Myanmar's Upper House of Parliament recently approved a proposal calling for 'prompt action' in eradicating drugs in Myanmar. Myanmar remains the second-largest poppy producer in the world (despite recent reports of reduction in output), and is an increasingly significant producer of Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS). The latter are more difficult to target since, unlike poppy fields, drug labs can be moved.

Drug eradication has been a topical domestic issue this year. The Kachin-based civil society organisation (CSO) Pat Jasan conducted drug eradication activities, destroying poppy plantations in Kachin State before the government ordered it to stop in February this year. After reaching an agreement with authorities, Pat Jasan members were later assaulted by armed groups during subsequent eradication activities, despite promised protection.

Considering the international political pressure, tackling the drug trade is an attractive proposition for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), but it's also a problematic one. The role that drugs play (and have played) in Myanmar's society, economy and politics is complicated, and there are strong vested interests that will need to support any anti-drug activities if they are going to be successful. Any serious anti-drug efforts also have the potential to interfere with Myanmar's continuing peace process and planned talks (the '21st Century Panglong Peace Conference') at the end of this month.

Many poppy plantations and drug labs are located in areas controlled by ethnic non-state armed groups. Although there is no official data, some estimates have valued Myanmar's poppy trade at between US $500 million and over US $1 billion per year, with ATS production likely to substantially increase this figure. Drug eradication threatens a lucrative industry; in the case of Pat Jasan, farmers responded violently when their livelihoods were threatened.

The new NLD Government doesn't have many options. Armed groups that profit from the drug trade are unlikely to give it (or their territory) up without a fight or significant compensation. But the government doesn't have the money to compensate these groups, and alternate crop substitution won't provide the same revenue or affect the increasing number of ATS labs. 

The government could consider giving affected groups full rights to natural resources in their respective areas, but this would deprive the government of much needed revenue. And some groups effectively control these resources anyway, so likely wouldn't see the formal rights as adequate compensation.

The NLD can't openly allow the illicit drug industry to continue, even in the interests of peace. Doing so risks international criticism and possible sanctions. Nor can it use CSOs (such as Pat Jasan) as proxies in enforcement due to the security risks CSOs would face, and because it could encourage other forms of issue-motivated vigilantism. Relying on CSOs would also undermine the role of the military and the police force, as well as NLD's stated desire for 'rule of law'. 

It's also unclear how the debate on drugs will fit in to the broader peace discussion, or to what extent it will influence the overall peace process. The International Crisis Group recently highlighted that only two thematic areas (political issues and security issues) out of the five originally identified will be part of the main peace group discussions. The remaining three – social issues (which includes drugs), economic issues and natural resources and land issues – have been relegated to the newly formed 'Civil Society Organisation Forum', which will somehow feed into the main discussions. 

This development means that the drug trade is not a central topic of discussion, despite the potential to influence issues such as disarmament and demobilisation. But many other issues (such as autonomy and natural resources) are also so interlinked that separating them into different topical discussions (some potentially by committees that have an unknown influence over the whole process) may give the impression that key issues are being neglected, and could result in less substantive agreements. 

It will also be hard to secure disarmament and demobilisation when those arms are being used to protect what many may see as their property, whether it is land, natural resources or an illicit billion-dollar industry.

If agreements can't be reached, it would be surprising for any party to publicly admit that the issue of drugs is partly responsible. We are instead likely to see claims that issues such as 'autonomy' couldn't be agreed upon. And if agreements are reached that don't factor in the drug industry (or other topical issues, for that matter), we are likely see conflict during their implementation. 

So far, military MPs have supported the recent anti-drug proposal, which is promising for the NLD. Eradication and enforcement efforts require the cooperation of the military and the police, which the NLD doesn't control. But military MPs emphasised that eradication efforts should be well-funded military-style operations, while cautioning against using 'drugs' as an issue for political purposes. It's unclear whether military eradication operations are precisely what the NLD has in mind.

The NLD is in an unenviable position. It is desperate for wins in the peace process, which would allow it to claim success where previous administrations failed. But to secure any substantive long-term agreements, the NLD will need to find a compromise between its stated anti-drug ambitions and the needs of armed groups who control the trade, or risk failing on both fronts. 

Photo: Getty Images/Taylor Weidman