The government of Myanmar arrested a Buddhist monk on Tuesday for hiding over four million methamphetamine pills and a cache of “a grenade and ammunition” in his monastery. The incident highlights one of the world’s most sprawling drug epidemics in a nation former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has regaled as an Obama White House success story.
Authorities announced on Tuesday that the monk, identified only as Arsara, was carrying 400,000 methamphetamine pills in his car. When police searched his monastery after the arrest, they found a stash of 4.2 million pills and a variety of weapons. Officers told the Associated Press the case was “not normal,” and the newswire service mentions several officials expressing surprise that a Buddhist monk would be involved in the drug trade.
That police would find such a gargantuan supply of methamphetamine ready for distribution, however, is significantly less of a surprise. As Agence France-Presse notes, the drug is “hugely popular across Asia among everyone from wealthy clubbers to exhausted blue-collar employees working long shifts.” Myanmar, in particular, is a hotbed of both drug trafficking and drug abuse, with its northern Kachin region particularly struggling to survive a years-long epidemic that has left a significant percentage of its population incapacitated by methamphetamine and heroin abuse.
A 2012 report estimated that 80 percent of young residents of Kachin, Myanmar’s northernmost state, were addicted to drugs — most to heroin. Heroin use is so commonplace that residents used syringes and sterile water, used to liquefy powdered heroin, as currency. The report also quoted locals at Myitkyina University who were working to fight heroin abuse and accused the government of “a form of genocide” in which they allowed residents to use heroin to incapacitate them politically.
Five years later, little has changed in Kachin. “The drug issue is made worse because the military uses it as a weapon,” Ahgu Khin, an official with the Catholic anti-drug abuse group Pat Jasan, told Al Jazeera in a report published Wednesday. “They are fighting the Kachin people with drugs as well as bullets, keeping people addicted.”
Another Catholic charity worker, John Zau Aung, tells the outlet that “the government and military purposely spread the heroin. The militia groups target poor and young people and the farmers who grow the drugs are paid in heroin, which they either use or sell.” He notes that Kachin has long been home to a separatist movement that has largely stopped troubling the government in Naypyidaw since drug abuse rates soared.
“No high-level officials have been arrested to date,” Al Jazeera notes.
The new Al Jazeera report echoes the findings from a 2015 report in the Global Post, published as the nation welcomed a newly-elected government. The report found a dire scenario on the ground: “meth is available by motorbike delivery as early as dawn. Addicts loot unguarded homes of everything from motorbikes to sewing machines to damp jeans drying on clotheslines.”
Militias opposing the central government accused soldiers of allowing drugs to take hold to cement their power. “It’s obvious,” militia leader Tu Raw told the Global Post. “The government wants to weaken our ability to resist their rule.”
At the time the Global Post published its report, it described Myanmar as “suddenly hip” thanks to the Obama administration’s support for the new government. At the time, Clinton issued remarks congratulating the United States on Myanmar’s national elections.
“The Burmese election on Sunday was an important, though imperfect, step forward in the country’s long journey toward democracy,” the former Secretary of State said. “It was also an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”
Myanmar reported the confiscation of 98 million methamphetamine tablets in 2016, double that of the previous year, and prosecuted nearly 5,000 more drug suspects than in 2015. The nation remains the second-largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan.