Editor’s Note: Jeremy Douglas is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific based in Bangkok Thailand, and former UNODC representative for Pakistan. He can be followed on twitter at @jdouglasSEA. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
There is a serious threat growing under the radar in Myanmar – a threat to its peace process, to the region and to the global community.
Far from Rakhine and the Rohingya exodus in the west of the country that has received much international attention, parts of northern Myanmar host a partnership between powerful ethnic militias and major transnational organized crime. Interests have aligned, and they’ve come together to produce and traffic synthetic drugs on an unprecedented scale.
Dozens of methamphetamine seizures in Thailand, China, Cambodia, Lao, Malaysia and Indonesia have been traced back to Shan State and territory controlled by, or under the influence of, the United Wa State Army or militia groups close to them.
In 2015, meth seizures in the region around Myanmar surpassed Central and North America for the first time. Nearly 70,000 kilograms (154,000 pounds) of methamphetamine was seized in 2017, and seizures in Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have surpassed the totals of last year only five months into 2018.
Methamphetamine from the area has also been seized in huge quantities as far away as Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
Underdeveloped and isolated conflict zones like northern Shan State are attractive places for organized crime to do business.
Armed groups have long used these areas as a safe haven and have financed themselves through the illicit economy to sustain operations, but they now appear to have a taste for really big money coming from expanded production and trafficking of methamphetamine.
The unparalleled growth in synthetic drug production and trafficking has coincided with intensified conflict between the army and different militias.
These conditions have come together to create a perfect storm – major transnational crime syndicates have migrated operations into the country and formed what look like joint ventures with the Wa Army and other armed militia, and they are pumping out billions of dollars’ worth of synthetic drugs.
Peace and the prospect of more effective governance directly threaten the interests of drug traffickers. With little cost to their business, organized crime can corrupt or destabilize tentative steps toward peace that have been led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
If the peace process does not address the convergence of criminal and militia business interests, it will not move forward, and it will certainly not be sustainable.
Addressing the issue
Reactive law enforcement actions limited to drug seizures and raids have almost no impact. In reality, supply lost to seizures would represent a small percentage of what is actually being smuggled, and money lost would be minimal.
The nexus of militias and organized crime is a problem that Myanmar needs to tackle, but it will not be able to do so alone. The ASEAN region – with the support of players like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, Canada, China and India – needs to work with the United Nations to coordinate a push for the root causes of the conflict and the illicit economy to be addressed, and to help counter transnational organized crime and the drug trade in a way that does not disrupt the peace.
As tensions rise between Myanmar and the international community around the plight of the Rohingya, cooperating to address transnational organized crime, the illicit economy and drug trafficking may offer an opportunity for constructive dialogue, and an entry point to support the peace process.
There is no getting around the fact that illicit economies like the drug trade that are rooted in the country, but that transcend borders, need to be addressed for peace to be sustainable. Those who finance themselves through the business like the Wa have few incentives to stop involvement, and they need to be convinced it is time to stop.
The peace process and the drug trade in Myanmar are intertwined, and the two must be addressed together.