RANGOON — To mark World Drug Day, Burmese authorities organized drug-burning ceremonies on Thursday that destroyed seized illegal drugs said to be worth a combined US$130 million.
But as piles of opium, heroin and methamphetamine went up in smoke, UN officials warned that illicit drug production in Burma continued to rise in order to supply a growing Asian market. They noted too that there had been “relatively little” heroin seizures in the country, in remarks that raise questions about Burma’s anti-narcotics efforts.
Opium production in Burma was “in 2006, at the lowest point, representing roughly 7 percent of the global production, it is now 18 percent. So it has increased year on year,” said Jeremy Douglas, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southeast Asia representative. “The bulk of that is produced in Shan and Kachin states; southern Shan has the greatest problem.”
In the Southeast Asia and China “region we have seen a seven-fold increase in methamphetamine seizures in recent years… the highest levels ever recorded. We’re looking at 240 million pills recorded and seized last year. The source of those pills is Shan State,” he told a press conference held at Rangoon’s Drug Elimination Museum to mark the launch of the annual UNODC World Drug Report.
“For crystal methamphetamine, a more purified form, seizures have also been rising to record levels… It’s now a mixed methamphetamine market,” Douglas said, adding that the precursor chemicals used for meth production in Shan State were being supplied from India and China.
Comparing the scale of heroin seizures in northern Burma with other opium-producing regions such as Afghanistan, Douglas said, “Oddly, with 18 percent of opium production taking place in the Golden Triangle, there have been relatively little [heroin] seizures… The explanation for that will have to come from the government.”
The remarks are in line with a drop in drug seizures by Burmese authorities that was reported by The Financial Times on Monday. It said new police figures showed that seizures of methamphetamine pills fell from 11.9 million in 2013 to 204,000 in the first five months of 2014, while heroin seizures fell from 238 kilo in 2013 to just 16 kilo in the year to May. From 2012 to 2013, the scale of drug seizures had also dropped.
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Along drug-trafficking routes in neighboring countries, however, authorities have made huge seizures. The paper cited an anonymous senior police officer as saying that drug traffickers were shifting tactics and smuggling out smaller shipments, while stepping up production in lawless conflict areas.
On Thursday, to mark the occasion of World Drug Day, Burmese authorities put on a show with the results of their efforts, inviting reporters to join drug-burning ceremonies in Rangoon, Mandalay and Taunggyi to destroy drugs with a reported combined value of US$130 million
Home Affairs Minister Ko Ko, senior police offers and US Drug Enforcement Agency officials and Chinese anti-narcotics officials attended the ceremony in Rangoon’s Mawbe Township, which set a light $19 million worth of drugs, including 48 kg of opium, 1.6 kilo of heroin, 3.4 kg of cannabis and 3.4 kg of methamphetamine.
Authorities announced that in 2013, they seized 2,356 kilo of opium, 238 kilo of heroin, more than 10 million amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) pills, along with precursor chemicals caffeine, 13,482 kilo, and pseudoephedrine, 3,580 kilos.
Police Maj. Khin Maung Thein acknowledged that authorities’ efforts were doing little to stem the rampant drug trade in Burma, adding that ongoing tensions with various ethnic groups in northern Burma were the cause of the drug trade.
“We found that opium growing has increased year after year,” he said “Our actions did not have effect as we have arguments with each other.”
“Our police seized a lot of drugs in Shan State. In this area there is poppy growing and opium production. It is close to the border areas and [that’s why] it is hard to stop and crackdown on it,” Khin Maung Thein said during a brief exchange with reporters.
He added, “We need more education on drug awareness for our people because we found that their knowledge [of the dangers of drugs] is very weak. Methamphetamine is easily spread among young people, when they take it they think it’s fun.”
For many years, northern Burma has been the hub for opium and methamphetamine production in Asia and the trade is directly tied to the country’s decades-old ethnic conflict, which continues to fester in many parts of Shan and Kachin states.
Between 2006 and 2013, the area under opium poppy in Burma rose from 24,000 hectares in 2006 to 58,000 hectares in 2013, the UNODC estimated late last year.
Tens of thousands of poor ethnic farmers grow the opium. All parties involved in the ethnic conflict—rebel groups, the Burma Army and pro-government militias—are taxing the drug trade to fuel the war, while some militias and rebel groups are directly involved in drug production and trade, researchers have said.
Drug production fell from 1998 to 2006, after some armed groups and the then-military regime came under growing international pressure to stem the flow of drugs, but the production resurged in southern Shan State.
The Home Affairs Ministry acknowledged last week that a 15-year drug elimination program started in 1999 had failed, and it announced plans to extend the deadline for eliminating all drugs in Burma to 2019.
Jason Eligh, UNODC Country Manager for Burma, told reporters that the deadline is “a nice political goal but it’s not a realistic law enforcement goal.
“It is possible though investment, increased capacity building of law enforcement, through attaining peace in a place like Shan State to begin the process of containing problem, but certainly five years is not enough to achieve a massive reduction in drug production.”
A joint drug-elimination program involving the UNODC, law enforcement authorities, the Burma Army and an armed ethnic group, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), has made little progress since it began in October 2012, showcasing the complexities of dealing with the drug trade in Shan State’s remote, conflict-affected regions.
“It’s basically a trust-building exercise between the actors. It’s important to find a point of trust, a beginning, where people can agree on something—that one thing is actually drugs,” said Jason Eligh, UNODC country manager in Burma. “The RCSS recognizes that drugs are a threat to the people to the people of Shan State, the government recognizes this as well of course.”
He noted, however, “We are moving much slower than expected … [and] are at a point where the only thing we are waiting for is the start of the implementation of the activities.
“It’s now waiting on approval from the Tatmadaw [Burma Army], to be honest, and that’s proved a stickier point than we thought it would have been, but we are making progress nonetheless.”