Not too long ago, the British motoring-entertainment television series, Top Gear, had a two part special where the three main presenters drove across Burma to the border of Thailand. It wasn’t a particularly politically insightful view of Myanmar, but then again, Top Gear is a car show and does not pretend to be an in-depth analysis of the culture and challenges faced by the locals. What this particular Burma special of Top Gear does represent, however, is one of the occasional moments where the West pays some attention to Myanmar. These three presenters of Top Gear praised the beauty of the nation, commented on the oddness of the empty new capital, made nervous mentions of the violent conflicts in the region, and naturally, made many references to the Golden Triangle and drugs.
The Golden Triangle
The sad fact is that this outsider’s view of Burma as one of the world’s major sources of illegal drugs is not far from the truth. According to the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Myanmar continues to be “a major source of opium and exporter of heroin”, and is apparently only second to Afghanistan in this illegal industry. The farming of opium and the export of heroin in particular is a huge industry in Myanmar, although the local drugs trade has also been recently diversifying into the production of methamphetamines. Over the last few years, there have been ongoing efforts to try to control the drugs industry, a process made very problematic by the large area that needs to be policed, the difficulty of controlling the drugs trade in territories where there is ongoing conflict, and the fact that illegal drugs are shipped out to so many different borders.
As difficult an issue as the control of the drug trade is in Myanmar, looking at the problem only from this international perspective is an outsider’s view, and forgets the local human element. The fact of the matter is that the drug trade is killing locals. You cannot be one of the world’s biggest sources of illegal drugs without having addicts in your own nation, and drug addiction is an increasingly costly and socially destructive issue in Burma. On top of that, the increase of heroin addicts has meant an increase of HIV transmitted through improper use of needles. It is not enough to fight the juggernaut of the drug trade in Myanmar, there also needs to be continued support for local communities so that they can help rehabilitate and treat those who suffering from addiction, particularly since it is often the young and the poor who fall prey to heroin.
Looking to the Future
That said, the drugs trade is incredibly difficult to dislodge. According to the last South East Asia Survey of Opium, it is estimated that some 190, 000 households in Myanmar are involved with the cultivation of opium, and very often the drug trade is a source of income for some of the poorest homes in the nation. As the political scientist Tom Kramer has put it bluntly: “The root cause is poverty. Access to health, education – if this is not addressed, you will not solve the problem”. No matter how well funded any policing operations might become, it is deeply unrealistic to expect to sweep aside this industry without giving Burma the chance to set up less damaging replacement industries that will allow workers to make enough money to survive.
The political reality is that the drugs trade can only be minimized when local businesses are set up that provides economic alternatives to the lucrative drug trade. If other nations are serious about reducing the production of drugs in Burma, then they have to become serious about supporting the development of local industries that have the longevity and competitiveness to replace the drug industry. This is not the same thing as bringing in foreign capital to set up business that will benefit international markets alone. Instead, investment needs to be used in direct co-operation with local communities to ensure that the economy is designed, directed, and developed by locals. Any system that ignores local needs is nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to grab cheap labor or resources by international corporations for their own profit, rather than for any real long-term benefit for the nation. Assisting Burma in building up their own local industries with an eye to long-term growth and stability is quite simply the best way to help the nation move away from this debilitating dependence on the drug economy.
It will be a long and difficult road, but ultimately, it is down to the international community to work with Myanmar to help them find their own solutions in order to break the nation’s addiction to the illegal drug trade.