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Opium production rending the fabric of ethnic communities

Mizzima News – Opium poppy cultivation in Burma is surging again in areas controlled by the country’s military, according to a report just published. More alarmingly, drug addiction is skyrocketing in areas where opium is now being produced while the cultivation of poppy is also killing the traditional tea industry in parts of northern Burma. 

The amount of land being used to grow opium poppy in Burma’s northern Shan State has jumped five-fold in the past three years to more than 4,500 hectares, according to the report released by the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO), a rights group based in Thailand. The group’s report focuses on two areas, Namkham and Mantong in Shan State near the border with China, which are predominantly Palaung and firmly under the control of the Burmese army.poisoned-hills-report-cover

The findings in “Poisoned Hills”, based on field assessments and interviews over the last two years, supports other recent research, including reports from the UN’s own anti-drugs agency, United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which suggests that Burma is re-emerging as the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium.  

“The notorious Golden Triangle is back with a vengeance,” Luway Daug Jar, the research coordinator, told Mizzima. “And it’s the ordinary villagers who are suffering,” she added. 

Shan State is a multi-ethnic area dominated by Chinese ethnic groups, including several rebel armies. It borders China to the north, Laos to the east and Thailand to the south, making it the center of the renowned Golden Triangle.  

The PWO also accuses Burmese authorities, army leaders and pro-government militia of encouraging the boom in opium cultivation so they can extort funds from the farmers in order to maintain the army and prepare for this year’s planned elections. 

The government tightly controls the price of tea, deliberately keeping it low and preventing any increase in the price, according to the Palaung organization. “This forces the farmers to turn away from growing tea to opium poppy cultivation,” explained Luway Daug Jar.   

“Palaung people growing opium have to pay a massive tax to the local authorities, so that the soldiers leave their crops alone,” said Lway Nway Hnoung, the report’s principal researcher.  

“Today, the regime's troops and militias are everywhere. The army completely controls the local economy,” she told Mizzima. 

During the 2007-08 poppy season more than 37 million kyat was collected in bribes from the 28 villages in the area, according to the report. “Families in these villages have to pay-off the soldiers regularly to leave them and their crops alone,” said Lway Nway Hnoung. “Some families paid as much as 200,000 kyat over the year,” she told Mizzima when pressed to substantiate these figures. 

According to the reports’ claims, the families growing poppy in these villages are paying on average 30,000 kyat each a year to the soldiers or the equivalent of US$ 30. “The poppy farmers are paying anything from 50,000 kyat [$50] to 4.8 million kyat [$4,800],” according to field research in Poison Hills. “The people not only have to pay money, but have to provide food – including precious chickens and pork – to the soldiers who come to inspect the poppy fields,” said Luway Daug Jar. 

It all places an increased burden on poppy farmers who do not earn a massive income from their crop.  

In the Wa areas, before opium cultivation ceased in 2005 most poppy farmers earned less than US$ 300 a year from the opium resin they produced, according to hundreds of poppy producers interviewed by Mizzima at the time. And they needed that money to purchase rice in the period before the harvest, buy clothes for their families and procure medicine. Precious little cash was left at the end of each year. So the new burden of taxation on these poppy farmers is likely to only push them to continue to increase the area under cultivation.    

“It’s a balloon-affect,” Kuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News and expert of drug production in northern Burma, told Mizizma. “The increase militarization in Shan State is encouraging an increase in opium cultivation everywhere the Burmese army is in control,” he said.  

This recent reported increase in opium cultivation follows a period of dramatic decline in heroin production, after the main ethnic rebel groups involved in opium production all ceased cultivation under pressure from both the Burmese and Chinese authorities. Most of them entered ceasefire pacts with the Burmese some twenty years ago and at the time had been given permission to pursue their illicit trade for a few years as an incentive. But under international pressure in the mid-nineties the junta began to try to curb opium cultivation.  

The two bigger ethnic groups, the Kokang and the Wa, stopped poppy production in 2002 and 2005, respectively, after a Chinese crackdown on heroin smuggling because of the enormous leap in drug addiction and HIV infections in China’s southern provinces bordering Burma.  

But poppy cultivation has re-emerged elsewhere in Shan State, according to both the Palaung group, UNODC and other informed sources. “Opium cultivation has sprung up in areas that were previously poppy-free,” said Kuensai. “The level of poppy cultivation has returned to the old levels in Shan State,” he said. It is flourishing in northern and southern Shan State, spreading to Kachin State and further west to Arakan and Chin areas, according to Kuensai. 

The reports’ most frightening revelation though was its exposure of the increase in drug addiction in areas that have recently turned to opium cultivation.  

In the villages surveyed in Mantong, more than three out of every four males over the age of 15 was addicted to either opium or heroin. For Mantong as a whole they an estimated 85 percent of men are drug addicts – nearly doubling in the last three years. Curiously, they found that very few women, only or tow, are addicts, Lway Nway Hnoung told Mizzima.  

In Namkham, drug addiction was reported to be less than 50 percent but has still increased nearly four-fold over the last three years.  

“As long as this military regime remains in power, drugs will continue to poison people in Burma and the region,” said Lway Nway Hnoung.  

Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 January 2010 15:14 )  

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