May 17th, 2019
The Price of Methamphetamine: An Illegal Drug Trade in Shan State
In 2012, after decades of ‘army-imposed hibernation’, Burma was opened up to the rest of the world. The country’s staggering natural beauty, and a wealth of culture among 135 tribes – each with their own language and history – has in recent years been associated with a tourist-friendly Myanmar that appeared to be progressing towards democracy. However, continued violence and a damning human rights record has restricted access to many areas – and none more so than northern Shan State – where a culture of crime and corruption has turned the region into a centre of illegal drug production.
A report by the International Crisis Group has outlined the opioid epidemic in Shan State as a symptom of its internal conflicts, and an obstacle to sustainably ending them. In recent years, the production of high purity methamphetamine, known locally as Yaba, has built up a criminal enterprise that has become so profitable that it dwarfs the formal economy of Shan State. The violent trade is causing severe and irreparable damage among many minority communities. The addiction to ‘Yaba’ (methamphetamine in pill form) is common among indigenous people, who use the accessible drug to cope with the trauma suffered as a result of ongoing persecution, and the situations of extreme poverty that entrap them. Armed groups operating in Shan State are exploiting these addictions, using the promise of drugs to draw civilian men into combat. Fathers are being torn away from their families and, in their absence, women and children are forced to find work, often labouring under inhumane conditions.
“The men are addicted to drugs. If a man does not turn to fighting, he will get high at home. Either way, the woman becomes responsible for the family. Their children are made to work and, sometimes, they become addicted too.” – Nang Kham Qyo, Shan Women’s Action Network.
Emerging as a primary global source of methamphetamine, Shan State’s illicit drug trade is making the cycle of conflict more difficult to break. The profitable business is a ‘disincentive’ to demilitarise the area, given that weapons, territorial control and the absence of state institutions are essential to protect laboratories and trafficking routes. Largely financed by drug exports, military actors are using the profits from methamphetamine to buy weapons and explosives in a region where fighting already shows no sign of abating. Only last month, Shan Women’s Action Network reported that three people died in a landmine incident, a member of the local militia force shot two boys in a monastery, and in Namkham township, where there are regular clashes, a boy and a girl who had not yet reached the age of ten became the latest victims of a bomb explosion.
The drug business, which has flourished under conditions of ‘predictable insecurity’, has created an environment where other illegal activities thrive. The trafficking routes are also being used to sell thousands of women and girls into sexual slavery in China, a crisis that was recently exposed by a Human Rights Watch report that detailed experiences of unspeakable abuse. Many women and girls sold into China are subjected to sexual violence, unwanted pregnancy and, if they are unable to escape their new husbands, sentenced to a life in captivity. A survivor of trafficking recounts:
My sister-in-law left me at the home. The family took me to a room. In that room I was tied up again. They locked the door – for one or two months. Each time when the Chinese man brought me meals, he raped me. After two months, they dragged me out of the room.
With the majority of men in Shan State actively taking part in the fighting, and corrupt police authorities often refusing to help, there is a huge security risk for women and girls, especially as drug-related violence persists. HART’s partner organisation, Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), runs safe houses that provide emergency assistance, legal support and counselling for women and children in crisis situations, many of whom have been cut off from their support networks. If you wish to aid their work, please follow this link.
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