Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia with a population of about 53 million people. It is home to a large number of ethnic groups with their own distinctive languages and cultures. Although it has vast natural resources, Myanmar remains extremely poor, ranked 145 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index.

The country’s armed conflicts date back to the eve of its independence in 1948, rooted in tensions surrounding who has the right to govern in regions where the power and legitimacy of the state has historically been weak and contested.

Myanmar is the second largest producer of illicit opium in the world, after Afghanistan. It is also a major manufacturer of methamphetamines, known locally as yaba. Drug production is concentrated in Shan State and Kachin State.

Drug production rose significantly amidst the country’s armed conflict. It helped to finance armies on all sides. Simultaneously, it provided a lifeline for impoverished rural communities.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the country’s military government reached ceasefire agreements with many of the country’s ethnic armed groups. This led to a reduction in violent conflict, but little progress was made to address political grievances, creating a no-war-no-peace environment throughout the country’s borderlands. Throughout the ceasefire period, borderland areas were subject to extensive militarisation and extensive resource extraction.

Despite opium bans in parts of Shan State, opium production remained strong. And since the 1990s the production of methamphetamines has risen dramatically.

The devastating impact of rising drug use amongst ethnic communities became one of the most enduring legacies of the ceasefire period.

After decades of military rule, Myanmar’s 2010 General Election was a watershed moment. Transition to a nominally civilian government, the reinvigoration of the country’s peace process, and Aung San Suu Kyi’slandslide electoral victory in 2015 inspired hopes of peace and development.

However, the country’s high-profile democratic transition and formal peace process has coincided with some of the worst violence in more than three decades, notably in Rakhine State, Kachin State and northern Shan State.

The drug economy has become deeply embedded in the social histories and political economies of Myanmar’s borderlands. Drug use has caused huge damage to communities. At the same time, opium cultivation remains an invaluable cash crop for some of the country’s poorest households.

Drugs continue to finance armed groups on all sides of the conflict, while also becoming deeply embedded in relatively stable borderland governance structures. The drug economy continues to be shaped by enduring histories of regional interconnection and marginalisation, and is a reflection of both the region’s poverty and a response to challenges and opportunities created by new forms of economic development.

Research sites

In Myanmar, research is being done in two states:

  • Kachin (including sites along the China and India borders)
  • Shan (including sites along the China, Laos and Thai borders)