01/09/2019, 15.22
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Shan State, the new global hub for methamphetamine production

In the State, drug trafficking and ethnic conflict have been linked since the 1950s. Separatist groups and para-military militias depend on the proceeds of the illicit drug trade. In order to protect billions in investments and geopolitical interests, Beijing entertains "pragmatic" relations.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – Located on the border with China, the eastern State of Shan has become the global hub for the production of methamphetamine, a drug that has powerful effects on the central nervous system.

Now China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) runs the risk of helping the armed groups, militias and criminal organisations that run the traffic out of the Golden Triangle, the second-largest heroin-producing region in the world, this according to a report released yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

The report, titled Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar's Shan State, highlights China’s interests and complex relationships with the main actors in the production and trade of drugs.

In Shan State, drug trafficking and ethnic conflict have been linked since the 1950s, particularly in the northern part of the State. The survival of those taking part in the armed conflicts that inflame the region often depends on illegal activities.

These include separatist groups, like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), militias used by the Myanmar military to fight rebels, as well as local and foreign drug lords.

Over the years the situation in Shan evolved. Drug production saw three main phases: between the 1950s and the 1990s, heroin production was dominant; from the late 1990s, opium production decreased drastically due to a ban imposed by UWSA militants; and after 2010, methamphetamine production replaced heroin. Regional instability favoured this shift, partly due to corruption and a rise in domestic consumption.

Last year, Myanmar authorities seized a record amount of methamphetamine. In January, the Myanmar military and police seized 30 million yaba pills (a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine), 1,750 kg of crystal meth, and more than 500 kg of heroin with a domestic value of some US$ 54 million.

In the last two years, seizures of shipments from the Golden Triangle have also been made in other countries: 2.1 tonnes in Australia, 1.6 tonnes in Indonesia and 1.2 tonnes in Malaysia.

Experts estimate that seizures represent 10 per cent of total trade, suggesting an annual production of more than 250 tonnes. In the entire Mekong region, the total value of traffic is estimated at over US$ 40 billion a year.

ICG analysts note that China, where most of the chemical components come from to synthesise drugs, has almost never carried out any anti-drug operations on the border with Myanmar.

According to some observers, this is due to the "pragmatic" relations that Beijing has with the armed groups operating in Shan aimed at protecting its billions of investments in the Sino-Burmese economic corridor.

In fact, the drug trade will gain impetus from the agreements the two countries will sign. Southern China and the Bay of Bengal will have better road and high-speed rail links, from Kunming (in Yunnan) and Kyaukpyu, on the coast of the Rakhine State.

According to the ICG report, “In the recent history of the Golden Triangle, increased trade and improved infrastructure have expanded rather than narrowed opportunities for illicit profiteering.”

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