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Drugs and conflict

A new report has flagged entities in Singapore as involved in the transfer of arms to the Myanmar military. It's important that the Singapore government does something — not just for peace and stability, but also because we say we care about curbing drug trafficking.

I'd like to say thank you to everyone who reached out after the introduction to Altering States! It was a much bigger response than I'd expected, and really encouraging.

On the first day of February 2021, the Myanmar military seized power (again) in a coup, destroying a decade’s worth of painstaking effort to push the country towards democracy. Civilians staged peaceful protests and mounted a Civil Disobedience Movement, essentially making themselves ungovernable by an illegitimate authority. The junta went to war with the people of Myanmar.

The violence and repression has been staggering. At the end of January this year, Human Rights Watch reported that “junta forces have been responsible for attacks on civilians that amount to war crimes against ethnic minority populations in Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Shan States. The military has used ‘scorched earth’ tactics, burning villages in Magway and Sagaing Regions.” The military has engaged in aerial bombing, mass killings and rape. Apart from existing ethnic armed groups and militia, people are now joining the People’s Defence Force, the armed wing of the National Unity Government (currently in exile) and taking up armed resistance against state forces.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, since the beginning of the coup the military junta has killed at least 3,500 civilians, arrested over 22,000 and detained around 18,000. There is no silver bullet to solve problems that have political, humanitarian, historical, and economic roots. But one big thing would clearly help: if the murderous regime stopped getting more firepower to do the murdering with.

Since the start of the coup, there have been calls from civil society organisations, activists and human rights defenders for curbs on the arms trade to Myanmar. In June 2021, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution, with 119 member states (including Singapore) voting in favour, calling upon “all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”.

The problem is that UNGA resolutions aren’t binding. That’s really too bad, because, as a new report (released on 17 May) by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar asserts, there is a “death trade” of arms and raw materials for weapons manufacture to Myanmar. It’s worth at least US$1 billion.

This is something that we should be taking seriously: not just because the report flagged Singapore-based involvement, but because it has implications even for our own interests, including our stated goal of wanting to tackle the illicit drug trade.

Alamak, Singapore also named

Russia, China and India are big offenders here, because their state-owned entities have been linked to the trade of arms and related materials to Myanmar. But while the UN Special Rapporteur takes care to emphasise that there was no evidence that the Singapore government, or state-owned entities, had transferred arms to Myanmar, our country still isn’t in the clear. As the report states:

“…arms dealing organizations appear to be using the jurisdictions of Thailand and Singapore, and specifically the banking and shipping sectors there, to facilitate arms transfers.

Singapore has become a major jurisdiction for spare parts, raw materials, and manufacturing equipment sent to the Myanmar military. Entities operating in Singapore have become critical to the continued operation of Myanmar’s Ka PaSa weapons factories. At least 138 Singapore-based firms have served as intermediaries for the Myanmar military since the coup.”

The report puts the amount of arms trade from Singapore to Myanmar at US$253,908,769, with US$248,675,213 of that “in trade direct to military” (as the UN Special Rapporteur says, “This means that entities based in Russia, China, Singapore, Thailand, and India continue to unabashedly send weapons and associated materials directly to the Myanmar military.”) The stuff being moved includes components for fighter jets, spare parts for other military aircraft and vehicles, radar equipment, and raw materials like steel and copper.

“Singapore has become a major jurisdiction for the procurement of spare parts, raw materials, and manufacturing equipment to the Myanmar military since the coup. The Special Rapporteur’s research shows that entities operating in Singapore provide critical supplies directly to Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries’ weapons factories, which are essential for continued domestic weapons production.

Singapore banks have likewise been used extensively by arms dealers operating within Singapore and outside of it, with payments for hundreds of millions of dollars of arms transfers described in this report moving through Singapore banks.”

This is a big problem in and of itself, but it also goes against the Singapore government’s stated position. Back in February this year, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said:

“Whilst UNGA resolutions are not strictly legally binding, nevertheless, the Government of Singapore has decided to prohibit the transfer of arms to Myanmar. We also decided not to authorise the transfer of dual-use items which have been assessed to have potential military application to Myanmar, where there is a serious risk that they may be used to inflict violence against unarmed civilians. We will not hesitate to take action against those who contravene our laws, including Singapore’s Strategic Goods (Control) Act which controls the transfer and brokering of strategic goods and technology.” [emphasis mine]

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report says that they provided the information they gathered on the arms trade in Singapore to the government in March this year. They responded with appreciation, saying that the government "constantly reviews the effectiveness of our export controls in relation to Myanmar, and will take the information provided by your Office into consideration.” Accordingly, the UN Special Rapporteur decided not to name the Singapore-based entities involved in the transfer of arms to Myanmar so that the government and other UN member states have time to take action against them.

