Myanmar, the epicentre of drug trade
Myanmar holds the record for the longest – and still ongoing- civil war. But this beautiful country leads in other unfortunate areas: It is the epicentre of the drug trade in South-East Asia. And unsurprisingly, both issues are related.
What can be done when there are villages where 90% of the population uses drugs? While all eyes are on the Rohingya crises, the whole country struggles to fight an enemy that has no ethnicity or religion.
Northern Myanmar is well known for its large poppy crops, beaten only by Afghanistan. Opium and heroin fuel a massive trade, but are also used by locals - victims of multi-ethnic conflicts, scarcity, a Chinese economic occupation and an authoritarian government with many remains from the military rule. Until now, politicians have made few successes in waking up the population with anti-drug campaigns and rehabilitation programs.
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Fight against opium linked to the peace process
People are worried things are not getting better: poppy production has slightly decreased thanks partially to development programmes in the region offering economic alternatives. Poppy is significantly related to family livelihood. However, drug activity and armed conflicts haven’t reduced. Everyone except for the main people in power seems to understand that the fight against opium should be strictly linked to the peace process.
Besides opium and heroin, the south-eastern part of the country – affected as well by armed conflicts - is adding now a new front: methamphetamines. While Myanmar lacks the technique and materials, Thailand, China and India have filled the gap as excellent chemical suppliers and allies in this regional trade. Activities in the region are on high alert to this huge international issue. The problem is spreading to most countries in South-East Asia, which are playing a role either as producers, as consumers, as facilitators or all of the above. But the drugs are finding their way outside the region too; Myanmar produced meth has been seized in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Mafias know very well how to open markets. For instance, Muslim people in Indonesia consider most drugs (including alcohol) shameful, but pills… pills are something else. They look like medicine and are easily hidden and consumed with maybe less visible side effects in the short run.
The power of drugs
Inside Myanmar’s controversial borders, there is very little knowledge and education on drugs while juicy alternatives and motivations to prevent people from succumb to them and choose other ways are rare. Of course, smugglers´ old tricks like giving first doses for free and attracting young people in schools and game shops work here too. Every village has its own new drug trends. For instance, in a particular area in the South, kids from 11 to 14 often prepare a beverage made of pills like WY (available from 2,000 kyats, around USD $1.50), caffeine, energy drinks, cough syrup, and local leaves. Likewise, people who do heavy physical labour, or work night shifts are regular users, including armed groups.
The spread of drug abuse results in a host of secondary problems: increasing road accidents, family problems, gender-based violence, prostitution, social stigma, physical and mental health issues and overflowing prisons as most of the convicts are there for small drug offences with disproportionate sentences.
Many see emaciated faces as the only problem. That’s why activists like the ones supported by People in Need (PIN) in the country promote awareness programmes, information, counselling and also youth groups engaging boys and girls in civil society. In Myanmar, PIN has a noteworthy programme in partnership with local civil society organisations fighting the spread of drug abuse. PIN provides grants and capacity building in all areas – raising funds, projects, communication, and advocacy. This way, activists have an important ally to support their work, as they consider drug production and consumption as a critical issue affecting the local population and have selected it among other challenges as the main one for their common advocacy. These social workers and volunteers have a tough task ahead as they warn about the risks and ease with which addiction can take over: “Drugs here are everywhere, everywhere! It is crazy,” says a worried activist working for PIN in Kayin state.
The country’s figures on drug production and consumption are alarming, especially after the meth boom in 2016. Little by little, combatting drugs is starting to be more on the national government’s agenda. The government has been announcing it will adopt some policy recommendations handed by civil society or organisations, who have experience on the ground. They advocate for less punitive action for addicts and small producers and more work on prevention, awareness, treatment, and a clear will to fight the big fish: drug lords.
Raising awareness is crucial
In spite of the institutional ineffectiveness, the country’s de facto capital Yangon hosts a pompous old sign revealing the official need to demonstrate that the issue is being tackled: The Drug Elimination Museum. Created in the 90’s during the military rule, it includes phantasmagorical big scenes recreating some of the junta´s most important operations against drugs. Behind the times. Creepy. Ironic. The place is famous among foreign tourists (rated by most visitors with an ´excellent´ in TripAdvisor with comments such as “it will provide a lifetime of laughs” or “we soon gave up and went for beers” ) while not really working to raise awareness among locals, most of whom have never visited it.
The museum focuses on explaining how drugs were introduced from other countries by someone else’s rule with a set with opium licenses given during the British annexation, and on punitive measures rather than on prevention and treatment. It’s an outdated view of the current situation. Beating back despair, activists keep working, but are worried for the future: “We have to create opportunities for the people as an alternative to drugs”, a youth activist in Mon state urges.
Asked if there are many deaths related to drug consumption, production or distribution, the same activists answer with a certain “no”. People don’t usually die directly because of drugs. But that doesn’t mean they don’t often put an end to their lives.
Drug Elimination Museum – Yangon, Myanmar
The World Fact Book
National Drug User Network Myanmar (NDNM)
TNI drugs and democracy
Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control – Myanmar Government
Testimonies from activists, civil society organizations, citizens and ex drug users