Looking East by feeding Myanmar with ephedrine: Connecting Drugs and Peoples
- Part 1 -

Puyam Nongdrei *

Biggest drug haul at Pallel, Manipur (Indian  Army colonel among six held) :: 24 February 2013
Biggest drug haul at Pallel, Manipur (Indian Army colonel among six held) :: 24 February 2013
Pix - Gyanand Naorem

In Manipur, every neighbourhood, locality and village has seen youths dying prematurely as victims of drugs. Many families have lost peace of mind worrying about the growing teens as more and more youths join the death race of drugs. Socio-economic impact of drugs is something which has also hit Manipur so hard in the last many decades. Geographically Manipur is close to the Golden Triangle region and stories of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS are not new. This problem demands cooperation and coordination with many countries and international organisations working on eradication of drugs and related problems.

The fight against drugs menace should have a long-term strategy with means for controlling drugs production, checking drugs smuggling, improving the socio-economic conditions of the people, enhancing general awareness of the harmful effects of drugs, rehabilitation works, control of drugs-related diseases, cooperation and coordination among countries at sub-regional, regional and international levels etc. Manipur has to join the networking of such local organisations, international organisations and law enforcement agencies to control and check the smuggling of drugs.

In a state like Manipur inhabited by many small ethnic groups, high rate of drugs abuse among the youths is a threatening sign with socio-economic and political implications in the long-run. Many parents have lost their children and thousands of youths are loitering aimlessly. Many of them are indulging in crimes to get money. In addition to increasing rate of crimes, conflict situation and counter-insurgency measures have also caused serious damage to our society as many youths who are unemployed get swayed easily in front of some quick money.

The whole society is experiencing moral degradation and the number of people infected with sexually-transmitted diseases is on the rise that will affect the overall health of our state as youths are sacrificed on the altar of drugs and diseases. To fight a successful war against drugs we need to understand the working of drug syndicates and politics of drug economy in Myanmar and other countries. There are many analysts showing how the Myanmar regime worked to earn money by indulging in drug trade and make use of it to fight a successful war against ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy and independence.

Besides there are involvement of powerful figures in Myanmar who have established themselves as big industrialists with drug money. Corruption is rampant in this underdeveloped country with the military men indulging in many illegal activities to earn extra income. Poorly paid soldiers are working in collusion with armed groups and gangs in running drug factories and poppy cultivation along the China-Myanmar and Thai-Myanmar border areas.

Human weaknesses in front of huge piles of drug money and strategies used by policy makers for nation-building and state-building cannot be easily exposed. In fact, highly militarised conflict areas are having thriving drug business. There may be some well-known factors and some well-concealed factors. The states can target the armed groups to delegitimise their struggles by connecting the drug trade with financing of the armed movements. But it does not put the state agencies away from indulgence in similar trade to achieve vested goals which are hardly talked about in public forums.

Look East Policy and Connectivity

Look East policy of India, Myanmar's reform, Look West policy of Thailand and Yunnan's Bridgehead Strategy are heading towards greater connectivity in the region. Reflecting this, Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has proposed to link Northeast India to Myanmar in the budget of 2013-14. Multilateral banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are going to make huge investments in the future.

The sub-regional and regional cooperation such as ASEAN, SAARC, Greater Mekong Sub-region Cooperation (GMS), and BCIM sub-regional cooperation are working day and night to build connectivity across the region. This is something we cannot stop as forces of globalisation and powerful countries and regional organisations such as ASEAN and SAARC join hands to do business. However, the fate of small ethnic groups in the region depends on doing the needful to take part in the process of globalisation with confidence so that they can be full participants and beneficiaries.

ASEAN-India Car Rally and BCIM Car Rally are showing the routes of connectivity. This march towards greater connectivity will bring countries, peoples, ideas, services, goods and finance closer. But drugs are also taking part in this process of globalisation. This creates a security problem which revolves around human health and well-being of the society.

This is what New Delhi's policy makers have to incorporate in their thinking of security strategy. China has already incorporated 'peoples first' into its security strategy and this is well-reflected in its diplomatic and political relations with the neighbouring countries and the sub- and regional organisations. Without improvement in anti-drugs control measures and mechanisms, human security will face crisis situation as better connectivity and established networks of peoples across the region will bring huge quantities of drugs.

Smugglers taking advantage of porous borders earlier have started using modern means of transportation such as waterways, railways and airways to smuggle drugs. When military units across the border join hands to exchange drug gifts by using security protection, war against drugs has to change its tactics and strategies. The vast number of agents working for running the multi-billion business is a threat we cannot fight alone.

It is transnational threat which requires transnational networking. Local bodies like AMADA, CADA and local Meira Paibis shouting against drugs need to do some technological advancement using information and communication technology (ICT). We must think of regular exchange of ideas and information sharing on anti-drugs fighting with counterparts in Myanmar and elsewhere. Indo-Myanmar Friendship Alliance can play a constructive role.

