Poppy Barons on the ‘Speed’ Boat

The notorious Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia has long produced a large portion of the world's illicit drugs. Although authorities in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Laos have had substantial success in ending opium poppy growing, newer technologies are allowing for the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs. Poppy barons have discovered that trafficking in methamphetamines can be quite lucrative and have developed alternative distribution routes, one of them leading through parts of northeastern India. Despite complaints from the Indian government, Burmese authorities assert that the chemical precursors to methamphetamines are banned in their country and that India and other countries' criticisms are unfounded. To effectively control drug trafficking in the region, this article concludes, India, Burma, and other countries need to cooperate more on border security and share intelligence. – YaleGlobal

Poppy Barons on the 'Speed' Boat

The opium story nears its end. Myanmar's Golden Triangle shifts to synthetic drugs, pulling India into a deadlier input-output chain.
Larry Jagan
Monday, February 16, 2004

Beyond the menace of terrorism, Northeast India now has to grapple with a fresh, perilous twist in its old companion tale: drugs. With the Thai government cracking down on the trafficking of illegal drugs from Myanmar’s notorious Golden Triangle nearly a year ago, and the harried drug barons seeking new markets for their trade, western anti-narcotic specialists based in the region say the last few months have seen a significant spurt in the flow of synthetic drugs into India.

Earlier, opium and heroin were pushed across Myanmar into the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal; these also found their way into the streets of Calcutta. Now the trafficking of synthetic designer drugs – particularly methamphetamines and amphetamines (also called speed, the classic 'upper') – is beginning to mount. Says an Indian government official, "India is likely to be flooded by drugs from Myanmar's Golden Triangle in the coming year unless Rangoon takes greater preventive measures."

Most of Myanmar's drugs are produced in Shan state in the northeast of the country, bordering Thailand, Laos and China. For centuries, the poor farmers in this mountainous area had been growing poppy to augment their meagre income from the land. The key area in Shan state – where most of the opium was grown – became known as the Golden Triangle. It's precisely here that the bulk of Burma's synthetic drugs is also produced. "The production of methamphetamines began in the mid-'90s to serve the growing market in neighbouring Thailand," says Dr Sandro Calvani, regional head of the Bangkok-based UN Organisation (against) Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Since then, synthetic drugs from Myanmar have begun flowing into Laos, China and now, increasingly, India. Those destined for India are trafficked through Myanmar's western areas, and also through China down into India. A substantial amount of these synthetic drugs into India also comes through the Calcutta port and across the border with Bangladesh via the port of Chittagong. Says a senior European anti-drugs expert, "There is an increasing flow of drugs from Myanmar passing through the port of Rangoon and ending up in southern Thailand and India."

The region's drug barons also employ ships and boats, moored off Myanmar's coast as floating amphetamine factories, say drug enforcement agents in Myanmar. "Smaller vessels then transport the tablets to nearby ports in Thailand, Bangladesh and India," points out one official. Recent seizures in the Andaman Sea by the Myanmarese authorities may discourage the region's drug dealers from expanding this route.

"It’s impossible to estimate the Myanmar-India drug flow," says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC head in Rangoon. Senior Myanmarese anti-narcotic officials say this is because the drug routes into India are far more numerous and varied than to either Thailand and China. "But it is significant and growing," confirms one Myanmarese police colonel.

The Myanmarese authorities insist their country isn't responsible for the growing scourge of methamphetamines in the region. They argue that none of the chemicals required to produce the synthetic drugs is manufactured inside Myanmar. "The precursor chemicals needed to make these amphetamine drugs are not produced in Myanmar, and are illegal here," says Myanmar foreign minister Win Aung. Privately, senior anti-narcotic officials say nearly 70 per cent of these precursor drugs are smuggled in from China, with the rest coming in mainly from India; Thailand still contributes a small percentage.

Drug trafficking and cross-border terrorism persuaded New Delhi to change its stance towards Myanmar nearly 10 years ago, realising as it did that only the military junta could help resolve the twin problems. Over the last few years, cooperation with Myanmar has resulted in a concerted campaign – bilaterally as well as multilaterally – to help stem the trafficking of drugs into India.

Ironically, India's problem has risen partly from the commitment of Myanmar's generals to eradicate poppy farming and stamp out heroin trafficking by the end of 2005. This has inspired drug barons to produce synthetic drugs and look for lucrative markets such as India's.

