Myanmar destroys seized drugs worth more than $800 million

Flames and smoke rise from burning illegal drugs during a destruction ceremony to mark International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking outside Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, June 26, 2020. More than $839 million of seized illegal drugs were destroyed in the country on Friday, officials said. Myanmar has long been a major source of illegal drugs for East and Southeast Asia, despite repeated efforts to crack down. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

More than $839 million worth of seized illegal drugs were destroyed in Myanmar on Friday to mark the annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, officials said.

The country has long been a major source of illegal drugs for East and Southeast Asia, despite repeated efforts to crack down.

In Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon. a massive pile of drugs worth an estimated $144 million went up in a spectacular blaze. It included opium, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, ketamine and the stimulant known as ice, or crystal meth.

The blaze burned so fiercely it threatened to set fire to an awning set up for the occasion that firefighters hurriedly doused with water hoses.

Authorities also destroyed drugs in Mandalay, Lashio and in Taunggyi, the capital of eastern Myanmar’s Shan state, all areas closer to where the drugs are produced.

The Myanmar government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced in May a record haul of narcotics. Over roughly a six-week period ending in early April, the combined police and army operation seized around 18 tons of drugs in and around a village in Shan state, including almost 200 million methamphetamine tablets, they said.

Myanmar has a long history of drug production, fueled by decades of civil war. The government says some ethnic armies -– which control large swaths of remote territory -– use narcotics to fund their insurgencies. But critics have accused elements of Myanmar’s government and army of profiting from the trade themselves.

The UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, recently said there is now clear evidence of the involvement of transnational organized crime groups.

The country’s vast, mountainous and forested borders mean producers can move large quantities of cheaply produced drugs into neighboring countries with little fear of capture.

The area where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet became known as the Golden Triangle when it was notorious for the production and trafficking of opium and its derivative, heroin.

In recent decades, production has largely switched to synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, and now increasingly to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.