We have elements that were earlier identified as misguided youths but have joined hands with forces running drug trade. Such elements having local networks and craving for quick bucks and are already familiar with the terrain can do great service to the drug barons. It is not an easy game to defeat such forces. State Home Minister's statement on the recent cases involving high-profile elements running the smuggling rackets is pregnant with meanings. One can also read the inability of the state government to expose the forces with well-entrenched networks connecting New Delhi with drug cartels in Myanmar.

We also need transnational networks of peoples to fight against drugs and expose the elements abusing power to facilitate such transportation through military check points. Look East policy is going to connect countries, militaries, peoples, and drugs. Do we have mechanisms to control such well-entrenched channels of drug syndicates? Transnational connectivity projects could also mean greater drug networks which are difficult to control and expose. We also need more trained personnel with advanced equipments to detect such shipments who are responsible and dutiful. Corruption is always a roadblock and will remain so.

Myanmar's Failed Anti-Drugs Campaign

Opening of Indo-Myanmar border has to note the failed war against drugs in Myanmar in the last many decades despite strong pressure from China, ASEAN, the US, and UNODC. Supply of ephedrine from India has to be understood in the backdrop of new trends in drugs production since 1990s. The popularity of synthetic drugs in the international markets is fast increasing when many countries are having a hard time to control cultivation of poppy and its products.

China, Thailand and other countries are very much affected by the failure of Myanmar's drugs eradication programme. China has been providing anti-drug training sessions for law enforcement officers hailing from Myanmar and other Southeast Asian neighbours and has spent millions on drug control measures in these countries. Under the pressure of China, ASEAN, international agencies and other countries, Myanmar had strengthened its own fight against drug menace by declaring 2014 as deadline for drugs eradication. But this is already a failed mission.

China has extended support to Myanmar and other poppy cultivating countries to undertake alternative crop cultivation programme strengthening its fight against narcotic drugs. After a short period since the New Republic was established in October 1949, China has been waging a tough war on drugs and related health problems. We can broadly categorise the fight against drugs into two namely opium poppy and synthetic drugs.

China had invested millions of US dollars on crop substitution programs in Myanmar over the past decades and offered 100,000 tons of food to people who have stopped poppy cultivation. Both sides have enhanced cooperation on intelligence exchange, fighting drug traffickers, drugs eradication, personnel training and helping Myanmar with crop substitution programs.

Many Chinese companies are involved in efforts to make alternative crop plantation which include plantation of sugar cane, cassava, corn, tea, tropical fruits, rubber, coffee, banana and economic forest. However, political situation in northern Myanmar poses a great challenge to such programmes and the new crops cannot meet the economic security of the people living along the border areas forcing them to restart poppy cultivation. In most of the cases, corruption prevents the villagers from reaping benefits and poppy cultivation remains the best and the most lucrative option.

In addition to financial and other assistances from many other countries, the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) Global Synthetic Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme donated field drug testing kits to the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC). UNODC launched the Global SMART Programme in September 2008 and it is operating in Myanmar since 2009. In addition, UNDOC produces precursor testing kits to help identify such chemicals used to manufacture drugs. India-Myanmar border areas need to have anti-drugs squads with such equipments.

According to the UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), poppy cultivation in Myanmar was reduced by 79 percent to 21,500 hectares and opium production by 71 percent to 315 tons in 2006 from 105,000 hectares and 1,097 tons in 2001 respectively. Myanmar has seen major decrease in poppy cultivation over the years from 130,300 hectares in 1998 to 21,500 hectares in 2006, an 83 percent reduction over the period 1998-2006. Myanmar has been implementing a 15-year plan (1999-2014) to totally eradicate poppy in three phases.

However, in 2007, there was increase in poppy cultivation by 29 percent to 27,700 hectares and production by 46 percent to 460 tons. The UNODC document on "Opium Poppy Cultivation in South East Asia", December 2009 reported 11 percent increase in Myanmar's opium cultivation from 28,500 hectares in 2008 to 31,700 ha in 2009. More than a million people are involved in poppy plantation in Shan state which is the largest poppy growing area in the entire Golden Triangle region.

According to the China Drug Control Report of 2011, over half of China's narcotics imports were from the Golden Triangle area. Another report of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security says that the poppy growing area in northern Myanmar has increased to 44,867 hectares in 2012, up 41 percent year on year. The Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhaung Autonomous Region are worst hit by drugs and Yunnan has the highest rate of HIV infection in China caused by intravenous injection and prostitution.

Here, a report entitled "Shan Drug Watch 2011" published by the Shan Herald Agency for News have many interesting things to tell about the drugs scenario and political conditions prevailing in the northern Myanmar especially in Shan state. It argues that large scale presence of the Myanmar Army units in the state having the largest poppy plantation and production centres of synthetic drugs in the Golden Triangle region has not led to reduction in drugs output.

To be continued ...

* Puyam Nongdrei wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at nongdreijing(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on March 03, 2013

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