Burma continues to be a major source of opium and exporter of heroin, second only to Afghanistan. Since the mid-1990s, Burma has been a significant source for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), primarily methamphetamine. Production sites for heroin and ATS are often co-located and are primarily situated along Burma’s eastern borders in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups beyond the Government of Burma’s immediate control. The 2015 joint Burma-UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) illicit crop survey estimated that the total area under opium poppy cultivation was 55,500 hectares (ha), a four percent decrease from 2014’s 57,600 ha. ATS production in Burma is also a major concern. In July, 26.7 million ATS tablets were seized in a single case, the largest seizure ever recorded in South East Asia. While there is no reliable methodology to estimate ATS production, information derived from local and regional seizures indicates that ATS production and trafficking is increasing.
The Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) continues to make efforts to eliminate the use and production of illicit drugs and enforce Burma’s narcotics laws. The CCDAC is composed of multiple government entities involved in alternative development, crop substitution, drug treatment, prisons, livestock, and education programs. In addition, 50 Anti-Narcotics Task Force (ANTF) units are located throughout the country, but lack adequate training and resources. The Government of Burma has an underdeveloped legal system with limited capacity to effectively manage the scope and scale of drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime endemic in the country. In addition, the government faces the additional challenge of having large swaths of its territory, particularly in drug producing areas, controlled by non-state armed groups. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed on October 15 with eight ethnic armed organizations, national ceasefire and peace process efforts are ongoing and the government continued to lack access to many critical areas in 2015, further hindering its ability to implement an effective counternarcotics strategy. Drug control efforts are also hampered by extremely porous borders with India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand that continue to be exploited by traffickers.
Burma is not a significant source or transit country for drugs entering the United States. However, Burma remains a major regional source of opium, heroin, and ATS, particularly for neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos and China. Anecdotal and government reporting suggests that overall drug abuse in Burma is increasing. Counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and Burma has steadily increased since it resumed in 2011. In September 2014, a Letter of Agreement was signed between the United States and Burma allowing for enhanced cooperation on the fight against illicit drugs and transnational crime.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
In 2014, the Burmese government extended by five years its 15-year counternarcotics plan with the goal to eradicate all narcotics production and trafficking by 2019. In pursuit of this goal, the CCDAC, chaired by the Minister of Home Affairs, directs all drug-enforcement efforts in Burma. The primary enforcement efforts are conducted by the Drug Enforcement Division (DED) of the police force, which falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs, and its counternarcotics task forces located in major cities and along key trafficking routes. Despite the DED’s expansion to 50 ANTF units, limited resources and the lack of sufficient training continue to hinder the effectiveness of the DED. Staffing of the task forces is lagging, and funding has not increased proportionally with their expansion. The Government of Burma also faces challenges as ongoing conflict with ethnic armed organizations limits access to areas with high drug cultivation, trafficking, and use.
In early 2015, the Burmese government organized extensive legal reform workshops to amend the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, with an eye to shifting from a law enforcement-dominated approach to one that balances the role of law enforcement with a medical, victim-centered response, including the importance of treatment and recovery. The reform process is ongoing and is expected to be continued by the new government in 2016.
Burma has indicated a willingness to work regionally on counternarcotics initiatives, including those coordinated through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Burma continues to cooperate with the United States and is increasing engagement with the international community. In August, 35 ANTF and Region and State police participated in a basic drug enforcement investigation skills training, funded by the United States and organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Burma has individual memoranda of understanding with China, Thailand, and South Korea. Engagement with India and Bangladesh in the fight against illegal drugs is still limited. In 2013, Burma signed a six year engagement agreement with Thailand on law enforcement cooperation including increased cooperation on drug suppression along their shared border.
The 1931 Extradition Treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom was made applicable to Burma in 1941, and Burma has acceded to relevant multilateral conventions that enable such cooperation. There is no bilateral mutual legal assistance treaty between Burma and the United States.
2. Supply Reduction
The 2015 joint Burma-UNODC illicit crop survey estimated that the total area under opium poppy cultivation was 55,500 hectares (ha), a four percent decrease from 2014’s 57,600 ha. UNODC reported that in 2015 potential production of dry opium decreased 3.4 percent to 647 metric tons (MT) compared to 670 MT in 2014. According to Burmese statistics, law enforcement officers destroyed 13,450 ha of opium poppy in 2015, an 11.4 percent decline from the 15,188 ha eradicated in 2014. Such government statistics cannot be independently verified.
Ongoing conflict and insufficient rule-of-law in the key poppy-growing regions have limited the effective implementation of comprehensive, government-run alternative development programs. The Government of Burma cites the townships of Tachileik and Monghsat in eastern Shan State as positive models where Thai government assistance enabled successful projects on infrastructure development, human resource development, improved irrigation, and technical assistance to farmers. In August 2014, the Burmese government signed a four-year UNODC assistance program to improve infrastructure, health, education, and crop substitution to offer sustainable economic alternatives for opium poppy farmers. Some ethnic communities are increasingly interested in alternative development options, but remain hesitant to work directly with the government while ceasefire efforts continue. Moreover, some ethnic militias which control drug production in their local areas often coerce farmers to grow opium poppy, further hindering crop substitution efforts.
While there is no reliable method to determine production levels, information derived from domestic and international seizure data indicate an increase in the production, consumption, and export of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) from Burma. According to UNODC, ATS is manufactured primarily in Shan State and trafficked along routes to Thailand, China, Laos, and Bangladesh. The small-scale and mobile nature of clandestine labs presents challenges in identification and tracking of synthetic drug supply chain and manufacturing.
