Declining heroin and opium output from Afghanistan could provide strong cash incentives for Burma’s drug warlords to boost production, thereby threatening the further growth of a trade that is already considered a key component in Southeast Asia’s expanding organized crime world.
Despite Burma producing 690 metric tons of opium this year, shipments of the drug from Afghanistan account for around one-third of the total opium and heroin being consumed in Southeast Asia. Yet poor harvests and a US-backed eradication campaign in the Middle Eastern country have seen production decline in recent years.
Tackling the trade in Burma has proven difficult for the UN, which has acknowledged that more work should be done to target the “kingpins and white-collar accomplices” rather than gauging progress on the number of arrests of street-level players in the market. That said, the UN believes the Burmese government has eradicated up to one-third of its poppy crops in recent years.
The UNODC released a report on Wednesday detailing the evolution of Southeast Asia’s methamphetamine market, whose rapid expansion has taken the shine off gains made in the suppression of trade in other narcotics.
While the Burmese government had cooperated in opium eradication campaigns, the issue of joint anti-methamphetamine efforts had been harder. Yet while he believes Naypyidaw has “no interest in seeing its reputation continuously sullied by association with drug production,” others are more pessimistic.
Behind the majority of the region’s methamphetamine output is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which controls territory in the mountains of Shan State in eastern Burma and is estimated at 20,000 troops.
Under the 2008 Constitution, the group was granted autonomy over six townships in the region of Shan State bordering China, where the majority of its methamphetamine laboratories are believed to be located. The UWSA maintains a ceasefire with the central government; some suspect this has given the Wa plenty of room to continue manufacturing heroin and methamphetamine. “If the government were to move seriously against methamphetamine production they would have a war with the UWSA and they don’t want that because the UWSA is too well armed,” says Lintner. The UWSA’s arsenal is believed to contain surface-to-air missiles, positioning the group as the most well-equipped and financed ethnic army in Burma. “
Analysts have warned that the ceasefires being signed between the government and ethnic armies, particularly those in Shan State, could allow them more space to manufacture drugs. “That’s exactly what’s happening. The government doesn’t want to interfere—if it disturbs business then they’ll fight again,” says Lintner.
Lewis acknowledged that “there are reasons why one has to be concerned about that,” but that the UN would keep careful watch of developments in ceasefire areas. “In any region where there is a toxic mix of guns, drugs, money and politics, there are going to be questions raised about various levels of complicity.”