Tropical Geography ›› 2019, Vol. 39 ›› Issue (6): 799-811.doi: 10.13284/j.cnki.rddl.003193

Special Issue: 一带一路

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Drug Economy and Fragmented Sovereignty: A Geopolitical Analysis of Northern Myanmar

Su Xiaobo1, Cai Xiaomei2, Zhou Can3   

  1. 1. Department of Geography, University of Oregon, Eugene 97403, USA
    2. School of Tourism Management, South China Normal University, Guangzhou 510631, China
    3. School of Economics and Management, Dehong Teachers’ College, Mangshi 678400, China;
  • Received:2019-09-13 Revised:2019-10-21 Online:2019-11-10 Published:2019-12-26


Ethnic states in northern Myanmar, including the Shan and Kachin states, are adjacent to the Chinese province of Yunnan. These states constitute today’s notorious Golden Triangle. As the world’s second largest drug production area, the Golden Triangle has accommodated the production and trafficking of illicit drugs for more than 100 years. The drug economy has turned northern Myanmar into a zone of military conflicts and economic plight, raising various issues regarding how illicit drugs shape national sovereignty. Building upon archives and scholarly references, this study focuses on northern Myanmar and the origin and evolution of the drug economy in this mountainous area. Using the latest theoretical tenets in political geography, this study specifically explores how the drug economy has generated political and economic crisis since Myanmar became independent in 1948 and examines the accompanying geopolitical conflicts and external intervention. The research questions in this study are as follows: Why have illicit drugs taken root in northern Myanmar? How does the drug economy influence the Burmese state’s national sovereignty and territorial control in northern Myanmar? The study argues that illicit drugs result in and are attributed to domestic fragmented sovereignty and external intervention. Furthermore, the drug economy and drug-related crimes have already penetrated into northern Myanmar to such an extent that national sovereignty is seriously jeopardized. On the one hand, drug-related organizations fight against the Burmese Military forces to impose territorial control upon villages and towns so that they can safeguard drug plantations and trafficking. Drug money in turn consolidates these organizations’ military capacity, resulting in drug militaries in both the Shan and Kachin states. On the other hand, the Burmese military forces deployed the drug economy to entice local militias to partner in fighting against the well-organized Burmese Communist Party during the 1970s and 1980s and ethnic armed groups during the 2000s. Drugs, violent conflicts, and territorial fragmentation have combined to shape sovereignty in northern Myanmar and generate endless political crisis. In addition, the drug economy provides an opportunity for external forces to intervene in domestic affairs in Myanmar. During the last six decades, various forces from China and the United States have either relied on drugs to enfeeble the Burmese state’s efforts at territorial control in the northern highland or exercised drug control to influence social and economic development in the source areas. Because of the low degree of trust between the central state controlled by the Burman majority and military forces controlled by ethnic minority groups in the northern region, there is a lack of ethnic reconciliation and thus a benign political condition for nationwide drug control. Hence, the drug economy in northern Myanmar is intertwined with nation building, which triggers fragmented national sovereignty and external intervention. As a result, northern Myanmar has become among the poorest areas in Asia. An analysis of illicit drugs as an open-sourced architecture of power can enrich Agnew’s theory of territory and sovereignty. Practically, a historical understanding of the drug economy in northern Myanmar can contribute to China-Myanmar relations and show the challenges and opportunities of regionalization between Yunnan and Myanmar.

Key words: drug economy, fragmented sovereignty, external intervention, political geography, northern Myanmar

CLC Number: 

  • D733.7