Shan State still not a drug-free zone

SHAN STATE, Myanmar - Sai, 28, rarely leaves home without two ballpoint pens tucked inside his denim jacket, although he never uses them for writing.

As in Thailand and most countries, the annual burning of all seized illicit drugs in Myanmar's Shan State is more of a propaganda event than a serious step to drug eradication. (epa photo by Nyein Chan Naing)

The pens are packed with 0.4cm-wide pills of methamphetamine, or amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS). In Thailand, the pills have long been called ya baa, or crazy medicine, but in the Shan State, residents still use the old term yaa ma, locally called YaMa, or horse drug, for the brand logo of a horse on the most popular version of the "diet pills" then sold in Thai pharmacies.

(A legend, often perpetuated, holds that the name was because the pills made users as "strong as a horse".)

Sai, not his real name, is a drug dealer in the Shan State, Myanmar's northeast, which borders on Thailand. Only a decade ago it was the centre of the Golden Triangle and home to the world's biggest dealers of opium and high-grade heroin. Today, it is Southeast Asia's main manufacturer of methamphetamines.

These days Sai is becoming more selective about his clientele.

"I dare not sell to just anyone because I know the local police, but I don't know the ones from the anti-drugs task force," he said.

Myanmar authorities made a record number of drug seizures and arrests last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Between January and August, police seized 15.6 million tablets of methamphetamine, compared with 5.9 million in all of 2011, said Tun Nay Soe, regional coordinator for UNODC's Global Smart Programme, set up to analyse the world's drug trade.

However, it is unclear whether the spike in seizures reflects better police work or a spike in production, UNODC experts said. That many of the seizures were in Yangon is not necessarily good news.

"I think it means the police checkpoint mechanism isn't working," Tun Nay Soe said.

Most of Yangon's illicit drugs come from the remote, notoriously lawless Shan State.

Meanwhile, opium production in the state has plummeted from a peak of 1.3 million tons in 1998, after government eradication programmes. Last year's estimated yield was 17 per cent up on 2011, at more than 690 tons - still the world's second biggest crop and capable of producing nearly 70 tonnes of heroin.

Since the early 2000s drug production in the Shan State has shifted to methamphetamine, faster and more discreet to make than growing opium.

The state has become the main production base for the drug in mainland Southeast Asia, according to the UNODC.

Drug production is closely linked to local insurgencies, but reforms and peace talks initiated by President Thein Sein do not seem to have had the hoped-for impact on the sector.

Since coming to power in March, 2011 Mr Thein Sein has signed ceasefires with the four main ethnic insurgencies in the Shan State - the Shan State Army North, Shan State Army South, United Wa State Army and National Democratic Alliance Army. All have long financed their armed struggles for autonomy from the thriving drug trade.

But experts say the ceasefires alone will not remove the incentive to make and sell narcotics.

"The ethnic tensions and poverty are still there, and until those two factors change, forget about doing away with the drug business," Tun Nay Soe said.

Myanmar's former junta originally set the goal of eradicating narcotics production by 2014 and making the country an official "drug-free zone".

But in acknowledgement of the reality in Shan State, the deadline was quietly moved back to 2019 at a meeting in October, said Saw Ngwe, chairman of the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association.

Over the past decade, the government has concentrated on eradicating opium crops, destroying an estimated 29,290 hectares of poppy fields this growing season, police claim.

But the economic realities of the Shan State provide few alternative livelihoods, and destroying poppy crops is unlikely to uproot drug production.

"In a place like the Shan State, that has nothing going for it geographically, illicit activities are the only source of income," Tun Nay Soe said. Locals concur.

"There are few job opportunities here, and the jobs that are available don't pay well," Sai said. "So we have to work as drug dealers. Both producers and dealers make a good profit," he said.

Sai sells his methamphetamines for anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 kyat (175 baht to 700 baht) a pill, good money in a country where the average daily wage is the equivalent of 60 baht.

"Here there are plenty of drug addicts, both youths and workers," said a Shan villager, who asked to remain anonymous. "And many of the poppy fields are located in the strongholds of armed insurgencies who are outside the rule of the government," he said.

But even if the government persuades the remaining armed groups to sign peace pacts, there are doubts that this will reduce drug production.

"When the insurgents are turned into border guard forces, they will come under the Myanmar army, and then it will become even more difficult for the police to touch them," UNODC's Tun Nay Soe said.

"So I'm pessimistic that the ceasefires will be good for drug suppression."

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About the author

Writer: May Thingyan Hein, dpa