peeranate said. "In all of last year we intercepted 1.2m pills. This year, in just six months, already we have seized 5m." He added that they were uncovering what they believe to be only a tiny fraction of what is being brought across the border, by most estimates between 1 percent and 2 percent. "The amphetamine trade is huge now, we think it will be around 300m to 400m pills this year. But it is hard to know." Sources from within Burma say the drug laboratories are working around the clock, with more under construction. In February, 15 smugglers were intercepted carrying 1.2m pills between them, and there have been reports of up to 30 Wa soldiers, in full uniform, marching through the forests fully laden. <>

“The Wa will not participate in the election, he added, because it refuses to co-operate with the junta it says is illegitimate and brutal. "We protect our territory. We fight for [our] people." In Thailand a former Wa drug runner, who now works undercover for the Thai army gathering intelligence on shipments, said: "The Wa are very worried, they think junta's soldiers are coming soon … the soldiers are afraid. They sell the drugs to buy many, many guns, so they can fight. "The Wa fighters will be ready, and they will fight." <>

Drug Trade Grows Despite Myanmar's Democratic Reforms

In 2013, Associated Press reported from Thon Min Yar in Shan State: “ Deep in the lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, sloping fields of illegal poppies have just been scraped dry for opium. This is the peak season for producing drugs here, and in Myanmar's nascent era of democratic change, the haul has only gotten bigger. Opium, its derivative heroin and methamphetamines are surging across Myanmar's borders in quantities that the United Nations and police in neighbouring countries say are the highest levels in years. Two years after replacing a long-ruling military junta, the civilian government is still struggling to get a foothold in its war against drugs. The trade is centerd in a remote, impoverished area where the government has little control and where ethnic armies have waged civil wars for decades - wars financed with drug money. [Source: AP, March 25, 2013 ><]

“The Golden Triangle is defined by the area where Shan state meets the borders of Thailand and Laos. It was the world's top opium-growing region for years, but in the 1990s, Afghanistan became the top producer and drug syndicates here began focusing more on methamphetamines. Now heroin and methamphetamines are both on the rise. ><

“The Associated Press was granted rare access to Myanmar's drug-producing hub in the vast, jungle-clad mountain region of northeastern Shan state, deep in a cease-fire zone that was closed to foreigners for decades. It's a land dotted with makeshift methamphetamine labs and tiny, poor villages where growing opium is the only real industry. The trip was part of a U.N. mission allowed only under armed police escort. ><

“President Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with a patchwork of rebel groups in the region, but the peace is extremely fragile and sporadic fighting continues. Cracking down on drug syndicates or arresting poor opium farmers risks alienating the ethnic groups he is courting for peace talks. "To stop the drug problem, we need peace. And that is what the government is trying to achieve now," said police Col Myint Thein, head of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse and Control, which controls the country's drug policy. "But that is just one of so many challenges. This is a very difficult task. It will take time." ><

“Foreign aid that could help combat drugs is just beginning to trickle back into the area, which is rife with corruption. But the toughest task may be transforming the destitute rural economy, filled with poor farmers who view growing opium as the best way to provide for their families.” ><

Forces Behind the Growth of Myanmar’s Drug Trade

In March 2013, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's poppy cultivation has more than doubled since 2006, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Myanmar produced an estimated 690 tons of opium in 2012, a 17 percent jump from the year before. No one can say for sure what is driving the overall increase in Myanmar's drug production, but opium farmer Ar Loo, who doubled his poppy production last year, said his motivation was inflation. "Food prices are going up. Gasoline is more expensive," he said. "If the military or police force us to stop immediately, there will be problems. Because people will not have enough to eat." Experts offer other explanations - notably that cash-strapped ethnic armies are planning for the future. [Source: AP, March 25, 2013 ><]

“Many rebels are resisting a government demand to form a joint patrol force with the army by 2015 but need more strength and leverage at the negotiating table. "It's an uneasy cease-fire, and most of the groups are jostling to be in a better bargaining position," said Leik Boonwaat, the UNODC deputy regional director for East Asia and the Pacific. "In order to be in a better bargaining position, you need money, you need more soldiers, and the best way to do that is drugs." ><

