Methamphetamine: An Illicit Trade in Shan State

17 May 2018

In 2012, after decades of army-imposed hibernation, Burma was opened up to the rest of the world. The country’s cultural wealth among 135 tribes and staggering natural beauty 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 narcotics trade 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, which is known locally as Yaba, has built up a criminal enterprise so profitable that it eclipses the formal economy of Shan State. Many ethnic minorities in the region are using the accessible drug to cope with the trauma of the ongoing ethnic conflicts that underpin a70-year civil war in Burma.

The prolonged use of methamphetamine is causing severe health problems and psychological damage among Burma’s poorest and most excluded communities. In Shan State, armed groups are exploiting these addictions and use the promise of drugs to draw civilian men into combat. HART heard several stories of fathers being torn away from their families and, in their absence, women and children forced to find work.

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.

A young boy takes a break from labouring in the quarry. 

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 flourishing drug business has created an environment in which human rights violations and other illegal activities thrive. The trafficking routes are 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. A survivor of human 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.”

As the threat of trafficking persists, the security risk for women is made worse by corrupt policing. HART’s partner organisation, Shan Women’s Action Network, 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 support their work, please follow this link.

SWAN carries out ground-breaking advocacy work in Shan State’s conflict areas, defending the rights of vulnerable women and girls.




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