Myanmar: Drug Politics and Democratic Transition

24 Jul, 2013    ·   4049

Yves-Marie Rault deconstructs the emergence of Myanmar as a drug-trafficking platform

Yves-Marie Rault
Yves-Marie Rault
Research Intern

Lo Hsing Han’s funeral ceremony, on 17 July, was probably not any different from that of Vito Corleone, the Mafia boss depicted in Coppola’s “The Godfather”. Family, friends, business partners and government officials came to pay their last respects to the deceased drug lord. Hao Xao Chan, an Upper House lawmaker from the military backed USDP, took one day off to attend the ceremony. The “Godfather of Heroin”, as he was dubbed by the US administration, amassed a fortune, thanks to his narcotic empire. In five decades of dirty business, he became one of the world’s biggest traffickers of heroin, and according to non-official sources, the wealthiest person in Myanmar. How did Myanmar become a platform for drug trafficking? Why did the government fail to put an end to it so far ?

Resistance and Persistence of Narco-Structures
Lo Hsing Han has been involved in Golden Triangle’s drug trade since the 1960s, as the chief of paramilitary forces in Northern Myanmar, moving opium to the Thai border with the blessing of the then-dictator Ne Win and as the managing director of Asia World Co Ltd, a company used for money laundering, and as a front for his illicit activities. The firm, a commercial conglomerate with diversified activities, has thrived since its creation in the 1990’s, obtaining the most lucrative government contracts such as the construction of highways, cargo ports, airports, hydropower projects, hotels.

In May 2012, the son of Lo Hsing Han, who had joined the father’s criminal business long time back, was seen very near to the President Thein Sein during his entire official visit to China. Old drug structures die hard in Myanmar, and they are still spreading their tentacles despite the democratic transition.

On the 7 November 2010, during the first general elections held in Myanmar since the Constitution has been adopted, no less than seven big drug traffickers entered the Parliament. All from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), they were largely elected in their constituencies of the Northern Shan State. The military-backed party representatives in the field told the poppy farmers that their crops would be safe if they voted for them. “The army gets (drug) taxes; the Lion (USDP) gets votes” said a local businessman. Elected in the three assemblies, seven drug lords thus became lawmakers in the democratic country, and some of them are currently occupying ministerial positions.

The Lost War on Drugs
Myanmar, along with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, is located in the extensive opium-producing area of Golden Triangle. The country, the world’s second largest opium producer, has always been a suitable spot for narcotic production, with the presence of the army, government aligned militias and ethnic-insurgent groups in the poppy-growing areas. With the money earned from taxes, drug delivery to international traffickers, or even refining, they buy food, weapons, and military equipment. The authorities condone the army involvement, because they are aware that these resources are necessary to fight back the insurgents. As of the farmers, the UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 200 000 families are currently growing poppies, especially in the mountains of the Shan state. This zone has been undergoing a civil war for decades, displacing people and destroying farms. So the peasants keep growing poppy as opium can be easily transported and traded against food or medicine.

For the sixth consecutive year, drug production has increased in Myanmar, according to a recent survey by the UNODC. Hence, the government had to extend his eradication plan, supposed to end in 2014, to 2019. In fact, the authorities have very little influence on the “special zones” controlled by several ethnic armies, which recently accepted a cease-fire with the government. Consequently, they deployed their demobilized troops on the poppy fields, willing to make as much money as possible in drug business while they still can. Beside, farmers whose poppy farms are destroyed or threatened simply find fields deeper in the mountain, where the police do not come.

Democracy: The Chance to Empower Farmers
The current stick policy, mostly based on law enforcement and supply and demand reduction, has been a failure so far. To change the deal, the new democratic state must empower the farmers, i.e. give them the capacity to grow legal crops. Firstly, peace and security must be ensured, so that the farmers do not look only for short-term profits. Secondly, the switch to legal crops must be encouraged by subsides to rubber, sugarcane or banana plantations. Thirdly, the construction of infrastructures and mountain roads must be given priority, so the farmers can bring their crops to the market.

Ultimately, as the root cause of poppy growing is poverty, the government must grant access to health and education to the farmers. In sum, the prospect of a decent living.

The governmental programme has been till now a set of cosmetic measures which underlines a lack of political will in stopping drug trafficking. If the plan already permitted the catching of small fish, like poor farmers and minor drug traffickers, big fish, like Lo Hsing Han, still slip between the cracks. Transparency and exemplarity must start in the highest spheres of Myanmar state. As Bert Lintner wrote, “No anti-drug policy in Burma has any chance of success unless it is linked to [...] a meaningful democratic process in Rangoon”.