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Failing drug wars in northern Myanmar

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Author: John Walsh, RMIT University Vietnam

Long-distance truck drivers, people working on fishing boats or those scavenging jade and gold mines are among those vulnerable to drug dependence in northern Myanmar. In the north of the country, where the reach of the central government is comparatively limited, workers may be partly paid in opium in recognition of the fact that their working lives are so benighted and subject to risk.

A boy runs barefoot as he plays in front of a clinic on Madae island, Kyaukpyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar, 7 October 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun).

As the demand for drugs is sustained, it is not surprising that the supply of drugs also remains strong. In the hilly areas of Kachin and Shan states, opium is grown as a second crop after rice by subsistence farmers. Those in the drug trade will then come to collect the crops from the farm gate at an agreed rate. This overcomes a significant problem of market access for farmers who lack access to roads as well as irrigation — for them, the prospect of obtaining substitute crops remains out of reach with significant government or NGO-led extension services unavailable in conflict areas. Despite attempts to hold talks that might yield peace, any real breakthrough seems to be far away.

Opium is just one of many narcotics widely available throughout the country. A range of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines are also manufactured and distributed across Myanmar. These too are associated with conflict regions — heroin is linked with cash-rich mining operations while amphetamines are used by the truck drivers and fishing workers.

These manufactured items tend to be the preserve of organised gangs which the security forces can tackle by various means. Opium, though, remains the drug woven into the fabric of society.

There is no doubt that the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military force which generally acts for the government in the north of the country, would eliminate the drugs trade as it currently stands, not least because some of the proceeds continue to finance armed attempts at securing autonomy by various ethnic groups. In some cases, that means taking control of the trade — for years, the military has financed its own developmental schemes through drug money among other sources.

Yet even when eradication campaigns have taken place and poppies have been burned in large numbers, the economic case for farmers to return to the crops is difficult to ignore. Private sector enterprises are limited in scope — they are unlikely to marshal the entrepreneurial ability and determination to create sustainable crop substitution strategies.

With the limits of the Myanmar state in its own north so exposed, a role has emerged for neighbouring China to try to stabilise the region. China always wants stable border regions, especially in northern Myanmar where the oil and gas pipelines forming the Kyaukpyu port and special economic zone (SEZ) represent a significant strategic investment.

It is not yet possible for China to show a visible military presence in Myanmar but there are plans to help pacify the region by opening further SEZs in troubled areas where an alternative source of income may persuade some farming families to refrain from drug production. One example is the enclave zone at Jiegao where Chinese merchants purchase locally-mined jade and amber in a cash-dominated sector. This often leads to the creation of a karaoke-style industry that can lead to social disorder.

But there have already been protests by local communities against the intrusion of Chinese projects, including against SEZs and Belt and Road projects intended to knit together places of production and consumption across the continent. Communities welcome this about as much as they welcomed the Myitsone dam, the constant stalling of which is celebrated as a victory for local resistance.

Meanwhile, the prospects for those trapped in addiction are grim. Chinese attempts to manage drug production and usage in northern Myanmar have been heavy-handed and without positive long-term results. Although Myanmar has quite a comprehensive series of harm reduction policies that compare favourably with those in other Southeast Asian countries, these are generally not available in conflict zones where vulnerability to various health risks can be very high. There is next to no support from the national government for any rehabilitation in the northern provinces and only very limited support from provincial governments.

In their place, faith-based organisations — mostly Baptist — have created their own camps and programs. But these approaches lack sophistication — withdrawal is sudden, complete and provides little support for those undergoing it. Their results may be poor, but there are no alternative options.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the foreseeable future of Myanmar’s drug production and trade. Even if a long-term solution were suddenly found, numerous lives would be blighted in the meantime. A successful drugs reduction strategy requires a great deal more than a ‘war on drugs’ approach and zero tolerance.

Yet the government — or at least its Tatmadaw agent — tends to view drug users as enemies of the people and spares no sympathy for them. Alternative approaches for managing supply and demand, reducing stigma and breaking the link between drug use and crime might be possible with new strategies and greater education. But even with peace, these problems will not disappear for a while.

John Walsh is a lecturer in international business at RMIT University Vietnam.



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