Myanmar is fast becoming the world’s biggest producer of methamphetamine and synthetic drugs – making the industry the most lucrative business in Southeast Asia; a trade the United Nations says is worth tens of billions of dollars a year.
Regional narcotics experts estimate seizure rates at below 10 per cent of total trade, suggesting a total annual production significantly in excess of 250 tonnes. In the Mekong sub region, the total value of the trade is estimated at over US$ 40 billion a year.
Myanmar’s Shan State is the epicentre of the global methamphetamine supply and the export of the illegal drug is about to get even easier, says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). This has been a centre of conflict and illicit drug production since 1950, is controlled partly by Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, and partly by multiple armed militias, some with the patronage of the Tatmadaw.
“Good infrastructure, proximity to precursor supplies from China and safe haven provided by pro-government militias and in rebel-held enclaves have also made it a major global source of high purity crystal meth,” says the ICG.
Shan State, which borders both China and Thailand, is the wild wild east. In many parts of the state, it’s well-armed ethnic militias, not Myanmar’s military, who call the shots. The trade in ice, along with amphetamine tablets and heroin, has become so large and profitable that it dwarfs the formal economy of Shan State and fuels criminality and corruption and hinders efforts to end the state’s long-running ethnic conflicts.
Jeremy Douglas, the Regional Director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok provides a perspective on this situation.
“For 10 years, we’ve been setting records. But over the last five, it’s been huge records, all sourced back to the same common point where organised crime has set up operations in safe havens.
The safe havens are in Myanmar; then the drugs are transported into Thailand and beyond – Australia, Japan and South Korea. And despite almost weekly reports of huge seizures of tons of drugs, the price on the street isn’t going up. It’s going down because there’s so much of it, and it’s so easy to get to market.
How easy? I’m on a riverbank in Myanmar’s southern Shan State. The labs where the drugs are produced are just a few hours up the road and I’m about to cross the river into northern Thailand.
This is an informal crossing on a small river that separates the two countries in the infamous Golden Triangle. This river is so narrow I could easily throw a rock across or something bigger. But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds because of regular Thai army patrols on this side of the river, even when it’s raining.”
Army Sergeant Major Jakwong Seubthap says that the smuggling gangs operate during the night; they won’t come across during the day because they know we’re here. His senior officer Colonel Wudtiphat Pruchtakkorn, says even though the army patrols at night, too, they can’t be everywhere.
“The smugglers will just come across where we aren’t. Right now, it’s very easy for them to operate. So when they cross into Thailand, they share the location to people who come to pick up the drugs.
This happens mostly in the mountains 30 miles to the north where the thick jungle and rugged terrain offer better cover for smugglers.
The smugglers usually come across in groups of 10 or more, each man carrying a backpack which can hold up to 200,000 pills or 10 kilograms of crystal meth. Colonel Wudtiphat says the smugglers use local hill tribe members as couriers.
“Nobody knows these mountains like they do,” he says. “They’re perfect for this job.” The smugglers also use high-tech equipment like drones to avoid patrols.
“The only way to stop this trade,” he says, “is for the countries in the region to work together. Otherwise the drugs will just keep coming.” The UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas agrees but says there’s so much money to be made, that’s unlikely to happen soon.
Douglas says “Unless Southeast Asia gets its act together and starts to deal with the conditions that have allowed these organised crime figures to become what they are now, which is just massive Pablo Escobar types, this region will become a global point of production for synthetics. The crime syndicates have the capacity and a worldwide distribution network already in place.”