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Myanmar Military and the Drug Trade

February 25, 2022

In the Far East, there is a long history of military associations with the drug trade. The British East India Company was fundamentally a surrogate for the British government that took steps to capture the drug market by forming a trade triangle selling opium at auction in India, transporting opium to China in British ships for sale to Chinese merchants and then buying Chinese tea for consumption in Britain.  Eventually, the Indian purchasing agents were removed from the triangle given the soaring volumes as opium smoking became quite fashionable in China as shown below. Trade and taxation disputes led to the cession of Hong Kong to the British in 1842.

Mao Zedong is credited with eradicating both consumption and production of opium during the 1950’s. Ten million Chinese addicts were made to undergo treatment, dealers executed and growers forced to plant new crops. The remaining trade moved into Southeast Asia, in particular the Golden Triangle area, where Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar today) join. As opium was traditionally a trade substitute for cash, it became the financing source for the Hmong hill tribe forces in Laos supported by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.  It was openly shipped in Corsican commercial flights around Laos and quietly taken on Air America flights as carry-on for Hmong fighters in their personal effects. During the peak of the Vietnam War in 1971, some 20% of American soldiers regarded themselves as having drug addictions.

Traditional opium dens still existed in the Chinatown area of Bangkok during my time in the late-1960’s. However, I never grasped the opium den concept. Moreover, why bother when Thai stick was freely available. Once, the Thai governor of a remote Thai province rolled out his ganja smoke before dinner which was a bit of a surprise to an Eagle Scout like me. He also said he would not join us on the evening wild boar hunt as he would stay in camp and look after his lady attendants.  On the other hand, the next morning he asked me to guard his attendant entourage while they gathered orchid plants in the jungle.

In recognition of the one-year anniversary of the Myanmar military overthrow of the freely elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, there is one industry in Myanmar that has soared. John Reed of The Financial Times described the thriving industry in an article entitled How Myanmar Fueled Rise in Illegal Drugs Trade. The capital of the drug trade is the Shan state of Myanmar which is in the Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos join. That designation has been true since Mao eradicated the opium consumption in China.

Over the years, we have spent a tremendous amount of time in the Golden Triangle, particularly on the Thai side as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is located there.  It is interesting that on the Myanmar side there are three standing private armies in the Wa, Shan and Karen neighborhoods. On the Lao side, there was a major opium distribution center at Houay Xay where we fueled aircraft during the Laos troubles. I took some comfort that the U.S. government provided a fuel quality control expert to periodically inspect our facilities as they did in other less obvious smuggling operations in Laos. Tachileik, Myanmar is a quaint border town and short drive from the Thai airport in Chang Rai. However, the route is congested because of Thai roadblocks and check points.  Myanmar has historically been known for heroin production, but that product leadership position reputation is now being challenged by synthetic drugs as the country has become the world’s largest producer of synthetics—move over Mexico.

The Thai named “Yaa Baa” – or “crazy drug” – methamphetamine tablets can be readily manufactured most anywhere. Moreover, the clearest measure of the level of consumption and demand is the huge growth in the rate of seizures as shown below.  Yaa Baa is favored by party folks and truck drivers as a major “upper” to keep one going.

The distinct advantage of synthetic drug production is that it is very difficult to monitor and detect when compared to fields of poppy as shown below.  Two failed states represent the world leaders in heroin production from the poppy—Afghanistan and Myanmar.  On the other hand, detection can be a risk as any airplane flyover can readily see poppy fields of dreams that ultimately become nightmares. Nonetheless, few people care in both countries.

The Thailand equivalent of the Drug Dow Jones indicator is shown below indicating drug prices are falling despite increased seizures of narcotics.  There are several theories behind these trends such as the Myanmar Tatmadaw (military) are turning a blind eye to the production increases in order not to create any trouble with the armies of the drug lords.  Another theory suggests the economy is so frail that drug prices are being lowered to increase the usage by new consumers.

The Myanmar junta’s Minister of Home Affairs is shown below as he gazes upon a large amount of Ketamine that was made in his country, seized following export and soon to be burned.  One can only imagine if he feels proud that it was captured or whether he is in disbelief at a loss of potential personal economic gain that will go up in smoke in Thailand. Given the basic lack of character of the junta, I think we all know the answer to that question. By the way, Ketamine has roots in Southeast Asia as it was originally developed as an anesthetic for animals and then approved to treat U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam conflict.

Another illustration of revolving history is that India, to the west of Myanmar, has now been transformed as the new significant market for heroin and other drugs from Myanmar. Therefore, the home of the British East India Company has become a thriving outlet for a product that was originally sourced there many years ago.  What goes around comes around.

When we are in the Golden Triangle, we often go across the border to Tachileik, Myanmar to buy crafts and fabric for The Elephant Story. However, on the next trip to the Golden Triangle, I might stay on the Thai side given everything I have said about the Tatmadaw.  On the other hand, I could always go over on my Belize passport. You just cannot have too many nationalities – “If you do not like that passport, how about this one?”

Explore the large selection of hand-made crafts from Myanmar (formerly Burma) which are only available at The Elephant Story.

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