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Drug harms amongst youth in Shan State, Myanmar: Community responses and increased vulnerabilities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2024


This article analyses how families and communities in Shan State, Myanmar, have responded to rising youth drug use, and the impacts that these responses have on young people. It first examines the factors that have caused drug production and drug use amongst youth in Shan State to increase over the past three decades and places these phenomena in the context of wider political and economic transformations that have shaped Myanmar's borderlands since the late 1980s. Drug-related harms among Shan youth have overwhelmed family and community coping mechanisms in a context where state responses have been ineffective and inadequate. Consequently, families have resorted to increasingly desperate ways to try to protect young family members from drug use. This article focuses on two responses. First, the decision by rural families to send sons and daughters away to big cities or to neighbouring countries to avoid the local drug environment. Second, the decision to send children experiencing drug harms to treatment centres operated by ethnic armed organisations. Both responses, this article argues, expose young people to new forms of vulnerability. Finally, the article reflects on some of the challenges the drug problem poses for government and communities, and offers suggestions for alternative responses.

SEA Beat
Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The National University of Singapore

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We would like to express our gratitude to the Global Challenge Research Fund–UK for funding the Drugs and (Dis)order research project. We are indebted to Patrick Meehan of SOAS for multiple perceptive comments on various revisions of the manuscript. We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Mandy Sadan of the University of Warwick for informative conversations and valuable advice on article revisions. We are grateful to the SHAN team for being an invaluable resource during the course of our fieldwork.


1 Yama is the original name of Yaba. Yama literally means ‘horse drug’, implying that it enables the user to be strong and work as tirelessly as a horse. In 1996, Thai authorities changed the name from Yama to Yaba (crazy drug) in order to convey its harmful effects. Lintner, Bertil and Black, Michael, Merchants of madness: The methamphetamine explosion in the Golden Triangle (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2009), p. 2Google Scholar.

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3 ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), ‘Myanmar country report on the 2nd Meeting of the AIPA Advisory Council on Dangerous Drugs (AIPACODD)’, 2019, (last accessed 22 Oct. 2021); United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), ‘Myanmar Opium Survey 2005’,, 2005, (last accessed 10 Oct. 2020).

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6 Various terms are used to describe these armed groups in Myanmar such as rebels, insurgents, non-state actors, ethnic revolutionary organisations and ethnic armed organisations. We use the term EAOs as it is widely used among peace negotiators, policymakers, and the media.

7 In this article the terms People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) and drug users are used interchangeably, but drug addict is only used in direct quotes.

8 This data has been generated from the four-year (2018–21) Drugs and (Dis)order research led by SOAS. See: This research has been approved by the SOAS Ethics Board and the Ethics Review process conducted by SHAN. All research participants provided informed consent to be interviewed for this research and have also been anonymised to protect their identity.

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29 Rhodes, ‘Risk environments and drug harms’, p. 193.

30 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Everyday economic survival in Myanmar (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019).

31 Meehan et al., ‘Development zones’, pp. 145–62.

32 Jinhee Lim and Taekyoon Kim, ‘Bringing drugs into light: Embedded governance and opium production in Myanmar's Shan State’, Oxford Development Studies 49, 2 (2021): 105–18.

33 The term ‘dark grey business’ refers to the fact that businesses in this area are concessional deals and operated by military elites, cronies, militias and border guard forces. Major businesses are related to illicit activities and are illegal but they operate openly. For example, the casinos, hotels, gas stations, and gold shops are used for money laundering.

34 Happy Water is a kind of mixed liquid containing methamphetamine, amphetamine, and ketamine. Locally known as ‘Happy Wor’.

35 Interview with female, aged 31, CSO worker in Taunggyi Township.

36 Muse is Myanmar's most significant border development zone, handling more than 80% of licit transnational trade between Myanmar and China. For example, the official border trade through Muse topped US$3.36 billion in 2015. Myawaddy, Thailand's second-largest commercial border site, has a volume of US$411 million. Xiangming Chen, ‘China's key cities: From local places to global players’, European Financial Review, 1 Dec. 2015, (last accessed 28 Oct. 2023).

37 Interview with female, aged 31, CSO worker in Taunggyi Township.

38 Interview with male, aged 60, militia leader in southern Shan State.

39 Interview with male, aged 47, EAO liaison officer in Keng Tung Township.

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46 Interview with male, aged 28, PWUD, Taunggyi Township.

47 In 2020, daily wages in Shan State were about K5,000–7,000. Yaba costs about K200–500 per tablet.

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49 Inner townships here refer to central Shan State and the townships which do not share a border with neighbouring countries, for example, Keng Tung, Mong Peng, Kar Li and Kung Hing townships.

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51 Interview with female, aged 30, PWUD's sister in Tachileik Township.

52 Jensema and Nang, ‘Found in the dark’, pp. 4–11.

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56 Interview with female, aged 52, mother of PWUD, Taunggyi Township.

57 Interview with female, aged 50, family member of a PWUD, Hin Tek village tract, Thai–Myanmar border.

58 Interview with male, aged 47, EAO liaison officer, Keng Tung Township.

59 Interview with female, aged 28, journalist, Taunggyi Township.

60 Interview with female, aged 30, PWUD's sister, Keng Tung Township.

61 Interview with male, aged 40, CSO worker, Taunggyi Township.

62 Interview with male, aged 47, EAO liaison officer in Keng Tung Township.

63 Interview with female, aged 28, Taunggyi Township.

64 Straits Times, ‘Myanmar facing “public health disaster”’, p. 1.

65 Interview with female, aged 30, PWUD's sister, Tachileik Township.

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67 Interview with male, aged 22, truck driver in Muse.

68 Other non-state actors or EAOs and militia groups use similar approaches such as ‘cold turkey’ and chaining drug users’ legs. This research only focuses on the RCSS/SSA drug treatment programme among the Shan community.

69 The RCSS/SSA treatment centre policy requires the drug user and family members to sign an agreement for the treatment.

70 In the Theravada Buddhist practice, a son or male relative has to ordain as a novice monk to honour family members or relatives who have passed away in the belief that souls can be given extra merit.

71 Interview with female, aged 50, mother of a PWUD, Tachileik Township.

72 Interview with female, aged 60, mother of a PWUD who was visiting her son at the EAO treatment centre in Loi Kaw Wan, Shan State.

73 Interview with male, aged 50, EAO drug treatment officer at Loi Kaw Wan, RCSS/SSA controlled area.