Narco-terrorism and Myanmar

Published : 30 Aug 2023 08:19 PM

In the 21st century, drug trade has emerged as a significant social, political, diplomatic and security threat to the world community. In spite of persistent efforts, the threat has continued to intensify and plague South-East Asian countries. If we take a deeper look, it can be traced back to Myanmar, one of the chief architects of narco-terrorism to the region in particular and to the rest of the world in general. 

 Myanmar, along with Thailand and Laos, is part of the Golden Triangle, one of the largest opium-producing areas in the world. Myanmar is currently the second-largest producer of opium in the world, producing around a quarter of the world’s total volume of opium. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the monetary value of Myanmar’s opiate economy amounts to at least $2 billion. Moreover, Myanmar is the world's largest producer of methamphetamine, the primary ingredient in producing Yaba. According to Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Drug Administration, at least 17 different types of drugs, including opium, heroin and Yaba, are being smuggled from Myanmar. 

The prevalence of drug production in Myanmar is directly connected to its turbulent political history and distorted political economy. Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state, in which ethnic Bamars constitute the majority (68%) of the population. But the country contains significant ethnic minority groups, including the Shans, the Karens, the Rakhines, the Mons, the Kachins, the Chins, the Karennis, the Rohingyas and the Was. Since the independence of Myanmar in 1948, all of the major ethnic minority groups have been waging insurgencies against the Myanmar government, demanding independence, political autonomy and/or financial autonomy. The Tatmadaw has been locked into a multi-front war against numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) ever since. In spite of temporary ceasefires, the conflict has continued to the present day. Moreover, since the coup d’état of 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG), spearheaded by the overthrown National League for Democracy (NLD), has been waging a “people‟s defensive war” against the Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar government, effectively plunging the country into a civil war. 

Owing to the persistent political instability, misgovernance and rampant corruption, Myanmar has not been able to achieve the desired level of socio-economic development. Myanmar occupies the 167th and 149th place among the countries of the world in terms of per capita income and human development, respectively. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries constitute nearly half of Myanmar’s economy, and the abundance of mineral resources, including oil, natural gas, gemstones and rare earth minerals, has ensured that the export of minerals is an important source of income for the country. However, owing to chronic military-political conflicts, economic underperformance and social instability, a large-scale informal economy has been developed in the country. And unsurprisingly, the production and trafficking of drugs constitute a substantial part of this shadow economy. 

A host of actors in Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw, the EAOs and the criminal gangs, are involved in the lucrative drug trade. The politico-economic policies of the military governments since 1962 caused massive dislocations in the national economy and contributed to the rapid increase in the production of opium. As the Tatmadaw gradually occupied the central place in Myanmar’s economy, it started actively participating in the emergent shadow economy and expanding its networks into the regional organized crime architecture. Consequently, in spite of their proclaimed intention of combating the drug trade, the 

Tatmadaw became involved in the drug trade both at national, sub-national and local levels. In addition to the Tatmadaw, the EAOs are extensively involved in the drug trade. For instance, the Shan State has become a major global center of the production of methamphetamine tablets owing to good infrastructure, proximity to precursor supplies from China and safe haven provided by pro-government militias and in insurgent held enclaves. Accordingly, the Shan State Army – North (SSA-N) and the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S), the principal EAOs in the Shan State, are actively involved in the drug trade. The Arakan Army (AA), the principal EAO in the Rakhine State, procures opium and synthetic drugs from the Shan State, and the proceeds from the drug trade are a major source of income for the AA. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the principal EAO in the Wa State, is a key actor in the drug trade in Southeast Asia, and the trade in narcotics, including opium, heroin and Yaba, is a major source of funding for the UWSA. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the principal EAO in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in the northern Shan State, has been persistently involved in the production and marketing of opium. 

The involvement of terrorist organizations and insurgent groups in drug trafficking is defined as narco-terrorism. So, the Tatmadaw and few other EAOs in Myanmar, owing to their extensive involvement in the drug trade, are essentially engaged in narco-terrorism, sometimes abetted by the Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar government (The International Affairs Review, 2018). In fact, owing to the prevalence of the drug trade, a complex political economy has emerged in Myanmar, in which the Tatmadaw, the EAOs and criminal organizations are tied to one another through a nexus. War persists between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs as well as among the EAOs themselves, however, through a complex series of shadowy deals, the Tatmadaw and the EAOs cooperate with one another at various levels to jointly profit from the lucrative drug trade. The phenomenon, as well as the volume of drug trade, has intensified even more since the outbreak of the civil war in 2021.  

Meanwhile, owing to the narco-terrorist activities of Myanmar, other regional states are facing a host of social, economic and political problems. For these states, Myanmar has been a major source of illegal drugs for decades. The socio-economic and political consequences of Myanmar’s narco-terrorism for the affected states have been devastating. The prevalence of drug addiction contributes to a rapid erosion of moral, cultural and familial values, the breakdown of innumerable families, the rapid spread of deadly diseases such as Hepatitis and AIDS, the explosion of psychological malaises, the proliferation of violent crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, and the unravelling of the social fabric. Moreover, the massive flows of drug into these states have created and sustained extensive criminal networks involving hundreds of thousands of people, fuelling corruption and deteriorating the law-and order situation on their territories. The efforts of the governments of these affected states have so far largely failed to curb the flow of illicit drugs. 

 In brief, narco-terrorism from Myanmar has presented the regional states with a social catastrophe, a politico-diplomatic conundrum and a major security threat. This problem cannot be solved internally, because it has originated in Myanmar. Therefore, in order to ensure their social, political and military security, these countries should vigorously pursue the twins goals of the facilitation of a just and sustainable resolution of the Rohingya refugee crisis and the dismantlement of the architecture of narco-terrorism in Myanmar.

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, and a freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]