Burmese Daze
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Friday, May 24, 2019


Burmese Daze


Farmers harvest opium poppies in northern Karenni State. (Photo: KADAC)

The decline of opium production in the Golden Triangle masks serious flaws in the effectiveness of drug eradication efforts in the region

OPIUM cultivation in Burma, Laos and Thailand has decreased over the last ten years. The region where these three countries meet—known as the Golden Triangle—once produced most of the world’s opium. But that position has been taken over by Afghanistan, which has seen a massive increase in poppy cultivation and is today responsible for more than 90 percent of global opium production.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Golden Triangle region produced some 1,300 metric tons (tonnes), or one-third of the world’s opium in 1998; by 2007, it produced 460 tonnes, or around 5 percent.

UN drug-control officials have hailed the decline as a great success. “The Golden Triangle is closing a dramatic period of opium reduction,” said Antonio Maria Costa, the director of UNODC. “A decade-long process of drug control is clearly paying off.”

A woman in southern Shan State cuts a poppy for its opium sap. (Photo: KADAC)
There is, however, little reason for such a sanguine view. First of all, the exact size of the decline is debatable, as there are serious questions about the accuracy of the high Burmese production figures at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s.

US statistics claim that opium production in Burma doubled from some 1,200 tonnes in 1988 to about 2,400 tonnes in 1989. UN figures for the same period are a bit lower, but also estimate that annual opium production in Burma remained at more than 2,000 tonnes until 1997.

But some observers believe that these figures were politically motivated, and were used to later claim credit for a decline that only existed on paper. “The figures bandied about in grand conferences and impressive reports are quite overblown, to put it delicately,” wrote the late Shan opposition leader and academic Chao Tzang Yawnghwe in 2005. By some estimates, annual opium production in Burma has never exceeded 1,000 tonnes.

Furthermore, there has been a shift in cultivation patterns to new areas in Burma in recent years, and the last two years have once again seen increases in opium production. The main increase in opium cultivation has been in southern Shan State. Research carried out in 2008 by Transnational Institute (TNI), an Amsterdam-based think tank, showed that opium cultivation was also up in townships in eastern and northern Shan State. Additionally, double cropping was reported in areas near the Thai border, and also in Namsan, Kunhing and Mong Nai townships.

TNI research confirms that the Wa, Kokang and Mong La regions, where the opium bans are strictly implemented, remain poppy free. “We check every year in each county in our area whether people grow opium,” a representative of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) told TNI recently. “If we find people cultivating a mu (0.067 hectares) of opium, we send them to prison for three years, and fine them a few thousand yuan [1 yuan=$0.15].”

However, there has been an increase in cultivation in areas under government control bordering the Wa region, such as Hopang Township, where it is sometimes cultivated by people who moved there after the UWSP imposed its opium ban.

In both northern Laos and the Wa region—once the main opium-producing areas of Southeast Asia—opium cultivation declined due to a policy decision by local authorities. In 2001, the Lao government announced its commitment to making the country opium-free by 2005; it was declared opium-free in February 2006. However, some small-scale opium cultivation continues, mainly in hidden plots in remote mountainous areas.

Opium cultivation in Burma also dropped partly as a result of a number of opium bans declared by ceasefire groups in northern Shan State. These include bans imposed by the National Democratic Alliance Army in the Mong La region in 1997; by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang region in 2003; and by the UWSP in the Wa region in 2005.

These were all previously key opium-cultivating areas. After decades of war and isolation, these ceasefire groups hoped to gain international political recognition and support for the development of their impoverished regions by removing the stigma of involvement in the illicit drug business.

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