Merchants of Madness by Bertil Lintner and Michael Black

Merchants.inddNonfiction — print. Silkworm Books, 2009. 180 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle”. Merchants of Madness provides a convoluted examination of the methamphetamine trade in the “Golden Triangle”, the intersection of the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma (also known as Myanmar). The authors argue the root causes of the drug trade are ethnic conflict and prolonged, stifling military rule in Burma mean drugs will continue to circulate throughout the Golden Triangle and the rest of the world.

Utilizing extensively researched examples, Lintner and Black explain how the trade in methamphetamines and other drugs are carried out under the auspicious of a government trying to hold onto territorial control. The Burmese government allowed particular regions such as the Wa State to become semi-independent buffer states with their own laws and administrations between Burma and its neighbors, subsequently allowing the trade in heroin and methamphetamines to flourish. The construction of these states within states and the intertwining of the state’s governmental apparatuses with drug trafficking mean prosecutions rarely occur.

The extensive use of examples is complicated, however, by an instance on using examples from other countries. By comparing the Wa area of Burma to Boten, Laos and corruption in Burma to Thailand, Lintner and Black are actually saying efforts to stem drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle are problematic across the region rather than in one particular hotspot. Burma may be the source of methamphetamine tablets, but the reader is left with a sense that the region as a whole has failed to prevent the trade of yaba. Singling out Burma seems unjustifiable given the geographical expanse of examples and may be indicative of a basis on the part of the authors, both of whom reside in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The later idea is supported by the opening chapter entitled “The Madness” which explains the horrific social effects of methamphetamine usage for the Thai people, particularly those residing in Chiang Mai, rather than for people of all nationalities in the region.

The final chapter of the book entitled “The Future?” explains how little criticism has befallen on Burma from its neighbors and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who call the drug trade an internal affair over fears of losing access to Burmese natural gas. Those who criticize the Burmese drug trade exist mainly the West and refuse to work with governments not recognized outside the country. Lintner and Black argue that in order to stem the flow of drugs criticizing nation-states must see entities like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) outside of the binaries of good and evil. Certainly this is an argument that can applied to efforts to combat at litany of illegal activities, but the final suggestion of creating accord between ethnic groups in Burma falls flat because the authors fail to explain how this could be accomplished. Democracy appears to be the primary suggestion without consideration that democracy could open the country up to further violence and tensions under an assembling government, conditions under which drug trafficking could continue to flourish.

Overall, Lintner and Black’s Merchants of Madness makes some good points on extraterritoriality for drug traffickers and complications of sovereignty in dealing with the trade of methamphetamines, but the book fails to make a convincing case that Burma is the sole country to blame for the “explosion” in methamphetamine trade and usage.

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