‘Addicts in every village’: India struggles to stop Myanmar’s drugs

‘Addicts in every village’: India struggles to stop Myanmar’s drugs


Guwahati, India: Tridip Kumbang leads his seven colleagues through the narrow streets of the village of Naramari in India’s north-eastern state of Assam.

On the deputy police superintendent’s sign, an armed patrol swoops into a home.

A 55-year-old suspect flees out of the back door but runs straight into the waiting arms of two police officers from Kumbang’s unit.

A Myanmarese man looks towards the Indian side at the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram, India.Credit:AP

A tense 40-minute search reveals around 35 grams of powder hidden in a panel in a wall. The police believe it is either pure heroin or “brown sugar”- a locally manufactured, low-quality imitation flooding an already saturated market. “Drugs are in ample supply in the region and we are losing many of our young adults,” Kumbang said on the raid.

The scene is increasingly common.

Chaos in neighbouring Myanmar has allowed narcotics gangs to thrive, while crushing poverty induced by the pandemic makes easy recruits out of young men up and down the border. Addicts are in every town and village.

Myanmar’s lawless northern Shan state is the world’s largest producer of synthetic drugs. Crystal meth and methamphetamine tablets, known as yaba, now flow more freely than ever.

In Assam, there has been a 40 per cent growth in methamphetamine seizures this year compared to 2020, according to the police.

“Since February there has been a huge uptick in the production of multiple types of drugs in Myanmar, in states like Shan and Wa, and that has led to an explosion of supplies in neighbouring countries,” says Avinash Paliwal, deputy director of the SOAS South Asia Institute in London. “Militant groups that are fighting the junta need access to liquid cash and this is the most lucrative business in Myanmar.”

Assam has long been a transit state for drugs, as well as arms and human trafficking. To its east lies several Indian states, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, that are home to a myriad of armed rebel groups, some demanding full secession from India.

These states share an extremely porous 1643-kilometre border with Myanmar, which is descending into a full-blown civil war after the military coup in February. Many of the armed groups now operating in the country rely on the trade of illegal drugs to raise funds. The country is also the world’s second-largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan.

Traffickers are increasingly targeting the Indian market due to more stringent checks on Myanmar’s border with China. The Indian army has also moved troops away from its border with Myanmar.

Satyaraj Hazarika, a deputy inspector-general in the Assam Police, says methamphetamine refineries have sprung up a stone’s throw from the Indian border this year.

“It has become very difficult for law enforcement groups in India’s border states,” said Hazarika, comparing the growing threat posed to security by the drugs trade in Assam to that in Mexico or Colombia.

“Very soon we will see this type of violence as the profits of gangs and insurgents increase and they try to gun each other down.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused record levels of unemployment in India’s north-east and many residents have been tempted by the quick cash drug smuggling offers.

Hazarika says he filed 205 cases of drug possession or trafficking in 2020 but this has surged to 417 in 2021.

Traffickers taking drugs to the major cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are using increasingly sophisticated methods to avoid detection. A popular ruse involves filling the fuel chamber of a car with powder.

“Three months back we received credible information that a known smuggler was planning to run some heroin through Assam,” said Pushpraj Singh, a superintendent in the Assam Police for the district of Karbi Anglong.

“When he arrived at the checkpoint he had hidden the drugs under a seat where his wife and newborn baby were sitting, to create a distraction. I could not believe a parent would use their five or six-day-old baby in this way.”

Singh adds that the abundance of illegal arms in the state means that smugglers will often open fire on the police.

In 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated around 2.2 per cent of Assam’s 31 million citizens were narcotics users.

This figure has grown rapidly in 2021, according to Dr Sandeep Hansel, who heads the committee on Socio-Economic and Health Development Assam (COSEHDA), a state-run organisation tasked with reducing drug use in the state.

“Earlier, drugs weren’t here in Assam. We would only see high class users, the children from wealthy families who had gone to study or work in Mumbai or Bengaluru,” say Dr Hansel. “But now, drugs are available everywhere, in every village.”

There are only 140 rehabilitation centres in the state – of which at least 100 are private and costly – and the overall quality is poor.

To staunch the flow of drugs police have resorted to increasingly heavy-handed tactics, and have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings by activists.

In August, the state’s new Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a member of India’s authoritarian ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, encouraged police to shoot suspects in the legs and said any action would be protected by the state’s courts.

India’s opposition parties slammed the ruling, arguing Sarma was trying to turn Assam into a “police state” but staging fake encounters to kill known local criminals, like cattle thieves.

Arif Jwadder, a human rights activist in Assam, says police killings occur “every other day”.

When the London Telegraph contacted several families of alleged victims of extrajudicial killings they refused to comment. One said they feared reprisals from the state, while another had gone into hiding.

“The cartels bail out the drug lords at the drop of a hat and they are able to hire the best legal eagles,” contends Hazarika.

The Telegraph, London

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