While some countries commemorated the International Day Against Drug Abuse on Monday by launching anti-drug campaigns or organizing educational events, three countries in Southeast Asia took a distinctly different approach: burning an estimated $1.1 billion worth of drugs, including heroin, cocaine, opium, and cannabis.
In Thailand, 65,000 cases of drugs, including 169 kilograms of heroin and 12 kilograms of cocaine, were burned in an incinerator, reported the Bangkok Post. This is the 47th year that this “burning ceremony” was carried out. In Cambodia, officials used long wooden sticks to set fire to nearly 127 kilograms’ worth of drugs that were piled into a ceremonial box decorated with blue and red cloth, the country’s national colors.
But arguably the most elaborate burning ceremony was carried out in Myanmar’s capital of Yangon. A video from the Associated Press shows $220 million worth of opium, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine tablets stacked on top of each other in stalls that have the English label “stimulants” in large capital letters.
Images of skulls separate the stalls, which sit in front of a bright pink banner announcing the “destruction ceremony of seized narcotics.”
The tone of the event seems both celebratory and somber: In the AP video, pop music is played while the fire rages, sending big clouds of smoke into the air. In another video from the Telegraph, a British newspaper, police officers are shown taking pictures of the fire while officials line up to symbolically throw what looks like joints of marijuana and bottles of liquid heroine (increasingly common in the country) into a pit.
Behind the show, a worsening drug problem
These ceremonies seem bizarre, but they reflect an actual problem that all three of these countries are struggling desperately to curb.
Myanmar and Thailand are part of the Golden Triangle, a region infamous for producing and trafficking opium (Laos is the third country). Myanmar, in particular, is the second-largest producer of opium in the world, responsible for 25 percent of the world’s supply. And things are only getting worse: Yangon Police Chief Win Naing told members of the public at the drug-burning ceremony that drug production has increased every year since 2006, reported the Telegraph.
Myanmar’s government has been trying to tackle the increasing flow of drugs across its borders, but the industry is deeply embedded in the country (a legacy from decades of civil war) and difficult to stop.
For one, there are large tracts of territory within Myanmar (many of them drug-producing areas) that are controlled by rebel groups. The besieged Rakhine State, where the Myanmar government has reportedly committed “mass atrocities” against the minority Rohingya group, is only one of multiple campaigns against the Myanmar government. These conflicts have significantly limited the government’s ability to stamp out longstanding drug cartels, according to a 2016 report from the US State Department.
Then there is the added problem of government corruption. “Corruption is endemic in both business and government,” the State Department said in a 2015 report statement on Myanmar.
“The rule of law remains weak, and Burma continues to face a significant risk of narcotics proceeds being laundered through commercial ventures,” it added.
So behind the roaring flames of Myanmar’s elaborate drug-burning ceremony, the country’s government is still struggling to secure the power and mechanisms needed to stamp out a crippling drug problem. The bonfire is a vivid symbol of that fight. For now, though, that’s all it is.