Thursday, 14 November 2019

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Burma tries to nip the growth of poppy fields


(Mizzima) – Burma took a whack at destroying a portion of the huge opium crop, citing a total of 22,432 hectares of illicit poppy plants destroyed across the country between September 2011 and February 2012, according to anti-drug authorities.

A file photo of an opium poppy field outside the village of Lowi Soi in the Lwe San Sone Mountains in Burma’s northern Shan State near the Chinese border. Photo: AFPThe destroyed fields included those in nine townships in Shan state and Minhla Township in Magway region, according an article published by the Xinhua news agency on Friday. The remote locations, where jobs are few, are prime areas for poppy crops.

During the month, the authorities seized 356.52 kg of opium, 11 kg of heroin, 1.33 kg of marijuana and 25.66 kg of ephedrine as well as over 2 million stimulant tablets, the article reported.

Earlier this year, Mizzima reported that poppy cultivation in Burma has increased alarmingly in the past two years amid fears that the region's worsening economic crisis will encourage even greater growth.

The U.N. has warned that falling international commodity prices and increase political instability in Burma's border area has fuelled fears that many of Burma's poppy farmers will find it impossible to resist the temptation to return to their old ways. In the past few years there has been a dramatic fall in the area under poppy cultivation and opium production, but these gains have been reversed in the past two years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) annual survey for 2011.

“The problem of poppy production in the region has been contained but not solved,” the UNODC chief in Bangkok, Gary Lewis told Mizzima. “There have been significant increases, especially in Myanmar, which are threatening to rise further because of the worsening economic conditions faced by former poppy farmers.”

More than 90 per cent of the poppy grown in southeast Asia – Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – is grown in Burma's north-eastern Shan State, though significant strides have been made in Burma over the past decade to dramatically reduce the cultivation of poppy and the production of opium.

Poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares under poppy cultivation to around 30,000 in 2008 in Burma. Opium production has fallen from more than 1300 metric tonnes to 410 during this period. This is the equivalent of producing 40 tonnes of heroin. This reduction has been largely the result of international pressure on two of the largest opium producers in Burma's Golden Triangle – which borders China, Laos and Thailand -- the Kokang and the Wa. Both are rebel ethnic groups, with large guerrilla forces, but have ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.

The Kokang virtually ceased opium production in 2003 and the Wa in 2006. But in the past two years both poppy cultivation and opium production have begun to grow again. “The trend is certainly upwards with a significant increase in the land under cultivation in Myanmar,” said Leik Boonwaat, UNODC chief in Laos, who has also been stationed in Burma. “For former opium farmers who already live in dire poverty are facing twin levers of increasing opium prices and falling commodity prices that may encourage them to reduce poppy growing.”

The prices of most commodities grown or produced in Burma as alternatives to poppy, particularly maize and rubber, have fallen by more than fifty percent, according to the UN's annual drug report. Tens of thousands of former poppy farmers are facing a bleak future, according to an ethnic leader in northern Burma, who declined to be identified. They are almost certain to resume growing poppy, simply to survive, he said.

Most of the Wa and Kokang's alternative crops – tea, rubber and fruit – are sold to traders across the border in China. But these merchants are no longer interested in buying these products from Burmese producers as demand in China has all but dried up.

Chinese traders are not even buying jade from the Pangsan market. There are even tougher times ahead for the Wa in particular, a source in their capital told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. The leaders are really worried about the future, he added.   

“The price of opium has more than doubled in the past few years – from $153 a kilogramme in 2004 to $ 301 currently on the Myanmar market – making it hard for former opium growers to ignore this incentive to return to poppy cultivation,” Leik Boonwaat told Mizzima.

With declining prices for their substitute crops and soaring market prices for opium, thousands of former poppy growers are at risk of returning to their traditional crop to produce the extra cash income they need.

Already there are significant signs that Burma's poppy growers are returning to their old trade. In the past two years there has been a distinct upward trend, according to the UN's latest annual report. Although opium production fell a little last year compared to the year before, this is because the yield was worse.

The greatest increase has been in southern Shan State, where the Wa leadership is in the hands of the Chinese gangster Wei Xiao Gang – who is wanted on trafficking charges in the United States.

While the U.N. survey suggests that in the main Wa area – Wa Special Region 2 – there has been no resumption yet of poppy cultivation, there has been a steady increase in both eastern and northern Shan State. More worrying is the steady increase in poppy cultivation in both Kachin and Kayah states.

The fragile situation in the northern Wa areas is also of great concern to international anti-drug agencies, according to senior Thai intelligence officers. So far the Wa ban on poppy production, punishable by death, is holding but this may not be the case in the year.

Wa leaders have always know that the situation remained precarious – the ban was never a popular move – and depended on the poor Wa farmers having greater food security and an alternative source of a cash income.

“The Wa leaders may even be forced to renege on their promises to the UN and international community if the economic and security situation deteriorates further,” a U.N. drugs official familiar with the problems in Shan State told Mizzima.

Aware of these problems – and the danger of more former growers resuming poppy cultivation, the UN believes there is an even greater need now to step up action against the drug smugglers.

“Already there are important measures in place for the cooperation and exchange of intelligence between drug enforcement agencies in the region – through the border liaison offices that were established several years ago,” said Lewis.

Smuggling routes have changed in the past few years, with tighter border controls especially along the Myanmar border with China. "Certainly traffickers have had to change their transport methods and routes – much is now being moved through Laos from Myanmar, to meet the demand of the drug addicts in southern China, Thailand and Vietnam," said a drug official.

Some of the Golden Triangle opium production is heading out to India, Europe and the United States through the Rangoon port, according to Burmese government officials.

Burma has been implementing a 15-year plan (1999-2014) to totally eradicate poppy in three phases, each running for five years. Now, the country has entered the third year of its final five-year phase.
 

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