See More on Facebook

Current affairs

Myanmar’s Shan state runs on meth – and exports are thriving

A look at the behind the scenes picture behind the global methamphetamine crisis.


Written by

Updated: January 9, 2019

Myanmar’s Shan State is the epicentre of the global methamphetamine supply and the export of the illegal drug is about to get even easier, warns a new report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

Shan State, a centre of conflict and illicit drug production since 1950, is controlled partly by Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, and partly by multiple armed militias, some with the patronage of the Tatmadaw.

“Good infrastructure, proximity to precursor supplies from China and safe haven provided by pro-government militias and in rebel-held enclaves have also made it a major global source of high purity crystal meth,” says the 36-page report titled Fire And Ice: Conflict And Drugs In Myanmar’s Shan State.

The report is only the latest in a string of studies and warnings in recent years, over the proliferation of meth from Shan State, whose drug industry has seen only growth.

There have been record seizures of meth in the last two years beyond the immediate region – 1.2 tonnes in Western Australia; 0.9 tonnes in Melbourne; 1.6 tonnes in Indonesia; 1.2 tonnes in Malaysia.

Regional narcotics experts estimate seizure rates at below 10 per cent of total trade, suggesting a total annual production significantly in excess of 250 tonnes, the ICG says. In the Mekong sub region, the total value of the trade is estimated at over US$ 40 billion a year.

“These record seizures… are… evidence of the scale of the problem rather than of any genuine success in addressing it,” the report says. “Despite massive seizures, prices of crystal meth have remained stable, a clear indication that they are a small proportion of total volumes.”

And the industry will in the foreseeable future gain momentum on the back of the recently inked multi-billion dollar China-Myanmar Economic corridor (CMEC), which will lead to better roads plus a new high-speed rail from Kunming in Yunnan, to Kyaukpyu on the Rakhine State seaboard – essentially linking southern China to the Bay of Bengal.

“In the recent history of the Golden Triangle, increased trade and improved infrastructure have expanded rather than narrowed opportunities for illicit profiteering,” the report says. “People in northern Shan State with detailed knowledge of the drug trade suggest that is likely to be the case in that area with CMEC.”

The trade in ice, along with amphetamine tablets and heroin, has become so large and profitable that it dwarfs the formal economy of Shan State and fuels criminality and corruption and hinders efforts to end the state’s long-running ethnic conflicts, the report says.

In January 2018, for instance, Myanmar police raided an abandoned house in northern Shan state, seizing meth pills, heroin and caffeine powder worth an estimated US$54 million at domestic prices.

The site was not far from the main road to the Chinese border at Muse – a major overland trade route. That the place was “abandoned” strongly suggests those using it were tipped off, the ICG says. Perhaps not coincidentally, the militia which controls the area has maintained a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw for nearly 28 years. There were no consequences to the militia over the discovery of the drugs.

The status of militia and border guard forces aligned with the Tatmadaw gives them considerable impunity, and gives the Tatmadaw a degree of deniability.

Myanmar’s President U Wun Myint, soon after taking office in March 2018, chaired a meeting of the country’s Anti-Corruption commission but the commission does not have the authority to investigate the Tatmadaw. The army remains the only real power in Myanmar when it comes to security issues.

The authorities in other countries in the region are, however, often part of the corruption chain. China, where most chemicals needed to manufacture meth come from, has “almost never intercepted shipments crossing its border with Myanmar” the report says.

What is to be done?

“The government should redouble its drug control and anti-corruption efforts, focusing on major players in the drug trade,” the ICG says. “Education and harm reduction should replace criminal penalties for low-level offenders. The military should reform – and ultimately disband – militias and other pro-government paramilitary forces and pursue a comprehensive peace settlement for the state.”

But these are easier said than done.

With the trade so gigantic, there is little incentive not to make and sell drugs, analysts say.

“The recommendation calling for the Tatmadaw to reform relations with militias and border guard forces, and eventually seeing them disbanded, is pretty ambitious,” Mr Jeremy Douglas, Bangkok-based regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

“For related reforms to be successful, they would need to be accompanied by incentives significant enough that groups would cease involvement in the illicit economy,” he said.

“Not to sound too pessimistic, but I can’t imagine reforms working otherwise,” he said, adding : “I can’t think of what could be offered in the near term that would replace such massive revenue streams.”