“Drugs could also offer traffickers a path to greater riches once trade barriers are lifted. Thailand's intelligence indicates that the rebel-controlled drug syndicates are planning for when 10 Southeast Asian countries lift trade barriers to become a single market in 2015. "In 2015, these drug dealers will want to invest in legitimate businesses. So right now they are trying to boost their capital, and pumping out large amounts of drugs can help them achieve their goal," said Narong Rattananugul, acting head of Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Board. ><

Thailand, Southeast Asia and Myanmar’s Drug Trade

Associated Press reported: “In Thailand, authorities last year seized a record 82.2 million methamphetamine tablets, a 66 percent increase from the year before. "These drugs are not produced in Thailand. They are from Myanmar," said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who has vocally called on Myanmar to step up its policing efforts. "If Myanmar cooperates, that's the end of the drug story. It's better than it used to be, but still far from perfect." [Source: AP, March 25, 2013 ><]

Authorities in Singapore, Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also reported record hauls that the U.N. says are predominantly from Myanmar. Most of Myanmar's drugs are trafficked through its porous 1,100-kilometre border with Thailand. Narong said his country seizes drugs almost daily and added, "The problem cannot really be solved." ><

Drug Smuggling From Myanmar Through Thailand

Reporting from Fang, Thailand, Thomas Fuller wrote in New York Times, “The heroin and methamphetamine traffickers carry assault weapons and walk briskly through the night, crossing the border in small groups and traveling down a spider’s web of footpaths and dirt roads. So says Ja Saw, a wiry man in his 20s who should know: Two years ago, he was one of them. Mr. Ja Saw spent a year in a Thai prison for trafficking. Now he works as an undercover agent for the Thai military. In his native Myanmar, where he travels periodically to glean intelligence, he is known by another name. “They would kill me immediately if they knew I was a spy,” Mr. Ja Saw, who is from the Wa ethnic group, said in an interview at a remote location several kilometers from the Myanmar border. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, November 6, 2009]

Thailand’s northern borderland region is ground zero in the country’s efforts to interdict the tons of illicit drugs manufactured in the freewheeling northern reaches of Myanmar. Thailand is also the main international gateway for heroin bound for the streets of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney and other major cities in the region, counternarcotics officials said. Sending the drugs through China would be the most geographically direct route to Hong Kong, Tokyo and other points north. But the Thai and United States counternarcotics authorities said they believed that most of the drugs move south through Thailand. “It’s more convenient,” said a senior Thai police official, who estimated that around 90 percent of illicit drugs produced in northern Myanmar come through Thailand, sometimes via Laos or down the Mekong River. He did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The illicit drugs produced near the Chinese border take a circuitous route, often shipped down to the southern stronghold of the United Wa State Army, a group that the Thai and American governments say is responsible for the lion’s share of the drug trade in Myanmar. Wa Army camps, perched on hilltops like fortresses from another era, are visible from the Thai side of the border. Economic development in Thailand has facilitated trafficking, officials said, because evading the police is easier through the growing network of roads leading to Bangkok and places farther south, including Malaysia.

The drug trade has helped turn the poorly delineated border between Myanmar and Thailand into a treacherous killing zone. An increase in trafficking this year, related to tensions between the Myanmar military and the Wa, has left 15 suspected traffickers dead in the Fang area alone, said Master Sgt. Somsak Taengorn, a member of a plainclothes counternarcotics unit. Some of those killed were wearing Wa Army uniforms, he said.

The drugs are often stored near the border and divided into parcels. But traffickers are so worried that the drugs will be pilfered by their competitors that they put them in unusual storage facilities. “Sometimes they dig a hole and bury it,” Sergeant Somsak said. The drug trade here is lucrative, and Sergeant Somsak said many families in otherwise impoverished areas have brand-new pickup trucks and nicely furnished houses made of sturdy materials.

