How Myanmar Became A Global Center For Meth & Other Synthetic Drugs

By Paul Gaita 07/15/19

Authorities claim that while seizures happen on a regular basis, they have only managed to halt about 20% of the drugs produced in Myanmar.

Myanmar, biggest global meth producer in the world
ID 119504089 © Nicola Messana |

The Southeast Asian country of Myanmar has become one of the world's biggest producers of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs, and both the military and United Nations appears to be at a loss as to how to stop it.

The region remains one of the world's leading sources of opium, but a combination of civil and economic insecurity, geographical proximity to China and Thailand, and a growing demand for synthetic drugs in Asia has given rise to a methamphetamine industry overseen by traffickers, organized crime groups and armed militias.

Authorities claim that while seizures happen on a regular basis, they have only managed to halt about 20% of drugs produced in the country.

Civil War

A report by the UNODC outlined the problems in Myanmar that has allowed its synthetic drug trade to flourish. The country has been locked in a civil war with armed rebels for more than a half-century, resulting in population displacement and economic insecurity that in turn, has allowed drug production to take root and flourish. Opium was the region's most profitable drug for decades, and placed Myanmar second on the list of the world's leading producers of opium and heroin.

And while that aspect of the trade remains largely intact, recent efforts by government forces to destroy the poppy fields that produce opium have allowed methamphetamine to become the country's most in-demand drug.

According to the UN report, methamphetamine has become the drug of choice across East and Southeast Asia and neighboring regions. 

As an NPR report on Myanmar revealed, the country's Shan state, which is located at the borders of Thailand and China, appears to be the hub of its methamphetamine trade. The state is home to some of the largest rebel organizations that oppose the Myanmar government, as well as criminal organizations that have set up labs to produce not only methamphetamine but also ketamine and possibly fentanyl.

The Shan state's close proximity to China provides access to the chemicals needed to produce synthetic drugs, while in certain areas, little more than a river separates southern Myanmar from northern Thailand, which provides routes to Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Rebel Forces Clash With The Government

Law enforcement and military regularly patrol the borders, but as an Al Jazeera report uncovered, they estimate that only 20% of meth and other synthetic drugs are being netted by their efforts. A reduction in tensions between Myanmar's government and rebel forces, as well as concentrated coordination between the countries involved in the trade may provide greater support, as the UNODC report noted.

"There is a direct connection between drugs and the conflict in the country, with the drug economy supporting the conflict and in turn, the conflict facilitating the drug economy," wrote the report's authors. "Providing solutions to the conflict requires breaking this cycle.

Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the UNODC in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, put the stakes into a global context for NPR.

"Unless Southeast Asian gets its act together and starts to deal with the conditions that have allowed these organized crime figures to scale and have allowed them to become what they are now, which is just massive Pablo Escobar types, this region will become a global point of production for synthetics," he said.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.