The production of and use of methamphetamines in Myanmar is a big problem. It is often made in jungle labs. A former methamphetamine user in Yangon told the Los Angeles Times in 2012 the drug is so widespread that dealers will provide door-to-door delivery. While heroin is quite cheap at around $1 per injection in Myanmar, he said, methamphetamine prices have risen to upward of $12 per hit.

The United Nations’s “Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Challenges for Asia and the Pacific” said 2012 saw an increase in methamphetamine seizures and methamphetamine-related arrests, as well as the number of patients in drug treatment facilities. It said these are key indicators that point to a rise in the use of the drug, which is most commonly distributed in tablet form and is known locally as yama. [Source: Tim McLaughlin, Myanmar Times, November 8, 2013]

More than 18.2 million meth pills were seized in Myanmar last year, a massive increase over the 5.8 million seized in 2011 but below the record haul of 23.8 million in 2009. The report said 1815 people were arrested on meth pill related charges, a 15 percent increase over last year. Myanmar’s increasing methamphetamine problem is consistent with a growing market for ATS drugs in the Asia and Pacific region. Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam all reported increasing methamphetamine pill use in 2012.

Though the number of people admitted to Yangon Mental Health Hospital for psychiatric treatment related to the use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), including methamphetamine, has risen consistently over the past five years, just 68 people received treatment in 2012, the report said, citing statistics provided by the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).

Production and trafficking of methamphetamine remain centered on eastern Shan State. The majority of methamphetamine pills manufactured in Myanmar are trafficked directly to Thailand or via Laos.

See Separate Article on Opium and ILLEGAL DRUGS AND MYANMAR


Amphetamines, particularly methamphetamine hydrochloride, have become increasingly popular around the world in recent years and are currently among the world’s most widely abused drugs. By some estimates there are 30 million amphetamines users worldwide, compared to 13 million for cocaine and 8 million users of heroin. And, while cocaine and heroin use have declined, amphetamine use has increased.

Amphetamines effects, which can last from 2 to 14 hours, include appetite suppression, euphoria, sexual arousal, dry mouth, tremors, and insomnia. People who take them feel alert, energetic and talkative. When they come down they often are agitated and irritable.

Methamphetamine is a powerful amphetamine. The drug is known as shabu-shabu , kakuseizai or hirropon in Japan and Asia and "speed," "crystal," or "crank" in the United States. "Ice" is a free-base form of the drug that can be smoked.

Amphetamine Use

Methamphetamine can be smoked, inhaled, swallowed or injected. If injected or smoked it can produce an intense, euphoric rush, sometimes described as orgasmic. Users can be high for 12 to 24 hours at a time, and often feel they can handle anything and go long periods without sleep.

Amphetamines can be taken at work or for fun. Those that take them at work do so to stay awake or to make boring jobs more tolerable. They are also popular with students cramming for exams; truck drivers who spend long periods of time on the road; and are sometimes prescribed by doctors for obesity treatment and attention-deficient disorder. Some say they lowers sexual inhibitions.

Methamphetamines sell for about $75 to $100 a gram and the high usually lasts for about eight hours (compared to 10 minutes a for a crack hit). The high can be intense and exhilarating but it can also disrupt the brain’s production of dopamine. The amount of energy it gives users can be astonishing, Users sometimes go two weeks without sleeping. There are instances of users who have been shot several times by police yet continued advancing towards police.

In Asia, it has become increasingly popular to smoke methamphetamines sold in pill, powder or crystalline form. Describing what that is like, former heavy user Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “I inhaled the smoke from smoothed-out tinfoil sheets folded in two, holding a lighter beneath the foil so that the shards of shabu liquified, turning a thick, pungent, milky vapor. The smoke tasted like a mixture of turpentine and model glue: to this day I can’t smell paint thinner without thinking of smoking speed.”

Methamphetamines, the Golden Triangle and Southeast Asia

The Golden Triangle is now a major source of methamphetamine as well as heroin and opium. Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug is known across Asia in pill form by the Thai name yaba ("crazy medicine") and in its purer crystalline form as ice or shabu. It is now the top drug in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reported in 2011.

Every year hundreds of millions of Myanmar-made methamphetamine pills are spirited across the river into Laos or down into Thailand. The trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- enough to corrupt poorly paid law enforcement officials across the region.

