Myanmar needs to solve its ethnic problems first

opinion May 17, 2013 00:00

By The Nation

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Drug trafficking from border areas will never end until there is peace with all of the armed rebel minorities; the two issues are inextricably linked


Six countries from the Mekong sub-region and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently signed a formal memorandum vowing to cooperate in the battle against drug trafficking, which the participants referred to as a “significant threat” to the region. 
“This agreement marks the continued commitment of … Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in supporting drug control in the region, and the celebration of 20 years of partnership and collaboration,” Myanmar interior minister Ko Ko was quoted as saying at the signing in Nay Pyi Daw.
The past 20 years have witnessed a number of achievements in the effort to eradicate illicit drugs in the region. These include the reduction of opium cultivation, the establishment of Border Liaison Offices, controlling the flow of chemicals used to produce the drugs, training frontline officers and improving prevention and dependency treatment. 
While these initiatives centre on boosting capacity, the past 20 years have also witnessed an upsurge in the trafficking of and addiction to some illicit drugs such as methamphetamine.
As for the so-called “commitment” the individual countries provide, in terms of collective effort, much more could be done. The countries of the Mekong sub-region have to go beyond technical cooperation and increasing the capacity of their respective agencies and address the issues in political terms.
It’s no secret that much of the methamphetamine, opium and heroin available on city streets around the world originate from the Myanmar sector of the Golden Triangle, where opium warlords and drug armies still operate freely with little interference from the country’s security forces. 
It is an area where the Wa drug army and the Kokang-Chinese warlords take no prisoners. Some leading members of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 20,000-strong force, for example, have been indicted in Thai and US courts for heroin trafficking. And yet, official forums pretend that they don’t exist and refuse to talk about them for fear that it will offend the host country.
Worse, China, whose people suffer horribly from these drugs, has been arming the UWSA with all sorts of weapons to enhance its strategic leverage in Myanmar. All this amid a continuing charm offensive from the Western countries as Myanmar opens its doors to investors.
Prior to the current round of political and economic reforms in Myanmar – which has won much praise from the global community – the government in Nay Pyi Daw tended to dismiss the country’s drug problem as somebody else’s bad habit. It was a selfish policy because the then-military government of Myanmar didn’t want to crack down on the drug lords. Instead, it used ceasefire groups like the UWSA as leverage in dealing with the Thais.
But things have changed and the country has opened up to the world. With that comes certain obligations and norms that Myanmar is expected to abide by.
It’s not clear how long Nay Pyi Daw can continue to look the other way and refuse to talk about the ethnic drug armies in political terms. Drugs and insurgency in Myanmar have always been two sides of the same coin. No successful solution to the drug problem can be achieved unless the political aspect of the issue is addressed too.
But with the sabre-rattling between the government and the ethnic armies still going on, as well as ongoing clashes between some of the country’s other groups, the immediate future is not as bright as it’s made out to be.