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

Fresh clashes in Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protesters clash with police, angry at lack of prosecutions after July subway mob attack. Thousands of jeering Hong Kong residents held a raucous anti-government protest on Wednesday (Aug 21) at a suburban subway station that was attacked by a mob last month, angry that nobody has yet been prosecuted for the violence. Some masked protesters clashed with police in the sub-tropical heat, spraying fire extinguishers from the inside of Yuen Long station as others smeared the floor with cooking oil to stop the police advancing. Some demonstrators blocked station exits and sealed roads outside the station, aiming green laser beams at the lines of shield-bearing officers. Others threw empty fire extinguishers at police lines from overpasses. It was the latest in a series of demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, since June against a perceived erosion


By The Straits Times
August 22, 2019

Current affairs

More than 2,000 people displaced, 19 killed in Myanmar fighting

Ethnic clashes have continued in northern Myanmar. More than 2,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes, and 19 have been killed, since fighting broke out between government troops and ethnic minority insurgents in northern Myanmar last week, government officials said Wednesday. The escalation in hostilities in Myanmar’s fractured north is another setback for civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s bid to bring peace amid a stuttering transition from full military rule. The people displaced in the latest fighting are sheltering in monasteries around Lashio town in the north of Shan State, and are depending on aid groups and the government for their supplies, aid workers said. “We are providing basic rescue materials as well as cash to displaced people in the camps, the injured people and also to family members of those who got killed,” Soe Naing, director o


By Daily Star
August 22, 2019

Current affairs

Thai CEO sentenced to six months in jail over poaching rifles

The conviction is a rare victory for the conservation movement in Thailand. Italian Thai Development president Premchai Kannasutra has been sentenced to a non-suspended six-month imprisonment for carrying hunting rifles in an infamous case in which a black panther was poached in a national park in February of last year. The construction tycoon admitted to the charge in a Criminal Court session today (August 20), in which the judges sentenced him to a one-year prison term, before halving it due to his confessing to the crime. Premchai was in possession of two hunting rifles and a homemade one when apprehended, according to an investigation report of Thong Pha Phum police in Kanchanaburi province. Despite offers made on Premchai’s behalf by his defence attorney, the court refused his request for a suspended imprisonment, citing his convictions in two separate trials, both of which involve the poaching c


By The Nation (Thailand)
August 21, 2019

Current affairs

India successfully places probe in moon’s orbit

Landing attempt will take place on September 7. In a significant step for India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft was successfully placed in the moon’s orbit on Tuesday in a nerve-wracking manoeuvre, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI) was completed successfully at 9.02 am as planned using the onboard propulsion system. All the systems of Chandrayaan-2 are healthy. “The duration of manoeuvre was 1,738 seconds. With this, Chandrayaan-2 was successfully inserted into a lunar orbit. The orbit achieved is 114km X 18,072km,” the ISRO said. The 3,850-kg Chandrayaan-2, a three-module spacecraft comprising an orbiter, Lander Vikram and rover, which was launched on July 22, will make a soft-land on the moon on September 7. The process of setting down Chandrayaan 2 on the Moon i


By The Statesman
August 21, 2019

Current affairs

Schools in Kashmir to reopen on Wednesday

The Modi administration has decided to re-open all the middle schools across Kashmir on Wednesday. The J&K Government on Monday said that after the re-opening of primary schools, it has decided to re-open all middle-level schools across the Kashmir valley from Wednesday. This was stated during a joint evening presser here, addressed by Director Information and Public Relations, Dr Syed Sehrish Asgar, Deputy Inspector General of Police (CKR), VK Birdi and Director School Education Kashmir, Muhammad Younis Malik. The officials said the presence of staff at all the primary level schools on Monday was an encouraging sign and the administration has decided to re-open all the middle schools across Kashmir on Wednesday. Regarding the availability of supply stock in the Valley, it was informed that the essential services like PHE, PDD, Food & Civil Services, etc are working continuously. I


By The Statesman
August 20, 2019

Current affairs

Family confirms body found is Nora Anne’s

The child was feared to be kidnapped from her resort hotel. The family of Nora Anne Quoirin has confirmed that the body found is that of the missing Irish teenager, according to the Negri Sembilan police chief. Mohamad Mat Yusop, who was at the Tuanku Ja’afar Hospital, said the family was brought in to identify the body and had confirmed that it was Nora Anne, who went missing from a resort on Aug 4. A post-mortem will be done on Wednesday morning (Aug 14). A senior pathologist from Kuala Lumpur will be performing the post-mortem. Earlier, a group of trekkers found Nora Anne’s naked body in a stream some 2.5km from the resort she was staying with her family at 1.57pm Tuesday (Aug 13). The remains were found near Gunung Berembun in Pantai Hills. Nora Anne, 15, had checked into the property with her parents, Sebastian Marie Philipe and Meabh Jaseprine Quoirin, and siblings


By The Star
August 14, 2019