Two years ago, Mr. Ja Saw was paid 10,000 baht, about $300, to carry 20,000 methamphetamine tablets, known in Thailand as ya ba, or “crazy drugs.” He dropped off the drugs at a Thai village and was paid on arrival. On his third trafficking run, he was ambushed by the Thai military and arrested. Once delivered to the Thai side, the drugs are sent to Bangkok, to the resort island of Phuket (where yachts are sometimes used to smuggle the drugs to other countries) and to the provinces bordering Malaysia, depending on the final destination.

The drugs are shipped using a variety of ruses, some of them creative, some more pedestrian. Often they are packed inside shipments of corn, lettuce or other agricultural goods, Sergeant Somsak and other officials said. In May 2008, Sergeant Somsak helped seize thousands of methamphetamine pills packaged in condoms and hidden in the vaginas of eight hill-tribe women who tried to board a plane for Bangkok before they were arrested.

In September, a Taiwanese trafficker was arrested in Thailand with boxes of bicycle pedals stuffed with heroin. The strangest smuggling scheme? Manachai Pongsanae, commander of a checkpoint on a major road in northern Thailand, remembers stopping a woman in her 50s with methamphetamine tablets wrapped in plastic and secreted inside a packet of fermented fish paste.

Combating Illegal Drugs in Myanmar

According to the U.S. government a lack of government will to take on major narcotrafficking groups and lack of serious commitment against money laundering continues to hinder the overall antidrug effort, [Source: CIA World Factbook]

In June 2002, diplomats were invited to watch the torching of hundred of kilograms of confiscated heroin, opium, marijuana and amphetamines. Smoke reportedly rose for hours from the furnace where the drugs were burned. The government wanted to show the world it was making progress in the fight against drugs even though “we receive almost zero assistance form the international community.”

In 2005, there were 4,700 drug-related arrests in Myanmar according to the state media. Authorities also said it seized 812 kilograms of heroin, 773 kilograms of opium, 280 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine and 5,807 ecstasy tablets.

In June 2006, the Myanmar government torched hundreds of kilograms of drugs worth $148 million that including 690 kilograms of opium and 2.1 million amphetamines tablets, This is only a small portion of the 312 tons of opium and millions of amphetamines tablets believed to have been produced Myanmar at that time.

The United States placed sanctions on Myanmar in part because its failure to do enough to stop drug production and trafficking and failure to cooperate with anti-drug efforts. The was some discussion of U.S. and the Myanmar generals striking a deal in which the U.S. would provide the generals with sophisticate military hardware in return for their cooperation in clamping down on the drug trade. As of the 1990s the 23 planes and helicopters supplied by the U.S. to the Myanmar generals in the 1980s was never used for anti-drug operations.

In recent years, the United States has given the regime some credit for its effort o fight drugs. American drug authorities want to make a drug survey of Myanmar. They have hung carrots out for Myanmar but have been reluctant to give them out, For their part, the generals that problem originates with consumers in the United States and Europe.

In March 2013, Myanmar sent a high-level delegation to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna for the first time to highlight the link between drugs, poverty and conflict, and to ask for financial help. In October 2012, the Myanmar government quietly revised a deadline the ex-junta set in 1999 to wipe out illicit drugs by 2014. It changed the date to 2019 and set a more realistic target. "Our objective is to reduce opium poppy cultivation as much as we can,"Myint Thein of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse and Control told AP. "There is no country where you have zero drugs." [Source: AP, March 25, 2013]

China’s Efforts to Stop Drugs From Myanmar

Thomas Fuller wrote in New York Times, “The armed ethnic groups in northern Myanmar such as the Wa and Kachin are wary of antagonizing China because of their reliance on the Chinese for cross-border business and, in years past, weapons. “Since the early 1990s, the Chinese have delivered very stern warnings: Send your powder anywhere else but here,” said Michael Black, an expert on the Wa and a security writer for Jane’s Intelligence Review. The ethnic groups, he said, “can’t afford to anger the Chinese.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, November 6, 2009]

China stepped up pressure on the Wa to shut down trafficking routes across the mainland in the late 1990s when H.I.V. was identified as a growing problem spread in large part by intravenous heroin users. The illicit drugs produced near the Chinese border take a circuitous route, often shipped down to the southern stronghold of the United Wa State Army, a group that the Thai and American governments say is responsible for the lion’s share of the drug trade in Myanmar. Wa Army camps, perched on hilltops like fortresses from another era, are visible from the Thai side of the border.

