Drugs are Myanmar’s biggest social problem, book claims

Richard Cockett, author of Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, gives a talk about drugs in Myanmar, at a talk during the Asia House Bagri Foundation

Richard Cockett, author of 'Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma', gives a talk about how drug abuse is rife in Myanmar, at a gripping talk during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Drugs are Myanmar’s biggest social problem, book claims

13 May 2016

By Naomi Canton

It’s been swept under the carpet but drugs have ruined large parts of the regions in Myanmar where the ethnic minorities live, according to a recent book.

In Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, The Economist correspondent Richard Cockett explores how the drugs trade is intertwined with political issues and ethnic minority conflicts in Myanmar, how it is supported by the police and ethnic militia and how farmers get drawn to growing opium poppies as they make far more money from that, than, for example, growing tomatoes. He also claims that the drugs trade is inexorably linked to the peace process and has to be solved for that to be successful.

Cockett was Southeast Asia correspondent at The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore.

The book, published by Yale University Press in 2015, covers the country from the colonial era onwards and explains how it descended into civil war with successive military regimes and then why it started to reform.

It is based on hundreds of interviews he conducted in Myanmar after the country started to open up in 2011.

“When I first went to Burma*, it was a closed military dictatorship but I slipped in as a tourist, with fake documents and I snatched conversations with members of the Opposition in cafes. It was evident that things were changing.” he said.

“In March 2011 Thein Sein was appointed as the new president,” Cockett said. “He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest at the end of 2010, and established a good rapport with her,” he added. She soon reinstated her NLD party which had boycotted the 2010 elections. Sein sped up the reforms process, freed hundreds of prisoners and began peace talks with ethnic minorities, as well as pressed for the lifting of Western sanctions, he explained.

“This book is part a reflection on the changes and how far they will go and two thirds of it is a historical reflection on the country’s past, how it descended into a military regime which ruined the country and how it will be a very tough task to reform it now, even though Aung San Suu Kyi has come to power,” he said.

The title of the book is taken from a poem written by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda about colonial-era Rangoon (now Yangon) when it was the country’s capital.

“That is when Myanmar was at its height – one of the most prosperous counties in the Empire and Southeast Asia. One aspect of the decline of the country is drugs,” he explained.

His talk during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival was about drug taking in the Kayin, Mon, Shan and Kachin states of Myanmar, which is covered in one chapter.

“I always thought there were much greater geo-political issues like democracy and human rights, but the more I travelled, especially in the East of the country, the more it became clear that drugs were an enormous problem and for the people themselves, the biggest problem they face,” he said.

“Many of the people I spoke to said that more people have died from drugs than have died from civil conflicts and warfare over the past decade. It’s certainly the biggest social problem interwoven with all the political and economic problems that have to be resolved if the country is to be at peace,” he added.

According to Cockett, the Karen Hills area, once a thriving economy in the Shan and Kayah States in the east of Myanmar, is now ravaged by drugs. He said it is estimated that 80 per cent of people in the Karen Hills area are taking or selling drugs.

The drug of choice in Myanmar is yaba (a Thai nickname meaning ‘crazy drug’)  – a methamphetamine – originally a drug given to horses to make them work harder which can be injected, inhaled or swallowed as a tablet. Most of the pills are produced in the eastern Shan region and over the border in Thailand. The pills just cost US$1 to US$3. Many steal to fund their habits, including from their family.

A doctor he features in his book tells him that the police know all about it but take no meaningful action. “The doctor said that everyone, the police, armed groups, local militias, professional drug dealers, make money out of selling yaba. So they all have a vested interest in keeping the drugs going. Some of the dealers are occasionally arrested but it’s just for show, said the doctor. And the reason why so many boys and girls turn to yaba, or even heroin? The young have no future, no jobs and so nothing else to do. The effect of yaba is to repress feelings and emotions, enough, at least, for frustrated, bored and disconsolate Karen youth to get through the day,” Cockett said, reading from the book.

Cockett said the doctor said that among his friends and community “nobody was not taking drugs.”

