Looking East by feeding Myanmar with ephedrine: Connecting Drugs and Peoples
- Part 2 -

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

Thus highly militarised place in Myanmar like Shan state is notorious as the largest producer of drugs in the world -both opium and synthetic drugs. Why so? Is the Myanmar military doing something? The report also mentions drug lords in Myanmar Parliament and regional assemblies belonging to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). What about leaders from other political parties? Who are responsible for arming the United Wa State Army, a militant group operating in Myanmar, with huge number of man-portable shoulder-fired missiles?

In a similar remark, Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre states: "We're talking about thousands of tonnes of drugs being produced just across this (Thai-Myanmar) border. In Myanmar, there are so many military checkpoints and roadblocks. You can't move that amount of drugs through a country that is as militarised as Myanmar without the government's army knowing about it."

He made a similar report on this in a 1999 working paper entitled "Myanmar and Drugs: The Regime's Complicity in the Global Drug Trade". According to him, it seems the military units based in these areas provide security through checkpoints, transportation and cross-border passes and extract taxes from the farmers. Was Colonel Ajay Chowdhury doing the same with Army stickers to pass through check points? Interestingly, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report of 2010 entitled "Myanmar and Transnational Crime" states that Myanmar's illicit narcotics drug trade reportedly generates between $1 billion and $2 billion annually in exports." Many cease-fire groups engage in drugs trade and military gets its share of the pie. Prof. Ball explains that a major factor in the growth of opium cultivation and heroin production has been the cease fire agreements and business deals that the regime struck with most of the armed ethnic armies in northeast Myanmar.

His findings contradict the report from the UNODC "Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011" which credits the Myanmar government's ceasefire agreements since 1996 that led to reduction in opium cultivation. The UNODC report states: "this paved the way for greater control by the government of opium poppy growing regions and allowed the implementation of measures to reduce opium poppy cultivation."

The CRS report concurs with Desmond Ball's position. "Recent ceasefire agreements in other border regions have not markedly improved the situation; instead, these ceasefires have provided groups known for their activity in transnational crime with near autonomy, essentially placing these areas beyond the reach of Burmese law."

China has been giving pressure to both the Myanmar authorities and ethnic armed groups such as Kachin, Kokang, Shan and Wa groups to crack down on drugs and poppy cultivation. To facilitate this, China is supplying satellite images of poppy growing areas to step up drugs eradication in Myanmar. The two sides have cooperated on drugs, illegal casinos, prostitution and human trafficking. But the two countries continue to cooperate on drugs control without much success.

When the opium and heroin continue to pose threat, another new threat rising is from synthetic drugs produced in northern Myanmar. The UNODC report 'Myanmar situation assessment on amphetamine-type stimulants' (2010) states that the East and South-East Asia region constituting about 28 % of the world's population is home to between 50-80 % of the estimated total number of amphetamine-type stimulants users in the whole of Asia.

Shan state in Myanmar which accounts for estimated 92 % of Myanmar's poppy production is also the largest producing region of synthetic drugs and the neighbouring countries like China, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao PDR have seen increasing trend in synthetic drugs abuse. The report further adds that precursors such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are mainly trafficked into Myanmar predominantly from India and to a lesser degree from China.

The history of synthetic drugs in Myanmar dates back to mid-1990s. Until 1996, the drug seizures reported from Myanmar were mostly heroin and opium. The first seizure of 3.5 kg of ephedrine at border town of Tachileik in March 1995 opened the lid of synthetic drugs manufacturing in Myanmar. With the first-ever seizure of 5.9 million methamphetamine pills in Tachileik in 1996, the trend of seizing the synthetic drugs has seen major increase.

The report by Shan Herald also states that precursor chemicals are imported from China's Ruili, Wanding, Nansan and Mengding opposite Shan state of Myanmar; India's Moreh through Tamu; and from Thailand's Maehongson, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Therefore, Myanmar drug factories use pseudoephedrine from India and these chemicals are smuggled into Myanmar through Border States like Manipur and Mizoram. India's Look East Policy should take measures to address the issues of drugs trafficking and make North eastern states well-prepared to face the challenges of such opening up policy. Hiding this truth from public and unwillingness to engage with Myanmar by giving priority on such issues will widen the divide between New Delhi and the people of Manipur.

