A Myanmar official fingers a stack of seized methamphetamine in a file photo. Image: Facebook

BANGKOK – As drug take-downs go, it was a long way from the “kick in the door and round ‘em up” operations celebrated in the movies.

Beginning in February this year and finishing only in early April, it lasted a full 40 days, covered over a hundred square kilometers, and required several battalions of troops from a crack Myanmar Army division.

By the time it was over, the rolling series of sweeps through the Kaunghka area southeast of Kutkai in Myanmar’s northern Shan state had disarmed hundreds of local militiamen and seized 18 tonnes of methamphetamine and other drugs along with huge stockpiles of precursor chemicals.

Raising eyebrows across the region, the operation also saw the first and potentially ominous seizure in Myanmar of a quantity of methyl fentanyl.

A dangerously potent opioid analgesic produced industrially in China, fentanyl mixed with heroin or cocaine caused the deaths of over 30,000 users across the United States in 2018 alone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding another toxic accelerant to a Sino-US relationship in freefall.

Spearheaded by high-purity crystal methamphetamine but fast diversifying into newer product lines, the post-2016 explosion of narcotics production in northeastern Myanmar has hinged crucially on powerful ethnic armed groups in ceasefire deals with Myanmar’s military, notably the UWSA and NDAA.

But adding fuel to the fire is a second category of local groups that provide protection to new super-labs financed and staffed by international crime cartels: Border Guard Forces (BGFs) and People’s Militia Forces (PMFs) supervised by Myanmar’s armed forces, or Tatmadaw.

Invariably former ethnic insurgents themselves, the militias are typically loose bands of a few hundred armed men whose putative loyalty to the state has been purchased by the Tatmadaw in exchange for the right to keep their weapons, move into business and make their own deals – no questions asked, brown envelopes welcome.

A Myanmar official inspects a package of seized methamphetamine in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Scores of them operate across Shan state. Commanded by Tatmadaw officers, BGFs are better trained and equipped, but when it comes to business the same rules evidently apply.

Controlling far smaller areas than larger ceasefire groups, Tatmadaw-aligned militias are mostly based west of the Salween River in northern and central Shan state.

In the first half of the 2010s, many of them began churning out cheap “yaba” speed tablets for fast-expanding markets, first in Bangladesh and then in the booming urban centers of Myanmar’s own newly liberalized economy.

But since 2015 some groups have thrown in their lot with professional players from outside Myanmar who have transformed a cottage-industry with an altogether new level of technical sophistication and financial investment.

A rare insight into the fruits of such cooperation came with the Kutkai take-down, which revealed for the first time the full extent and specialization of the production facilities protected by the Kaunghka PMF.

An ethnic Kachin outfit that traces its roots back to the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Kaunghka militia has more recently been bolstering local “security” on behalf of the Myanmar Army’s Lashio-based Northeastern Command, while extending its business services to protecting the smooth running of narcotics super-labs.

For local Tatmadaw commanders, militia business ventures have translated into extra revenue from at least the 1970s when the military first began approving local paramilitaries.

Indeed, one of the region’s worst kept secrets has been the extent to which regional commands in Shan state have for years padded their books and bank accounts by looking the other way as militia trucks loaded with illicit drugs head south towards the Thai border or west towards India.

But strategic compulsions have also played a role. The Tatmadaw’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the “business” activities of the militia auxiliaries supposedly under its supervision turns on a military mindset that has prioritized territorial security above all else.

Perennially overstretched by chronic manpower shortages, the Tatmadaw is locked into a Faustian bargain that precludes reining in errant militias it must rely on to maintain a fig-leaf of central government control and stability in insurgency-prone ethnic minority areas.

Measured against area security and extra income, Tatmadaw enthusiasm for counter-narcotics campaigns will likely remain carefully selective. Cynical observers saw the February-April Kaunghka operations as reflecting less concern over drugs production and far more the need to discipline a militia that had crossed hard security red-lines.

