Opium production and drug addiction have dramatically increased in the Namkham area of northern Shan State since the election of a local warlord in last year's general election, according to a new report by the Thailand-based Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO).
The report, titled “Still Poisoned,”reveals that in the 2010-11 season, 1,109 hectares (4.28 square miles) of land in 15 villages were now being used for opium cultivation, as opposed to 617 hectares two years ago in the same 15 villages—an increase of 78 percent.
In addition, Monday's report also claimed that 12 villages in the Namkham area that had not previously grown opium have started since 2009.
Drug addiction in local Palaung communities has spiraled out of control, the report says, and in one Palaung village 91 percent of males aged 15 and over were addicted to drugs.
Namkham is situated on the Sino-Burmese border close to the Muse-Riuli crossing.
The PWO report says that the opium harvest has increased as a direct result of the policies of Namkham No.2 constituency MP “Pansay” Kyaw Myint (aka Win Maung and Li Yongqiang), a representative of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) who was elected in the Nov. 7 election.
Kyaw Myint is widely reported to be a major drug warlord in the region, and is the head of the local pro-regime People’s Militia Force [ta-ka-sa-pha in Burmese].
He campaigned on a platform of allowing opium to be grown freely in Namkham if elected.
“All of the villages that cultivate opium are in areas controlled by Kyaw Myint's militia,” said Lway Nway Hnoung, the principal researcher of the report. “He himself cultivates opium in the Pansay area, so we can firmly say that the increase in opium cultivation is due to his involvement.”
According to the PWO, in 2006 Kyaw Myint’s militia had almost 400 armed troops, and he is reported to have recruited many more by the time of Burma’s first elections for 20 years in November 2010.
“Kyaw Myint promised that he would protect those people who voted for him by ensuring that their opium fields would not be destroyed,” the report says.
Khuensai Jaiyen, the editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) and a researcher for the Shan Drug Watch newsletter, said that Kyaw Myint has exercised freely the power and influence he gained by becoming an MP.
The Palaung ethnic group, which traditionally depends on tea cultivation for its collective livelihood, has been pushed into opium cultivation due to drastic plummets in the price of tea, while the price of rice and other goods has consistently increased under the Naypyidaw regime.
“A new government has been sworn in to power, but they have not effectively dealt with the reasons why these farmers have to grow opium,” said Lway Nway Hnoung. “We want the international community to know that the problem of opium cultivation in Palaung area is worsening.”
The report alleges that “Government troops, police and militia continue to openly tax opium farmers, and to collect bribes from drug addicts in exchange for their release from custody.”
SHAN reporter Hseng Khio Fah, who recently made a trip to Shan State, told The Irrawaddy that several years ago the mountain ranges surrounding Namkham were covered in trees. “But now the trees have been cut down and been substituted with opium fields,” she said.
“A serious situation is quickly developing in that so many local men and teenage boys are turning to drugs,” she said. I worry for the future of these villages.”
Mai Bhone Kyaw, the general secretary of the Palaung State Liberation Front, said, “It is hard to crack down [on opium] if the power is in the hands of local militias which work alongside the government.
“It is also difficult for the local militias to survive without income from the opium trade,” he said. “So if the leader of the local militia becomes an MP, then it is very easy to begin laundering money. ”
The PWO concluded that the most effective way to address the opium problem in the long term is for the government to implement a nationwide ceasefire and begin a tripartite dialogue which addresses the political aspirations of Burma’s ethnic nationalities.
In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the total area under opium poppy cultivation across Shan State was estimated at 38,100 hectares, an increase of 20 percent from the year before.
It said Shan State accounts for 92 percent of opium production in Burma.
Residents in Panglong, southern Shan State, recently told The Irrawaddy that there are more opium fields around their town now than in previous years. Several said that they had chosen to work in the opium fields because it pays better wages.
“The growers pay 8,000 kyat (US $10) per day,” said a local worker. “But the owners are like 'godfathers' who pay bribes to the authorities and do whatever they wish.”
Locals in Namkham said that some plantation owners manage two harvests per year.
Members of PWO said that they conducted their own research into drug usage in northern Shan State, and say that all indications are that the real rate of addiction is much higher than the UNODC’s Myanmar Opium Survey 2010 reported when it said that the rate of opium use for northern Shan State is 1.2 percent of the population.
PWO called on the UNODC to improve the accuracy of its data by working directly with people in the communities where opium is cultivated, rather than with the Burmese military regime.
The UNODC World Drug Report 2011 said Burma's share of world opium production had increased from five percent in 2007 to 12 percent last year, and that while Afghan opium production declined over the 2007-10 period, production in Burma increased.
However, it is not only opiates that are causing a drug problem in Shan State. A youth in Mong Pan in southern Shan State told The Irrawaddy: “Most youngsters under 18 quickly become addicted to drugs, especially amphetamines, which are easier to buy. One pill currently costs 2,500 kyat ($3.12). All their peers do it too.
As for the authorities, they don't care what is happening in the streets,” he said.
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