Myanmar: Drugs battle, what’s the solution?

By Claire Heffron

A new program has started this week to support Myanmar’s law enforcement system to crack down on drug trafficking and transnational crime. The poverty stricken nation remains the second largest producer of opium, from which heroin is made.

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says criminal activity is discouraging the country’s development, growing human insecurity, and threatening peace talks aimed at ending ethnic insurgencies.

To commemorate the UN’s annual anti-drugs day, seized drugs were burnt in three places across Myanmar.

Over half a ton of opium and heroin was burnt along with just under a ton of methamphetamine and other stimulant drugs, in total worth around $57 million.

‘Without cooperation from ethnic rebels, we cannot not have any success in the war on drugs’

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, Phil Robertson said he doesn’t think this immense move will change anything.

“There’s plenty more where that came from.  Holding these kinds of drug burnings are primarily for the international community to feel good about Myanmar’s efforts, with diplomats sending back positive cables from Yangon to their capitals, and encouraging more international aid to fund those efforts.  It has only peripheral impact on the realities of politics and poverty that drive much of the drug trade”.

Speaking at a ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw, Vice-President Myint Swe admitted the challenge to reduce drug production was far from being won. Home Affairs Minister Kyaw Swe said that drug eradication could not be implemented effectively without collaboration from ethnic rebels.

Robertson said he doesn’t think that rebel groups in Myanmar will support the obliteration of the drugs trade.

“The ethnic rebels are not likely to cooperate in drug eradication unless they are certain there is a lasting peace that addresses their political and security demands, and that would require a commitment from the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) at the peace table that we have not seen so far.  Per the requirement in the 2008 Constitution, the Home Minister is an active member of the military – so why isn’t he saying what the military (and by extension, the government) are prepared to offer to get that cooperation rather than just pointing out the obvious and blaming the ethnic rebels for the problem,” said Robertson

Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy government  has a popular directive following elections last November. She has promised efforts to end several insurgencies.

Senior Lecturer in International Politics at London’s Queen Mary University, Dr Lee Jones points to the central government.

“Kyaw Swe is right that eradicating drugs requires their “cooperation”, but this cooperation will only be reliably secured if the central government addresses the grievances that fuel the insurgencies,” said Dr Jones.

The Myanmar army and rebels are both suspected of buying weapons with drugs produced in the “Golden Triangle” – an area around the juncture of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

“People in very remote rural areas are trafficking drugs and cultivating poppies for a living”

While the heroin trade is worth billions of dollars to cross-border narcotics associations, opium growers are scraping by at the bottom of the drug chain.

Thousands of families earn a living farming the crop that feeds the heroin habit of the world’s drug users. Opium is a lifeline for many farmers. They grow poppies because other crops don’t grow well with the poor soil and weather conditions.

Dr Jones believes substitution is not the solution – “efforts at opium substitution have not been very successful, largely because it has been implemented in a top-down, forced manner, often involving landgrabs and the establishment of industrial agribusiness plantations, typically with Chinese and military involvement. For crop substitution to work, it needs genuine buy-in from farmers and a guarantee that new crops will actually allow them to earn a living”.

According to the UNODC, farmers in Myanmar’s poppy-field villages make less than other rural communities. The fight by villagers to make ends meet rather than greediness was fueling the illicit cultivation.

Robertson said “Perhaps the most important step – which is a viable peace agreement addressing political, social, human rights and security grievances in the drug growing areas – has not been concluded.  Without that in place, it’s hard to see how much progress can be made on the crop substitution programs that the UNODC and other international agencies want to pursue.  But clearly any solution must place the rights and priorities of the farmers and other local producers first, and let them decide what to do since it is their lives who are most at risk from whatever decision that is taken”.

The governing National League for Democracy is responsible for enhancing rural development to improve livelihoods and reduce opium cultivation, and they will need to deal with extensive drug abuse in some districts.

Many NGO’s and activists say decreasing illicit cultivation can only happen when the socio-economic conditions and quality of life of rural households have been improved.

Dr Jones said, “I don’t think it should be prevented; I think opium cultivation ought to be legalized along with narcotics consumption. The “war on drugs” has failed miserably – it is not possible to suppress the demand that will always drive supply. The best solution – as many experts now say – is legalization and regulation. An interim measure would be to permit the growing of opium for medicinal purposes”.