Decoding Drug Problem and Rethinking Drug Law in Myanmar
Author: Kyaw Lynn
Advisor: Asst. Prof. Pobsook Chamchong, PhD
Co-Supervisor: Asst.Prof. Piyapong Boossabong, PhD
On account of the background, there are three key components in the drug problem of Myanmar such as opium cultivation, heroin production and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) production (also known as synthetic drugs). Firstly, opium cultivation is mostly engaged by the local ethnic population in the Shan and Kachin States and is regarded as a cash crop for their income in alleviating food shortages and buying necessary things for the household. Second, heroin production takes place due to other motivations. It is mainly produced in Shan State, where a number of ethnic armed organisations and government-backed militia and border guard forces (BGF) also exist. Then, in the third component of the Myanmar drug problem, the production of ATS could not also be neglected, especially as it has been increasing in recent years. ATS production began in Thailand in the years of 1990, and gradually, it was conducted and boomed in Myanmar and other neighbouring countries. The key chemical ingredients, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, are imported from China and India. But the problem in calculating the ATS production exists because, unlike opium, ATS can be produced in large quantities by chemists in small laboratories with readily available chemicals.
The laws and regulations drafted and enacted under the military regime were less reflective of the reality and public will and mainly focused on supply reduction, including the reduction of opium poppy cultivation and addressing the limitation on the demand side. In 2015, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government came into power, they began considering what changes were needed for the development of a new drug policy and amendments to the existing drug law. In 2017, it was recorded that 48% of Myanmar’s 60,000-80,000 prisoners were detained for drug-related offences.
After passing through a number of consultation and negotiation processes with various local and international actors, including the UNODC, the government started to adopt a new drug policy called the ‘National Drug Control Policy’ in February 2018. Then, the existing drug law was amended to some extent. However, there are gaps in legislation, weaknesses in law enforcement capacity, a lack of forensic testing capacity, and an absence of evidence and data on which to build policy.
Causing the already bad situation to worsen is the outbreak of the military coup staged by the Myanmar military in February 2021. In line with the latest report published in January 2023 by the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC), both opium cultivation and heroin production in the country in 2022 were on the rise (33% higher than the previous year) accounting for an estimated of 40100 ha for the former and of 800 metric tonnes for the latter respectively. Next, some experts have also estimated that the amount of both heroin and synthetic drug production can be increased in the later years due to the current military rule and political instability in the country. To date, Myanmar is regarded as the largest synthetic drug production country in the world and the second largest one in terms of opium cultivation and heroin production.
In fact, the drug problem in Myanmar is a complex issue with a multi-layered reality causing its ecosystem to be more unsolvable. The current policy report is an attempt to uncover the root causes of the problem in order to provide feasible recommendations for positive policy changes for the drug epidemics of Myanmar.
When applying the ‘Complexity Theory (CT)’ and ‘Causal-Layered Analysis (CLA)’ to the drug problem of Myanmar, different and enriched findings can be uncovered as the followings:
Deploying the ‘Complexity Theory’ can bring comprehensive perspectives
- In both problem-creation and solution-finding processes, the agents involved in the drug ecosystem are extremely heterogeneous. When addressing the root causes of the drug opium cultivation, both state-dominant and non-state actors such as the local government agencies, military-backed militia and border guard forces, ethnic armed groups, local businesspersons_ agents and poppy cultivation farmers can be found as the key actors driving the supply side of the drug economy.
- Another feature of complexity in the drug problem of Myanmar is also related to the question of non-linearity. Both Myanmar government authorities and international actors like the United Nations Office on Drug Abuse (UNODC) have experienced uncertainty and non-linearity in the drug ecosystem throughout their efforts to reduce the supply side of drug production. The ‘balloon effect’, as a characteristic of the non-linearity, also means that while the government authorities ban poppy cultivation in one area, cultivation becomes increases in another area as the demand for opium is not reduced and the main causes of poppy cultivation are not effectively addressed. Besides, the decline in opium production can also be related to the rise of methamphetamine production as another segment of the drug economy.
- The lack of ownership or responsibility on the question of drug outbreak in Myanmar is another challenge that makes the issue to be more complex. Neither the state (both military and civilian government) nor non-state armed actors seem to believe that they have full responsibility for the occurrence of drug epidemics in the country. This is, of course, more difficult for civil society and international actors to take responsibility for the outbreak of this problem. In fact, in a research report published by the Transnational Institute (TNI) in 2007, it has mentioned that few conflict parties in Myanmar can claim to have clean hands in the drug ecosystem.
- The fourth and final point which pushes the drug problem of Myanmar toward a more unsolvable situation is due to uneven policy adoptions by various actors, including state, and non-state actors, civil society groups, international organisations, etc. The successive military governments in Myanmar had also prioritised ‘security’ over drug-related concerns leading to the rise of criminal groups and drug syndicates to operate freely in many areas. The central authority has mostly considered the drug issue as ‘a low political priority’ issue in the country despite the negative impacts on the borderland ethnic minority communities are substantial. Beyond these measurements adopted by the Naypyidaw government, the drug policies among various ethnic armed groups with some degree of legitimate control over the territory are also diverse. Starting with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic armed group from Kachin State, in a news expressed in early 2011, it is said that local community collaboration is one of the most important points for anti-drug tasks. Beyond these state and non-state armed actors, various stakeholders from civil society and the international community might also have extremely different and uneven policy adoptions regarding the drug problem in the country.
A summarisation of the findings is as the following:
Problems that the Causal-Layered Analysis (CLA) presents in the drug problem
The following picture has mentioned all key points of the CLA findings.
- Starting with the first layer, the root causes of the drug problem can be found in quantitative data, which can be numerically mentioned. On the supply side, these numbers basically include the number of poppy cultivation areas, opium cultivation and yields, tons of heroin production, the number of heroin seizures, kilograms of methamphetamine production and seizures, etc. Then, when it comes to the demand side, focused points mostly consist of the number of drug user and dealer arrests, the severity of prison punishment, the number of (compulsory) rehabilitation centres and people in the centre, and finally, the number of drug-related crimes.
- Thus, at a deeper level of causal reality, the landscape of drug issues in Myanmar should be approached from social/structural perspectives, including political, economic, cultural, and historical terms. In finding the causalities from political and institutional perspectives, the main responsibility body called the CCDAC (Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control) itself is still in question regarding effectiveness. The questions still remain when it comes to the bureaucratic autonomy of this body, especially regarding the ‘investigation’ and ‘operation’ authority on the big drug networks without the green light from superior political and military leaders. Other important points in addressing the reality of drug problems are related to political instability (politics), difficult rural economic livelihood (economics), traditional use of opium (culture) and complicated network of drug establishment (history). Considering these problems should include geographical and climate conditions, armed conflict and political instability, poverty and the lack of viable alternative livelihoods, access to credit and finally, traditional and medicinal opium use.
- Equally important, the outbreak of drug epidemics in Myanmar also needs to deal with the question of worldview or discourse scenarios, which is the third deeper layer of the CLA. In this layer, the discourse exists on the drug issue become more complicated, and it needs to deal with at least two notions, such as how the people in Myanmar, especially those opium farmers, drug dealers and producers, view the world and how the actors in the international community see the drug problem in Myanmar. In many ways, these two spheres have also interacted with each other. The first issue that comes out in the discourses is the state of the current state-based international system, including the formation of the UN and other international groupings.
- At the deepest level of reality, the drug problem in Myanmar is also concerned with the questions of unconscious narratives and deep stories. As a part of the moral horizon, every religion has considered the ‘drug use’ ‘drug deal’ and ‘drug production’ as a ‘bad’ and ‘immoral’ act. But community values and practices sometimes bring ‘exception’ to these religious rules in the daily lives of the people. Capitalism and the consistent global demand for drug production can also be considered as important parts of unconscious narratives. Besides, in many cases, although the drug dealing is generally denounced as ‘bad business’, it has also becomes an ideal and quick path to ‘richness’ and ‘material possession’ in the eyes of many people especially, when these businessmen can have a closed deal with the corrupt officers and engage in huge donations to the religious sector. Human passion for extreme emotion, especially in recreation and sex industries and willing to feel ‘high’ are also parts of psychological unconsciousness driving for more drug use.(Transnational Institute, 2023)
Three key issues should be noted in making policy changes in line with the findings from the complexity theory. Firstly, drug policy should have more space and deploy more resources in collaboration with the non-state armed actors across the country. And the second thing needs to do more with the adoption of common policy platform among the various actors for handling both supply and demand sides of the drug circle. Finally, the key external actors like the UNODC and INGOs should have flexible and comprehensive approaches in addressing the issues of non-linearity on ‘balloon effect’ and other consequences.
Changing the drug policy and law of Myanmar should consider the following recommendations in line with the CLA and it can also be seen in the following picture:
First: The approaches to solving the drug problem in Myanmar should go beyond the litany level reality, especially numbers and quantitative data related to poppy field eradication, arrests of small drug users and dealers, amount of drug seizures and the number of people in the rehabilitation centre, etc. Besides, even using the number as a measurement of ‘successes and ‘failures’, it should be more about ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’. For example, it should be more about (1) how much the government has provided socio-economic development and crop substitution for the poppy cultivation community and how many farmers refrained from poppy plantations. (2) how many drug users have ‘voluntarily’ joined the rehabilitation centre, and how many of them have become ex-drug users? And so on.
Second: At the social and systematic level of reality, the findings show that solving the drug problem in Myanmar needs a broad level of ‘partnership’ among the various stakeholders and meaningful policy changes, especially from the central authority. In this case, ‘peace building’ and ‘eradicating rural poverty’ are critical for achieving long-term solutions. A clear map of accountability among the political actors is important. Regarding the poppy farming community, solutions should be focused on the ‘access to land, access to credit, and providing alternative economic livelihoods’ rather than ‘poppy field eradication’.
Third: In this layer of world view, the roles of non-state armed actors in solving the drug problem of Myanmar should be given more place than before. Since most rural areas in many parts of the country are under the domination of the non-state armed groups, which have more trust of the people, it is more pragmatic for the international community to collaborate with the local actors. For an inter-governmental organisation like the UNODC, it is critical to balance its dependence on both state and non-state groups from collecting the data and information to approaching the solutions to the drug problem. Therefore, a critical change in the worldview discourse should be seeing ‘the non-state armed groups’ and ‘poppy cultivation community’ as essential parts of the ‘solution’ rather than the ‘problem’.
Fourth: For this deepest layer of reality, unconscious narratives play a crucial role in shaping the future of the drug problem in Myanmar. One thing that needs to be restated is changing the narrative of ordinary people that drug problems are not merely a question of law enforcement but an issue of a political decade and socio-economic breakdown. Then, in poppy cultivation, it is also critical to see the small-scale poppy farmers to be seen as ‘misfortunate and poor people’ who have no alternative livelihoods rather than as ‘bad people’ who failed to follow the law and the drug users as ‘sins’ rather than ‘criminal’. Equally, changing the narrative from ‘all drug uses are bad’ to ‘non-problematic drug use is acceptable’ is also necessary. Next, since ‘zero-drug’ scenarios are unrealistic given the current situation in the country, it becomes crucial to have a differentiation of perception between the problem and non-problematic drug use in adopting a new drug policy paradigm.
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