Is the drug menace we are faced with a policing problem or a social one? This question may sound cliché, but nonetheless it is one which has not been answered adequately and satisfactorily in Manipur. In recent times, there is a much vaunted and publicized renewed drive against drugs trade and consumption under the government’s banner “War Against Drugs”, and no doubt the drive has shown promising responses of late, with many different communities in the hills coming out to declare they will not allow poppy plantation in the lands under their village jurisdiction. There have also been some major hauls of contraband substances as well as arrests of some local kingpins. Quite obviously, the network is much bigger, and those arrested from Manipur are likely to be only clogs playing their local roles for cuts. Likewise, poppy growing belt is not restricted to Manipur, but extends into the neighbouring hills, especially in neighbouring Myanmar. There can be no argument about it that this drugs problem is much bigger than immediately visible in Manipur and will have to be ultimately tackled by a larger gameplan, involving a network of governments, both national and even international. But, while we cannot forget the larger regional and international rings, we have to act at the local level too, and from this point of view, the progress made in cracking down on drugs smuggling so far is commendable.
Very broadly there are two approaches to policing drugs menace. One is the Singapore way. To explain it simply, it is about having zero tolerance to possession of contraband within the national jurisdiction of Singapore. Those who have visited this city-nation will recall the rather shocking warning to all at the airport itself that drugs possession is a serious offence in the country and anybody found with unauthorized contraband substances will face the death sentence. No it is not a joke for the country is very serious about this warning, and indeed, as we will all remember, a lady from Manipur too about two years ago had been sentenced to death after she was caught at the Singapore airport in possession of banned cannabis. But Singapore is a unique case. It is a small country both in geographical size as well as population. It would be almost like the Imphal valley, but with a population a little less than double of Manipur’s. Above all, it is ruled with an iron hand in velvet gloves, living by the legacy of its great founder Lee Kuan Yew. It is also a country with very high education reach and standard, and very disciplined and affluent population.
Can Manipur think of emulating Singapore? On this, the less said the better. It would be an arduous uphill task, if not impossible. As for instance, in Manipur the anti-drugs campaign has also been about destroying poppy fields in the remote corners of the hill districts. Can such a campaign by Manipur alone be ever comprehensive? The answer is obvious, for Manipur’s neighbours, in particular across the border in Myanmar, are also very much poppy growing regions. On this matter, and indeed in the fight against drugs as such, there would have to be a concerted campaign involving all stake holders in the region, in particular those that fall within Myanmar. Like the fight against environment degradation, all effort to clean just one state of poppy plantation will be in vain if other states, especially those in Myanmar continue to be left free to grow them. It will also be recalled that Myanmar was once the eye of the storm in this drugs racket as its wild hills to the north falling within the Shan State had emerged as the hub for manufacture of Heroin No. 4. The tri-junction here where the Mekong River bifurcates dividing Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, had also once come to be notoriously known as the Golden Triangle of the international Heroine cartel.
To recount briefly the history of the Golden Triangle chronicled by among others, Shelby Tucker in “Burma: The Curse of Independence”, this region was one of the two places where the losing nationalist fighters (Kuomintang) had taken shelter after Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army, systematically defeated them within China, the other place being Formosa (now Taiwan). Then supported by the CIA in their fight against the spread of Communism, the Kuomintang continued to wage war on Mao’s communists from here. In the early 1970s however, when China and the Soviet Union began showing signs of friction, the US under Richard Nixon assisted by his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, seized the opportunity and befriended China. Thereafter, the CIA stopped financing the Kuomintang in Myanmar and the later found the opium trade as their desperate means to raise resources and survive. But when finally they had to leave after Mao’s victory became comprehensive, they left behind a Heroin manufacturing infrastructures, which Shan warlords such as the infamous Khun Sa took over. The emergence of the Golden Triangle as an international drugs hub was hence foretold. This is the legacy the region, including Manipur is left to fight with. This war therefore would have to be a coordinated one to be successful.
But even this policing strategy cannot be enough, for drugs are also very much a social problem needing social remedial measures, and not just policing. This malaise has a lot to do with youth frustration and disillusionment. Fighting this will be even more difficult than policing drugs trafficking, but if successful, it will be a much more comprehensive answer to the drugs menace than the best policing can bring. This will entail empowering our youth appropriate education and life skills that will make them fit to meet the challenges of the brave new world ahead and not the old and marginalized one left behind long ago. They must be given the faith and hope, that given the will and perseverance, they are no less than the best in the world. At this moment, this unfortunately not the case at all because of an abysmally failing school and college education system. First and foremost, Manipur’s government schools and colleges must be made to rise to the challenge and begin functioning as they should be, and then providing education that empowers beyond increasingly meaningless paper degrees. Adding to this malaise is the endemic official corruption which has virtually made hard work irrelevant in the climb on the social ladder, for now only bribe money matters. If Manipur is successful in this onerous enterprise, issues like drugs will suddenly begin to look not so formidable, and all the extra effort and energy expended towards policing such issues can also become available for investment in other more productive fields.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author