New government, old drug policy?

  • Written by S.H.A.N
  • Published in Analysis
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burma’s State Counselor and the leader of the ruling party the National League for Democracy (NLD). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burma’s State Counselor and the leader of the ruling party the National League for Democracy (NLD).

A new civilian government headed by the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, took office in March of this year, bringing to an end more than half a century of direct military rule.  The NLD government, which doesn’t control the crucial defense, border affairs and home affairs ministries, has indicated that it will prioritize several longstanding issues, namely national reconciliation, peace and the establishment of a “democratic federal union”.

Since taking office, Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves as State Counselor, a newly created position that is considered to be above the president, and her cabinet colleagues have said very little publicly about the drug issue in general or the new government’s drug policies.   The issue is of major significance as Burma is the world’s second largest producer of opium and also a major producer of methamphetamines (known as Yaba in Thailand or Yama in Burma).

Although much of Burma’s drug production is exported to the rest of Asia, a large amount is destined for the country’s domestic market, where the devastating results can clearly be seen.  Northern Burma, in particular Shan and Kachin States, have for a number year been beset by a serious and widespread drug crisis fueled by an abundance of cheap and readily available heroin and amphetamines. Though hard data remains scarce and unreliable, anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers of young people in northern Burma, particularly those from ethnic minorities, are dying every year due to drug overdoses and drug related illnesses such as Hepatitis C and HIV.

Despite the urgency of the problem, existing treatment programs, particularly in ethnic areas, remain woefully inadequate.  A result of years of government inaction and chronic underfunding of the country’s health system.  Furthermore the current legal regulations, in particular the 1993 Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Law which heavily penalize users for having small amounts of drugs, are widely considered to have undermined efforts to treat drug users.  Leaving many users languishing in decrepit prisons serving long sentences, where drugs can be found in abundance.

Opium and its refined form, heroin, have a long history in Burma and in Shan State,  which by some estimates is thought to be currently producing 95% of South East Asia’s opium supply.  In 1999, the then ruling military regime declared a 15-year master plan to make Burma opium-free.  As many regime critics predicted at the time, this ambitious plan was unsuccessful.  Rather than going down over this period overall opium production is widely believed to have increased, perhaps by as much as 50%.  According to estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) between the years 2006 and 2013, Burma’s share of the world market of illicit opium increased from 5 to 25 percent.

In October 2012, the government of then President Thein Sein, announced that it was extending the deadline to eradicate opium to 2019.  Whether Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government will continue to aim for this deadline, or ignore it altogether remains to be seen.

The Burmese government’s drug policy has for many years been shaped by the military which until very recently dominated the day to day running of the country.  These policies have been described by one expert, Tom Kramer, of the Transnational Institute (TNI), an Amsterdam based NGO, as “repressive and outdated, with an ineffective focus on arresting drug users and eradicating poppy fields”

Those like Kramer, who advocate for a change in direction of Burma’s policies, have emphasized that the government should prioritize policies aimed at providing more treatment for users and increase harm reduction methods such as needle exchanges that are aimed at reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C amongst intravenous drug users. They have also called for a shift from the poppy eradication efforts to alternative forms of development that would lessen small scale farmers reliance on poppy production over time.

Despite the fact that the government is now headed by a civilian government, any proposed change in the country’s drug policy that the NLD may want to bring about will ultimately be heavily determined by the military, whose continued over the Ministry of Home Affairs and thus the police, is enshrined in the constitution.

Further complicating matters, the military and many of its militia allies have been themselves repeatedly implicated in the drug trade. As British scholar Patrick Meehan recently wrote, in an essay published by the East Asia Forum, this has been particularly clear in Shan State. “Taxing farmers, traders and traffickers became a means through which army units stationed across Shan State financed themselves in accordance with demands from central command that they ‘live off the land’, rather than rely on the central supply system.”

The US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report signaled out the previous military regime in 2007 for its “failure to investigate and prosecute senior military officials for drug-related corruption.” Today some nine years later there is little evidence that the government’s appetite to probe these kinds of allegations has changed in any meaningful way.

Opium poppy
Opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle stabilized in 2015 at high levels. Photo: UNODC

Opium growers call for change in policy:

As Burma has opened politically over the past few years, some opium farmers in Burma have organized to advocate for their rights and joined international efforts at decriminalization.  Speaking at a UN summit on the drug issue earlier this year, Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham, a coordinator from the Drug Policy Advocacy Group, read out a statement on behalf of Burmese opium farmers who are calling for a change in Burma’s drug policy.   The following is an excerpt from Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham’s speech delivered on behalf of Burmese opium farmers.

