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Myanmar: Emergence of a narco-state on India’s eastern borders?

By Rahul Kumar
New Delhi, Feb 8: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has recently released its latest report on the opium production in Myanmar. As per the report, poppy cultivation has increased after the military coup in 2021. The increase in production is caused by two primary shocks: the economic downturn triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the military coup.

The isolation of, and instability in, Myanmar after the military coup has incentivised farmers to rely more and more on poppy cultivation. The report notes that it is seen as the safe insurance crop against the backdrop of political and economic uncertainty. The worsening economic outlook has enhanced the role of poppy in Myanmar’s economy. Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its aftershocks on global energy, food and fertilizer prices have aggravated the situation.

The growing poppy cultivation presents a security challenge not just for Myanmar but also its neighbours including India. Even the report notes that, “East and Southeast Asia-fanning out from the upper Mekong region across ASEAN countries, to Australia and New Zealand, Japan and the Republic of Korea, as well as India and Bangladesh – is set to continue to face a significant expansion in the illicit supply of drugs.”

Myanmar is a key link in the global opium supply chain and is part of what is considered as the Golden Triangle. Golden Triangle consists of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos and is one of the most important nodes in the opium trade. Apart from the production, Myanmar offers overland as well as sea routes for the transport of opium. Interestingly, as per the UNODC report, the production areas of Myanmar’s poppy cultivation are located close to the international frontiers with India, China, and Thailand. For example, Chin and Kachin states which are located across India’s Northeast have reported an increase in production.

As a result, India finds itself in an unenviable situation where two countries in the neighbourhood are increasing the production and supplies of opium. Just like Myanmar, Afghanistan under the Taliban has reported an increase in poppy cultivation. Makran coast (of Iran and Pakistan) has emerged as a major supply conduit for drugs. The increased poppy cultivation in the neighbourhood has implications for India’s counter-narcotics efforts, coastal security, and local policing.

Meanwhile, as the military in Myanmar keeps reins of power in its hands, the international isolation of the regime will only contribute in the making of Myanmar as a narco-state. The war between rebels, known as People’s Defence Force, and the military will mean Myanmar will remain unstable and volatile. In this context, the influence of China and Russia is increasing in Naypyidaw after the coup as the West and regional players have turned their back on Myanmar.

India’s concerns

Although India has not turned its back on Myanmar after the military coup, the evolving politico-military situation is proving to be a challenge. Earlier this month, Myanmar’s Air Force, while targeting rebels, dropped bombs in Indian territory. This incident could have caused deep embarrassment to Myanmar, but India has chosen to downplay it. India maintained that Myanmar’s Air Force has not violated Indian airspace.

The issue of Burmese refugees had become a challenge for India’s North-eastern States bordering Myanmar. Estimates about the exact number of Burmese refugees vary. There are about 30,000 Chin refugees in Mizoram along the southern districts that border Myanmar whereas in Manipur, there are about 5000-10,000 refugees. The refugee influx from Myanmar has become a thorny issue between the Union Home ministry and Mizoram government.

In the Northeast, refugee flows from neighbouring countries and its impact on local demographics are a politically sensitive matter. To complicate matters further, four North-eastern states (Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, and Mizoram) will go to polls this year. Of the four, Nagaland, Tripura, and Mizoram border Myanmar. Therefore, the situation in Myanmar assumes importance from the point of view of border management, refugee flows and internal security of the North-eastern states.

In this context, India has no option but to engage with the military regime of Myanmar. So far, India has prioritized its security interests over the prospects for democracy in Myanmar. The increased poppy cultivation underscores the need for engaging with the Burmese regime. As the military takeover of Myanmar completes two years and the spectre of continuing instability looms large, India is likely to continue the same approach.

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