The Myanmar government claims it has already halved opium production in the current poppy-growing season (from Oct/ Nov to Feb/March). "Poppy production is down by more than 50 per cent across all of Shan state; in some areas, its cultivation has been reduced by nearly two-thirds," says Col San Pwint, a Myanmarese intelligence officer in charge of ensuring an end to the country's drug production.

Travelling across Shan state, this correspondent found little evidence of poppy production. The major poppy plantations here have been replaced by rolling acres of alternative cash crops – mainly oranges, mangoes, litchis, longans, coffee and tea. The military authorities insist crop substitution projects have enabled the local ethnic groups to stop growing poppy and improve their standard of living at the same time. In the past two years, the main rebel group in the region – the Wa – has been steadily reducing its opium production and is committed to ending all poppy cultivation under their control in 2005. Their leader Bau Yuxiang vows it will be a reality next year or he'll cut off his head and hand it over to the UN. The Wa leadership is taking draconian measures to end poppy cultivation.

"Everybody in these areas is aware that the Wa administration plans to eliminate opium poppy production within the next two years," says Lemahieu. "Poor farmers and local officials alike are in no doubt that poppy production will no longer be tolerated. Even in the remotest villages, where poverty drove the farmers to grow poppy, they know the deadline."

Another rebel group in this region adjacent to China – the Kokang – has been even more dramatic in its actions. Ignoring the government's drive against drugs until now, "the Kokang have completely stopped poppy production this year and have started crop substitution projects throughout their region," says Kokang leader Phon Kya Shin. But already there are fears of a looming humanitarian crisis as the poorest peasants now do not have enough food to survive without government or UN assistance.

The UNODC in Rangoon believes the Myanmarese government is being over-ambitious in its plans to stop poppy production altogether within the next two years. "If it is to be successful in the long run, Rangoon needs substantial international financial support, especially for these alternative cash crop projects," says Lemahieu.

But international financial support is unlikely to be forthcoming as long as Myanmar remains one of the world's largest producers of methamphetamines. And it's this vicious circle that's worrying Indian anti-narcotics officials. Although military rulers here are taking concerted steps to eradicate poppy cultivation, they appear to be far less rigorous in stamping out the production of methamphetamines in the Golden Triangle. In the past three years, the production of synthetic drugs has remained at the same relatively high level of over one million tablets a year, admit UN and US anti-narcotics agents.

Until recently most of this was produced in mobile laboratories along the Myanmarese border with Thailand. Since Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra launched his 'War Against Drugs' in February last year, many of these mobile labs moved inland. Over the last two years, there's also been a migration of mobile factories to the border with Laos. US intelligence sources believe this is where the majority of methamphetamine production is now taking place, and some labs have even been established inside Laos. Indian narcotics specialists believe some yaa baa (Thai for meths) factories are now being set up near India's northeast border.

There is little doubt that most amphetamine production takes place in areas under Wa control. "We do not tolerate the production of synthetic drugs in areas under our control," counters Wa leader Bau. "Anyone caught in Wa territory using narcotics or involved in the illicit drugs trade will be executed," he said. So far no one's been executed, but more than 50 people are in prison for drug-related offences.

The Wa leaders, military chiefs and most governments in the region seem to agree that criminal gangs, and not the Wa, are behind the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs. UN officials agree and say they are mainly Chinese criminals, some with connections to Hong Kong and Macao (a special administrative region of China). The fear is that when poppy cultivation ends, many local businessmen who made substantial profits from the opium trade will be encouraged to increase methamphetamine production.

"Presently, yaa baa seems to be the most effective crop substitution programme in the Golden Triangle," says a senior western diplomat in Rangoon. If that happens large-scale, drug barons will increasingly target India among their main markets. The more rigorous controls on trafficking implemented along Myanmar's eastern border with Thailand are already forcing the flow of drugs up into China and across into India.

Myanmar's generals, of course, believe the solution to this problem lies in India's own hands. "Now that Thailand has effectively controlled the smuggling of caffeine (treated as a precursor chemical in Myanmar), most of it is coming down from the Indian border and passing through Mandalay," says Col Kham Awng who heads Myanmar's anti-narcotics police. Stronger controls on the border are needed, he says. This will necessitate greater cooperation between Delhi and Rangoon, with increased sharing of intelligence. For the moment, though, it's still business as usual for Myanmar's drug barons – and India can expect to be flooded by drugs produced in the Golden Triangle.

Larry Jagan is a Bangkok-based Asia analyst and the former regional news and current affairs editor for Asia and the Pacific for BBC World Service.

© Outlook Publishing (India) Private Limited 2003. Reprinted from Outlook India Magazine Feb. 23, 2004.