Though under-resourced and hampered by political, legal, and organizational constraints, the CCDAC and DED continued drug interdiction efforts during 2015. Over the course of the year, Burmese authorities seized approximately 49.95 million ATS tablets (including 26.7 million ATS tablets seized in July, the largest single seizure on record in South East Asia). Authorities also seized 2.26 MT of crystal methamphetamine, 1.51 MT of various grades of opium, 57.1 liters of opium oil, and 186 kg of heroin. Over this period there were 9,188 drug-related arrests from 6,414 cases, compared to 9,425 total arrests from 6,696 cases in all of 2014. In connection with the 26.7 million amphetamine tablet seizure in July, the DED identified at least six additional related cases. To mark the annual International Day against Drug Abuse on June 26, law enforcement officers destroyed $244.65 million worth of seized narcotic drugs in three ceremonies, compared to $130 million in 2014.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
Drug abuse is on the rise in Burma with increasing incidences of injecting drug and ATS use throughout the country. There has been a shift in Burma away from smoking opium toward injecting heroin, contributing to Burma having one of the highest global rates of HIV infection attributable to intravenous drug use. According to UN data, the HIV prevalence rate among injection drug users was 28.3 percent in 2014, accounting for 39 percent of all new HIV infections.
According to unconfirmed government data, 16,000 registered drug users with substance use disorders have been treated in 73 government treatment centers since 2006. Ministry of Health data indicate there are 9,700 patients receiving methadone maintenance treatment daily, while the Burmese Ministry of Health estimates there are 83,000 injection drug users and 166,000 people who use drugs countrywide. Other estimates from UNODC and civil society, however, place the number of drug users in Burma at between 300,000 and 400,000. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community leaders report increasing use of heroin and synthetic drugs, particularly among marginalized youth in urban areas and by workers in mining communities in ethnic minority regions. A U.S.-funded drug user survey is currently being developed by UNODC, with findings projected to be released at the end of 2016.
Burmese law requires those with substance use disorders to register with the government before receiving treatment. Users can be imprisoned for three to five years if they fail to register and accept treatment, although NGOs report that some users are afraid to register with the government since other drug-related legislation makes it a criminal offence to use drugs.
In March 2015, the CCDAC, UNODC, World Health Organization, and Colombo Plan coordinated the first Drug Demand Reduction Stakeholder Meeting in Nay Pyi Taw to identify international best practices in drug treatment and rehabilitation and to develop strategies for collaboration among stakeholders in Burma. In July, the Colombo Plan organized a U.S.-funded training workshop on substance use disorder treatment curriculum held in Bangkok that was attended by 20 physiatrist physicians from Burma’s Ministry of Health. The United States also provided a $150,000 grant through an NGO to support drug prevention teams in 20 villages in Shan State to increase community capacity to reduce drug use and provide life skills training to prevent first-time drug use among vulnerable youth.
Burma ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2012, and enacted a domestic corruption law in 2013. Many inside Burma assume some senior government officials benefit financially from narcotics trafficking, but these assumptions have never been confirmed through high-level arrests and convictions. Credible reports from NGOs and media claim that mid-level military officers and government officials are engaged in drug-related corruption. The government does not, as a matter of policy, encourage or facilitate the illicit production or distribution of drugs, or the laundering of proceeds from illegal drug transactions.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
President Obama signed a national interest waiver in 2015 allowing the United States to provide counternarcotics assistance and engage the Burmese police directly. The U.S. government is increasing engagement on counternarcotics activities with the aim to increase Burmese capacity to address and combat the cultivation, trafficking, and use of drugs throughout the country. DEA continues to share drug-related intelligence and conduct joint investigations with Burmese authorities. In 2015, the United States expanded Burmese participation in the U.S. International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok and supported a two-week in-country training course for Burmese drug control authorities led by DEA.
To help attain a comprehensive understanding of drug use within Burma, the United States is funding a UNODC survey of drug use among the population nationwide. Additionally, the United States is supporting Burmese government efforts to expand its drug dependence treatment services and adopt an evidence-based drug user treatment curriculum nationally, as well as build local capacity to conduct community-based drug prevention programs.
Under the leadership of the CCDAC, Burma continued efforts to eliminate the use of illicit drugs, control production, and reform and enforce Burma’s narcotics laws. Expanded DED taskforces, continued seizures and arrests, and growing international cooperation are positive indicators, signaling continued government engagement on this issue. However, the efficacy of the country’s counternarcotics efforts remains hindered by the limited resources and reach of the government and local law enforcement, particularly in ethnic-controlled areas in which significant production sites are located. To date, law enforcement has not appeared to possess the resources or political will to arrest and prosecute any high-level drug traffickers. Some ethnic organizations are hesitant to engage in government-sponsored alternative development programs while ceasefire and peace process efforts continue, while some ethnic groups continue to engage in narcotics production and trafficking as a primary source of income. Despite its efforts, Burma is challenged by significant opium poppy cultivation and increased ATS production, consumption, and trafficking.
Burma requires legal and organizational reforms to facilitate effective criminal investigations and transparent criminal prosecutions, and needs to dedicate additional resources towards building law enforcement capacity to investigate and effectively prosecute high-level drug traffickers and interdict drugs. Burma should take a more active role in regional chemical control initiatives and regional demand reduction efforts. Increased cooperation and information sharing and a more victim-centered approach to demand reduction and treatment are also critical to effectively implementing reforms to reduce both drug trafficking and drug abuse. While economic development is necessary to provide an alternative to drug production, long-term efforts will also require an internal political agreement and coordination with ethnic groups. Only sustained economic development, in conjunction with legal and law enforcement reforms, international cooperation, and additional resources, will reverse decades of narcotics production and trafficking.