Myanmar, U.S. Cooperate in Fighting Narcotics

In February 2013, Associated Press reported: Myanmar and the United States took another step toward closer relations with an agreement to resume cooperation in fighting narcotics after nearly nine years. State television said the two sides agreed to restart joint opium poppy yield surveys early this year and cooperate in counter-narcotics training. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell told reporters after a signing ceremony in the capital, Naypyitaw, that the agreement "is another step forward in our overall relationship. We're very pleased with that." [Source: Associated Press, February 21, 2013]

Police Col. Myint Thein said the survey would provide better information about poppy cultivation and production. "I am confident that it will help our counter-narcotic efforts," he said. The last joint opium yield survey was conducted in 2004. U.S. aid for Myanmar's anti-drug efforts has been limited since the military took power in 1988, with most U.S. assistance to the government cut off.

Crackdown in Myanmar Spurs Drug “Clearance Sale”

Reporting from near the Thai-Myanmar border in September 2009, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Antinarcotics officials are rubbing their eyes at the spectacle they are now witnessing: a flood of heroin and methamphetamine is spilling out of Myanmar as traffickers slash their inventories in a panicked sell-off. “It’s a clearance sale,” said Pornthep Eamprapai, director of the northern branch of the Thai Office of Narcotics Control, who has nearly three decades of experience tracking illicit drugs from Myanmar. “Some dealers at the border are buying on credit. They don’t even need to pay in cash. This is the first time I’ve seen this.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 30, 2009 ~]

“The main reason for the surge in trafficking, officials say, is a crackdown by Myanmar’s military government on armed ethnic groups along the borders with Thailand, Laos and China. The ethnic groups, many of which have a long history of illicit drug production, are steeling themselves for battle with the Myanmar junta and rushing to convert their stocks of heroin and methamphetamine into cash to buy weapons, antinarcotics officials say. “Various traffickers are liquidating their stockpiles,” said Pamela Brown, an agent for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “They are trying to get large shipments of heroin out, and some have been successful.” Heroin seizures by the police in northern Thailand have increased more than twentyfold. From October 2008 to this August, the authorities seized 2,795 pounds of heroin, up from 125 pounds a year earlier, according to the Office of Narcotics Control. ~

“The traffickers are also under increasing pressure in Myanmar, where the junta appears to have become more aggressive in seizing illicit drugs. It sometimes has turned a blind eye to traffickers, but faced with the prospect of battling drug-financed armies, the junta had added incentive to crack down. The ethnic groups are obscure to most outsiders — the Wa, Kachin and Shan, among them — but their fate is crucial to the future of the world’s heroin supply, experts say. Although they now produce only 5 percent of the total supply, instability could allow them to create much more. The Myanmar junta and its proxies beat back ethnic Karen rebels along the Thai border in June and attacked and defeated an ethnic Chinese group, the Kokang, in the north in August. The campaigns have the leaders of other ethnic groups wondering if they are next. ~

“Now, in a desperate bid to protect their fiefs, they are casting a wide net for more weapons, according to Col. Peeranate Katetem, the deputy commander of a Thai antinarcotics unit based in Chiang Rai, near the Myanmar border. Three months ago, he said, he received a call from a Wa representative who said he was looking to spend about $25 million to purchase M-16 assault rifles and “anything capable of exploding.” Colonel Peeranate said the group appeared eager to barter heroin for the weapons. He said he declined to help. ~

