Further controversy generated related to Myanmar

Published : 07 Feb 2023 08:34 PM

Reports from the international media have been drawing attention in the recent past to two aspects in particular- (a) Myan­mar’s military authorities announcing strict new election law ahead of the polls supposed to take place in Myanmar later this year and (b) that Myanmar’s major opium economy has been expanding substantially in Myanmar since 2022.

New rules, published in the Myanmar state media, appear designed to ensure that there is no meaningful opposition to the military in that country. Myanmar’s military, which took over that country through a coup almost two years ago, has announced a strict new law on political parties that is likely to raise further questions about the fairness of elections promised by August over there.

The law, replacing legislation from 2010, bars parties and candidates deemed to have links to individuals or organisations “designated as committing terror acts” or seen as “unlawful”. Parties that want to contest the national election will also need to secure at least 100,000 members within three months of registration and have funds of 100 million Myanmar Kyat (equivalent to US Dollar 45,500), 100 times more than previously. The money has to be deposited with the state-owned Myanmar Economic Bank. The law, signed by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, was published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar recently.

It may be recalled that the Myanmar military apprehended and detained Aung San Suu Kyi and seized power on February 1, 2021. This took place after her National League for Democracy had been elected in a landslide. The generals had at that time claimed that there had been fraud in the poll. International monitors who had observed the November 2020 election had however found it to be largely free and fair. This had taken place after Aung San Suu Kyi had sadly supported the Myanmar generals during the trial being held in the International Court of Justice in the Hague pertaining to accusations of rape, murder, arson and other elements related to genocide pertaining to the Rohingya Muslim population which had forced nearly a million of them to seek sanctuary and safety in Bangladesh as refugees.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who still remains fairly popular, has in the meantime been jailed for more than 30 years on various charges- from illegally owning walkie-talkies to corruption- that critics say are designed to remove her from the country’s political life. Other senior members of her party, including former President Win Myint, have also been brought under the judicial process and jailed.

Since it took control of the government, the military's use of deadly force to hold on to power has escalated conflict with its civilian opponents. The military coup plunged Myanmar into a political crisis as a result of the military’s brutal crackdown on anti-coup protests undertaken by civilians as well as ethnic armed groups in the country’s border regions. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a civil society group monitoring the crackdown has indicated that nearly 3,000 people have been killed by the military Administration since it seized power. Many more that support Aung San Suu Kyi have also been detained with other ethnic groups fighting against the military and designated as “terrorists”.  

Such a scenario has resulted in widespread international criticism of the Myanmar Armed Forces leadership and sanctions from the United States and other countries. The military in response initially announced it would hold new elections within a year. It subsequently backtracked and indicated that such an election would be held between February and August 2023.

In the meantime Mary Callahan has interestingly observed in a recent article for “Frontier Myanmar”, that any attempt to do an election in Myanmar during the current situation with such stark political polarization will put large numbers of civilians in harm’s way. In this context she has mentioned that “anyone who votes, no matter who they vote for, will be considered complicit and therefore a legitimate target for radical guerrilla groups.” At the same time, she has added- “anyone who refuses to vote could find their homes raided by police – or worse, given the army’s penchant for airstrikes, artillery attacks, and arson against civilians.” In the same vein an English language report in “The Irrawaddy” has observed that a meeting attended by more than 50 senior Myanmar security officials from the union, regional, and state levels, have found that the regime has been failing to secure required public support for its attempt to defeat the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), which is spearheading the resistance to the junta’s rule.

As a result the current Myanmar authorities are trying to create their own form of challenges for the civilian population that are openly working against them.

As a result the new law formulated by the Myanmar military states that- any existing Party seeking to participate in the forthcoming election must apply for registration within two months of the legislation being announced or be “automatically invalidated”. Parties can also be suspended for three years, and ultimately dissolved, for failing to comply with the provisions of the new law. Interestingly, the legislation also underlines that Parties are not allowed to lodge an appeal against the Election Commission decisions on registration. 

