The need for a new offensive in the war on drugs
Young partygoers in Southeast Asia or as far afield as Australia or North America may have been miffed last month after the Myanmar Navy seized 2.4 million ecstasy pills on a boat off Kawthaung, the nation’s southernmost port. The August 19 seizure of the “party drug” was a feather in the cap of the Myanmar authorities as they battle the illegal drug trade. Myanmar has the dubious honour of being Southeast Asia’s largest maker of synthetic drugs and the world’s second largest opium and heroin producer after war-torn Afghanistan. Most of the drugs manufactured in hidden laboratories near the border are destined for distribution throughout the region but a percentage ends up for sale in Western countries.
The Myanmar authorities told the media the ecstasy seizure was the biggest
since 2005, when 50,000 of the tablets were seized. In Yangon, the 2.4 million pills would have a street value of about US$200 million, but in other markets in the region and beyond they would have fetched much more. Ecstasy, which releases inhibitions and before being made illegal in the United States in 1985 was used in relationships counselling for troubled couples, is a so-called “party drug” that is popular at rave parties or trance music events. It tends to be popular among more affluent youth who are better able to afford ecstasy than cheaper drugs such as amphetamine or methamphetamine.
The seizure by the Myanmar Navy provided a useful public relations boost for the war on drugs. But it’s a war that is failing on a local, regional and international level. It is not that the anti-narcotics authorities in Myanmar and other countries are not doing enough to stem drug trafficking. The seizure is likely to have disrupted one drug king-pin’s operation. But as so often happens, although the crew of the ship carrying the ecstasy was arrested, it is unclear whether the masterminds of the operation will ever be apprehended.
Nine times out of 10 when big drug seizures are made, it is the couriers or traffickers who are arrested and jailed, not those who stand to profit most from the operation. The top dogs of drug trafficking operations use their profits to buy political influence and the services of corrupt law-enforcement officials to ensure they can operate with impunity. Successes can be short-lived. The efforts by the military junta in neighbouring Thailand to pursue drug lords, arrest them, and confiscate their property – as seen in coordinated raids on about five dozen locations on August 31 – were significant but may not result in a big disruption to the trade, despite the security forces claiming the simultaneous raids will be used as a model in an “all-out anti-narcotics” effort to tackle trafficking. It’s a pattern. Every so often, a crackdown is launched and a drug kingpin is caught, but such victories in the war on drugs do not happen as often as they should. Before long it’s back to “business as usual”.
As Myanmar strives to build a brighter and better future, the country remains dogged by its bad rap on drugs. The big ecstasy seizure was likely a lucky break, a “success” that can be trumpeted. But the scale of the illicit drug trade in Myanmar is considerable and evidence of that is the constant seizures by police in Thailand of methamphetamines, known as yaaba or “crazy drug”. President U Thein Sein’s government may be making progress bringing Myanmar into the 21st century, but there are limits to what we can expect when it comes to the effective suppression of the drug trade.
There are no easy answers when trying to deal with narcotics trafficking. It is as much about demand as about supply. In Myanmar that means serious drug addiction issues, particularly methamphetamine and heroin use among young people, many of whom live in ethnic minority areas where education and employment opportunities are limited. Neighbouring Thailand has a Myanmar-made methamphetamine epidemic on its hands, with dealers even being caught selling the “crazy drug” outside primary schools.
There are no easy answers to this scourge that damages lives, destroys relationships and fuels corruption. Clearly the worldwide “war on drugs” is not working, despite the media headlines that trumpet drug seizures, and the arrests of drug mules, users and addicts. Some pundits advocate legalising the drug trade, claiming it would reduce crime, treat users as victims and make it easier to manage the problem. Others call on countries such as Myanmar and Thailand to get more serious about targeting the drug lords.
In its response to addiction, Myanmar deserves credit for setting a regional example through its pragmatic adoption of harm reduction at the grassroots level with the support of the National Drug Abuse Control Program, as we reported in our previous issue. But more needs to be done. More drop-in centres are needed for people who inject drugs as well as a greater effort to create more awareness in the community about the dangers of injecting drug use and how the sharing of needless can spread HIV and AIDS. Grassroots NGOs such as the Asian Harm Reduction Network are helping because they recognise that users need care not incarceration.
A renewed effort is needed to tackle both ends of the drug trade. A more concerted campaign is needed against the drug lords and the corruption associated with trafficking. Harm reduction facilities need to be expanded to help more people. Action is essential; there are lives at stake.
An injecting drug user in Kachin State. Photo: Wai Yan