The International Consequences of Military Rule in Myanmar

15 October 2007

By Christopher Roberts – PhD Candidate, UNSW@ADFA

The killing of protestors, journalists, and monks in recent weeks by Myanmar’s armed forces has generated some of the strongest diplomatic responses yet from prominent countries in both Asia and the West. Already, Edward McMillen-Scott, vice-president of the European Parliament, has suggested threatening a boycott of the Beijing Olympics in an attempt to push China, a key military and economic partner of Myanmar, towards applying real pressure for political change. Because of recent events, prominent Western powers and organisations – such as the European Union – are likely to hold Myanmar’s strategic partners to higher standards of accountability. However, should the international community fail to get the leaders of the junta to relinquish their power in the near future, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in charge of Myanmar is likely to enter into a new phase of heightened international isolation and condemnation. A consequence of the likely withdrawal of Myanmar’s leaders from any attempt to engage with the broader international community will be a government that is likely to become more paranoid, less responsible, and highly desperate in their bid to maintain power and personal wealth. However, and as will be discussed below, recent trends regarding the proliferation of transnational crime suggest that Myanmar’s leadership had heading down this path well before Myanmar’s monks marched down the streets of Yangon.

Transnational Crime in Myanmar and the Culpability of the Junta

In recent years, the military dictatorship in Myanmar has received some credit for reducing the overall level of opium production from an estimated 1,676 metric tonnes in 1997 to 315 metric tonnes in 2006. However, an October 2007 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime revealed a disturbing new trend. During the past year, opium production in Myanmar was estimated to have increased by 46% to 460 metric tonnes. Consequently, Myanmar’s opium industry is now worth as much as US$120 million per annum and the only other criminal activity in the country with the potential to surpass this ‘value’ pertains to the production of methamphetamines (ya-ba). While highly problematic to trace, US intelligence organisations have estimated that by 2004 total production had reached as high as 800 million tablets – more than double the level of production for 2003. An equally worrying trend in Myanmar since 2002 has been the diversification of ATS production to include the more expensive varieties such as Ecstasy and Ice – crystallised methamphetamine – alternatively known as Shabu. Given these circumstances, Myanmar continues to rank as the world’s number one narco-state.

Meanwhile, arms smuggling is another problem in Myanmar (and continental Southeast Asia more generally) that is associated with illicit narcotics production and trafficking. For the insurgent groups in Myanmar, and the Hmong Rebel’s in Laos, the smuggling of guns is more important to sustain their respective insurgency movements than for being a profit generating exercise. Despite an abundance of small arms throughout the subregion, this is because the smuggling of weapons is both difficult and financially unrewarding. Nonetheless, the trafficking of small arms remains a major threat to the comprehensive security of Southeast Asia as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a drug financed insurgent army in Myanmar, now maintain 21,000-armed soldiers. The problem of narcotics and armed smuggling has been compounded by the complicity of elements of the political elite in Myanmar. Since the implementation of ceasefire arrangements with around seventeen insurgent groups, some of the leading drug traffickers have enjoyed good relations with certain SPDC generals – including ousted Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. Various army (Tatmadaw) battalions (No.227 and no.330) have even conducted joint military exercises with the UWSA and Khin Nyunt presided over the opening ceremony on this occasion. The historical relationship and assistance provided to the former rebel leader and ailing drug lord Chang Chifu (Khun Sa) since his 1996 surrender has also been well documented. Meanwhile, and at the grassroots level, there have been reported cases of farmers being forcibly coerced by the Tatmadaw to cultivate opium. Also, and to avoid the complete collapse of its economy, during the 1990s the junta in Myanmar opened the doors to widespread ‘money laundering’ by formulating a no questions asked policy and inviting Wa businesspeople – many UWSA commanders – to invest in Myanmar’s mainstream economy.

Consequences of Transnational Crime for Myanmar’s Southeast Asian Neighbours.

The proliferation of illicit narcotics production in Myanmar, together with other criminal activities such as human trafficking, has had many consequences for the region. In Thailand, for example, it is now one of the principal destination countries in the region for illicit narcotics. By 2003, conservative estimates suggested that there were at least 250,000 drug addicts in Thailand and that eighty percent of methamphetamines consumed in Thailand are from Myanmar. As Ralph Emmers states, the social ills generated by illicit drugs are well documented and include increased levels of violent crime, the wastage of human potential, weakened family structures, the reduced health of consumers, and the spread of HIV/AIDS due to intravenous drug use. In Vietnam for example, drug addiction has already contributed to a significant increase in murder rates for the first half of 2005. Further, the same authorities recorded a forty percent increase in attacks against police officers between November 2004 and June 2005. Meanwhile, Jane’s intelligence alleges that, in March 2005, hundreds of youth fought a serious of bloody battles with two units of the local police force. Such events were unimaginable just a decade ago.

Challenges and Consequences for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The nature of the military dictatorship in Myanmar presents many different and multifaceted challenges for ASEAN. At one level, the continued culpability of the junta challenges the ability of ASEAN to garner consensus on the implementation of meaningful activities and mechanisms to combat the causes behind, and consequences of, such issues as illicit narcotics production. At another level, Myanmar continues to threaten the international stature of ASEAN itself. For example, at a July 2004 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting, the European Union threatened to boycott the October 2004 Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit unless the junta was ejected from ASEAN or it made political concession prior to its participation in the meeting. On several occasions, the United States has threatened the possibility that Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN would threaten ASEAN-US relations. Indicative of a possible attempt to provided added weight to the threat, and for the first time since the ARF was launched, the United States’ Secretary of State (in this instance Condoleezza Rice) was absent from the ARF meeting in 2005.

In November 2007, the ASEAN Summit will take place in Singapore. What was meant to be an occasion celebrating forty years of ASEAN and the finalisation of the ASEAN charter, has now been jeopardised by recent events in Myanmar. Moreover, the ASEAN leaders will be enacting a charter that will contain clauses with a commitment to such principles as democracy and democratic values along with agreement on a human rights commission. Following the violent crackdown by the Myanmar junta against peaceful monks and protestors, it is difficult to imagine how ASEAN will be able to implement the charter (or celebrate its 40th anniversary) without being lampooned by both the local and international media. One of the first steps to avoid the conundrum of Myanmar, at least as far as ASEAN’s international stature is concerned, will of necessity involve greater responsibility in the political, economic, and military relations between some of the original ASEAN member-states and Myanmar. Such change will also need to be supported by modifying the nature of diplomatic relations between the ASEAN states. A fundamental principle in these relations has been ‘non-interference in each other internal affairs’. Given the transnational consequences of instability, corruption, and crime in Myanmar, it is difficult to imagine how the ASEAN governments will continue to be able adhere to this outdated principle in the future. Moreover, such a transition maybe forced upon the ASEAN governments in the event of a non-cooperative (and even hostile) regime in Myanmar in the future. Such a regime might increasingly depend on illicit sources of funding (such as narcotics) and – under circumstances where the people of Southeast Asia become increasingly threatened by these activities – it would be difficult to imagine how the ASEAN governments can continue to defend the junta as ‘a fellow member of the ASEAN family’.