“Myanmar has reported enormous drug seizures in recent months, including one in August of more than 1,600 pounds, antinarcotics officials said. Several million methamphetamine pills were also seized in the Myanmar border town of Tachilek. “There was nothing on that scale last year,” said Leik Boonwaat, the representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime based in Laos. “This year has been quite unusual.” ~

“Another development that may be contributing to the increase in heroin coming through the Golden Triangle is what Thai officials say is a new trafficking route in which low-grade heroin produced in Afghanistan is shipped through Pakistan and India to the area controlled by the Wa in northern Myanmar, where it is further refined and re-exported. This possible link between the world’s two largest heroin producing regions — Afghanistan and Myanmar — could constitute a major shift in the heroin trade, combining the vast scale of Afghan poppy fields with the distribution networks and production expertise of the Wa. ~

Myanmar Arrests Hundreds of Drug Traffickers While the U.S. Freezes Assets of the Wa Drug Lords

In April 2009, AFP reported: “Myanmar arrested 368 drug traffickers last month and seized more than three million illegal stimulant tablets, state media reported, in a bid to counter US claims that it has failed to tackle drugs. The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that in March police, customs officials and the military together recovered opium, heroin and low-grade opium. They also seized stimulant tablets and chemicals used to make drugs, the newspaper reported. "Action was taken against 368 persons -- 291 men and 77 women -- in 251 cases," the paper said. [Source: AFP, April 11, 2009]

In November 2008, Mungpi reported: “The United States froze the assets of 26 individuals and 17 companies tied to drug traffickers in Burma, and prohibited US citizens from dealing with them. The targeted individuals and companies are associates of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an armed ethnic group, and a senior commander of the group, Wei Hseuh Keng, the US Treasury Department said. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department named Wei Hseuh Keng and the UWSA as "Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers" under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). Pao Yu Hsiang, Ho Chun Ting and Shih Kuo Neng are other key individuals designated by the Treasury. Pao Yu Hsiang, who was indicated in 2005 under the Kingpin Act along with Wei Hseuh Keng, is commander-in-chief of the UWSA. [Source: Mungpi, November 14, 2008**]

“OFAC Deputy Director Barbara C. Hammerle said, "The United Wa State Army is the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in Southeast Asia and is a major producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine." A UWSA official said his group had long halted the cultivation of poppy for opium production and had official rules prohibiting drug production."Since 2005, we have officially declared a ban on the cultivation of poppy opium and the production of drugs," the official told Mizzima. **

“The official, however, admits that the group had earlier dealt in drug production, ranging from the cultivation of poppy for opium to the production of methamphetamines in clandestine factories across the Wa region under the supervision of Wa officials. However, he added that his group was not the only group that had a history of dealing in drug production and trafficking, saying, "Many groups including even individual officers from the Burmese Army have been related to drug trafficking." **

“Khyn Sai, an editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, which has released reports on drug production in Burma's eastern Shan state, earlier told Mizzima that the trend of drug production has shifted significantly from the cultivation of poppy opium plants to the production of more sophisticated drugs in clandestine factories. "It would be difficult to say whose group is clean in the drug trade, because most groups have at one time or another been involved and have depended on income from drugs," the UWSA official said, apparently referring to other armed ethnic groups as well as to the military junta. **

“OFAC's Barbara C. Hammerle in her statement said, "Today OFAC is targeting the Wa's lieutenants and the financial holdings of this massive drug trafficking organization. We call on other nations to do the same." In January 2005, a court in the Eastern District of New York indicted Wei Hseuh Keng along with his brothers - Wei Hsueh Lung and Wei Hsueh Ying, also designated today – for narcotics trafficking. The U.S. Department of State has announced a reward of up to US$ two million for information leading to the arrest of Wei Hsueh Kang. Thursday's designation also includes many companies of the Hong Pang business conglomerate, and its manager Shih Kuo Neng, who along with Ho chung Ting, in May 2005, were also indicted by a New York court.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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