Last Sunday night, senior Buddhist monk U Arsara was driving in his Toyota Kluger from Shwe Baho village in southern Maungdaw district, in the northwestern state of Rakhine, Myanmar. At around 6 pm, he was stopped by police at the Bawdhikone checkpoint on the outskirts of the township.
The Buddhist monk was heading to a downtown area known by locals as Na Ta La village, with a novice monk riding in the vehicle beside him. The pair were arrested on drug trafficking charges by Mayu Operation, an anti-narcotics force, after 400,000 methamphetamine pills, along with some ammunition, were found in the vehicle.
Police then searched the Shwe Baho monastery, where U Arsara is an abbot, and seized 4.2 million of the stimulant tablets. “First the police found 400,000 drug pills,” local police chief Kyaw Mya Win told AFP. “The police then went to the monk’s monastery and found another 4.2 million pills.”
Mayu Operation was formed earlier this month and is directly supervised by officials in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The UN estimate the retail price of meth tablets at about $2 each, making the haul worth over $9 million.
Myanmar’s drug trade
Last year, Myanmar authorities seized record amounts of methamphetamine pills. According to police data, around 98 million were seized in 2016, compared with around 50 million the year prior. Police also seized 759 kilograms of heroin, 945 kilograms of opium and 2,464 kilograms of pure methamphetamine, or ice.
Drug prosecutions also skyrocketed with 13,500 carried out last year, compared with 8,800 the year before.
Myanmar is one of the world’s top illicit drug producing nations, churning out vast quantities of heroin, opium and cannabis, along with methamphetamine. While much of the product is sold on the local market, most of it is bound for Asia, and countries further abroad, such as Australia.
Most of the production takes place in remote border territories controlled by ethnic minorities – such as Shan and Wa states, both bordering Thailand in the area known as the Golden Triangle. Low-level smugglers, like U Arsara, are often arrested by police. However, few of the cartel leaders are ever caught by the authorities.
A 2015 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report outlined that Myanmar is the second-largest opium producing nation in the world, coming in behind Afghanistan. But the heroin produced is of a much higher grade, and commands a higher price when sold in the west.
The world leader in methamphetamine
The nation is also the largest producer of methamphetamine and meth pills in the world. Most of this is produced in the unrecognised Wa state. The territory is controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is understood to be the largest and best-armed drug producing organisation in Southeast Asia.
The UWSA have dozens of large amphetamine-making laboratories along the border with Thailand. These large labs can produce millions of pills a day, with chemicals sourced from China. The pills often have a WY printed on one side signifying the UWSA, and Thai shorthand for horse medicine on the other.
Myanmar’s meth pills are relatively cheap and are readily available across Asia. They’re popular amongst partygoers throughout the region, as well as truck and rickshaws drivers and factory workers required to work long shifts.
Methamphetamine pills produced in Myanmar are popularly known as yaba. The pills are a concoction of crystal meth and caffeine. They come in colours such as pink, purple and orange. And they’ve long been the popular drug of choice in Thailand.
The pills – which can be swallowed, or crushed to be smoked or injected – usually contain a low concentration of methamphetamine, but over recent years, the amount of meth contained in the pills has risen from around 20 percent to up to 95 percent at times.
Bangladesh has become the latest country in the region to report an increase in the use of meth pills. According to the Bangladeshi Department of Narcotics Control, the number of pills seized by authorities rose from 36,000 in 2008 to nearly 2 million in 2012.
A rise in trafficking in Rakhine state
Maungdaw district in Myanmar’s Rakhine state – where U Arsara was busted over the weekend – borders Bangladesh. Over the last couple of years, drug trafficking in this region is said to be on the rise.
In late September last year, Maungdaw police conducted two large drug hauls, which totalled over 15 million meth pills. The drugs were discovered in a construction company’s compound, hidden under piles of bricks, and in a truck, where they were covered by sand.
The two suspects thought to be in charge of this trafficking operation have never been apprehended.
The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya
The state of Rakhine is also home to Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya. The estimated 1.3 million Muslim minority, make up about a third of the state’s population. However, the Myanmar government doesn’t recognise them as citizens, referring to them as Bengalis, and classing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Since October last year, Maungdaw district has been the scene of some brutal atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya people by Myanmar authorities.
After attacks by some Rohingya militants on border posts on October 9 last year, the Myanmar military undertook a series of counterinsurgency operations in the region. More than 69,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh, while another 23,000 have become internally displaced in the state.
Human Rights Watch reported on Monday that between October and mid-December last year, the Myanmar army and border guard police carried out systematic gang rape, invasive body searches and sexual assaults in at least nine villages in Maungdaw district.
A society divided
But ethnic divisions run deep within this resistive state. Sectarian violence broke out in June 2012, when extreme factions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority population began attacking and burning down Rohingya villages throughout the state, in reprisal for an alleged rape.
These attacks drove an estimate 120,000 Rohingya people into internally displaced person camps, the majority of which run along the coast of the Bay of Bengal just west of the capital, Sittwe.
Troubles at the top
Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has come under a lot of criticism for her lack of response to the crisis unravelling in the northwest of her country.
And further concerns have been raised about the plight of the nation’s Muslim minorities in general, after prominent human rights lawyer and Muslim U Ko Ni was shot dead at Yangon International airport on January 29 this year.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.