Another drug war in Myanmar

There have been reports of a huge upsurge in the flow of drugs from Northern Myanmar into China and Thailand. The forthcoming elections in Myanmar has led to an increase in tensions between armed ethnic insurgents and the Military Government. The people living in many of the areas affected by insurgency have been excluded from voting in the elections. Literally millions of people are being denied the opportunity to vote in the first elections held in the country since 1990. There have been reports that a flood of drugs are a result of the armed groups seeking funding to prepare for an armed conflict with the Government. Saw David Taw of the Ethnic Nationalities Council, a coalition of Myanmar ethnic groups, said that there was "a rumour going around that people are preparing for war."

The armed ethnic insurgents have long been involved in the drugs trade in what formed part of the infamous golden triangle. The production of heroin and its onward trafficking have formed the mainstay of the economic support for the numerous armed groups, fighting the Myanmar Government since independence in 1948. This has now been augmented by the production of meth-amphetamine supplying the huge markets for the drug in Asia.

The ceasefire between some of these groups and the Government in the late 1980s and early 1990s has lead to the greater involvement of the Myanmar Army in drug trafficking. There have been disagreements between the US and the UNODC about whether the military has done anything concrete to combat drug production and trafficking. President Clinton criticised the role that illicit drugs played in the economy. The Thai Government has gone further and directly accused the Myanmar Government of being directly involved in the drug production and trade. The Government of Myanmar, like that of North Korea, has experienced difficulties gaining access to foreign exchange. Involvement in drug production and trafficking would be an obvious place for an unscrupulous government to start looking for money. The North Korean Government is certainly involved in the production of both heroin and meth-amphetamine. The foreign exchange is critical to its funding of its weapon development program. 

The Government of Myanmar has shown itself willing to come to an accommodation with drug traffickers in the past. In 1996, the notorious heroin trafficker Khun Sa, negotiated to ‘retire’ and become a legitimate economic actor in Myanmar. In 1999, Banphot Piamdi, director of Thailand's Northern Region's Narcotics Suppression Center stated "The Burmese government says one thing but does another." "It claims to have subdued Khun Sa's group... However, the fact is that the group under the supervision of...Khun Sa's son has received permission from Rangoon to produce narcotics in the areas along the Thai-Burmese border... Khun Sa's son is not the only trafficker reaping benefits in the Shan State area which borders Thailand and China and serves as Burma's primary poppy growing area.”

The Myanmar Government's apparent policy of drawing the traffickers and armed groups into the nexus that holds power, would give them control in a drug trade that they have done little to prevent and are likely to be heavily involved in. The conflict that is currently being threatened will undoubtedly be fuelled by the drug trade and is highly likely to consist of a battle to control it.