By maintaining contacts with their ethnic cousins in the KIA, the militia appears to have been in business contact with the KIA’s Arakan Army ally. A dangerously effective insurgent group that now threatens the military’s hold over western Rakhine state, the AA is widely understood to derive income from the meth traffic between Rakhine and Bangladesh.

One well-placed source with access to intelligence noted that no senior militia commanders had faced prosecution after their arrests and were actually released in late June, while most of the narcotics that might have been used as evidence had been burned. What happened to the crucial precursors remains far from clear.  

“The Kaunghka were punished: they lost money, drugs and guns. But these guys are not about to do time,” said the source. “It looks more like they’re being rehabilitated: the Tatmadaw still need them as a buffer.”

The generals in Naypyidaw are even less likely to bring to heel ceasefire groups as powerfully entrenched as the UWSA and NDAA. Potential counter-narcotics measures against major ceasefire factions that might conceivably involve drone strikes on identified narcotics labs would, however limited, inevitably risk wider conflict.

In the case of the 27,000-strong UWSA that could – and likely would – spill into protracted war across much of Shan state, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees into China, Thailand and central Myanmar with catastrophic social, economic and diplomatic consequences.

In fact, as the Tatmadaw struggles to contain the escalating insurgency in western Rakhine and simmering hostilities in Kachin and northern Shan states, the overridingimportance of maintaining peace with the UWSA effectively guarantees that the joint ventures between the Wa and others with major international cartels based in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan will continue to operate with impunity.

United Wa State Army soldiers in a collective salute. Photo: Twitter

Indeed, the Shan state-centered illicit drug industry that currently feeds the region’s burgeoning addictions is not only certain to continue business as usual but will also likely expand its operations and output.

“When it comes to meth and other synthetics, the region has arguably surpassed Mexican and Central American production,” says United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional head Jeremy Douglas.

“It is emerging as the global epicenter of synthetic drugs, as organized crime continues to expand and diversify the market on the back of the chemical trade and potential to push more and more product.”

Despite turbo-charging transnational organized crime and official corruption, the Asian narcotics crisis is nowhere near exacting a social toll on the scale of the fentanyl crisis in America that might demand its being made a political priority.

“The prisons may be full but the hospitals are not being overrun and you don’t see dead addicts’ bodies on the streets,” notes Paul Quaglia, a Thailand-based former US intelligence officer involved in counter-narcotics operations. “It’s largely out of sight and out of mind.”

Unable to bring themselves even to criticize brazen war crimes committed by Myanmar state forces against the Rohingya Muslim minority, the regional bloc of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has proved characteristically flaccid in confronting the narcotics tsunami with an integrated regional response commensurate with the scale of the crisis.

“They don’t want to really tackle the problem from a strategic point of view,” adds Quaglia. “A lot of people in government are making a lot of money legitimately and illegitimately from this, and there’s certainly no appetite for arresting (corrupt) generals.”

To the north, China faces its own constraints. At one level, it has been largely unable or unwilling to bring hard-knuckle pressure on ethnic armed groups along its border on which Beijing relies for geostrategic leverage as  it pushes forward with its Belt and Road ambitions in Myanmar.

It is equally apparent that Chinese authorities are simply unable to exert a level of control over a sprawling chemical industry that might choke off the flow of still crucial precursor chemicals smuggled into Shan state.

Bags containing methamphetamine, known in Thai as yaba, after being confiscated by authorities. Photo: AFP/Cristophe Archambault

And nowhere in any government, either in Asia or beyond, is there any readiness for politically fraught debates on the possible decriminalization of some currently illegal substances.

The upshot is an escalating crisis best addressed by a business-as-usual approach that avoids ruffling diplomatic, bureaucratic or political feathers and which serves to conceal the awkward reality of a well-funded war already all but lost. 

And the massive, near-daily drug busts celebrated by law enforcement as local victories merely underscore the scale of their defeat.

This is the second in a two part series on Asia’s drug trade. Read part one here.