Myanmar authorities burn $446m in illegal drugs

Restricting narcotics use and production in the military-ruled nation has failed despite efforts at cracking down on the booming business.

A man harvests opium as he works in an opium field outside Loikaw, Kayah state, Myanmar, November 30, 2016. Picture taken on November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A man harvests opium as he works in an field outside Loikaw, Kayah state, Myanmar [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

Myanmar authorities torched almost half a billion dollars of illegal drugs but warned they are failing to stop a surge in the production and trafficking of narcotics.

Head-high piles of heroin, cannabis, methamphetamines, and opium were burned on Monday in the commercial hub Yangon in an annual spectacle to mark International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Televised torchings also took place elsewhere in the country with a total of $446m of narcotics going up in smoke, according to military officials.

But in a rare admission, the head of Myanmar’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control said its efforts to crush the multibillion-dollar trade were having no impact.

“Even though countless drug abusers, producers, traffickers and cartels were arrested and prosecuted, the production and trafficking of drugs have not declined at all,” Soe Htut told the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

The “Golden Triangle” border region of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand has long been a hotbed of illegal drug production and trafficking, particularly of meth and opium.

This includes Myanmar’s Shan state – Southeast Asia’s primary source of meth, according to the United Nations. It is home to a patchwork of ethnic rebel groups and militias aligned with the country’s army.

‘Ultimate protection cartel’

Analysts said the military, which ousted an elected government and seized power in 2021, is not serious about ending the lucrative trade.

The army is “actually the ultimate protection cartel of the trade and have been for many years”, independent analyst David Mathieson said.

The burning comes as the UN reported record seizures of crystal meth last year in Myanmar and said opium poppy farming has seen a revival in the chaos unleashed by the coup.

More than 23 tonnes of crystal meth were seized in Myanmar in 2022, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime said this month. Wholesale and street prices for meth across Southeast Asia were falling or at record lows, it said.

“The most powerful regional trafficking networks are able to operate with a high degree of certainty they can and will not be stopped,” it said.

Opium poppy production in Myanmar also ramped up dramatically after the coup as political and economic turmoil drove farmers to cultivate the crop.

The area of land used for opium poppies is now at about 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres), the UN said – about half the size of New York City.

The military government said some armed ethnic organizations that control large swathes of remote territory produce illicit drugs to fund their insurgencies and do not cooperate in the country’s peace process because they do not wish to relinquish the benefits they gain from the drug trade.

Historically, some ethnic rebel groups have also used drug profits to fund their struggle for greater autonomy from the central government.

Most of the opium, heroin and methamphetamines exported by Myanmar goes to China and other countries in Southeast Asia.

Source: News Agencies