In November 2013, Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press wrote: “Seizures of crystal meth and methamphetamine pills reached record highs in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, with Myanmar retaining its status as a major supplier of the illicit drugs, the United Nations said. In its annual report on amphetamine-type stimulants in the region, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said that methamphetamines were the primary or secondary drug of choice in 13 of the 15 Asia-Pacific countries surveyed. A total of 227 million methamphetamine pills were seized in the region last year — a 59 percent increase from 142 million a year earlier, the report said. It marked a more than seven-fold increase from 2008. [Source: Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, November 8, 2013]

Many of the pills were seized in China (102.2 million), followed by Thailand (95.3 million) and Myanmar (18.2 million), the UNODC report said. In Thailand, the haul was nearly double the amount seized in 2011 and the second-largest ever recorded. "Methamphetamine remains the top illicit drug threat in East and Southeast Asia," said the report, covering a region that includes China and South Korea to Southeast Asia and Australia. "Seizures of methamphetamine in both pill and crystalline forms reached record highs there in 2012." The 11.6 tons of crystal meth seized across the region was the highest in a decade and a 12 percent increase from the year before. It included record hauls in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Brunei.

"Myanmar remains the primary source of methamphetamine pills found in the region," said the report, adding Myanmar continues to be "a major source" of the region's crystal meth, opium and heroin. Myanmar is also the world's second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, accounting for about 10 percent of global production. The upsurge comes despite Myanmar's progress toward democratic reform since 2011, when the long-ruling military junta ceded power. The country's drug-producing hub is in eastern Shan State, a remote region near China and Thailand, where ethnic rebels have waged wars for decades and the government still has little control.

Myanmar's neighbors are its main markets. Up to 90 percent of the crystal meth seized in 2012 in Thailand — and an estimated 90 percent of meth pills seized in China — came from Myanmar, the report said. Trafficking of amphetamines is dominated by regional syndicates, but organized crime gangs from Africa and Iran have continued to smuggle such drugs into the region, the agency said.

Methamphetamine Production in Myanmar

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. 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. [Source: Wikipedia]

Methamphetamines are produced in the Golden Triangle areas of Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos and Thailand. The jungles around the border town are Tachilek, Myanmar and Mae Sai, Thailand have traditionally been places where amphetamines producers set up mobile labs that churned out methamphetamine pills for 10 cents a piece and these in turn were sold to supplies who sell them for around 50 cents a piece

By some estimates 50 or so drug laboratories in Myanmar are churning out 1 billion amphetamines tablets a year, the majority of which are smuggle into Thailand. Some are later snuggled to other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States but a lot of it is consumed in Thailand.

Most of the methamphetamine labs are in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is allied with Myanmar ruling junta. The UWSA is one of the largest and best-armed drug-dealing organizations in the world.

Methamphetamines, the Myanmar Military and the United Wa State Army

The Wa produce large amounts of methamphetamines sold in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The minority now reportedly make more money from these drugs than from heroin. In the 1990s and 2000s the Wa moved from opium and heroin into amphetamines, which is easier to make and more profitable than opium or heroin and is more popular in Asia and arguably has more negative social consequences.

The Wa have dozens of large amphetamine-making laboratories near the Thai border in Myanmar. The laboratories sometimes fill large building and are so sophisticated they can produce a million pills a day with chemicals supplied from China. The pills they manufacture often have a WY symbol for the United Wa State Army printed on one side and a 99 symbol, Thai shorthand for horse medicine on the other.

The Myanmar military regime is also believed to be involved in the drug trade. Raids on Burmese army outpost near the Thai border have uncovered large amounts of methamphetamine in army warehouses. See Generals and Drugs, Myanmar

Raids on amphetamines laboratories by the Myanmar military has been minimal with only token seizures. According to a U.S. State Department report. “With the exception of seizing modest amounts of tablets and closing a few labs, the government of Burma has not made a concerted effort to stop ATS [amphetamines] production and trafficking.”

Methamphetamine Production Increases

In 2007, according to the U.S. State Department, Myanmar was the thw world’s largest source of methamphetamine pills.

"This year will be the biggest for amphetamines," Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang task force, told The Guardian. "In all of last year we intercepted 1.2 million pills. This year, in just six months, already we have seized 5 million.” 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." [Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

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.

Cold Medicine from Thailand and Myanmar Methamphetamine Production

Richard S. Ehrlich wrote in the Asia Sentinel: “Thailand is facing an epidemic of drug smuggling in a complex international racket that appears too massive and entrenched for authorities to stop. Police said on May 2 that they had seized 1 million illicit methamphetamine pills, weeks after discovering nearly 50 million legal tablets to treat common ailments had been stolen from Thailand's hospitals, to make powerful speed drugs to sell to addicts. An additional 2 billion similar tablets to treat common colds have been smuggled in from Taiwan and South Korea, also to make illegal drugs, authorities said. [Source: Richard S. Ehrlich, Asia Sentinel, May 4, 2012 ///]

