Myanmar helpless against drug dynamics

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Somewhere here, in the hilly region of Myanmar's Shan state, drug laboratories are hidden. © Arno Maierbrugger
Somewhere here, in the hilly region of Myanmar’s Shan state, drug laboratories are hidden. © Arno Maierbrugger

Myanmar has pushed back its self-imposed drug eradication deadline by five years as the nation struggles to combat resurgent production of opium and methamphetamine.

The decision was announced at the Mekong Region Drug Eliminating Team meeting held in the country’s capital Naypyitaw on May 6 attended by senior health and police officials from China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as representatives of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).

It turned out that authorities were “very concerned” about a rebound in poppy cultivation over the last six years in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium producer behind Afghanistan, while amphetamine-type stimulants (meth or ice, locally sold as yaba or chocalee in Thailand and shabú in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) are also surging, said Myanmar’s deputy police chief Zaw Win. Thus, the Myanmar’s narcotic control board had to “extend its drug elimination target to 2019,” he said. The previous target was 2014.

Zaw Win also said that especially “the methamphetamine problem is growing rapidly,”  adding that “more and more international drug syndicates are becoming involved.”

No wonder. Producing and trafficking methamphetamine offers huge profits. One case study released by the Dutch Transnational Institute, which closely monitors global drug trends, suggests that an investor could supply a factory, stocked with equipment and chemicals, along the unruly Thai-Myanmar border for $40,000. Such an investment could produce 100,000 meth pills with a $60,000 street value in about 24 hours, according to the institute. Repeat investments could rack up millions of dollars in short order.

opium golden triangleThe drugs trade is closely linked to Myanmar’s long-running insurgencies in remote areas bordering Thailand, Laos and China — known as the Golden Triangle — with ethnic minority rebels widely thought to use drug profits to fund operations. For example, the United Wa State Army in Myanmar’s Shan State has been described as “the largest drug army in the world” by the US State Department, larger than Colombia’s FARC.

The UNODC in its annual drug report mentions that the world heroin consumption of 340 tonnes and seizures represent an annual flow of 430-450 tonnes of heroin into the global heroin market at current levels. Of this lot, opium from Myanmar and also Laos yields some 50 tonnes, while the rest stems from Afghanistan.

Moreover, methamphetamine pills, which are much cheaper, for example at around 200 baht (around $7) per pill on the streets of Bangkok, and easier to consume than heroin or other opium derivatives, have experienced a tremendous surge in Southeast Asia.

Around 5.9 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Myanmar in 2011, almost double the figure in the previous year, the UNODC said in its last report, although seizures are likely to represent only a fraction of the amount produced. Thai newspapers almost daily report a major seizure of yaba pills on trafficking routes across the country. All over Southeast Asia, the seizures stood at 14.6 million meth pills, and meth is probably close to outnumber opium-based narcotics in revenue shortly at least in the region. Methamphetamine seizures in Asia and the Pacific now account for nearly half the world’s total.

Red yaba pills, sold in Thailand
Red yaba pills, sold in Thailand

Opium, the choice hard drug of decades past, offered addicts a dreamy, drawn-out death on a bamboo mat. Its heavy users were too unfit to work. But meth enables users to toil harder and longer. It’s much more than a recreational drug for jumpy, jaw-grinding club kids. A dose turns long shifts in a taxi, a factory or even a cubicle into a far more tolerable experience.

Especially in the entertainment districts of Bangkok, the problem of drug abuse, especially of yaba, has become worse over the past years. It is not only used by the clubbing crowd and male and female sex workers, but also by those who have to work two shifts to pay off a mortgage or school fees for their kids. It is also widely consumed by minivan and truck drivers who buy their stock in shady corners of petrol stations.

Yaba pills are not exactly a rare sight in Bangkok’s entertainment districts of lower Sukhumvit and Patpong, in which heavy young users helplessly stagger around the streets in the bright afternoon or lie in a comatose state somewhere on the pavement, at footbridges or at shop portals.

Meth’s widespread availability has turned already-dark corners of Southeast Asia into zones awash in pills. Bangkok’s Klong Toey slums, long known as a shanty area supplying dock workers for the city’s busy ports, is now strongly associated with the meth trade. In the wake of the literally epidemic wave of meth use in Thailand, even Buddhist monks have been reported to be involved in the trade.

drug graph
Click to enlarge

In Malaysia and Indonesia, nations with a comparably low alcohol consumption due to Muslim beliefs, shabú can be bought in shadier places of the big cities, such as around Heritage Row and Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur, and all over the bars and entertainment spots in Northern Jakarta and other major Indonesian towns. In the Philippines, the shabú trade is reportedly controlled by Chinese gangs. The drug is widely available in the shantytowns and around entertainment spots of the big cities, and profits are laundered preferably in Manila’s casinos.

The UNODC also reported growing meth consumption in Cambodia, Vietnam and even Brunei. The Golden Triangle countries will have a hard time to eradicate especially meth production, experts say. Many of the surveillance techniques used to spy on growers of poppy —  mainly top-of-the-line satellite imagery and aerial photography — are less effective in tracking meth producers. From space, a meth lab is indistinguishable from a dwelling or a garage.

