Opium cultivation rises in Myanmar

Opium cultivation in Myanmar's northern Shan state has increased dramatically in the past two years, according to a report issued this week by a Thailand-based rights group.

This increase can be attributed to the country's troubled political situation and it has been underestimated in the annual opium surveys of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as the group reports. Opium cultivation seems to be flourishing not in “insurgent and ceasefire areas”, but in areas controlled by Myanmar’s military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Between 2007-2009, the Palaung Women's Organisation conducted field surveys in Namkham and Mantong townships - both fully under the control of SPDC -  and found that the total area of opium cultivated increased almost fivefold from 964 hectares in 2006-7 to 4,545 hectares in 2008-9. Shan is at the centre of the 'Golden Triangle', Southeast Asia's major opium-producing region which once accounted for more than 70 percent of the world's supply of heroin but is now far exceeded by Afghanistan.

The country has been labelled as a 'drug eradication success story' when in the mid 1990's measures to reduce opium poppy cultivation by the “Government of Myanmar and local authorities” led to a huge decline in potential opium production, according to UNODC.

As the Palaung Women's Organisation points out however, the decline in official SPDC and UNODC figures of opium cultivation has been offset by massive production of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS), also known as methamphetamines since 1994 and for which Burma is now the largest producer in Asia.

Using information gathered by the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), an independent media and research group  covering the drug issue  in Shan State, PWO also report what is actually going on in the areas of Namkahm and Mantong: the military government is turning a blind eye to the opium cultivation for its own purposes.

In its attempt to secure its political power in a country torn by constant conflicts, the regime is pursuing a strategy of increased militarisation in ethnic states to crush ethnic resistance movements. Establishing a network of security infrastructure with Burma Army battalions, police, and pro-government village militia the military government is allowing the latter to engage in illicit income-generating activities in exchange for policing against pro-democracy activity.

Local militia use this newly-found power to extort fees from villagers in exchange for allowing them to grow opium. According to the PWO report, during 2007-8 in Mantong, at least 37 million kyat (US$37,000) in bribes in total were collected from 28 villages.

As PWO points out, the fact that authorities are profiting from drug production is enabling drug abuse to flourish. In one village surveyed in Mantong, it was found that that the percentage of men aged 15 and over addicted to opium increased from 57% in 2007 to 85% in 2009. Around the town of Namkham, heroin addicts flock openly to “drug camps,” and dealers sell heroin and amphetamines from their houses. PWO’s findings thus highlight the structural issues underlying the drug problem in Burma.

In its conclusions, the group draws attention to how the regime’s desire to maintain power at all costs is taking precedence over its stated aims of drug eradication. As they state, 'unless the regime’s militarization strategies are challenged, international funding will make little difference to the drug problem in Burma. A negotiated resolution of the political issues at the root of Burma’s civil war is urgently needed to seriously address the drug scourge which is impacting the region.'

Sources: Poisoned Hills http://www.womenofburma.org/Report/PoisonedHillsFinal.pdf

Reuters:Opium cultivation  jumps in northern Myanmar