Illicit drug trafficking and production in Myanmar: drivers and future policy responses

Author: Myo Myo

Myo, Myo, 2022 Illicit drug trafficking and production in Myanmar: drivers and future policy responses, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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The Golden Triangle, which is an epic centre for illicit businesses, located at the intersection of three specific countries – Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, has long been known for drug production and trafficking, particularly opium production. Nevertheless, the southeast Asian illicit drug market is undergoing a profound transformation, with the rise of synthetic drugs, particularly in Northern Myanmar. There is a large body of research by academic drug scholars looking at factors driving illicit drug production and trafficking of developed countries from across the globe (e.g., UK, US, Australia) and a lesser extent developing countries. However, there remain many gaps in knowledge about what is driving this trade in Myanmar.

This study seeks to identify the main drivers of Myanmar's illicit drug trade, including the recent rise in methamphetamine production and trafficking, and examine the adequacy of the 2018 National Drug Control Policy responses. This research used a qualitative methodology, including a semi-structured in-depth interview with thirteen stakeholders from three areas: 1) the criminal justice system, e.g., the Myanmar Police Force and the Australian Federal Police, 2) government agencies, e.g., the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in Myanmar, and 3) Non-Government Organisations.

Stakeholders identified multiple factors driving Myanmar's illicit drug economy. This included a high profit derived from the sale of illicit drugs in a context of poverty and underdevelopment, corruption, political instability, conflict, and the presence of a plethora of non-state armed groups, a weak rule of law, ethnic armed groups and transnational organised syndicates and displacement of chemical precursors from China. Of note, interviewees stated that the Myanmar illicit drug business brings economic incentives and payoffs for opium farmers and local dealers as a means of economic subsistence. Interviewees also noted that most of the profit goes outside the country, particularly to large international criminal syndicates in Hong Kong and China. However, the biggest drivers of the Myanmar drug trade are under development and the weak rule of law, both of which are perfect conditions for a growing drug trade which has only been exacerbated by the coup d'état of 1st February 2021.

This thesis particularly looks at the adequacy of the 2018 Myanmar’s National Drug Control Policy responses, and subsequently proposes suggestions for more effective policy responses. All respondents and given literature noted that the 2018 Myanmar’s National Drug Control Policy is a good quality document because it is comprehensive, evidence-informed, and humane, and brings relevant stakeholders together. However, there are numerous issues with policy implementation due to issues such as a lack of resourcing, budget constraints, and a lack of comprehensive drug use data on the ground. Recent political change, as a result of the military coup d'état, and the Covid-19 pandemic have created more opportunities for the continued growth of the narcotic drugs industry, particularly amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and opium.

This research project contributes a broader academic knowledge to the existing drug literature. This thesis reinforces the key roles that underdevelopment, weak rule of law and geopolitical circumstances can play in driving illicit drug markets in developing contexts and the importance of addressing these issues as part of a comprehensive drug policy responses. Therefore, this thesis suggests that each nation’s policy needs to be fit for purpose by looking at broader geopolitics factors and development issues.

Keywords: illicit drug trafficking and production, the Golden Triangle, enablers, poverty, profit, underdevelopment, drug policy responses, Myanmar

Subject: International Relations thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2022
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Associate Professor Caitlin Hughes