 

 

 

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Somewhere here, in the hilly region of Myanmar’s Shan state, drug laboratories are hidden. © Arno Maierbrugger

Myanmar has pushed back its self-imposed drug eradication deadline by five years as the nation struggles to combat resurgent production of opium and methamphetamine.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Somewhere here, in the hilly region of Myanmar's Shan state, drug laboratories are hidden. © Arno Maierbrugger
Somewhere here, in the hilly region of Myanmar’s Shan state, drug laboratories are hidden. © Arno Maierbrugger

Myanmar has pushed back its self-imposed drug eradication deadline by five years as the nation struggles to combat resurgent production of opium and methamphetamine.

The decision was announced at the Mekong Region Drug Eliminating Team meeting held in the country’s capital Naypyitaw on May 6 attended by senior health and police officials from China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as representatives of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).

It turned out that authorities were “very concerned” about a rebound in poppy cultivation over the last six years in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium producer behind Afghanistan, while amphetamine-type stimulants (meth or ice, locally sold as yaba or chocalee in Thailand and shabú in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) are also surging, said Myanmar’s deputy police chief Zaw Win. Thus, the Myanmar’s narcotic control board had to “extend its drug elimination target to 2019,” he said. The previous target was 2014.

Zaw Win also said that especially “the methamphetamine problem is growing rapidly,”  adding that “more and more international drug syndicates are becoming involved.”

No wonder. Producing and trafficking methamphetamine offers huge profits. One case study released by the Dutch Transnational Institute, which closely monitors global drug trends, suggests that an investor could supply a factory, stocked with equipment and chemicals, along the unruly Thai-Myanmar border for $40,000. Such an investment could produce 100,000 meth pills with a $60,000 street value in about 24 hours, according to the institute. Repeat investments could rack up millions of dollars in short order.

opium golden triangleThe drugs trade is closely linked to Myanmar’s long-running insurgencies in remote areas bordering Thailand, Laos and China — known as the Golden Triangle — with ethnic minority rebels widely thought to use drug profits to fund operations. For example, the United Wa State Army in Myanmar’s Shan State has been described as “the largest drug army in the world” by the US State Department, larger than Colombia’s FARC.

The UNODC in its annual drug report mentions that the world heroin consumption of 340 tonnes and seizures represent an annual flow of 430-450 tonnes of heroin into the global heroin market at current levels. Of this lot, opium from Myanmar and also Laos yields some 50 tonnes, while the rest stems from Afghanistan.

Moreover, methamphetamine pills, which are much cheaper, for example at around 200 baht (around $7) per pill on the streets of Bangkok, and easier to consume than heroin or other opium derivatives, have experienced a tremendous surge in Southeast Asia.

Around 5.9 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Myanmar in 2011, almost double the figure in the previous year, the UNODC said in its last report, although seizures are likely to represent only a fraction of the amount produced. Thai newspapers almost daily report a major seizure of yaba pills on trafficking routes across the country. All over Southeast Asia, the seizures stood at 14.6 million meth pills, and meth is probably close to outnumber opium-based narcotics in revenue shortly at least in the region. Methamphetamine seizures in Asia and the Pacific now account for nearly half the world’s total.

Red yaba pills, sold in Thailand
Red yaba pills, sold in Thailand

Opium, the choice hard drug of decades past, offered addicts a dreamy, drawn-out death on a bamboo mat. Its heavy users were too unfit to work. But meth enables users to toil harder and longer. It’s much more than a recreational drug for jumpy, jaw-grinding club kids. A dose turns long shifts in a taxi, a factory or even a cubicle into a far more tolerable experience.

Especially in the entertainment districts of Bangkok, the problem of drug abuse, especially of yaba, has become worse over the past years. It is not only used by the clubbing crowd and male and female sex workers, but also by those who have to work two shifts to pay off a mortgage or school fees for their kids. It is also widely consumed by minivan and truck drivers who buy their stock in shady corners of petrol stations.

Yaba pills are not exactly a rare sight in Bangkok’s entertainment districts of lower Sukhumvit and Patpong, in which heavy young users helplessly stagger around the streets in the bright afternoon or lie in a comatose state somewhere on the pavement, at footbridges or at shop portals.

Meth’s widespread availability has turned already-dark corners of Southeast Asia into zones awash in pills. Bangkok’s Klong Toey slums, long known as a shanty area supplying dock workers for the city’s busy ports, is now strongly associated with the meth trade. In the wake of the literally epidemic wave of meth use in Thailand, even Buddhist monks have been reported to be involved in the trade.

drug graph
Click to enlarge

In Malaysia and Indonesia, nations with a comparably low alcohol consumption due to Muslim beliefs, shabú can be bought in shadier places of the big cities, such as around Heritage Row and Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur, and all over the bars and entertainment spots in Northern Jakarta and other major Indonesian towns. In the Philippines, the shabú trade is reportedly controlled by Chinese gangs. The drug is widely available in the shantytowns and around entertainment spots of the big cities, and profits are laundered preferably in Manila’s casinos.

The UNODC also reported growing meth consumption in Cambodia, Vietnam and even Brunei. The Golden Triangle countries will have a hard time to eradicate especially meth production, experts say. Many of the surveillance techniques used to spy on growers of poppy —  mainly top-of-the-line satellite imagery and aerial photography — are less effective in tracking meth producers. From space, a meth lab is indistinguishable from a dwelling or a garage.

 

 

 

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