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


About the Author: The Straits Times is Singapore's top-selling newspaper.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Current affairs

SAARC turns 35 but has very little to show for its age

The regional bloc of seven South Asian countries and Afghanistan has largely been held hostage to the rivalry between India and Pakistan, say analysts. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation might have turned 35 but its three-and-a-half decades of existence has largely failed to advance its own central tenet—regional cooperation. As SAARC marked its 35th anniversary with a flurry of congratulatory messages from heads of government, expressing their commitment to regional cooperation, many analysts and diplomats wonder if these promises will ever translate into action. The regional association has failed to hold its 19th summit, ever since 2016 when India sud


By The Kathmandu Post
December 9, 2019

Current affairs

Why Hong Kong residents turned out in record numbers to vote

Many say events of past 5 months galvanised their desire to exercise their democratic right. Amid mild autumn weather and under a clear blue sky in Lek Yuen, the oldest public housing estate in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin, a snaking queue formed outside the community hall shortly after dawn yesterday. It was the constituency’s polling station of the day, and hundreds were in the line before the opening time of 7.30am to vote for their district councillor, one of the lowest rungs of Hong Kong’s elected offices. The scene was repeated across the territory’s 18 districts, where nearly three million people showed up to vote in elections that are usually a quiet affair, with chosen officials confined to dealing with noise complaints and local infrastructure improvement projects. The officials, however, also represent 117 of the 1,200-strong Election Committee that chooses the city̵


By The Straits Times
November 25, 2019

Current affairs

Nearly 1,000 China nationals nabbed in Malaysia

They are believed to be online scam workers. Malaysian authorities have nabbed nearly 1,000 China nationals who were believed to be working in the country with an online scam syndicate, local media reported. The bust on Wednesday (Nov 20) by the Immigration Department in Cyberjaya was the biggest conducted this year, Bernama news agency said. On its Facebook, department said the raid was conducted at the syndicate’s headquarters in Cyberjaya. Immigration director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud said the syndicate was operating from a six-storey building in Cyberjaya, a high-technology zone located about an hour south of Kuala Lumpur. The raid was the end result of a month’s worth of surveillance, following complaints from the public. The office was well secured, with guards stationed at each floor and rooms only being accessible with access cards, The Star reported.


By The Straits Times
November 22, 2019

Current affairs

MH17 probe releases new phone calls linking suspects to top Russians

With contributions by AFP. A Dutch-led probe into the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 released new intercepted phone calls on Thursday (Nov 14) between high-ranking Russian officials and suspects facing trial over the crash. Investigators said they were making a “new witness appeal” based on “recorded telephone calls between the leaders of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist group) and high-ranking Russian officials.” “Ties between Russian officials and DPR leaders appear to have been much closer” than originally believed, Mr Andy Kraag, the head of Dutch police’s Criminal Investigations Division, said in a video statement. Investigators said in June that they were going to put three Rus


By Cod Satrusayang
November 15, 2019

Current affairs

Five years later, prosecutorial probe kicks off into Sewol ferry sinking

For some families, it is too little, too late. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Monday launched a special investigation unit to probe allegations surrounding the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. During a press briefing at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, the unit said it is “committed to making its probe so thorough that it will be the last one to be conducted into the Sewol sinking.” The unit will take on investigations conducted by a provisional state commission formed in January 2015 with a fact-finding mission on the Sewol case. This is the prosecution’s first organized effort concerning the disaster from over five years ago. On April 16, 2014, the 6,825-ton ferry with a passenger capacity of 921 sank off the coast of South Jeolla Province en route to Jeju Island, killing over 300 people, mostly children. The 18-member prosecution unit is headed by


By The Korea Herald
November 12, 2019

Current affairs

Ayodhya verdict is silent on why Muslims must prove exclusive possession of site

The Indian court has deprived Muslims of the disputed plot because they couldn’t show exclusive possession before 1857. On page 215 of the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid verdict, delivered by a five-judge bench on Saturday, the Supreme Court makes a crucial statement of logic: “It is true that in matters of faith and belief, the absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence.” But in its final findings, the court contradicted this same logic. The crux of the judgment that India has awaited since 1949 is that Muslims failed to show unimpeded possession of the disputed site in Ayodhya between 1528, when the mosque was supposedly built by Mughal emperor Babur, and 1857, when, after a clash between Muslims and Hindus, a railing was erected between the inner and outer courtyards at the disputed site. The inner courtyard is where the mosque demolished by Hindutva mobs in 1992 stood. The outer courtyard has se


By Dawn
November 12, 2019