The mountainous road between Maungtaw and Buthitaung towns in Myanmar’s restive western Rakhine state is dotted with several police checkpoints and the occasional sign warning of wild elephant attacks.
The heavy security force presence is explained in part by tight restrictions on movement imposed by the government against the long persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
Following raids on Border Guard Police (BGP) camps by suspected Rohingya militants last October 9, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, staged a brutal ‘area clearance’ operation.
The military sweeps were nominally staged to apprehend militants but also exacted collective punishment on the civilian population amid widespread reports of arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence.
But a less understood dimension to Rakhine state’s security situation is a burgeoning trade in methamphetamine, also known as yaba. Seizures of the drug have mounted in recent years, with 980 million pills seized nationwide in 2016, almost double the 500 million tablets captured in previous years, according to Myanmar police records.
The players behind and true extent of the trade are elusive. What’s clear, though, is that the methamphetamine trade is becoming more visible in Rakhine state through an uptick in seizures, with certain hints of official complicity.
In early May, for example, over 400,000 pills were confiscated from two Myanmar army personnel on the Buthitaung-Maungtaw road, according to reports. In February, a Buddhist monk and accomplices from the Shwe Baho monastery in Maungtaw were arrested with more than four million tablets.
In September 2016, a fisherman reportedly found two million pills floating off the Rakhine coast in nine packages. Hundreds of thousands of more pills have been seized in subsequent raids of villagers’ houses.
The area’s reported biggest seizure came days later when police discovered over seven million tabs buried in packages near a factory along the main road in Maungtaw. The people behind Rakhine’s record haul have not been identified or apprehended.
The recent huge seizures have raised speculation among analysts of Rakhine’s conflict that the October 9 border guard attacks could have been in retaliation by an unknown crime syndicate over the huge September seizure of the drug.
This now appears unlikely with the Rohingya exile group Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), now renamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), publicly declaring responsibility for the police attacks and subsequent violence against security forces.
ARSA was formed by Rohingya from Saudi Arabia and Gulf States that formed in the Bangladesh-Myanmar borderlands in response to their ethnic brethren’s persecution. The militant group is believed to receive financial support from the large number of Rohingya living and working in the Middle East.
To be sure, the flourishing yaba trade along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border predates the group’s recent emergence. It is not clear what involvement, if any, it may have in the drug trade.
Official Myanmar government sources have accused ARSA with the extrajudicial executions of suspected government informants. But given the opacity and complication of violence in the region those killings could possibly be connected to the growing drug trade.
Drug trade analysts say the pills almost certainly originate from production facilities in Myanmar’s northeast. The lawless area has long served as a hub of mainland Southeast Asia’s yaba production and where the distinctively stamped WY brand is produced.
The well-established trade is facilitated by armed groups situated along Myanmar’s China and Thailand borders. The analysts suspect the drugs are moved by road from the northeastern Shan state through the former capital Yangon to Rakhine state’s capital of Sittwe.
They are then reportedly transported by boat and road through the northern Rakhine state town of Maungtaw and across either the Mayu mountain range or Naf River into Bangladesh.
The methamphetamine trade in Bangladesh has exploded in recent years, with increased smuggling and dramatically expanded consumption among manual laborers and recreational users, according to reports.
State-run Myanmar media and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s social media pages carry almost daily news of yaba seizures, an apparent bid to bolster her government’s law and order credentials. On May 8, for instance, state media reported that a man was apprehended with 12,000 pills in Maungtaw’s Shwezarmyauk village.
Official scapegoating of Rohingya as drug traffickers, however, is belied by recent arrests of large-scale suspected traffickers from the border police, military, Buddhist monkhood and local ethnic Rakhine business community.
One bleak scenario for Rakhine state is that it morphs into a complex interplay of armed resistance and criminal activity, reminiscent of the lethal conflict in southern Thailand, where militant activity is often linked to smuggling and other illicit businesses.
Rohingya tend to be low-level smugglers, based on arrest reports in local media and as witnessed in the Myanmar Navy’s arrests of four men in March with 180,000 yaba pills on the Naf River bordering Bangladesh.
Another poorly understood facet of the trade is the possible involvement of the insurgent Arakan Army, which was formed in 2009 in northern Myanmar. The small army is allied with other armed groups of the so-called Northern Alliance fighting against government forces.
Formed in 2009 and trained by the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country’s north, Arakan Army has recently extended its attacks on the Myanmar Army from Kachin state to neighboring northern Shan state in conjunction with other non-state armed groups.
Since 2015, Arakan Army has opened an insurgent front in the Rakhine and Chin state borderlands, staging irregular ambush-style attacks on Myanmar army units. State media has claimed that alleged seizures of Arakan Army arms shipments funneled through Yangon have turned up hauls of methamphetamine.
One bleak scenario for Rakhine state is that it morphs into a complex interplay of armed resistance and criminal activity, reminiscent of the lethal conflict in southern Thailand, where militant activity is often linked to smuggling and other illicit businesses, as well as competition between security agencies for spoils of the illegal trades.
The rising cross-border yaba trade at Rakhine state’s Maungtaw will further obscure the emerging conflict’s shadow play, and only further imperil the repressed and already desperate Rohingya minority not only in the name of national security, but also drug trade-related crime suppression.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst