Myanmar’s Narcotics Scourge

May 30th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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Undeniably a driver of insecurity and conflict, the recent news of seizures of large amounts of narcotics in Shan State reveal not only the extent of the industry, but the impunity that has enabled its development. However, it must not be forgotten that amid the plaudits that the Myanmar[1] authorities are seeking for being behind this drug bust, it is an industry that the Myanmar military is heavily involved in, and is becoming bigger and bigger.

On 18 May, 2020, the UN announced that between February and April, 2020, nearly 200 million meth tablets, 500kg of crystal meth, 300kg of heroin, and 3,750 litres of methyl fentanyl were seized in the Kutkai area of Shan State, with 33 people being arrested. The UN Office for Drugs and Crimes representative stated, “What has been unearthed through this operation is truly off the charts.” It is one of the largest, if not the largest, seizures of synthetic drugs in Asia ever. The production of synthetic drugs in Myanmar has seen huge increases in the past few years. Furthermore, the massive amounts of fentanyl point to a new trend in synthetic opioid production, one that would feed into the addiction and crises impacting the US in particular.

For decades Myanmar has been one of the largest opium producers in the world, second only to Afghanistan, but with the market for synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine booming, it is no longer fields of poppy that provide the majority of illicit revenues. Rather, it is labs and factories, churning out millions of pills to be sold in Asia and beyond, using the precursor chemicals brought in from China and India. The industry is complex, with many actors including the Myanmar military, the police, militia groups, drug mules, transnational crime organizations and everyone in between having a role in the production of narcotics. While it may line the pockets of a select few corrupt elites, the military and the people’s militia forces, the impact on the day-to-day life of people is devastating, especially in rural, ethnic minority areas of Myanmar. The industry fuels conflict, addiction rates, extortion, corruption, underdevelopment, and massive inequality.

The Myanmar military is legitimised by its joint statement and work with the UNODC, and is able to present itself as a benevolent actor, earnestly working to end production of such drugs. It is a story that most of the international media have bought into, given the lack of space that the military’s involvement was given in most newspaper reports, both local and international. However, it is deeply involved. It is people’s militia forces, most of which were formed by and are under the control of the Myanmar military, who are the most active players on the ground in the production and distribution of drugs. While powerful individuals in the Myanmar military benefit financially, the military institution has another ally in its persecution of local, ethnic populations as it actively uses these groups in its fight against ethnic armed organizations who are fighting for self-determination and political autonomy.

An indication of how deeply entwined the government and the military are in the drugs trade is the presence of warlords in parliament. For example, during the military-backed USDP government of President Thein Sein’s time between 2011 and 2016, Kyaw Myint, head of the Pansay militia that is heavily involved in opium production served as an MP. When the NLD came to power in 2016, they appointed T Khun Myat, another USDP MP and head of a Kutkai militia group and a known druglord, as the deputy lower house speaker. Kutkai is the area where these recent huge seizures have occurred.

The situation in Myanmar’s ethnic areas in regard to the drugs trade is, franky, horrific. The lived reality of people forced to grow opium poppy, where the majority of men in villages are addicts, where networks of drug-producing factories spread across the state, and where local militia groups, backed by the Myanmar military, extort and inflict violence on those who dare to resist this situation is one that has inflicted deep-rooted scars on communities, especially in Shan State. It’s lack of visibility, the dangers of reporting, and the fact that these areas are far from the centres of political, economic, and diplomatic power mean that the people living in these communities are almost forgotten. When such seizures as the ones in Kutkai do make the news, the structural and embedded power relations that the Myanmar military is at the centre of and the Government tacitly agrees to are ignored.

The state is not the answer to the drug industry in Myanmar. It is the problem. Furthermore, it is an industry whose fate is dependent on a successful peace process. Yet with massive amounts of revenue being generated by druglords and corrupt Myanmar military commanders, it is no surprise that policies and measures aimed at reshaping the structures of power are not forthcoming. Yet just like the internationally-backed peace process, unless there is a realization that the most powerful actor in the process – the Myanmar military – makes substantive steps towards addressing ethnic people’s concerns for self-determination, ethnic equality, and an end to war atrocities and human rights violations, the drugs trade will only increase. The only way that this issue can be addressed is through a comprehensive peace process in which all players, and especially the Myanmar military, act in good faith to address legitimate grievances of ethnic people. This includes tackling the escalating drugs trade which, as ever, ethnic communities are the ones that suffer the devastating consequences.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”