In the meantime in the fourth week of January an opium survey carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Myanmar as a major opium economy has found that opium cultivation has increased significantly, reversing the downward trend of 2014 to 2020. Opium poppy was cultivated on more than 40,000 hectares in Myanmar last year, a 33% increase compared with 2021.

The report has analyzed data collected during the first full growing season since the military takeover, showing an increase of 33% in cultivation area to 40,100 hectares, and an 88% increase in potential yield to 790 metric tonnes. Following a moderate increase in cultivation area of 2% and yield of 4% during the 2021 season, the 2022 results confirm a significant expansion is underway of Myanmar’s opium economy.

UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas has remarked that “economic, security and governance disruptions that followed the military takeover of February 2021 have converged, and farmers in remote, often conflict prone areas in northern Shan and Border States have had little option but to move back to opium.”

The most significant increases have taken place in Myanmar’s Shan State where cultivation went up 39%, followed by Chin and Kayah states which increased 14% and 11%, while cultivation in Kachin has risen by a moderate 3%. The average estimated opium yield has also increased by 41% to 19.8 kg/ha – the highest value since UNODC started measuring it in 2002 – pointing to increasingly sophisticated farming practices and availability of fertilizers.

The average price paid to farmers has also increased by 69% in 2022 to about US Dollar 280/kg. This has demonstrated the attractiveness of opium as a crop and commodity, and strong expanding demand as the Golden Triangle opium and heroin trade appears to be reconnecting to the global market. Combined with higher production, Myanmar farmers earned more than twice as much from opium as in the previous year. Analysts in this regard have also indicated that although there has been a jump in income it has not translated directly into purchasing power as the country is experiencing soaring inflation, a devalued currency, and increasing costs of fertilizers and fuel.

Nevertheless, according to the UNODC the increase in opium has taken place at the same time as when the production of synthetic drugs has continued to expand, with the drug economy in the country and surrounding region generating substantial profits. The synthetic drug economy has also been surging for the same reasons, with reported regional seizures of methamphetamine and other drugs reaching record levels. In a single bust in September last year in Laos, authorities seized 33 million methamphetamine tablets along with 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of crystal methamphetamine.

 Economists have also observed in this regard that the value of opium in Myanmar ranges up to US Dollar 2 billion, with the regional heroin trade valued at approximately US Dollar 10 billion.

It needs to be mentioned here that Bangladesh has been following this equation very carefully because some of the opiate drugs and narcotics are also finding their way across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. The Golden Triangle – a jungle territory and meeting point of borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar- has long been a lucrative hub for the illegal drug trade, and the trend in Myanmar indicates that the region now appears to be reconnecting to the global market in narcotics in the lower Mekong region, according to the UN. This is creating instability and also insecurity.

Consequently, UNODC Representative Douglas has observed that “the impact on the region is profound, and the country’s neighbours need to assess and candidly address the situation, and they will need to consider some difficult options.”  The UN Report has also warned that “continued political instability in the post-coup environment, a weak economy, inflation, and very high farm-gate prices for opium are shaping household decisions. Taken together, these economic signals can provide a strong incentive for farmers to take up or expand opium poppy cultivation”. That would really be unfortunate for the region because of the probable osmotic effect.

One needs to conclude by drawing attention to another recent development. It was reported on 24 January by Fortify Rights, an advocacy group that survivors of military abuses in Myanmar have lodged a criminal complaint in Germany, asking prosecutors to investigate and bring to trial those responsible for committing atrocities during crackdowns on opponents of the February 2021 coup, and against the Rohingya minority. Apparently, the case involves 16 individuals from Myanmar and has been filed with the German Office of the Federal Prosecutor. 

We have to wait and see what happens in this regard and how universal jurisdiction laws are interpreted with regard to crimes no matter where they take place.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance