6 Minutes To Read

Under the Umbrella: Drugs and Myanmar Politics (Part 5)

6 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Olly Gagiero describes how the suppression of Myanmar’s drug trade is constrained by pervasive corruption.

    This is Part 5 of a five-part series by Monash University students from a two-week study tour to Myanmar. Read Parts 1, 2, 3,  and 4 here.

    In July 2018, nineteen Criminology students from Monash University travelled to Myanmar on a two-week study tour, sponsored by the New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. This was the first Monash study tour to Myanmar and the first study tour to Myanmar with a focus on crime and criminal justice. Students engaged with a number of representatives from government, non-government, INGOs, universities and other agencies, as well as individuals including young activists and journalists, all working within Myanmar’s law enforcement and criminal justice sector. Through this learning experience, students developed and deepened their knowledge and understanding of the complexities behind Myanmar’s human rights, political, diplomatic, education agendas and how they intersect.  

    In 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power with a sweeping electoral victory, and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the leader of the civilian government in all but title. This victory was assumed by many to be yet another step towards what would surely be a rapid road for reform: “The Lady” would surely herald an end to military rule and all manner of corruption. However, her inability over the last three years to bring about change has prompted harsh criticism.

    In July 2018 I was part of a Monash study tour to Myanmar, where we gained firsthand knowledge of issues surrounding law, justice and reform. My own interest is in the drug trade and the corruption that stems from its existence. Over the course of my visit and various interviews with local officials, NGO representatives and other key stakeholders, I began to understand that, for those outside Myanmar, it can be difficult to gauge the complex reality of domestic issues in the country. The differing opinions and solutions offered by many outsiders aren’t suited to an environment of intersecting problems. Throughout the two-week tour, local stakeholders offered first-hand evidence of how many within the country regard the transition. There was a common feeling amongst them about the external pressure to implement all manner of changes overnight. Frequently, these sources would point to the corruption within the authorities, and the illicit drug trade in particular, as obstacles to achieving change. A key takeaway from these discussions was that the issues Myanmar faces are inextricably linked to one another. Patience is therefore paramount when discussing the potential for reform, as is the need for the current civilian government and foreign donors to engage with Myanmar’s problems more holistically, through addressing the corrupt practices that create an enabling environment for all manner of crime.

    Currently, the international spotlight is squarely focused on Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. However, this is only one of the many serious issues that Myanmar faces. As described to us by local journalists and NGOs, the Western media is not interested in news outside of the issues in Rakhine state. However, away from the attention of the world media, the drug trade, and the illicit money that flows through Myanmar, continues to breed corruption, and is causing harm far beyond Myanmar’s borders.

    The drug trade and other facets of organized crime that plague the country has been embedded for generations. Myanmar’s drug production, with an annual worth estimated at US $40 billion, contrasts sharply with Myanmar’s official GDP, which was only $69.3 billion in 2017. One senior government official we spoke to on condition of anonymity suggested that there exists an unspoken culture of acceptance of the drug trade in Myanmar—so long as money reaches the right pockets. He believed many of his peers were benefiting from the illegitimate wealth moving through the country.  However, the official‘s suspicion has not yet been confirmed through arrests or convictions. Controversially, he was of the belief that, in the short-term, this corruption was beneficial, as some of the wealth might be used for “the good of” Myanmar.

    However, the short-term benefits of using this wealth in the manner suggested by this official are far outweighed by the detriments. Such a suggestion allows the festering of a mistaken assumption that Myanmar’s issues of drugs and corruption are unconnected, and can therefore be addressed in isolation to one another. This is problematic, and obfuscates the existence of a “protective umbrella” within Myanmar. According to Dr Ko-Lin Chin, an ‘umbrella’ is used to describe ‘the practice of criminals bribing government officials in exchange for protection’. The official spoke of this umbrella in Myanmar as the practice of, authorities using their power and influence to protect the industry in return for lucrative payments. The longer this umbrella exists, the more ingrained it will become in Myanmar’s bureaucratic culture. If the Union’s transition is to continue, Myanmar’s authorities must therefore engage not only with drug production and organized crime, but with the corruption it generates within officialdom. A strategy that approaches these issues collectively, through the targeting of corruption, is necessary, but after hearing from numerous interviewees, such action seems extremely unlikely.

    In May 2018, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas was blunt in describing the need to “address the corruption, conditions and vulnerabilities that allow organised crime to keep expanding operations and exploiting the region”. Therein lies the heart of the issue. The wealth that flows from the drug trade back to the military and government presents a significant challenge to adopting a holistic solution. Those in power implicitly acquiesce to the continued existence of the trade by tolerating the involvement of officials. Without addressing the higher-level corruption and drug trade as a whole, it is difficult to see how isolated solutions that focus on only one side of the issue can be effective.

    In Myanmar, as elsewhere, money talks. We spoke to local journalists who counted the two Reuters reporters imprisoned in September 2018 for 7 years as friends, and they were clear that money has corrupted many in power. A key point raised by one of the journalists was that the drug economy is evidently driven by politics.  The government’s connection with the drug trade, ‘while avoiding international condemnation, has created instability and insecurity, fostering an environment in which official complicity, impunity and support for the trade’ are the norm. Such an environment demands an approach that addresses the problem in its entirety, instead of merely focusing on certain elements of the drug trade.

    A key hindrance to an approach that addresses the different layers of these issues is the substantial military influence on the drug trade in Myanmar. Whilst not producing drugs themselves, ‘they are providing tacit approval for drugs to be produced’. During the study tour, a senior representative of a UN Agency stated it was clear the military were aware of the trade, and that there were certain members benefitting from it. The military has in fact been taking advantage of the drug economy since the 1980’s to finance their ‘state building objectives”. They further stated that until the political and economic issues underlying the drug trade were addressed, and a collective approach adopted, trying to solve the impact of the drug trade from a harm reduction perspective alone was potentially futile.

    The existence of corrupt relationships with the drug trade have long been known. In 2015, John Whalen, former head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Myanmar, stated that “the army is involved in various areas of the drug trade, absolutely, …they’re benefiting from relationships with high-level traffickers”. Certain levels of corruption are tolerated ‘as long as it does not offend the military hierarchy or compromise the effectiveness of the armed forces.’

    Attempting to adopt a policy that would treat Myanmar’s problems universally is difficult. Aung San Suu Kyi has no authority over the military, as they are a law unto themselves. Indeed, her ongoing lack of condemnation of their actions and recent description of their relationship as “not that bad” sends a message of implicit tolerance for the military. The recent atrocities against the Rohingya illustrates the freedom with which the military operate. The military’s ‘clearance operations’ in Rakhine state last year left over 9,000 Rohingya dead and forced 700,000 to flee. In discussions with foreign government representatives serving as liaisons to their security counterparts in Myanmar, they believed that the escalation of violence and chaos has provided the perfect opportunity for the select army personnel, and those involved in the drug trade, to capitalise on. Now, the same soldiers who committed the atrocities in Rakhine are using Rohingya refugees as drug mules.

    It is difficult to propose a clear way to address such lawless behaviour and corruption.  UNODC Myanmar officials were clear that Myanmar’s anti-corruption policies are in its early stages and lack the experience and resources to effectively eradicate these issues. Further, the military continues to control the country through the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees them control of key ministries, and which allots them 25% of seats in parliament—and a constitutional amendment requires a 76% majority vote. This leaves them beyond external jurisdiction. Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government cannot enact changes without military approval, nor can they sanction them for their crimes.

    For meaningful change to occur in Myanmar, policymakers must face the reality of the drug trade and its links to those in power.  More pervasive strategies must be implemented that engage with the macro-level of corruption and the bureaucratic culture of umbrella protection.  While the rules securing the military’s role in Parliament remain, it is unrealistic to expect such changes to happen overnight. However, if drug money continues to find its way into official pockets, then those in charge will continue to look the other way.

    So far, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to deliver on the optimism that surrounded her ascent to power. However, again, patience is key. The NLD has been severely limited by the 2008 Constitution, and it will be difficult to enact meaningful change so long as that constitution remains in place. Only when policies are implemented that target all aspects of the drug trade, and the networks of relationships that protect it, will the country then be able to begin to dismantle this illegal economy. This means tackling corruption, which serves as the umbrella under which the drug trade shelters, as a crime in itself, and a first priority.

    Olly Gagiero is a current Monash University student completing a double degree of Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Criminology.  

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