What does this have to do with drugs?

I hope the Singapore government is really looking into the information that the UN Special Rapporteur shared, and that, if they find evidence of such arms transfers, they shut it down fast.

This is important because this trade is enabling the brutality that the Myanmar junta is visiting on people, from peaceful protesters to women and children in villages. It’s also not in anyone’s interest to have such violence and instability in our region. But there’s another element: because conflict is also linked to large-scale illicit drug supply.

This is not a new observation. In 2005, Svante E. Cornell wrote a review essay stating that the “overwhelming conclusion in the literature is that conditions of armed conflict boost, exacerbate, transform and occasionally shift pre-existing patterns of narcotics production.” Back then, Myanmar was already recognised as one of the “chief cultivation areas” of opium poppy, with armed ethnic groups trading in heroin to fund their struggle against the Myanmar military. Historically, the military itself has used the illegal drug trade as a way to negotiate ceasefires and do deals with armed groups — that’s how Lo Hsing Han rose to become one of Myanmar’s most notorious drug lords, so much so that, when he died in 2013, obituaries pointed out that he had been dubbed the “Godfather of Heroin” by the United States Treasury.

(If this name sounds familiar to you, that’s because Lo Hsing Han had some connection to Singapore. In 2008, the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, added Lo Hsing Han, his son Steven Law and Singaporean daughter-in-law Cecilia Law to their Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons list. Also designated were ten companies set up in Singapore under Cecilia Law’s name. When they imposed economic sanctions on father and son, the OFAC claimed that “Lo Hsing Han… has been one of the world's key heroin traffickers dating back to the early 1970s. Steven Law joined his father's drug empire in the 1990s and has since become one of the wealthiest individuals in Burma.”)

In its 2022 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that the first post-coup opium survey suggested that opium production had increased by 33%. This likely has to be taken with a grain of salt because a lot of the data is based on estimates, given the difficulty (or impossibility) of taking actual measurements. But, as Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s Southeast Asia representative, told the media: “Drugs and conflict remain inseparable in Myanmar, one feeding the other.”

The UNODC report also observed that:

“Poverty, lack of services, and insecurity are linked to poppy cultivation. The sharp economic contractions that left a critically weak economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and the military takeover in early 2021 may have been among the determining factors that pushed rural households to rely more on opium, resulting in expanded and more intense poppy cultivation and reversing downward trends since 2014.

Myanmar’s economy in 2022 faced a series of external and domestic shocks. The war in Ukraine has caused steep increases in global prices of fuel and fertilizer, disproportionately affecting Myanmar’s poor and rural populations. Continued political instability in the post-coup environment, a weak economy, inflation, and very high farm-gate prices for opium are shaping household decisions. Taken together, these economic signals can provide a strong incentive for farmers to take up or expand opium poppy cultivation.”

In other words, for many people struggling to survive, growing poppy and supplying them to drug syndicates is their best, if not only, option for a livelihood. And with the chaos of civil war and state repression wreaking havoc on the economy, it’s not something that is likely to change unless the violence is also curbed.

These are all factors that contribute to the large-scale illicit heroin trade. This is one of the major sources from which illegal drugs flow, where they pass from one hand to another until no one really knows the substance’s potency or what it has been cut or mixed with, and therefore exactly how risky or dangerous it might be to consume. This is what leads to the overdose deaths and other adverse effects that we in Singapore constantly profess to be trying to prevent.

If we’re interested in reducing organised crime and the flow of illegal, unregulated and risky drugs, working to reduce armed conflict, violence and poverty would do a lot more to address the problem on a systemic and structural scale than hanging small-time couriers and dealers for 40g of heroin or a kilo of weed. Of course I’m not suggesting that it is now Singapore’s responsibility to fix long-standing and complex problems in Myanmar. But curbing arms transfers like the ones flagged by the UN Special Rapporteur, and leveraging our influence over Myanmar to push for an end to the violence isn’t just some ‘good to have’ foreign policy goal, but in our own interests too. Singaporeans should stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and make sure our government does what it can. After all, isn’t our interest in combatting illegal drug trafficking in a meaningful way, instead of just seeking vengeance via those on the trade’s lowest rungs?