As Burma Reforms, Its Narcotics Trade Might Be Worsening

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Already a major source of opium and methamphetamine, the country's newfound peace could lead to new problems.

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Thai soldiers cut away opium plants along the Burmese border / Reuters

In an extensive article in the Bangkok Post, Australian National University professor Desmond Ball, a longtime expert on Myanmar, highlights the issue that, above all, may be the trickiest to solve if the country's reform process is to go forward. While the central government has been working on transforming cease-fires into permanent peace deals with the many ethnic insurgent armies throughout the country, Myanmar's drug production has actually been increasing since many cease-fires were originally inked, according to Ball. He suggests that Myanmar is "the largest narcotic state in the world" when you combine the production of opium (it is the world's second largest opium producer, after Afghanistan) with the production of methamphetamines, of which Myanmar is probably the largest in the world. Ball believes that in 2009 and 2010 the amount of methamphetamine, known as ya baa, or "crazy drug" in Thai, flowing into Thailand from Myanmar increased from 800 million tablets annually to one billion annually. His analysis contradicts the official report on Myanmar's drug production from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, but it jibes with my own analysis, as well as that of many Thai intelligence officers and experts studying drug trafficking into Thailand.

The drugs are mostly produced in the north and northeast, in regions controlled by ethnic armies, particularly the United Wa State Army -- the dominant narcotrafficking organization in the region. Ball notes --and I concur from my experience-- that Myanmar military units are closely involved in the shipping of the drugs out of the country and into Thailand and Laos, where the army units help move the drugs past checkpoints and ensure security from raids by Thai forces and DEA units that work with them.

The trouble is, as the government has made cease-fire deals with the ethnic armies, it has actually allowed the ethnic groups more freedom to expand their operations and work with the military, without worrying that the government is going to take action against them. Now, in order to extend the cease-fires, make new deals with holdout groups, or turn the cease-fires into permanent deals, the central government and local officials are offering the cease-fire groups new rewards, including essentially longer periods of time in which they can run their operations without much government interference (although, as many Myanmar citizens allege, the groups do have to make sure to pay a cut to the right officials). This may be a kind of autonomy, which is what many of the ethnic groups, long disdained by the Burman majority and devastated by the Burman-majority armed forces, desire. But this autonomy could well institutionalize the drug trade in many parts of the country, and make these ethnic groups even more dependent on narcotics production for any income. Not to mention the fact that growing production will infuriate Myanmar's neighbors, potentially leading to more cross-border violence and unrest.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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