Tuesday, May 28, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


How Myanmar border has become a worry for neighbours

  • A key drug trafficking corridor
  • Illicit drugs coming from Myanmar through criminal gangs
  • Rohingya nationals also behind the drug smuggling 
  • Myanmar is now the world’s largest opium producer
Update : 05 Mar 2024, 12:08 PM

Persistent political instability, the rise of insurgency and separatist movements, and military intervention since 1962 have gradually turned Myanmar into the most unstable country in the region and a hotbed for organized crimes and the production of illicit drugs. Being the next-door neighbour, Bangladesh has been heavily affected by synthetic drugs like yaba, Ice and heroin coming from Myanmar through criminal gangs as well as Rohingya nationals for the last 25 years.

Methamphetamine pills, or yaba, are the most frequently used and widely seized amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) in Bangladesh, with significant seizures since 2008. This crazy medicine is a cheap, potent, and highly addictive synthetic drug. According to Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control (DNC), most of the yaba labs are located in Shan and Kachin states along the Myanmar-China border.

There are complex governance issues inside Myanmar, with a lot of fragmented groups controlling different territories. Drug production is happening in these often very remote areas where the borders are open and porous; it is easy to traffic items in and out of Myanmar, so that poses challenges for its neighbours, says the UN.

The organized crime trafficking gangs that dominate the Asia-Pacific region play a global role in the drug trade and other illicit activities. They look for safe havens where it is easier for them to do business and operate with impunity. They look for chaos, a lack of governance, and porous borders.

Concerned about the spread of yaba, Bangladesh amended the Narcotics Control Act in 2018 to include a provision for a death sentence or life in prison as a punishment for producing, trading, and using 200 grams or more of yaba or more than 25 grams of heroin and cocaine.

Additionally, Bangladesh has deployed an anti-trafficking task force in Cox's Bazar and Teknaf.

In December last year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Myanmar is now the world’s largest opium producer, where the area under opium cultivation in 2023 is estimated to be 47,100 hectares, up from 40,100 the previous year, while the corresponding yield is estimated to be 1,080 tons, or 36% higher than the 2022 estimate.

The UNODC also reported that the most significant increases were registered in Shan State, which lies in the so-called Golden Triangle, a hub of narcotic production and smuggling. Opium cultivation in the Shan state increased by 20%, followed by Chin and Kachin states—bordering India—where it increased by 10% and 6%, respectively.

File photo of yaba packets. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

The UN has observed that the economic and political crisis following the 2021 coup and the widening conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups since October last year continue to drive farmers towards illicit opium poppy production in remote areas. The intensification of conflict in Shan and other border areas is expected to accelerate more sophisticated farming of opium.

It says the expansion of opium cultivation is feeding a growing illicit economy in the Mekong region, bringing together high levels of synthetic drug production and drug trafficking, money laundering, and online criminal activities including casinos and scam operations.

A key drug trafficking corridor

The UN is supporting a cross-border collaboration between law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia to tackle organized crime along one of the world’s “biggest drug trafficking corridors." The effort is centred on the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet and from where illicit items, including drugs, are trafficked to lucrative markets across Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Douglas, the Regional Representative of the UNODC for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, explains: “In Shan State, Myanmar, there is the major production of heroin and opium, but also synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, which are spilling out across the region and feeding the whole of the Asia Pacific [region], basically from Japan down to New Zealand and everywhere in between.”

Changes in area under opium cultivation in Myanmar between 2022 and 2023. Photo: UNODC

While Myanmar’s traditional plant-based drugs have seen a drop over the last three to four years, there has been a slight resurgence in opium since the military takeover in Myanmar, as farmers are returning to cultivating the drug after losing other livelihood-generating activities. 

“We also see a huge surge in synthetic drugs produced by organized crime networks, which have migrated their operations from other parts of the region because they can operate with relative impunity. They have invested in building big drug-producing facilities,” Douglas added.

Apart from synthetic drugs, these organized crime gangs are also involved in money laundering and all the other nasty elements that are associated with the trafficking of a range of different items, including wildlife products, arms, and even human trafficking.

The UN official thinks that sharing information and conducting joint operations can stop the delivery into Myanmar of chemicals needed to manufacture synthetic drugs and prevent the trade of hundreds of tons of drugs the other way.

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