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At least seven MPs in Burma’s three parliaments have been implicated in the country’s lucrative narcotics industry, according to a recent report that again cast doubts on government pledges that it is stamping out the trade.
The men all hail from constituencies in the country’s northeastern Shan state, which once held the distinction of being the world’s largest source of heroin. Production there has declined since the mid-1990s, but according the latest report by Shan Drug Watch, it is being helped along by powerful figures.
“They persuaded locals to vote for them by promising to allow poppy growing,” Khunsei Jaiyen, head of the Shan Drug Watch, said of the MPs, which include Lui Guoxi, a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) whom Bertil Lintner, a renowned expert on Burma’s narcotics industry, claims was a “key operator” in a drugs’ ring run by the ethnic Kokang militia.
Khunsei told DVB that “poppy growing [for opium] has increased in the [Shan] region since these individuals won in the elections.”
The others accused of being complicit in the trade, which is increasingly turning to synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, are also USDP members with close ties to government-backed militias. One of these is T. Hkun Mya, chairman of the House Bill Committee in the People’s Parliament, who is close to a group “involved in protection and transportation of drug shipments” passing through the town of Namtu in Shan state.
The report, entitled Druglords in Parliament, says that poppy growing has increased in the past year “in 45 out of 50 Shan townships controlled by government troops, while remaining ceasefire areas along the China-Shan border were opium free”.
One of the key catalysts for the expansion of growing in recent years is the Burmese army’s self-reliance policy that sees troops, who already receive meagre wages, forced to provide for themselves. A hand in the narcotics industry is a lucrative source of income.
Lintner said it was “hard to tell” if the reports findings were accurate. “Even if poppy production has decreased in [ceasefire] areas, the groups there are still making heroin and yaba [methamphetamine],” he told DVB.
Apparent attempts by China, which shares a border with Shan state, to pressure the Burmese government to step up elimination efforts have met with little success. The report says that Chinese authorities in 2009 provided the Burmese with satellite images of poppy fields in Shan state, but that army officials kept stalling.
Although Thailand is seen as the main destination for drugs coming out of Burma, the cross-border trade into China has soared in recent years. The head of the Yunnan Public Security Bureau was quoted by gokunming.com earlier this year as saying: “Opiates and synthetic stimulants alike are produced both in areas controlled by the Burmese government in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, as well as in areas administered by breakaway ethnic groups.”
Moreover, the industry has had a local impact, with drug use among Shan, particularly the young, not abating. The report says: “Despite the increased availability of opium and heroin, methamphetamine or “yaba” has become the most popular drug among youth in Shan State, where the cost of a pill is as low as 1,500 kyat (US$1.7) compared to 100 baht (US$3.3) per pill across the border in Thailand.”