Armed groups in Myanmar’s far east, aligned both with and against the country’s military are ramping up drug production to cash in amid the turmoil that has gripped the nation since its February 2021 coup, a United Nations official told VOA this week.
Tighter security along Myanmar’s border with Thailand also seems to be funneling more of those drugs to the rest of Asia through Laos, the official added.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says record seizures of methamphetamine “yaba” tablets and falling street prices in neighboring countries over the past year make a strong case for a $60 billion drug trade rooted in Myanmar’s restive Shan state – bordering China, Laos and Thailand -- kicking into overdrive.
“It is impossible to say precisely how much production has spiked the past year given it is done in large clandestine labs and it was already being overproduced, but there is no doubt yaba … production is way up on 2020,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA on March 2.
“Seizures in Laos and Thailand are off the charts and it is not because of suddenly improved law enforcement — some other countries’ seizures are up too, but in Thailand and Laos the connection to trafficking patterns and locations in Shan is very clear,” he said.
According to government figures compiled by the UNODC, seizures of methamphetamine from January through October of last year were up 20% in Thailand compared to 2020, which was a record year itself, and up 40% in Malaysia. While Thailand still netted the most drugs pouring out of Myanmar, seizures in Laos over the same stretch shot up 620%.
The seizures in Laos included the largest single recorded drug bust in Asia’s history — 55 million yaba tablets and 1.5 tons of methamphetamine crystals, or “ice,” packed into a truckload of beer crates passing through Bokeo province, which borders Shan state, in October.
Complicity 'on both sides'
Shan’s east has long been a patchwork of semi-autonomous armed groups, from profiteering militias allied with the military to ethnic minority-led rebel armies aligned against it.
Douglas said the state’s drug trade cuts across that divide, and that boosting production was an obvious move in the wake of a coup that has set off a deadly armed resistance to the junta and sent the economy into freefall.
“To suggest drug production and trafficking is confined to nonstate armed groups that only are pro-military or only anti-military is not credible. There is plenty of evidence to show complicity of groups on both sides,” he said.
“The incentives are simple,” he added. “Some groups have a significant need for cash to finance themselves now and few income sources or options, and other groups that have or had options find drugs are simply more viable and important given the economic climate.”
Among Myanmar’s rebel ethnic armies, accusations of drug trafficking fall heaviest on the largest of them all — the United Wa State Army. With a standing force of some 30,000 troops, it holds an area roughly the size of Belgium on Shan’s border with China.
In 2008 the U.S. Treasury Department called the UWSA “the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in Southeast Asia” and sanctioned over two dozen leaders and alleged associates. The UWSA has rejected the claims. But in a January 2021 report on the USWA, Janes, a U.K.-based publication covering the defense industry, said the group was still a major drug producer and had even started branching out into trafficking and making precursors for itself and others, citing intelligence sources.
Just as much blame, if not more, falls on the many militias across eastern Shan operating under the military’s protection and occasional orders. A report from August by the U.S. Institute for Peace think tank singled out the Kokang Border Guard Force. It said courts in China have since 2010 opened some 800 drug-related cases tied to a “special administrative zone” the group runs on Myanmar’s border with China.
A Myanmar-based expert on the region’s drug trade said military-linked militias operating in Shan around the towns of Kutkai, Lashio and Namhkam, and among the ethnic Lahu farther east, were also believed to be heavily involved.
Follow the money
Speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity for his safety, the Myanmar-based expert said stiff armed resistance to the junta that seized power last year also seems to have distracted authorities from their usual anti-narcotics work.
“What we do hear of course from some people is that the security force, the police and also the army of course, have focused mostly on dealing with the fallout of the coup, so dealing with the opposition, rather than dealing with other issues, and I think that’s probably true. That can then lead of course to less seizures in Myanmar,” he said.
Without direct evidence of what the drug-dealing groups were doing, though, he cautioned against assuming that more drug seizures in Laos and Thailand had to mean more production.
The UNODC says falling drug prices suggest the seizures have done nothing to dent the amount of product still hitting the streets, a good sign that production was either keeping pace with interdictions or even overtaking them.
Verapun Ngamee, who runs a network of harm reduction centers for drug users across Thailand, said he has never seen methamphetamine prices drop so far so fast.
He told VOA that since the middle of last year the average street price for a gram of ice had fallen by nearly half, to $25 and that yaba prices had crashed from roughly $4.60 a tablet to $1.50.
“I never saw the price reduce [as] much like this before,” he said.
The UNODC says Shan drug lords are especially anxious to push their product out of Myanmar and through Thailand to more lucrative markets farther away, and that Laos has been an emerging gateway along the route for some years. It says drug traffic through Laos swelled especially over the past year, though, thanks both to surging production and stepped-up enforcement by Thai authorities along the country’s border with Myanmar.
The source in Myanmar said tighter border controls imposed by China along its own frontier with the country was putting pressure on the groups to reroute as well.
Douglas said it all pointed to an evolving drug trade.
“The market is no longer what it was,” he said. “Not only has crystal become almost as widely available as yaba in the Mekong, but the approach of traffickers to maintain prices is gone — the business is now about moving mass volumes with the Shan supply feeding streets across the Mekong and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Korea.”