At a glance, the little pills look as harmless as Skittles.
Each tablet is tinted candy pink and stamped with the number 88. They’re shaped like baby aspirin. Black-market merchants sell them in 10-pill bundles double-wrapped in black baggies. Once the plastic wrapping is torn away, the pills reveal their distinct scent: a chemical sweetness that brings to mind cheap cake frosting.
This is Asia’s newest brand of methamphetamine.
It’s produced in Myanmar, the region’s top producer of illegal narcotics.
By all accounts, the number 88 stamped on each pill is a perverse tribute to one of the most riveting events in Myanmar’s history — a bloody 1988 uprising against military tyranny led by pro-democracy idol Aung San Suu Kyi.
The 88-branded tablets are a potent variety of Asia’s go-to drug: smokable meth pills called “ya ba.” Filled with about 10 to 20 percent methamphetamine and padded out with caffeine, ya ba offers a dazzling burst of confidence followed by a spell of clammy depression.
“Right now, the 88 pills are the best stuff on the streets,” says Zau Ring, a 35-year-old repairman and daily meth smoker living in the northern borderlands of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
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This hinterland, abutting China and Thailand, is an anarchic frontier where rebels and pro-government militias clash over turf. In the chaos, the meth trade thrives.
Myanmar’s hidden jungle labs produce an astonishing amount of methamphetamine: possibly 1 to 2 billion pills per year, according to UN officials.
Meth users like Zau Ring — perpetually shirtless, twitchy, raven-colored bangs drooping over his eyes — are often the first to sample the militias’ latest recipes.
Zau Ring is squeezed into a hot room with two friends and two dozen meth pills. Dust particles in the air glint in the morning light. It is not yet 10 a.m. and the trio is already melting the pills on foil and hoovering up the fumes through a straw.
The 88 pills, Zau Ring says, are a welcome addition to the menu of narcotics sold freely in Myanmar’s north.
“They’re much more potent than the typical pills, which quickly go up in flames,” he says, crouching on the floor of a flophouse in his hometown of Myitkyina. (His name has been altered to prevent his arrest.)
The 88 imprinted on each pill may seem meaningless. It isn’t.
In Myanmar, the digits conjure up a venerated, bygone era. “It’s cool,” Zau Ring says. “Everyone in Myanmar knows ’88 is all about fighting for democracy.”
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
The year 1988 is burned into the nation’s psyche. That’s when Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of a revolutionary hero who freed Myanmar from British rule, stood up to a homegrown oppressor: the ruling military junta.
It was the dawn of her ascent to popularity, which is now at fever pitch after a historic November election. In the first legit nationwide polls in more than five decades, Aung San Suu Kyi and her acolytes crushed their competition, the army-backed ruling party. They are expected to take the reins in early 2016.
Then and now, army generals are despised for hoarding the nation’s wealth for themselves.
In August 1988, evoking her father’s past glory, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed hundreds of thousands of demonstrators occupying the streets. The crowds demanded that the junta step down. But in the following weeks, thousands were massacred for their defiance.
Aung San Suu Kyi was not among the dead. She was instead forced to live under house arrest for much of the next two decades.
The protests launched her political career and turned her into a living symbol of resistance to tyranny. And the ’88 uprising offered a flash of hope that still resonates — so brightly, it seems, that drug lords can tap its symbolism to sell meth.
Revered globally as a Mandela-style figure, Aung San Suu Kyi is the most famous person from Myanmar to have ever lived. But inside the country, she belongs to a longer roster of pro-democracy heroes.
Among them: Min Ko Naing, now 52, who helped spearhead the uprising as a gutsy young university student.
Min Ko Naing was compelled to action after the military ruler Ne Win, on the advice of his fortune-teller, voided all currency not divisible by his lucky number nine.
Cash savings were turned to garbage overnight. Citizens were enraged — and Min Ko Naing and his peers channeled that fury into raucous street protests.
Inside Myanmar, he may be second only to Aung San Suu Kyi in the pantheon of revered anti-military dissidents. It appears that meth users are among his fans.
“People are now calling the ’88 pills ‘Min Ko Naings,’” Zau Ring says. Other users confirm that the pro-democracy hero’s name has become common street slang for 88-branded meth pills.
