CHIANGRAI TIMES -Drug manufacturing is thriving in the area known as the Golden Triangle, led by armed minority ethnic groups. The news coming out of Myanmar these days is of hope and reconciliation as the country moves from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy. But what is One of Myanmar’s biggest businesses—heroin and methamphetamine manufacturing —is thriving in the area along the Thai border known as the Golden Triangle, led by members of well-armed minority ethnic groups.
“They are pushing out a vast amount of pills,” said Maj. Gen. Somsak Nilbanjerdkul, director of a command centre set up by the Thai government to coordinate anti-drug efforts. “Democracy is flourishing in Burma, but illegal activities are moving to areas where there is a lack of law and order.”
The drug increase underlines the depth of the challenges facing Myanmar, also known as Burma, as President Thein Sein pushes ahead with his reform agenda. Impoverished areas where the central government has little control remain the largest base of drug production in South-East Asia. If he cracks down on drug syndicates, Thein Sein, who was previously a military commander in the Golden Triangle region, risks alienating the very ethnic groups he is trying to woo for his programme of national reconciliation.
In the dark underworld of illicit drugs, no one can say for sure what is causing the current upswing in trafficking, but Thai officials describe it as a kind of perverse peace dividend. Thein Sein, who has been in power for 13 months, has pushed hard, and in many cases succeeded, in signing cease-fire agreements with rebel groups.
“They don’t need to fight anymore,” Thanut Choommanoo, the head of a Thai police investigative unit, said about the ethnic groups, “so they’ve deployed their soldiers into drug production”. Gen. Somsak offers another explanation for the increase.
He says there is a continued mistrust between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups and a feeling among traffickers that they better make money from illegal activities while they can.
“They are unsure about reconciliation means for them,” Gen. Somsak said. “They need to sell their illegal stuff—as much as possible.” Anti-narcotics officials on the Thai side of the border used to be able to impress their bosses when they announced seizures of tens of thousands of methamphetamine pills. That has become routine.
“Now we only get excited when we find hundreds of thousands—or millions,” said Thanut, who is based in Mae Sai, a city that is a main crossing point for traffickers from Myanmar.
The Thai authorities seized 31.3 million methamphetamine pills from October through March—an increase of 45% over the same period a year earlier, when 21.6 million pills were seized, according to a recently published Thai government report. Part of this increase is from more aggressive policing, Thanut said. But it is “undeniable”, he says, that more drugs are crossing the border.
Traffickers are using a variety of methods to get their drugs through. Often armed with grenades, they travel down small paths that cut through jungle-covered mountains. Some hide drugs in trucks carrying produce. Last year, the police found two million methamphetamine pills hidden under a pile of pumpkins. Smaller drug deliveries are simply tossed across the border. The Sai River, which separates the two countries, is so narrow that traffickers throw bags of pills to the Thai side, where accomplices pick up the drugs.
Over the past three years, corrupt officials in Thai hospitals have been complicit in the drug business, selling to Myanmar-based gangs millions of cold tablets made from pseudoephedrine, which is used in the production of methamphetamines, according to the authorities leading an ongoing investigation in Thailand. The cold pills were sent into Myanmar, processed into methamphetamines and then smuggled back across the border into Thailand, investigators say.
An estimated 48 million cold pills have been seized or gone missing from public hospitals since 2008, according to Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board.
For decades, opium and its derivative, heroin, were the main specialities of drug gangs in the Golden Triangle, which is defined by the area where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet.
Drug syndicates began focusing more on methamphetamines in the 1990s, when Afghanistan ramped up opium production. But over the past five years, opium farming, which is the main source of income for many villages in northern Myanmar, has rebounded, according to an annual survey released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Last year, as the reforms of Thein Sein were taking hold, opium poppy cultivation increased 14% in Myanmar, the fifth consecutive annual increase, according to the survey, which is conducted using satellite imagery and helicopter surveillance.
Much of northern Myanmar is mountainous and ill-served by roads, making it relatively easy to conceal illicit activity. But the large area dedicated to growing opium poppies—43,600 hectares according to the United Nations—suggests that the local authorities are at best turning a blind eye to drug production.
Gen. Somsak said Myanmar officials along the border are “absolutely” implicated in the drug trade. Myanmar officials often drive cars that cost the equivalent of $100,000, he said.
“Their salaries are actually lower than our sergeants’,” Gen. Somsak said. “Where do they get the money from?”
The relationship between the Myanmar government and drug trafficking is complex and intertwined in the delicate politics between the ethnic Bamar majority in Myanmar and the myriad other ethnic groups, who have fought the Myanmar military on and off for the past five decades.
Government-allied militias in the north, officially called People’s Militia Forces, are big players in the drug business. The government has supported these groups for years as a way to counterbalance the power of the largest ethnic minority groups, including the Wa, Kachin and Shan, all of which have large private armies.
Wichai Chaimongkhon, the director of the northern office of Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board, a civilian agency that oversees the anti-drug efforts along the border with Myanmar, says drug trafficking will be curtailed only if more parts of the country come under government control.
“Most of the drug production factories are in special zones,” he said, referring to areas controlled by ethnic groups. “It’s beyond the ability of its government to enforce the law there.” Wichai says there is an internal debate within ethnic groups between those who want to continue drug trafficking and those who “want to run legal businesses”.
Thailand, which is economically better developed than Myanmar, serves as both a major market for drugs from Myanmar—the government estimates Thailand has 1.2 million methamphetamine addicts—and a transit point to other countries.
Traffickers are taking advantage of Thailand’s good roads and telecommunications, using Mae Sai as a hub for drug money transactions, said Thanut, the head of the police investigative unit. Businessmen in the Myanmar border city of Tachilek cross to the Thai side to use the banking system and use Thai mobile phones to conduct their business. In a region bustling with cross-border trade, it is often difficult to distinguish legitimate businessmen from the traffickers, Thanut said.
In response to the increase in trafficking, Thailand has put in place coils of razor wire along some parts of the border, a move that seems hardly effective given the countless dirt tracks that traverse the mountainous, jungle-clad frontier.
Myanmar has vowed to make the country drug-free by 2014, a promise that is not taken literally by foreign diplomats in the country because of the enormity of the task and the deeply entrenched criminal gangs producing the drugs.
Jason Eligh, the head of Myanmar operations for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says the Myanmar authorities have destroyed about one-third of the poppy crops this year but that the country needs longer-term solutions to eradicate illicit drugs.
During a recent visit to a poppy-growing region where the United Nations is sponsoring a programme to encourage alternative crops, Eligh offered a long list of changes needed to tackle drug production: reform the police force; build “an environment governed by rule of law”; ensure long-term peace with ethnic groups; and give the impoverished residents of northern Myanmar opportunities to make a good living beyond drug production and trafficking.
Gen. Somsak said many members of ethnic minority groups have known nothing but trafficking their entire lives. He emphasized the need to steer the younger generation toward other businesses.
“We need to create an atmosphere where they can make money other ways,” he said.