“The consequences can be devastating. There are social, political and economic consequences. The authorities are very compliant in protecting the drug dealers,” he said.


Richard Cockett reads an extract from a chapter on drug abuse in Myanmar in his book ‘Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma’

The book also contains an interview with a 24-year-old Kachin recovering addict, which Cockett read out.

“I started taking drugs aged sixteen. My friends used them and I had no job, I was addicted to heroin and yaba for seven years. I was an only child; I stole money from my parents – maybe 30,000 – 40,000 kyan each time (US$30-$40)….The police are the guards for the drug dealers…every day the police, two or three of them, would stand by the drug dealer to protect them, and the dealer gave money to the police in turn..I had five or six friends who have died of drug overdoses..they were 20 or 21 when they died, ” he said, reading from the book.

“It’s a crazy drug and people get psychotic on it and even beat up their friends or family on it,” he told those attending the talk. “All the people involved in conflicts in Burma are protecting the drug dealers as a source of revenue for their conflicts against the Burmese government. So many people have come to rely on the drugs trade and the profits of drugs to fund conflicts. This will make ending the conflict very difficult as it’s intertwined with drugs revenues in ethnic states. Why would farmers grow tomatoes if they can make so much money from poppies?”

In 1985 Myanmar produced more opium than any other country in the world. Then Afghanistan replaced Myanmar as the biggest supplier of opium in the early 1990s.

“This is partly due to the drug eradication programmes carried out by the military government of the time,” he explained. “They tried to eradicate opium because it was such a big problem,” Cockett continued. “To a degree they managed it but by 2012 it was rising again. In 2013 poppy cultivation in Burma rose by 13 per cent on the previous year to 143,000 acres – well over double the total acreage in 2006. Now the industry is worth US$5040 million a year. In 2013 Afghanistan and Burma produced 18 per cent of the world’s opium supply,” he stated.

He said there was a huge demand for drugs in Southeast Asia and China. Trade routes going out of Myanmar around the world were increasingly being used to supply drugs as well. Half of China’s registered drug addicts are in the Yunnan province, near the border of Myanmar, he pointed out. “The borders are porous and it’s very easy for the drugs to get into China,” he said.


“Yaba has become very popular in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia but nowhere near as high a proportion of people consume it as they do in the Kayin, Mon, Shan and Kachin States,” Cockett told the audience.

He said there was “a complete absence of government social structures” so there were no government-funded rehabilitation programmes in place to counter drug abuse.

The government did “not have the incentive” to help, he said, so it was left “largely to self-help groups” and even vigilante groups. “Some groups have been set up by well-meaning individuals such as a Christian women who lost her son,” he explained.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has made it a priority to continue the peace process to end the conflict between the army and the ethnic people. However, rarely is anything said about drugs and how inexorably linked drugs are to solving the problem,” he said.

“This is a problem that the West should know more about. It will have a huge impact on relations between the central government and regions like Shan and Han because so much of their land economy is built up doing this. The solution is to end complicity with the local police. Central control flows down from the capital. If the local areas had more local ownership they could start to do something about this problem. If they were given control of the police force they could do more about it. Vigilantes are trying to control it because no one else is doing anything. Once the economies of the states recover, as you create more employment, demand will go down for drugs. These states are trying to build their own economies and tourism is an obvious option. They need to give the young less need to turn to yaba. Unless people take back control and own the problem nothing will be done,” he said.

He added there were many projects afoot to increase transport links in ASEAN and create more free-flowing inter-state markets which “is all fine on paper but it makes it much easier for drugs barons to shift stuff more quickly to other markets.”

When asked whether there was drug-taking in places like Yangon, he said it was much less prevalent and more behind closed doors but it did go on. “I have not spoken to anyone whose family has not suffered in some way. The Burmese just see it as a problem of the ethnic areas, not a problem for the Burmese,” he said.

* Burma calls itself Myanmar as do many other countries, but the British Government continues to refer to the country as Burma. Internationally both names are recognised.


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival continues until 18 May. For more information click here.

To read more stories about Myanmar click here.