February 1, 2024
JAKARTA – It is terrible that ASEAN foreign ministers seemed to waste the opportunity of their just-concluded meeting to discuss the United Nations’ shocking finding that Myanmar has overtaken Afghanistan as the world’s largest opium producer. This horrifying discovery means ASEAN is facing a serious threat in its backyard.
Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith hosted his ASEAN peers for the first time under the country’s chairmanship of the grouping in Luang Prabang, which concluded on Monday. Myanmar’s military junta was allowed to send a senior official to the retreat after the ASEAN foreign ministers rejected the participation of Myanmar’s foreign minister.
ASEAN barred the military junta from attending any ASEAN official meeting after they showed no respect for the Five-Point Consensus to end the crisis in Myanmar following the coup against the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi three years ago.
ASEAN leaders have also suspended indefinitely Myanmar’s turn to chair the regional grouping in 2026 and given it to the Philippines instead.
During the two-day meeting, the ASEAN foreign ministers overlooked the real and present danger arising from Myanmar in the form of opium trade and trafficking. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last month that the economic and political crisis that followed the 2021 coup and the widening conflict between the military and armed groups have driven farmers toward illicit opium poppy production to make a living.
The illicit business allegedly involves not only common criminals but also the military and members of the opposition coalition, the National Unity of Government (NUG).
UNODC confirmed opium cultivation in the country had increased by more than 7,000 hectares compared with last year. Production has also risen, with 36 percent more than the 2022 estimate.
According to the UN agency, Myanmar’s growth in opium cultivation fuels illicit economies such as synthetic drug production, drug trafficking, money laundering, casinos and racketeering operations, bringing benefits to organized crime groups in the Mekong region, which includes China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The new status explains why the rebel forces in Myanmar, known as one of the world’s most impoverished nations, can resist, even beat, the military junta in several states that border with other countries.
On Jan. 12, China announced that it had mediated a cease-fire between the Myanmar military and a trio of ethnic armies known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance. Beijing has been losing patience with junta leader Gen. Aung Min Hlaing because he has allegedly played down protests from China on the increasing crime on the border between the two countries.
Since October last year, the alliance has captured one town in Shan State every three days. How could the armed groups get the money to buy weapons and pay their soldiers? The opium trade could be an answer.
There are clear reasons why China would like to see peace in Myanmar. The northern region of Myanmar has become a haven for Chinese criminals to continue their human trafficking and online scam activities, apart from the opium threat.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes opium as “a highly addictive non-synthetic narcotic that is extracted from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. The opium poppy is the key source for many narcotics, including morphine, codeine and heroin”.
Myanmar has a long history of drug production linked to political and economic insecurity caused by decades of armed conflict. The country is a significant producer and exporter of methamphetamine and was the world’s second-largest opium and heroin producer after Afghanistan, until UNODC announced its findings on Dec. 12, 2023.
However, for a long time ASEAN has paid little attention to this danger lurking on its doorstep. The rising opium production will exacerbate the political and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Myanmar and pose further threats to regional security.
The Myanmar junta is responsible for the killing of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and rebels, and may have profited from the opium trade, given the reports suggesting that nearly all warring parties in the country take part in the illicit business.
The junta became a global laughing stock in June last year when it announced it had destroyed more than US$446 million worth of illegal drugs seized from the country as a part of the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse. Does anyone believe the cash-strapped regime was so generous that it let that money go?
The UN findings should give cause for concern beyond the diplomatic realm. The ASEAN leaders should address the matter soon and seek assistance from world organizations and other entities.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has declared a war on drugs. It is therefore legitimate to expect him as the Indonesian leader to step up his game at the regional level.
Known as one of the world’s largest markets for drugs, Indonesia should be at the forefront of the global fight against drugs, which reportedly involves not only cartels, but also militaries.
The official website of the National Police’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Bareskrim) uploaded a statement by a senior state official in 2021 that Indonesia had the third-highest ranking for drug abuse and trafficking after Mexico and Colombia.
No fewer than 48 million Indonesian people aged between 15 and 64 have used drugs according to Bareskrim’s 2022 data, up by 4.5 million from the previous year.
The danger of opium production in Myanmar is real. ASEAN can no longer pretend that nothing untoward is happening. The illicit business will spiral out of control unless ASEAN takes concerted efforts to address it. It is time for ASEAN to send out an SOS.