There's increasing awareness that many of the greatest harms of global drug policy are borne in the developing world. In a timely article in the lead up to the UN General Assembly on drug policy in 2016, Gerad Collingwood looks at the way drugs and drug policy have undermined democracy and development in Myanmar, enriching a tiny elite while compounding the disadvantage and suffering of some of the poorest members of society.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a major source of heroin and methamphetamine for the Australian, Southeast Asian and East Asian markets. It’s been a military dictatorship for decades but since 2010 Myanmar has been transitioning towards a democracy. For any country this is a difficult process but the drug trade in Myanmar is so big and so pervasive that it has major impacts on the country’s development and political prospects.
The illicit drug market in Myanmar can be traced back to the Chinese nationalists, the Guomindang (GMD) who traded opium to finance their military campaign against the People’s Republic of China. Over time the local industry grew and by the 1980s, many of the ethnic separatist groups in the country were reliant on drug revenue. Recognising this, the junta that came to power after a 1988 coup used permission to continue trading narcotics as a bargaining chip to entice separatist groups into ceasefire agreements. The approach was very successful and, for the first time in decades, much of the ethnic conflict was halted. The junta then opened channels for money laundering and encouraged major drug trafficking figures to establish companies in the white economy. Preferential and lucrative government contracts for these companies transformed major drug traffickers into wealthy business elites.
Lo Hsing Han stands out as one of the most prominent examples of the mixing of the black and white economies. He first rose to prominence as the head of an anti-communist government militia. Tasked with becoming financially self-sufficient, drug trafficking quickly became the major source of income. After becoming involved in the negotiation process between the government and separatist groups, Lo’s fortunes quickly rose and he founded the Asia World company in the early 1990s using laundered money from drug trafficking. The Asia World Group is now Myanmar’s largest conglomerate and an essential part of the economy. It’s been involved in many government projects, including the building of the new capital Naypyidaw, while also being accused of laundering drug money. Until his death in 2013, Lo was subject to sanctions by the USA because of ties to drug trafficking.
Many senior figures in Myanmar politics, business and the military have significant and lucrative links to the drugs trade and the impacts of this go deep. Farmers in opium producing areas are blackmailed into supporting particular candidates under threat of losing permission to farm opium poppies. The military and police also exploit farmers in opium growing areas by demanding bribes to turn a blind eye to a crop that is officially illegal. At the same time opium bans in some Myanmar states are brutally enforced, especially by ethnic armies in the Wa, Kokang and Mongla regions in northern Shan state. These bans have not caused a long term fall in opium production as farmers and cultivation have simply shifted to neighbouring areas.
Drug use in rural areas of Myanmar is widespread and frequently challenges the social cohesion of the township. Rampant drug use among the youth in many ethnic minority areas leaves the elder generations disenchanted and disconnected with the future prospects for their people. Yet the drug trade is also an important source of financial security for many people, enabling families of opium farmers to send children to school and pay for healthcare.
Transitioning to substitute crops is often challenging for opium farmers because of climate, lack of demand, transportability versus value, and lack of knowledge about how to grow them successfully. In some cases such as the China sponsored crop substitution, the creation of rubber plantations is actually exacerbating the underlying causes for opium cultivation (See http://www.tni.org/briefing/financing-dispossession). Stricter enforcement of the laws to combat the drug trade in Myanmar without economic alternatives for opium farmers would push many families further into destitution. At the same time, the drug trade undermines the possibility of the farmers gaining real democratic representation. It’s the kind of catch-22 that emphasises how drug policy is bound up with economic and political development in producer countries.
It’s been refreshing to see those problems finally being brought to the attention of the United Nations drug control organisations. In a recent submission to the 2015 session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) made strong criticisms of the way that global drug policy undermined the prospects of democracy and development for vulnerable and marginalised groups around the world. In that submission, the UNDP argued that the current drug control regime contributes to worsening public health outcomes, the creation of powerful criminal groups, the decline in the ability to promote and maintain effective governance, and increased incidence of human rights abuses. Countries like Myanmar with weak or new democratic systems are especially vulnerable.
It’s more evidence that the tide is turning against the current international drug control treaties. Rather than more prohibition, the UNDP argued for a focus on human development in drug-producing countries like Myanmar. It’s a call that delegates to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016 would do well to take up. Without reform, countries like Myanmar are at risk of becoming lost in the mire of instability – another casualty of the global war on drugs.
This article is based on Gerad Collingwood’s honours thesis Drug Trafficking, Porous Borders and Human Insecurity: Transnational Security and Democratic Development in Myanmar, University of Southern Queensland, 2014.
For further reading on the geopolitics of the drug trade in Southeast Asia and other significant producing regions see, Alfred McCoy The Politics of Heroin: CIA complicity in the Global Drug Trade.