How Myan­mar's il­licit opium econ­omy benifits the mil­i­tary

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - PATRICK MEEHAN news­room@mm­times.com

FOR the past 10 years drug pro­duc­tion in Myan­mar has been on the rise. The amount of land used to grow poppy – from which the opium sap used to make heroin is de­rived – has more than dou­bled since 2006. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, Myan­mar now ac­counts for more than 25 per­cent of the global area un­der il­le­gal poppy cul­ti­va­tion, mak­ing the coun­try the sec­ond­largest pro­ducer of il­le­gal opium in the world after Afghanistan.

The vast ma­jor­ity of Myan­mar opium is pro­duced by poor farm­ers in high­land ar­eas of Shan State close to the bor­ders with China, Thai­land and Laos, which have been af­fected by decades of con­flict be­tween eth­nic armed groups and the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. In 2012, stud­ies con­ducted by lo­cal re­searchers recorded opium cul­ti­va­tion in 49 out of Shan State’s 55 town­ships, in­volv­ing more than 200,000 house­holds.

Drugs play an am­bigu­ous role in Myan­mar’s bor­der­lands. Drug abuse has taken far more lives than armed con­flict in many com­mu­ni­ties over the past decade and the grow­ing heroin epi­demic across parts of Shan and Kachin states is one of the main drivers of HIV/AIDS in Myan­mar.

But the in­come opium gen­er­ates for grow­ers pro­vides a way of staving off poverty amid ris­ing food prices and re­sult­ing food in­se­cu­rity, heavy de­mands for “tax­a­tion” from an ar­ray of armed groups, and the con­tin­ued lack of gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment in ru­ral ser­vices. They grow poppy be­cause they can­not pro­duce enough food to feed their fam­i­lies through­out the year. The World Food Pro­gramme (WFP) es­ti­mates that al­most 1 mil­lion peo­ple in Shan State suf­fer “se­vere and chronic food in­se­cu­rity”, equiv­a­lent to al­most one in five of the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion. The in­come gen­er­ated from Myan­mar opium en­ables farm­ers to buy food and some­times also to cover the cost of rudi­men­tary health­care and ed­u­ca­tion.

The fact that poppy can grow well even on steep, in­fer­tile land makes it par­tic­u­larly well-suited to the hills that form much of Shan State, where rice yields are poor. In con­trast to other cash crops suitable for up­land cul­ti­va­tion such as fruit trees, tea and cof­fee, which take years to ma­ture, poppy fields pro­duce opium within four months. This makes it an ideal crop for farm­ers who need money ur­gently or have been forced to farm on new land after be­ing dis­placed by con­flict.

Farm­ers also grow poppy be­cause they know there will al­ways be buy­ers. Although global com­mod­ity chains have shifted and Myan­mar heroin has been pushed out of West­ern mar­kets by Afghan and South Amer­i­can heroin, de­mand from neigh­bour­ing China – the world’s fastest-grow­ing mar­ket for heroin – means that prices for Myan­mar opium have re­mained buoy­ant.

Myan­mar’s opium sec­tor has long been driven by poverty, yet it is im­por­tant to recog­nise that drug pro­duc­tion in the coun­try’s bor­der­lands is also driven by pol­i­tics.

The drug trade has long been a part of the coun­try’s war econ­omy, fi­nanc­ing eth­nic armed groups fight­ing against the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. But over the past decade drug pro­duc­tion has in­creased even as the ter­ri­tory con­trolled by in­sur­gent groups has re­ceded, and pop­pies now bloom across re­gions un­der in­creas­ing gov­ern­ment con­trol.

The drug trade can no longer be blamed solely on in­sur­gent groups. It has also be­come em­bed­ded in the strate­gies used by the Myan­mar army to se­cure ter­ri­to­rial con­trol over a re­gion that con­tains abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources and is of huge strate­gic im­por­tance as an eco­nomic gate­way to China.

Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment has, since the late 1980s, used the drug econ­omy as a means to fi­nance its own state-build­ing ob­jec­tives, rather than launch sus­tained ef­forts to dis­man­tle it. Tax­ing farm­ers, traders and traf­fick­ers be­came a means through which army units sta­tioned across Shan State fi­nanced them­selves in ac­cor­dance with de­mands from cen­tral com­mand that they “live off the land”, rather than rely on the cen­tral sup­ply sys­tem.

Even of­fi­cial crop de­struc­tion drives have of­ten been used by army units to ex­tract bribes and “pro­tec­tion fees” from farm­ers, with fab­ri­cated erad­i­ca­tion fig­ures then sub­mit­ted to su­pe­ri­ors who have lit­tle to gain from ques­tion­ing them or ex­pos­ing their inac­cu­racy.

The drug trade has also been used by the Tat­madaw as a way to fi­nance a large num­ber of lo­cal mili­tias that per­form var­i­ous se­cu­rity and anti-in­sur­gency tasks. Mili­tias have been de­ployed to pro­tect de­vel­op­ment projects across Shan State, in­clud­ing oil and gas pipe­lines and dams, and to seize land from farm­ers for large-scale agri­cul­tural projects, es­pe­cially rub­ber plan­ta­tions.

Mili­tias are not paid di­rectly by the gov­ern­ment, but in re­turn for their ser­vices they have been granted var­i­ous busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing the right to tax poppy farm­ers and to re­fine heroin and sell drugs with im­punity.

Mili­tias have pro­vided the Tat­madaw with a use­ful layer of plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity, en­abling com­man­ders to dis­tance them­selves from the drug trade with­out run­ning the risk of push­ing this lu­cra­tive trade back into the hands of in­sur­gent groups. It is these gov­ern­ment-backed mili­tias who now or­ches­trate the drug trade across large ar­eas of Shan State.

Clearly, the vested eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests in the Myan­mar opium econ­omy ex­tend well beyond the im­pov­er­ished farm­ers di­rectly in­volved in cul­ti­vat­ing poppy, who re­main most vul­ner­a­ble to heavy­handed counter-nar­cotics poli­cies.

Donors and pol­i­cy­mak­ers must en­gage more deeply with the re­al­i­ties sur­round­ing how drugs have be­come em­bed­ded in the pro­cesses of counter-in­sur­gency, state con­sol­i­da­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment – the same pro­cesses that are com­monly as­sumed to be the mech­a­nisms through which Myan­mar’s il­le­gal economies can be dis­man­tled. Counter-nar­cotics strate­gies that are un­will­ing (or un­able) to en­gage with the messy pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the Myan­mar opium trade are un­likely to achieve much suc­cess. – East Asia Fo­rum

Patrick Meehan re­cently com­pleted his PhD in the Depart­ment of De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies (SOAS), Univer­sity of Lon­don.

Photo: Wa Lone

An opium poppy farmer walks among her crop in Shan State’s Hpekon town­ship last year.

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