“Corrupt chemists and drug dealers have been extracting ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from legal cold remedies and similar medicines in Thailand and secretly shipping it across the border into Laos and Myanmar, where gangs use the ingredients to create a range of amphetamine-based drugs. Myanmar's drug gangs work among heavily armed minority ethnic insurgents including the Shan, Wa, and other tribes in the lawless, mountainous jungles near the border where the two countries meet. ///

“Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are used to widen bronchial passages and relieve asthma, hay fever, nasal congestion, allergies and the common cold but can also be a precursor chemical to manufacture methamphetamines. Officials estimate one legal cold tablet's ephedrine or pseudoephedrine can be cooked to make three or four methamphetamine pills, enabling gangs to rapidly multiply their output. The speed-like pills they make are then illegally smuggled back into Thailand and sold to users, or distributed to other countries. ///

“Investigators say they achieved a major breakthrough in February when they found big piles of empty wrappers for cold remedies -- but no pills. Many of the empty packets were shredded and dumped in a northern forest near Chiang Mai city. The packets could have contained up to five million tablets from 10 different remedies, police said. Investigators traced the labels to several hospitals, where staff were suspected of siphoning off huge amounts of medicine from legal stocks in their pharmacies to sell to smugglers. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) -- Thailand's version of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation -- joined police to question hospital staff, government officials, and others and were reportedly inspecting more than 875 hospitals. ///

"Up to 48.3 million cold pills are thought to have been stolen from [Thailand's] state hospitals and smuggled across the border to make methamphetamines," the Bangkok Post reported on March 29. A medicine purchasing staffer at one northern hospital allegedly confessed to forging his director's signature to order more than 210,000 tablets, the DSI said in April. In the latest case, Bangkok police searched a townhouse on Wednesday (May 2), discovered one million methamphetamine pills, and arrested two people, according to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau's Commander, Police Lt-Gen Chaiwat Chotima. The building was a secret storeroom for pills brought to the capital from northern Thailand, Lt-Gen Chaiwat said, but it was not immediately clear if the drugs were made from pilfered ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. ///

“Police meanwhile said they seized more than 200,000 speed pills in a truck at a supermarket's parking lot near Bangkok on April 13, just before the drugs were to be delivered to a dealer. Bigger discoveries in April came when the DSI said two Thai companies allegedly forged documents to smuggle at least 2 billion pseudoephedrine-based cold tablets to Bangkok from Taiwan in 2009, amid plans to bring in an additional 8 billion pills. The DSI said the two companies also bought 85 million cold tablets from South Korea, smuggling the medicine on nine separate flights to Bangkok, starting in 2010. False air cargo manifests allegedly deceived customs agents by describing the shipments as equipment for Thai companies which supplied electronics and automobile parts. One of the companies, which legally imports electronics, said it was innocent and blamed criminals for stealing its logo and company name to buy the tablets. ///

Methamphetamine Trafficking

Myanmar-produced ya ba is typically trafficked to Thailand via Laos, before being transported through the northeastern Thai region of Isan. 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. [Source: Wikipedia]

Thailand blames the United Wa State Army for being the major supplier of metamphetamines in Thailand. The methamphetamine pills are made for about five cents in Myanmar. Smugglers are paid about one three cents per pill to transport them across the border into Thailand or Laos. Much of the smuggling is done by local people anxious to make money to feed their families

After the methamphetamine pills are brought across the border into Thailand they are sold to larger dealers for around 30 cents a piece, They in turn sell them large dealers in Bangkok for about 50 cents. By the time they reach the streets of Bangkok they sell for between $2.50 and $6 a pill.

The methamphetamine trade is controlled by organized crime syndicates that are often run by or protected by powerful civilian or military figures. People in villages in along the Burmese-Thai border are involved in production and smuggling. Once a village headmen was arrested with 1 million methamphetamine pills in his possession.

Methamphetamine Production, Trafficking and Violence

There is much more violence and nastiness associated with with amphetamines production than with opium and heroin production. Even people in the lawless Golden Triangle are shocked by violence that amphetamines have brought. The police are more tolerant of opium production and trafficking than they are of amphetamines production and trafficking.

The methamphetamine trade is less centralized that the opium and heroin trade and has a lot more players who are more likely to get into bloody turf battles. It is not uncommon for thugs in Thailand to carry out drug-related assassination in broad daylight without going through much trouble to hide their identity

A missionary who works in the Mae Sai area told Time, “So many people want to get rich—headmen, small farmers, tobacco growers—and they don’t understand the drug dealer’s code. There are fights over territory, over unpaid debts. Add the informers and the undercover agents, and it mayhem out there.”

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,,, 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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