“We grow crops because of financial need, most of us are poor and strive for survival, we are struggling against financial barriers and problems. We use opium as a medicine and it is part of our traditional livelihood. We believe it protects us from evil and brings good luck. We demand respect for our traditional lifestyle and are not criminals. We are now threatened with forced eradication which would cause us to fall into debt as we sell our crops before growing them. We require services that are currently lacking. Very few of us have so far benefited from AD programs [Alternative Development]. These should be designed with our help. We want the UNGASS [UN General Assembly Special Session] to result in an end to the treatment of farmers as criminals. Please improve development programs with our support and to support us”.

Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham’s comments were well received by the co-chair of the session she was speaking on Peruvian President Humala who noted the similarities with his own country.  “Just like coca in our country, opium is not used traditionally only for drugs but for many other purposes”, Humala said in response to Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham’s speech.

The current drug situation in Shan state:

– UN estimates

Many in the international community rely on figures provided by the UNODC for opium poppy cultivation in Burma and the media often report on the UNODC’s drug estimates figures, though there continues to be questions about how reliable and accurate these figures are.  According to the UNODC Burma’s opium crop in 2015 “remained stable for the third consecutive year”.  The UNODC estimates that Burma had 55,500 hectares of poppies under cultivation in 2015, most of this is said to be in Shan State.  According to the UNODC in 2015 Shan State continued to be the main area for Burma’s opium and heroin trade, being host to an estimated 91 per cent of the Golden Triangle’s opium production[1].

UNODC obtains much of the information needed to make its estimates on opium production and other drug related data from the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), a practice that has its critics who question the reliability of the figures that UNODC cites.

For example a 2010 report published by the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO) took the UNODC to task for its data collection methods.   “PWO assessments have documented that the actual area of opium cultivation in Northern Shan State is much higher than the area given by the UNODC in their recent opium surveys. During the 2008-9 season, the acreage found by PWO for only two townships out of the total of 23 townships in Northern Shan State was nearly three times the total recorded by UNODC for all the 23 townships,” reads the PWO report Poisoned Hills.

The UNODC’s latest report also published figures provided by the Burmese government on the government’s poppy eradication efforts and opium seizures, something it does every year.  The government’s figures claim that 13,450 hectares of poppies were destroyed in the 2015 season.  But as UNODC acknowledged in its report the UN agency did “not monitor or validate the results of the eradication campaign or seizures carried out by GOUM [Government of the Union of Myanmar]”.  Leaving many questions about the reliability of the government’s self reported figures.

Burma Army
Burma Army raided a Shan drug treatment center in Zerngtai village, Muse Township on March 20, 2016.

Recent Army raid in Shan State on treatment center:
Burma Army raided a Shan drug treatment center in Zerngtai village, Muse Township on March 20, 2016.

Just days after the NLD government took office in March, army soldiers in Shan State raided a long running drug rehabilitation center in Muse Township near the Chinese border.  The raid on the respected drug treatment center, raises many questions about the ability of such centers to operate independently and give drug addicts the treatment they need.   Under the auspice of arresting those involved in the drug trade, soldiers detained 72 people, most of whom were patients at the facility, according to interviews conducted by SHAN.

According to a volunteer at the center which is located in Zerngtai village, more than 50 soldiers from the Burma Army’s Division 88 were involved in the raid.  Those arrested included Sai Chit Ngwe, head of the rehabilitation center who is also the headman of a nearby village known as Village 19.  Another person detained at the center was Sai Sarm Bee, the headman of village tract No. 3 and Sai Ai Aung, the headman of Zerngtai village tract.

“This center is a rehabilitation center. The people living here were brought to treat their illness”, said a volunteer at the center. “We do not produce any drugs. We only make paper“, he said:  a reference to Ghost Money used in traditional Chinese funerals.

Despite conflict in Shan State drugs readily available and cheap:
Drug dealers and users were arrested in northern Shan State’s Lashio Township on May 4, 2016.

People in Shan state report that despite the onset of heavy fighting over the past year, heroin and amphetamines continue to be easily available in much of the state.  The fighting between ethnic armed groups and government forces, and also between ethnic armed groups, has displaced thousands of refugees over the past year, and disrupted trade and other economic activities.  Despite the upheaval in much of northern Shan State the price of drugs on the street does not appear to have changed significantly and in some areas has in fact decreased in price.

Though prices and quality of drugs across the state vary significantly; low quality methamphetamine pills can be usually bought for as little as 1,500 Kyats ($ 1.27) with better quality pills available, at slightly higher prices of between 2,500 to 3,000 Kyats ($2.12- 2.55).

Heroin is often easier to obtain in villages and towns than opium which has compelled many long term opium users to switch to heroin.  Much of the heroin available in Shan State and northern Burma overall is far from pure and has been diluted by drug sellers with chemicals.  Long time heroin users also say that heroin bought on the streets these days is far weaker than in the past, likely a result of dealers and distributors attempts to increase their profits.

Last modified onTuesday, 28 June 2016 12:10