Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Prospects for Controlling Narcotics Production and Trafficking in Myanmar

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Prospects for Controlling Narcotics Production and Trafficking in Myanmar

Article excerpt


The Union of Myanmar's military government has brought upon itself extensive criticism for its undemocratic nature and violations of internationally accepted human rights. There often are reasonable grounds for that criticism. When Yangon's critics venture into the complex issue of Myanmar's drug trade, however, the same reasonableness is not always apparent. That is especially so when critics blame the ruling generals for their country's role as one of the world's major producers of illicit narcotic drugs. Myanmar's generals are routinely accused of promoting the drug trade as a matter of government policy. Simplistic charges of official government complicity in the drug trade overlook the underlying security, political, and economic realities that have made Myanmar a major drug production and trafficking centre. Moreover, by demonizing the Yangon government in the eyes of the international community, those charges pose an obstacle to counter-narcotics co-operation between the West and Myanmar.

Effective governing of Myanmar's drug-producing frontier areas has eluded Yangon governments since the country gained independence in 1948. Persistent post-independence insurgencies in the central part of the country seriously threatened the new Union's very existence. By the 1960s Yangon's forces had neutralized those insurgencies in central Myanmar. By the end of that same decade, however, the government was confronting a variety of stubborn insurgencies in Myanmar's frontier areas, a problem that it has failed to resolve. The legacy of those insurgencies, be they driven by political ideology or ethnic aspirations, continues its contribution to the intractability of the problems surrounding Myanmar's role in the drug trade.

Intertwined Challenges

To address successfully the drug problem within its borders any Yangon government must first impose the rule of law throughout its territory. Post-independence governments in Yangon, both civilian and military, have consistently failed to do so. To achieve that goal, a government must overcome three intertwined sets of challenges requiring simultaneous solutions. Discouragingly, it is far from clear whether any Yangon government, military or civilian, will in the foreseeable future be able to overcome these daunting challenges.

First, any central government must be able to exercise its writ throughout the country and bring an end to the ethnic and drug-fuelled insurgencies that have plagued the country since 1948. The prolonged struggle against insurgents threatening the cohesion of the Union has provided excuses for Myanmar's military to cling to political power, has emptied the government's treasury, and has impeded national economic development. Importantly, that struggle has also encouraged the drug trade. Profits from the illicit drugs trade have enabled armed insurgents for the past half century to defy central government efforts to end the state of near anarchy in the Union's opium-growing frontier areas.

Secondly, any Yangon government must be able and willing to satisfy the legitimate political aspirations of the Union's diverse ethnic minorities. Since Myanmar's independence the issue of ethnic minority rights has been the greatest single obstacle to political unity and, by extension, the rule of law. Failure to resolve legitimate minority political aspirations has driven many ethnic communities into rebellion. Many, in turn, have turned to the drug trade to finance their struggle against Yangon. With few exceptions, whatever political motivations held by ethnic insurgents in the beginning of their fight with Yangon all too often succumbed quickly to the drug trade profit motive as their raison d'etre.

Thirdly, any government must offer realistic economic alternatives for people now making their living in the drug trade. Tens of thousands of ethnic minority farmers grow opium poppies because, among other reasons, it is the most profitable cash crop available to them. …

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