The Dark Nexus: Origins of Myanmar’s Narcotics Trade and its Role in Fueling Insurgency and Regional Instability

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Sarder Ali Haider


Myanmar, located at the center of the infamous Golden Triangle, has long been associated with the production and trafficking of illegal narcotics, especially opium, heroin, and methamphetamine (Chouvy, 2014). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that Myanmar accounted for approximately 10% of global opium production in 2020 (UNODC, 2021). Myanmar has consistently ranked among the world’s leading producers of opium. In recent years, the production of synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, has increased dramatically, transforming Myanmar into a regional center for the narcotics trade (UNODC, 2020).

Myanmar’s drug trade is intricately intertwined with the protracted armed conflict between the central government and various ethnic insurgent groups. Historically, these groups have relied on the drug trade to fund their activities, acquire weapons, and recruit combatants, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence and instability (Lindner, 1999). In addition, the lucrative drug trade has exacerbated corruption and weakened governance, undermining efforts to address the conflict’s underlying causes (Shelley, 2005).

Myanmar’s drug trade has repercussions beyond its boundaries, contributing to regional instability and posing significant challenges to neighboring nations (West, 2009). Drug trafficking routes traverse Southeast Asia, spreading addiction, criminality, and public health problems throughout the region. The involvement of regional actors in the narcotics trade and the vested interests of various stakeholders further complicate efforts to address the problem (Jelsma et al., 2005).

Given the intricate relationship between Myanmar’s narcotics trade, insurgency, and regional instability, it is essential to comprehend and approach the issue from multiple perspectives. Sustainable progress in combating the narcotics trade requires a comprehensive approach that targets the fundamental causes of drug production, such as poverty and underdevelopment, as well as the demand side of the drug market (UNODC, 2018). In addition, addressing the drug-insurgency nexus is essential for promoting peace and stability in Myanmar and the region, which has implications for human security, public health, and socioeconomic development.

Origins of Myanmar’s Narcotics Trade

Myanmar’s drug traffic dates back to the early 20th century, when the British colonial administration encouraged opium cultivation as a cash crop and source of income (McCoy, 2003). Following the country’s 1948 declaration of independence, the central government attempted to suppress opium production, but these efforts were largely ineffectual due to poor governance, economic difficulties, and the emergence of armed resistance movements in remote and underdeveloped regions (Chouvy, 2014).

Insurgent groups’ role in the drug trafficking

Numerous ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar have long relied on the drug trade to fund their activities, as taxes on opium cultivators, processing facilities, and trafficking networks provide a steady source of revenue (Lintner, 1999). For instance, the Shan State Army (SSA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) are known to have been extensively involved in the narcotics trade for decades, with the latter considered one of the region’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations (Keenan, 2014). The narcotics trade has enabled these groups to maintain a degree of political control over their respective territories, in addition to sustaining them militarily.

Political and economic factors’ influence on drug cultivation and trafficking

Myanmar’s illicit drug trade has been significantly influenced by political and economic factors. In many remote regions, a power vacuum has been created by ongoing conflict and feeble governance, allowing insurgent groups and criminal networks to operate with relative impunity (Shelley, 2005). In addition, pervasive poverty and underdevelopment have compelled many farmers to cultivate opium as a means of survival, as it typically commands a higher price than other crops and is more resistant to the elements (Jelsma et al., 2005). In addition, the demand for drugs on the international market has stimulated the expansion of drug production and trafficking networks, thereby exacerbating the difficulties associated with combating the drug trade (West, 2009).

The Narcotics-Insurgency Connection

The drug traffic in Myanmar is a major source of funding for various insurgent groups. The profits from opium and methamphetamine production and trafficking allow these groups to purchase weapons, sustain their forces, and conduct operations against the central government and rival factions (Lintner, 1999). In consequence, the drug trade has become a vital source of income for these groups, prolonging the conflict and contributing to the overall instability in Myanmar (Jelsma et al., 2005).

Recruitment and exploitation of local populations for the production of illicit drugs

To support their drug production and trafficking activities, insurgent groups frequently exploit the local populace. In some instances, they coerce farmers into growing opium poppies or manufacturing methamphetamine, whereas in others, they offer protection or financial incentives (Jelsma et al., 2005). As local communities become increasingly dependent on the drug trade for their livelihoods, this exploitation contributes to a cycle of poverty and underdevelopment (Chouvy, 2014). Involvement of children and adolescents in the drug trade exacerbates social issues, as they are exposed to violence, addiction, and a lack of education and opportunity (UNODC, 2018).

Drug trafficking as a source of violence and conflict

Myanmar’s drug trade functions as a catalyst for violence and conflict both within and beyond its borders. Insurgent groups and government forces frequently engage in armed conflict due to rivalry over lucrative drug markets and trafficking routes (Shelley, 2005). As they engage in acts of violence, corruption, and intimidation to secure their interests, the presence of drug trafficking networks and criminal syndicates further contributes to insecurity (West, 2009). As cross-border drug smuggling operations provoke disputes and security incidents between Myanmar and its neighbors, the drug trade also exacerbates regional tensions (Keenan, 2014).

