South-east Asia nations torch US$1 billion of seized drugs, but narcotics trade continues to grow

A pile of seized drugs being set on fire in Yangon in this file photo dated June 26, 2016.
A pile of seized drugs being set on fire in Yangon in this file photo dated June 26, 2016.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia torched nearly US$1 billion worth of seized narcotics on Monday (June 26), a defiant show of force as police struggle to stem the rising flow of drugs in the region.  

The burnings, to mark the UN’s world anti-drugs day, follow another year of record seizures of narcotics from the remote borderlands of Myanmar, Laos, southern China and northern Thailand.  

Myanmar in particular remains one of the world’s great drug-producing nations, a dark legacy of decades of civil war in its frontier regions where troops and ethnic rebel forces have vied for control of the lucrative trade.  

Armed gangs churn out vast quantities of opium, heroin and cannabis and millions of caffeine-laced methamphetamine pills known as “yaba” which are then smuggled out across South-east Asia.  

An estimated US$385 million was burnt in three official ceremonies around Myanmar on Monday, according to a senior police officer in the capital Naypyidaw.  

At the biggest bonfire in Yangon, huge clouds of smoke filled the sky as authorities set fire to stacks of opium, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine tablets worth almost US$230 million.  

“We burnt a record amount of drugs today... because police have seized more in recent years,” drug enforcement officer Myo Kyi told AFP.  

On an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thai authorities incinerated some US$589 million worth of drugs including 7,800 kilogrammes of yaba pills and 1,185 kilogrammes of the more potent crystal methamphetamine.  

And in Cambodia, officials burned 130 kilogrammes of drugs estimated to be worth some US$4 million.

But law-enforcement agents say they are just the tip of the iceberg as producers ramp up production to meet growing demand across South-east Asia and increasingly in Bangladesh and India.

The Myanmar police officer said almost all of the drugs they burned originated in eastern Shan State, in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups.

The kingpins are the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 25,000-strong militia known as Asia's most heavily-armed drug dealers who boast their own autonomous territories on the border with China and have close links with Beijing.

Despite their reputation, the Wa deny producing drugs and even put on their own burning session in the village of Ponpakyin.

Myanmar has also been struggling to stem a growing tide of drug addiction inside its borders.

Experts say yaba use has exploded as ethnic armed gangs switched from exporting all the pills to increasingly targeting domestic users.

Buddhist monks and military officers were among 13,500 people prosecuted for drug crimes, up 50 per cent from the previous year, according to data seen by AFP.

In a bid to combat the growing scourge, Myanmar's new civilian government is seeking to overhaul stringent anti-drug laws brought in under the former military government.

Current legislation means anyone found with even small amounts of drugs can be jailed for years.

"Handing out harsh penalties for drug users can't combat the rise of drug trafficking in the country," said the police officer.

Thailand meanwhile has the world's sixth-largest prison population and the 10th highest incarceration rate in the world, largely thanks to its strict anti-drug laws.