Feeding Myanmar with Ephedrine

As Myanmar drug laboratories require the precursor chemicals, Indian pharmaceutical plants are producing sufficient amount to feed Myanmar with pseudoephedrine tablets which are smuggled into Myanmar through Manipur and Mizoram section of the India-Myanmar border. Manipur is also one of the most militarised parts of the world like Shan state of Myanmar. However, ephedrine flow into Myanmar through Manipur is not interrupted by the large scale deployment of both state and central security forces. Is corruption in the system helping? Are there some covert operations going on in Indo-Myanmar region?

There are many reports of huge consignments of pseudoephedrine substances seized by police from the custody of elements who are/were connected to security forces and militant groups in Delhi. There is always a fertile ground of developing such networks across the Indo-Myanmar border. But this has been further facilitated by the porous border, conflict situation, small arms proliferation, transnational ethnic boundaries and ties between security forces of the two countries. We cannot rule out former cadres of armed groups turning to drug trade after establishing networks across the border and joining hands with other parallel networks.

The business of smuggling these chemicals has well-established networks across the world. What is legal here can become illegal the next door. For example, the New York Times dated May 14, 2012 reported that corrupt officials in Thai hospitals are selling millions of cold tablets made from pseudoephedrine to Myanmar-based drug gangs to produce methamphetamine. We cannot rule out legal channels supplying such drugs ending up in the hands of illegal smugglers through certified agents in Manipur.

India is a known source of these chemicals feeding Myanmar drugs laboratories for a long time. This trend will expand as connectivity between India and Myanmar increases under the Look East Policy. The arrest of many traffickers along with huge consignments of pseudoephedrine drugs in Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati and Manipur clearly shows that there are some established channels of drugs trafficking across the India-Myanmar border.

It is the right time for Government of India to control the trafficking on such chemicals. As these chemicals are used for the production of drugs killing and destroying lives of millions in the world, negligence on the part of government to check this is nothing but a crime against humanity. In addition to this, Government of India should take up this problem whenever there is meeting between Indian and Myanmar officials.

As north-eastern states except Assam do not have such pharmaceutical industries, production of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and its distribution can be controlled if law enforcement agencies do not join the smugglers in mainland Indian states. India with one billion plus population and highest number of security forces in the world with relatively advanced technology must not find excuses of inability to control precursor chemicals.

Of all the seizures made recently in Manipur, the one at Pallel police check post is very significant. Other earlier and recent cases involving close relatives and children of MLAs and Ministers also have many untold stories. The high profile nature of the trans-shipment of the drugs is proved by the air transportation and the Army stickers and Defence Ministry labels led by Colonel Ajay Chowdhury. Involvement of some militant members and ex- or security force personnel in drug trafficking is not strange. There are reports of many such seizures in Delhi and elsewhere. But what connects all these seizures is the common destination, a journey to Myanmar.

The State Home Minister has categorically stated that the cases of drugs smuggling into Manipur which involved huge amount of money could not be the handiwork of a handful of people in the state. He pointed that there is high possibility of outside hands and forces who are running a very 'systematically organized crime'. His statement that the state home department alone would not be able to solve the problem has its loaded meaning.

While many countries continue their fight against poppy cultivation and opium drugs trafficking in cooperation with neighbouring countries and international agencies, the new challenges pose by synthetic drugs have worsened the situation. Fight against synthetic drugs is impossible without curbing the smuggling of precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine.

Myanmar does not have a robust chemical industry and does not produce much precursor chemicals required for the manufacture of methamphetamine and other related synthetic drugs. The precursor chemicals necessary to manufacture the illicit drugs are mainly trafficked into Myanmar from neighbouring countries such as China, Thailand and India.

Large seizures of raw ephedrine powder were reported in Myanmar since 1997. Now we see a global trend of sourcing precursors from pharmaceutical tablets rather than earlier raw power form following global crackdown on such chemicals. The UNODC report of 2010 on ATS situation assessment in Myanmar states: 'trafficking of pseudoephedrine-based pharmaceuticals from India into Myanmar, through organised crime networks is now a well-established trend, as evidenced by the continuous seizure of these pharmaceuticals in the border areas between the two countries.'

In the past, heroin and opium products used to be major drugs in Myanmar, China and Thailand. However, the trend is fast changing as use of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ketamine is increasing dramatically in China, Thailand and other parts of the world posing great challenge to drugs control measures. The same trend in visible in North East Indian states bordering Myanmar.

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 07, 2013

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