Table 1: Key Insurgent Groups Involved in Myanmar’s Narcotics Trade

Source: The Irrawaddy, 2018; South China Morning Post, 2019

Regional Instability and the Spread of Narcotics

Myanmar’s narcotics are smuggled along complex trafficking routes that transverse its borders and extend beyond (West, 2009). These routes facilitate the flow of narcotics into neighboring nations such as China, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh, with significant repercussions for their security, social stability, and public health (UNODC, 2020). The presence of drug trafficking networks in these nations frequently results in an increase in crime, corruption, and violence, undermining law enforcement efforts and disrupting relations between the affected countries (Shelley, 2005).

The impact of regional actors on the illicit drug traffic

Multiple regional actors are involved in the drug traffic in and around Myanmar, which further complicates the situation. Some armed groups and criminal organizations from neighboring nations have been known to collaborate with Myanmar’s insurgent groups in order to facilitate drug production and trafficking (Keenan, 2014). In addition, there have been reports of corruption and complicity among officials and security forces in the region, who may turn a blind eye to or actively participate in the drug trade (Lintner, 1999). These factors contribute to a complex web of alliances and interests, which impedes regional efforts to combat the drug trade and associated insecurity.

Consequences of the spread of illicit drugs on regional security and public health

Regional security and public health are adversely affected by the proliferation of narcotics originating from Myanmar. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2021). The spread of drug abuse also strains healthcare systems and social services, diverting funds from other pressing requirements (West, 2009). In addition, the narcotics trade fosters an atmosphere of insecurity and mistrust among nations in the region as they confront the challenges posed by drug trafficking and its effects on societies and economies.

Table 2: Regional Impacts of Myanmar’s Narcotics Trade

Source: UNODC World Drug Report, 2021

Addressing the Nexus: Strategies and Challenges

Strengthening law enforcement and border security

Strengthening law enforcement and border control is a crucial strategy for addressing the connection between drugs and insurgency in Myanmar. This includes enhancing the ability of security forces to detect and interdict drug shipments, enhancing the sharing of intelligence among regional partners, and enhancing the professionalism and accountability of law enforcement agencies (Shelley, 2005). Ineffective monitoring and enforcement may be hindered by limited resources, corruption, and the complex terrain along Myanmar’s borders (UNODC, 2020).

Promoting alternative livelihoods for communities that produce drugs

Promoting alternative livelihoods for drug-producing communities is another essential strategy for combating the link between narcotics and insurgency. By providing economic incentives and support for alternative commodities, vocational training, and other income-generating activities, these initiatives can assist in reducing reliance on the drug trade and fostering sustainable development in affected regions (Jelsma et al., 2005). This strategy faces obstacles such as the need for considerable financial investment, long-term commitment, and effective coordination among various stakeholders, such as government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and local communities (Chouvy, 2014).

Table 3: Alternative Livelihood Programs in Myanmar’s Drug-Producing Regions

Source: Transnational Institute, 2017

Enhancing regional and global cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking

Enhancing regional and international cooperation is essential in the struggle against Myanmar-based drug trafficking. This includes facilitating dialogue and coordination between affected nations, sharing intelligence and best practices, and providing technical and financial assistance to support capacity-building efforts in law enforcement and drug control (UNODC, 2021). Divergent regional actor interests and sensitivities, as well as concerns about sovereignty and intervention, can impede effective collaboration (West, 2009).


This article has examined the origins of Myanmar’s drug trade, its connection to insurgency and regional instability, as well as the strategies and obstacles involved in addressing this complex issue. The historical context of drug production in Myanmar, the role of insurgent groups in the narcotics trade, and the impact of political and economic factors on drug cultivation and trafficking have been discussed. In addition, we have investigated the effects of drug proliferation on regional security and public health, as well as potential strategies for combating the narcotics-insurgency nexus, such as bolstering law enforcement, promoting alternative livelihoods, and enhancing regional and international cooperation.

Combating the connection between narcotics and insurgency is essential for attaining peace and stability in Myanmar and the wider region. The drug trade fuels conflict, undermines governance, and poses substantial threats to the public health and security of affected nations. By addressing the underlying drivers of the narcotics trade and its connection to insurgency, policymakers and stakeholders can help establish the conditions for sustainable development, enhanced security, and long-term peace in Myanmar and its neighboring countries.

Myanmar necessitates a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, regional partners, international organizations, and local communities, in order to address the link between narcotics and insurgency. To combat drug trafficking, emphasis should be placed on enhancing law enforcement capacity, promoting alternative livelihoods for drug-producing communities, and cultivating regional and international cooperation. By collaborating and employing a comprehensive strategy, it is possible to make significant progress in addressing this complex and urgent problem.



Chouvy, P. A. (2014). Opium: uncovering the politics of the poppy. I.B.Tauris.

Jelsma, M., Kramer, T., & Vervest, P. (2005). Trouble in the Triangle: Opium and Conflict in Burma. Transnational Institute.

Keenan, P. (2014). The Wa State Army and the methamphetamine crisis in the Golden Triangle. The Irrawaddy, 27 May.

Lintner, B. (1999). Burma in revolt: Opium and insurgency since 1948. Silkworm Books.

McCoy, A. W. (2003). The politics of heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade. Lawrence Hill Books.

Shelley, L. I. (2005). The globalization of crime and terrorism. Global crime, 6(1), 22-44. UNODC. (2018). Myanmar opium survey 2018. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC. (2020). Synthetic drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC. (2021). World Drug Report 2021. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

West, B. (2009). Narcotics and the decline of the Golden Triangle. Jane’s Intelligence Review, 21(3), 42-45.

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