TAMU (Myanmar) • Five years ago, when cold pills first trickled across Myanmar’s untamed border with India, many local officials were baffled. Where was this medicine going, and why were smugglers so interested in it?
Today, the cross-border trickle has become a torrent and everyone knows why the Indian-made pills are so valuable: they are bound for secret laboratories in lawless eastern Myanmar that churn out most of mainland South-east Asia’s methamphetamine, or “meth”.
Cold pills contain pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient of meth, a highly-addictive drug whose ever-soaring popularity is rattling governments across Asia.
In recent months, the Philippines has elected a president on a platform of harsh action against drug dealers, Indonesia has resumed executions of drug traffickers after a year-long hiatus and Thailand is wrestling with a soaring prison population.
Myanmar’s current boom in meth production would be impossible without a recent surge in pseudoephedrine smuggled from India’s huge and ill-regulated pharmaceutical sector, say police and narcotics experts.
The uninterrupted flow of the drug is highlighting a disconnect between countries in tackling a meth epidemic that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls Asia’s “No. 1 drug threat”. “It is big, big business,” said Mr Ye Htut, a former adviser to Myanmar’s former president Thein Sein. He attributed a property boom in Kalay, the largest town in this otherwise-impoverished region, to the profits made from smuggling pseudoephedrine.
Meth is sold in pill form as “ya ba”, a Thai name meaning “crazy medicine”, or as a more potent, crystalline substance known as “crystal meth”, “ice” or “shabu”.
Each Indian cold pill can make one “ya ba” and costs only a few cents to produce. By the time it has crossed the border and reached Mandalay – Myanmar’s northern capital and a major smuggling hub – the pill’s value has increased roughly tenfold.
Across mainland South-east Asia, the UNODC estimates the meth trade was worth US$15 billion (S$20.2 billion) in 2013.
The rugged and ethnically-diverse region straddling the Indian border ranks among Myanmar’s poorest, with no industry and modest infrastructure. Its main road is a two-lane highway linked by rickety bridges and plied by ox carts.
It is here that Myanmar police have been finding thousands of the cold pills, hidden in rice sacks, packed into truck chassis or spilling from the luggage of cross-border bus passengers.
In one bust here in mid-June, police intercepted a car carrying more than 60kg of Indian pseudoephedrine – enough to make more than a million “ya ba” pills.
Global demand for methamphetamine has created “new precursor chemical entrepreneurs in India”, said the US State Department in a 2015 report. Experts believe many criminals who once smuggled drugs now prefer precursors, which offer high profits but much lighter penalties.
Myanmar police say China is also a major supplier of pseudoephedrine. But with tighter controls there, and with greater demand for the chemical as meth use booms, drug producers have increasingly turned to India.
Pseudoephedrine is a controlled substance in India requiring all handlers to register with the authorities. In practice, the trade is poorly monitored, with Indian officials complaining of weak intelligence-sharing between government agencies and rare prosecutions of offenders.
The booming drugs trade poses a challenge to the fledgling government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar police said most large drug and precursor shipments were smuggled through Moreh, the Indian border town opposite Myanmar’s Tamu town. They have arrested scores of couriers or “mules”, but said they needed India’s help to arrest the ringleaders.
But India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) said Myanmar had not presented evidence that smuggling kingpins were hiding in India, or even that the pseudoephedrine it had seized was Indian-made. “It is coming from other countries too,” said a top NCB official, who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorised to speak to journalists.