What does China’s Belt and Road have to do with Myanmar’s meth problem? | This Week In Asia
If Myanmar is to break an addiction to methamphetamine production that has seen it become one of the world’s largest suppliers there is one country above all others that must act: China.
That’s according to report released on Tuesday that highlighted how complexities in the relationship between the two countries are being exploited by armed separatists who are producing thousands of tonnes of the drug in the “Golden Triangle” of Myanmar’s Shan state, an area that is already the world’s second-largest heroin-producing region.
Chemicals used in the production of the drug have been flowing over the state’s border with China, according to the NGO International Crisis Group (ICG), which says China should take a tougher line against the drug-producing armed separatist groups seen as being under its influence.
China has a complex relationship with the groups, many of which arose out of the splintering of the Communist Party of Burma and claim an ideological and cultural kinship with the People’s Republic of China. As Patrick Winn, an expert on organised crime in Southeast Asia, says: “You can see the fallout from the Chinese civil war written into the landscape of the drug trade today.”
Beijing’s infrastructure ambitions in the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative require it to tread lightly with the rebels – or risk the groups destabilising its projects. And while the ICG’s report holds out hope that the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor might help to reduce illicit drug production by creating more jobs, not all experts are convinced. Indeed, some point out that enhanced transport infrastructure has helped the groups transport the drugs.
“Conditions in parts of Shan state are ideal for large-scale drug production, which requires a kind of predictable insecurity,” said the ICG. “If the drug trade is partly a symptom of Shan state’s conflicts, it is also an obstacle to sustainably ending them.
“The trade, which now dwarfs legitimate business activities, creates a political economy inimical to peace and security.”
Over the past year the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, has seized record-breaking quantities of methamphetamine, including its largest bust last January when 1,750kg of meth, 500kg of heroin, and 30 million yaba pills (a mix of meth and caffeine) were seized. The drugs were estimated to be worth US$54 million inside of Myanmar alone.
Helping to drive this influx, according to the ICG, is Shan’s proximity to supplies from across the Chinese border of precursor chemicals used in the synthesis of methamphetamine.
Closer to Yunnan than Yangon, many residents in Shan use Chinese mobile phones to connect to Chinese mobile networks and conduct their transactions using RMB.
The border is also an important overland transit point for goods entering China from the Bay of Bengal, including an oil pipeline, and China’s investment in infrastructure is seen has having facilitated the transport of not only legal consumer products, but drugs too.
Experts say China’s relationship with the separatist groups is essentially pragmatic.
“China needs to have a decent relationship with all of those groups so they don’t bomb the pipeline or block the roads,” said Winn. “Its infrastructure dreams give China an incentive to have good working relationship with the armed groups.”
However, China is not alone in its need to balance its relationship with the separatist groups. The ICG reports that in some cases, in exchange for temporary ceasefires, the Tatmadaw has brokered agreements with the groups which effectively grant them autonomy to conduct drug production and trafficking.
In other cases, the drug trade is carried out by militias installed by the Tatmadaw to fight the separatist groups.
“Many of these militias are also involved in drug production for funding,” said Enze Han, associate professor of politics and public administration at University of Hong Kong. “One of the Myanmar government’s goal in countering the [separatist] insurgency is to create these militias to fight against the separatist groups, and they are also benefiting from the money.”
GROUNDS FOR HOPE
Some argue that China’s influence with the separatists can also be positive. Winn said China’s occasional role as host of ceasefire talks between the Myanmar military and the separatist groups had boosted the separatist groups’ ability to negotiate with the Myanmar military as a block.
The ICG said the China Myanmar Economic Corridor planned as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative would pull Myanmar further into China’s sphere of influence and give workers in the illegal economy more chances of legal employment.
“It’s about intention,” said Han. “China’s intention is to try and create stability at the border, so they can have connectivity. What’s the point of discussing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor if there’s instability?”
Other experts say that however influential China may be, it is Myanmar itself that holds the key to solving its addiction to meth production.
“If the Myanmar military would allow these ethnic groups to have more autonomy, then a lot of problems would be solved,” said Winn. “A lot of groups would assert their autonomy and we would see a federalist Myanmar.
“Since they’re not going to do that, there will be a need for guns and bullets. The drug trade will pay for them.”