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DVB Debate: Why are drug abuse and production flourishing in Burma?

Burma is currently one of the world’s main sources of opiates and methamphetamines, and the world’s second largest poppy grower after Afghanistan. Production fuels rampant addiction in the country and the drug problem shows no signs of improvement.

Panellists on DVB Debate discussed the drugs industry and question how known drug lords have been able to operate in Burma without arrest or impediment.

“In the past, drug tycoons like Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han were never arrested and became the owners of large successful businesses in Burma like Asia World,” said freelance journalist Aung Kyi Soe Myint.

“This is because of money laundering. People like Khun Sa had been doing this for a long time and become rich,” said Hla Htay, a psychiatrist for the Drug Dependency Treatment and Research Unit.

Cartoon: DVB Debate

Police Maj. Khin Maung Thein from the Police Drug Enforcement Division noted that drug dealers can afford to pay bribes in exchange for impunity.

“Because they are rich, they can pay off the authorities, even the judges,” he said. “This is not an issue that can be solved outright and immediately. Maybe that’s why certain people decide that because we cannot solve it, it is better to accept bribes.”

In the late 1990s, opium production in Burma began to decline after efforts by the UN and the government to eradicate poppy cultivation. However, crop replacement schemes were ultimately unsuccessful, and drug syndicates began focusing on manufacturing methamphetamines instead of opium.

“Fighting drug abuse is like squeezing a balloon. If you squeeze one side, then, the other side becomes inflated,” said Hla Htay.

The general-secretary of the Myanmar Red Cross, Aung Kyaw Htut, said, “We know that drugs are used here [in Burma] and are exported to other countries. Amphetamines are manufactured in this country – millions of dollars’ worth have been seized.”

In the border areas of Shan and Kachin states, with a perfect mountainous climate, an abundance of opium poppies can grow. However, poor infrastructure and decades of civil war mean these areas have long been difficult to access.

With the election of a new government in 2011 came a slew of reforms. But the benefits of transition also helped the drugs trade.

“Since the new government came in, travel has become easier. Unlike in the past, people can travel without showing identification, and there are not so many checkpoints, so it is very convenient and much faster,” said Pol Maj Khin Maung Thein.

“But as travelling has become easier so has the transportation of drugs.”

Young people and university students in ethnic areas are particularly affected by addiction, and authorities in these areas do little to prevent it.  Audience members say drug addiction in these ethnic regions feel like an unofficial government policy.

“There is no rule of law in our area. Have we been left out because we are on the border, or because it is too late for us?” asks Tawng Ra, a Kantkaw Education Centre student.

Kachin student, B. Esther Ze Naw feels the government have purposely withheld support for drug addiction in ethnic areas.

“Why is the support so weak? Are they neglecting it on purpose? Or more importantly – is this a form of ethnic cleansing?”

The studio generally agreed that the authorities need to crack down strongly on corruption, and that more support needs to be given to people already affected by addiction.