Myanmar and its remote borderlands have long been a global centre for illegal drug production. Due to its isolated location and rugged hills, Myanmar is renowned for its major role as an opium cultivating region. However, a rapid shift in the drug market has placed Myanmar as one of the world’s leading producers of methamphetamine. According to the latest UNODC data, a record amount of 171.5 tons of methamphetamine was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2021, seven times higher than it was ten years ago. Given that methamphetamine labs can essentially operate anywhere in the world, why has Myanmar become the global epicentre of meth production?
A Crackdown on Opium Production by the Ruling Military Government
During the 1960s and 70s, Myanmar was the largest producer of opium in the world. Most of Myanmar’s opium originates from Shan State, a rural area bordering China, Laos and Thailand in the Northeast of Myanmar. Shan State harbours a number of armed groups (both state-backed militias and rebel insurgents), many of which heavily rely on the opium trade to finance and maintain their operations.
Map of Myanmar's regions. Source: Wikipedia
For decades, Myanmar remained as the primary source for global opium; however, production declined in the 1990s significantly and Afghanistan took over as the world’s leading producer. This sharp decline in opium production was in part due to widespread aerial spraying and crop extermination campaigns by the country’s ruling military junta – the Tatmadaw. Although the military government had for many years turned a blind eye to the production and trafficking of opium and heroin in the borderlands, the late 90s brought external geopolitical pressure from both the U.S. and China, leading the Tatmadaw to launch a nationwide crackdown on poppy cultivation.
Area under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar, 1996 – 2020. Source: UNODC
Higher Profits and Simplified Supply Chains
As a result of the opium crackdown, many armed groups suddenly needed a new source of revenue. While some groups shifted to legal commodities such as rubber, most switched to the production of methamphetamines, while continuing to showcase their opium eradication efforts to the outside world. Whereas poppy fields were weather-dependent and extremely difficult to conceal, clandestine methamphetamine laboratories can essentially be set up anywhere, only requiring a handful of chemists and a regular supply of precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine to produce these synthetic drugs. Shan State’s geographical position also meant excellent construction and chemical materials could easily be acquired from neighbouring China.
Unfortunately, this market shift had a devastating effect on poppy farmers, who relied on the cultivation of opium as a cash crop. The Transnational Institute, a research and advocacy institute with unique expertise on drug policy in Myanmar told TalkingDrugs:
“With the rise of methamphetamine in Southeast Asia, the poppy farmers in Myanmar were facing a decline in farm gate opium prices. Some traders stopped coming to the villages to buy opium and farmers even had to bring the opium to the traders to sell it [themselves], and run the risk of being arrested. We have even heard of cases where the opium traders were forcing the farmers to accept part of the payment in methamphetamine tablets.”
The regional methamphetamine trade is estimated by UNODC to be worth as much as $61 billion USD per year; compared to heroin, methamphetamine is more potent with much higher profit margins. As a result, Myanmar’s methamphetamine trade has become highly attractive to organized crime groups, who reportedly traffic the purer and stronger variant of meth – ice – to high-value markets such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Greater Regional Demand for Amphetamine-Type Stimulants
The methamphetamine market in Southeast Asia has risen at an exponential rate in the past decade. The number of people in Asia estimated to have used methamphetamines more than doubled between 2011 and 2016. However, the form of methamphetamine consumption is very different across regions. There is a distinction between crystal meth (also known as ice or shabu) and low-purity methamphetamine tablets, known as yaba. Crystal meth is a high-purity crystalline form of methamphetamine, resembling shards of glass or ice. It is mainly produced for export to high-value markets, and is much more profitable than yaba. Yaba is a low-purity amphetamine tablet, usually combined with caffeine and produced for local and regional consumption by smaller domestic groups in Myanmar.
Unlike Europe and America where amphetamines are used recreationally, in Asia, amphetamine tablets are used as a means of working harder and longer in the fiercely competitive Asian ‘tiger economies’. A 1997 newspaper article featured in a Transnational Institute report wrote that "Typically, it is taxi drivers, long-distance truckers and factory workers, all paid by the hour, who are dependent on yaba. The more they swallow, the more they earn”. Interestingly, yaba was originally known as yama which translates to ‘horse medicine’ in Thai, but authorities later renamed it yaba (‘crazy medicine’) as part of a scare campaign and to discredit the notion that they helped people to ‘work like a horse’.
The State’s Blind Eye
Under pressure from the world community, the authorities in Myanmar often celebrate their tough law enforcement to the international community, for example by burning piles of seized drugs and mass arresting low-level dealers. However, drug producing groups are largely left alone to churn out drugs with minimal state interference. The existence of these drug producing safe havens are one of the key factors that make Myanmar such a hotspot for methamphetamine production.
While it is inaccurate to say that the Tatmadaw as an institution are directly involved in the methamphetamine trade, they certainly have strong interests in turning a blind eye to it. By tacitly approving state-allied militias’ engagement in the methamphetamine trade, the lucrative drug trade becomes an ideal means to finance these armed groups. In turn, this creates an economically self-sufficient counter-revolutionary force for Myanmar’s military government. Similarly, allowing other more powerful rebel groups to continue trafficking drugs keeps a relative peace within the country. Any attempt by the Tatmadaw to curb the drug trade would seriously risk escalating tensions among the various armed groups, potentially leading to a bloody civil war.
From One Drug to Another
Although official policies and enforcement may have played a part in the initial reduction of poppy cultivation, it appears that the key driving force behind the recent boom in methamphetamine production is simply that plant-based drugs have become less profitable than synthetic drugs. The opium crackdown by the Tatmadaw is a prime example of drug displacement – a campaign against one drug (opium) which leads to the emergence of an equally or more dangerous one in its place (methamphetamine). This serves as a reminder that as long as the global demand for drugs continues to exist, be it to work harder or have fun, drug production will continue to find ways to respond to that demand. Those producing drugs will always find new drugs or more creative solutions to evade law enforcement, working with or circumventing whatever form of drug prohibition is imposed upon them.