Standing sentinel over one of Myanmar’s main border crossings to China, in the town of Mongla, is a lurid pink building, the Drug Eradication Museum. The sleazy frontier post, Chinese in all but name, is at the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the three South-East Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos adjoin their giant northern neighbour. It is an area that has long been synonymous with one thing: drugs.
At the museum the authorities have chosen to portray how the cultivation of opium poppies and the production of heroin and other drugs shrivelled in the face of a determined eradication programme. Dog-eared black-and-white photos record all the diplomats and foreign journalists coming to witness the triumphant destruction of thousands of hectares of poppy fields. Here and there among the exhibits Myanmar’s then military dictator, Than Shwe, descends by helicopter to survey the good work. But the chronicle of relentless success ends in 2006. Beyond the museum walls since then, and particularly recently, it has been a different story.
According to the latest report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug cultivation, production and use is now rising at the steepest rate in years. In 2013 poppy cultivation in Myanmar rose by 13% on the previous year, to 57,800 hectares (143,000 acres). This is well over double the total acreage in 2006, the year with the lowest level of cultivation. The combination of more cultivation and higher yields has resulted in a rise of over a quarter in opium production in Myanmar just since 2012, to some 870 tonnes, “the highest since assessments by UNODC and the government began”. This quantity is worth about $500m—quite a lot in such a poor country.
Cultivation has also increased, albeit more modestly and from a much lower base, across the border in Laos. Overall, whereas in 2005 the two countries produced 326 tonnes of opium, or 7% of that year’s world total, last year they produced 893 tonnes, or 18% of the total. Afghanistan continues to produce the lion’s share. But having been overtaken by the Afghans as long ago as 1991, the Burmese are making inroads again.
Other trends are also worrying. Despite decades of official attempts involving America, China and various UN agencies to lure the hill farmers of Shan state away from cultivating poppies, the region accounts for more than nine-tenths of Myanmar’s poppy harvest. An estimated 200,000 households have resisted the temptation to switch to rubber, maize or other crops.
Furthermore, Shan state is also home to the largest number of “meth labs” in the region, makeshift and virtually undetectable premises that churn out methamphetamines; the most popular kind goes by its Thai name, yaba. It was first given to horses in Myanmar being used for strenuous work. But now the young in the Golden Triangle and beyond have taken to it with gusto. As the head of UNODC in Myanmar, Jason Eligh, points out, yaba is so abundant because its ingredient chemicals are readily to hand (they are also used when refining heroin from opium), and the pills can readily be produced in an “infinite volume”. Shan state alone produces over 1 billion yaba pills a year.
How to account for the increases in drug production? Many households in Shan state are so poor that, given the chance, growing poppies remains the best financial option, whatever the risks. UNODC estimates that poppies provide typically half of a household’s annual income, or $920. Hundreds of Shan militia fighters protect the villages and the poppy fields from government interference. But some of Myanmar’s army officers and officials have long made money providing protection for growers and smugglers, too.
Meanwhile, the demand for opium, heroin and yaba-style stimulants continues to rise, especially in China. It has at least 2m heroin addicts and possibly as many as 10m. Nearly all the supply comes through Yunnan province from the Golden Triangle. By many accounts demand is on the rise in Shan state itself, where drug addiction is now a problem, especially among the young. Nang Voe Phart, the head of a local NGO working to improve livelihoods in the eastern Shan capital of Kengtung, reckons that three-fifths of young people there regularly take yaba. Doctors in neighbouring Kayin state, home to the ethnic Karen people, say the proportion is similar there.
Yaba is cheap (about $1.50 a tab) and readily available. It is an easy shot of escapism for young women with few prospects other than becoming karaoke singers or prostitutes in Mongla, or for young men before they go off to work as bonded labourers in the Thai shrimp industry. Yaba means “crazy drug” in Thai, and has devastating social consequences. Sustained use can lead to aggressive or unpredictable behaviour, lethargy and depression. Rates of death are high among users. In and around the northern Shan border city of Muse, townsfolk and villagers have taken matters into their hands. These vigilantes have rounded up addicts and dealers and sent them off to rehabilitation camps they have established.
Moreover, regional proposals to free up trade and improve transport, though likely to bring benefits, are about to make things worse so far as drugs are concerned. As part of the intended liberalisation within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) there is a plan to lower customs barriers and build more roads. But as Ms Nang Voe Phart argues, more ASEAN trade will bring more trafficking and more drug smuggling. Mr Eligh agrees. The local mafias, he says, are “the best logistics experts in the world”. A new highway or two should suit them fine.