Narco militias in the hills
Exploiting Myanmar’s iconic uprising to sell meth isn’t just sacrilege. It’s tragically ironic.
Meth-trafficking militias keep the nation mired in exactly the sort of warlordism and corruption that the 1988 uprising sought to eliminate. Some are even linked to the object of the protesters’ rage: Myanmar’s military.
According to a nine-month GlobalPost investigation, many of the meth trade’s key players are militias created by army itself.
Starting in 2009, the military gave rise to dozens of new armed units backed by more than 10,000 troops. These groups — called “people’s militia forces” or “border guard forces” — are primarily stationed in remote borderland areas contested by rebels. Their main job: defending territory for the government. But in return, the army offers the militias impunity to traffic heroin and meth.
“It’s tacit approval,” says John Whalen, who recently retired as the head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s office in Myanmar. “They just look the other way.”
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As Myanmar’s government is fond of pointing out, rebel guerrillas are major profiteers in the nation’s drug trade. But so are pro-government militias, who now control key links in Asia’s meth supply chain. As long as they obey the army, they’re practically immune from prosecution.
“The army likes to keep [the militias] happy,” Whalen says. “They need them as force multipliers, guides, maybe cannon fodder. So they turn a blind eye to their activities.”
The state-backed militias’ role in the drug trade is confirmed by Col. Myint Thein, one of Myanmar’s top anti-narcotics police officers.
“We do believe some of them are involved in the drug business,” he tells GlobalPost. But he insists most pro-government militias are only supplying a base of operations for foreign drug syndicates — namely from China — and charging them a security fee.
Drug lords versus democracy
Myanmar is now attempting a transformation no less momentous than the failed 1988 revolution.
It appears that, at long last, the military is ready to cede some of its power to elected leaders. The recent polls have allowed the public to choose its representatives — a key mission of the blood-soaked uprising.
Yet once again, this grand effort to reform the nation is subverted by the military and its allied narco-militias.
Human Rights Watch warns that the army used “militia proxies to shut down voting in some areas.” Millions in Myanmar were denied their right to vote simply because they live in places deemed “conflict zones” by the government.
Even after the new government takes shape, some of these conflict zones will continue to be run like little fiefdoms by state-backed militia commanders.
One warlord and accused drug trafficker named Zakhung Ting Ying, based near the Chinese border, forbade Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party from campaigning on his turf — where he just happened to be running for the same seat.
When they defied the warning, a campaign team was attacked by a mob dispatched by the militia, according to the NLD. This naked aggression helped Ting Ying secure a rare victory against Aung San Suu Kyi’s otherwise dominant party.
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Meth has deeply entrenched the wealth and influence of borderland kingpins who feed Asia’s demand for speed. They’ve racked up millions producing pink speed pills as well as crystal meth or “ice,” a high-quality drug that’s 90 percent pure.
They will not be uprooted easily — especially as their lucrative market expands.
Consider the extra-strength 88 pill, which sells for $3. That’s roughly equal to a day’s pay for hard laborers in Myanmar and it’s approximately double the price of the common "ya ba" pill.
This hints at growing market sophistication. The 88 pills are a mid-tier product for smokers who are fed up with shoddy, cheap pills but still can’t afford ice, the Courvoisier of meth. (At $100 a gram, ice is as pricey as cocaine.)
Various forms of ya ba remain the choice stimulant for Asia’s working classes, from Kunming to Bangkok to Jakarta. It has a built-in client base among fishmongers, factory drones, sex workers and anyone seeking a pill to make their drudgery tolerable.
“The thing about these pills is that you can never have enough,” Zau Ring says. “You can give a guy 10 of them and tell him to space them out over 10 days. But it won’t work. He’ll smoke them all the first afternoon.”
By 11 a.m., all of Zau Ring’s pills are melted into liquid char on little strips of foil. The room is thick with vanilla-scented smoke. Zau Ring and his friends, clad in sarongs, are seated on the floor. One rocks nervously on his haunches. The other chews the inside of his cheek.
“I wonder if Min Ko Naing knows this stuff is named after him?” Zau Ring asks.
His smoker buddies don’t answer. They’re too fixated on scraping gunky meth residue out of his straw. There is just enough meth resin to smush against the foil for one final hit.