Obstacles Ahead in Burma’s Opium War

Despite recent democratic reforms, questions remain whether Burma's government can rein in its wild hinterland and tackle the burgeoning opium trade

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Damir Sagolj / REUTERS

A Burmese soldier secures the area after destroying poppy fields in the mountains of Shan state on Jan. 26, 2012

Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle is a crumpled baize of lofty peaks and lush valleys straddling the triptych borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma. The region is notorious for drugs, particularly Burma’s poppy fields that are the world’s second principal source of heroin. But with recent democratic reforms heralding a prodigal return to the international fold, Burma is now feeling increased pressure to tackle its drugs problem. To this end, Myanmar, as the country is officially known, last week sent a high-level delegation to the U.N. Commission on Narcotics Drugs in Vienna for the first time. However, uneasy cease-fires with ethnic rebels, porous frontiers and rampant corruption continue to cloud whether the central government can successfully rein in its wild hinterland.

(MORE: Burma’s Kachin War: Renewed Ethnic Strife Threatens Regional Stability)

Although Golden Triangle heroin production remains a long way shy of its zenith in the 1990s, when there were around 165,000 hectares of poppy fields and 80% of New York City’s street heroin originated from Southeast Asia, there has nevertheless been a substantial resurgence. Thailand has all but wiped out poppy fields from its territory, while Laos produces a token amount. That leaves Burma, where cultivation grew 17% from 43,600 hectares in 2011 to 51,000 hectares last year, as the region’s main culprit, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Jason Eligh, UNODC country manager for Burma, told TIME that the presence of senior government figures in Vienna, including the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Police Major General Kyaw Kyaw Tun, was significant. “The intersections between poverty, drugs and peace will be explored in a side event sponsored by Myanmar on the opium-poppy situation in Shan state,” he said. “They will discuss also the need for support to increase access to HIV prevention and treatment services for people who use drugs.”

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Around 300,000 households in Burma are currently engaged in poppy cultivation. The country produced 690 tons of opium last year worth some $359 million, according to official figures — about a fifth of the amount produced in Afghanistan. But demand for the drug is rising, and the UNODC warned in December that rising prices combined with poor harvests and a U.S.-backed eradication campaign in Afghanistan could provide strong cash incentives for Asian drug warlords to plug the gap.

Poppies are a crop of choice for both cultural and commercial reasons, but mainly out of necessity. For the past six decades, farmers in Burma’s border regions have been caught up in a brutal civil war — the longest running anywhere in the world, and one that has driven tens of thousands of civilians to flee to neighboring Thailand or to ramshackle internally-displaced-persons (IDP) camps by the border. Amid this instability, opium represents a high-yield, compact and high-value cash crop that can be easily transported and traded for food, medicine and even education.

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Ethnic-insurgent groups are usually blamed for the majority of Burma’s drug trade. Rebels pay for weapons by taxing the poppy crop, by refining opium (or by taxing the activities of refiners) and by ensuring safe delivery to international traffickers. However, the true picture is more complex. The instability generated by a half-century of guerrilla conflict has led to the sanctioning of poppy cultivation by numerous government-aligned militias. Moreover, many studies have shown opium production to be more pervasive in government territory than in that held by the rebels, with the authorities turning a blind eye to ensure the acquiescence of these heavily armed militias. Last year, poppy cultivation was reported in 49 out of 55 townships in Burma’s restive Shan state, responsible for 90% of the national harvest, with farmers expecting around $520 per kg of “farm-gate fresh opium.”

Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), has been following the regional narcotics situation for over a decade. He told TIME that law enforcement only penalizes addicts and petty dealers while those at the top remain out of reach. “The big fish are handled by the Burmese army,” he said. “I went up to the mountains last week and was told that everyone who holds a gun is involved [with drugs]. The PMA [people’s militia armies] are set up by the Burmese army to fight the resistance, and in return they have been given license to deal drugs.” But complicity is even more brazen than this — seven leading drug lords are currently MPs for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party of reformist President Thein Sein, according to a report by SHAN.

(PHOTOS: Burma Unbound: Photos from a Waking Nation by Adam Ferguson)

Nevertheless, the Naypyidaw government is striving to look busy. New Border Liaison Offices were set up this month to “fight transnational organized crime [and] to promote development, growth and peace,” according to the Burmese deputy police chief, Police Brigadier General Zaw Win. Burma has set itself a 2014 deadline to make the country drug-free, in line with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations target of 2015. The insurgents also appear to be on board. Lieut. General Yawd Serk, leader of the Shan State Army (SSA), a major Burmese rebel group, told a press conference last month that they have “developed a six-year project for the elimination of narcotics.”

Experts, however, say that any arbitrary timetable simply pushes authorities toward repression rather then development. “There is no silver bullet,” Tom Kramer, a political scientist for the think tank Transnational Institute (TNI) told TIME. “The root cause is poverty. Access to health, education — if this is not addressed, you will not solve the problem.” Kramer, who has more than 15 years experience working in Burma, instead advocates “real, achievable and realistic goals that do not criminalize or penalize users or farmers.”

(MORE: In Burma, Media Reform Tests the Limits of Free Speech)

Successful substitution has been achieved in Thailand where government-funded Royal Projects use foreign expertise to research alternative crops for hill tribes that traditionally farm poppies. Impoverished rural communities are given training and modern equipment, as well as access to fair markets, and they prosper by growing berries, flowers, corn, tea, coffee and other crops that thrive in northern Thailand’s temperate climate. However, such munificence is sorely missing across the border in Burma, where a Chinese-backed equivalent has drawn the ire of advocacy groups.

By November last year, some 200 companies from China’s southwestern Yunnan province were participating in a $257 million program, subsidized by Beijing, to replace Golden Triangle poppy fields with rubber, banana and sugarcane plantations over 200,000 hectares of land. Yet critics argue these schemes involve turning farmers into wage slaves and are driven solely by profit — the reason, perhaps, for their limited success. “These companies are not sincere,” a Burmese government official told TNI. “The poppy farmers will not benefit from it.”

(PHOTOS: Sectarian Unrest in Burma Sees Dozens Dead, Thousands Fleeing)

The folly of top-down development that circumvents local people is already evident in northern Burma’s Kachin state, where a two-year civil war has forced more than 70,000 people from their homes. The promise of development-led riches persuaded the rebel Kachin Independence Army to sign a cease-fire with Burma’s military regime in 1994, but violence resumed after 17 years of hydropower projects, opencast mining and illegal logging that devastated the environment and local livelihoods.

Peace may be a prerequisite for tackling narcotics, but it is certainly not sufficient. Enshrining land rights, developing infrastructure and stopping human-rights abuses like forced labor are also essential. For Burma to tackle drugs, poppy farmers must be permitted to benefit from their labors and build new lives with security. Only then will the thousands of refugees and IDP families feel safe enough to return home. Without tackling these fundamental challenges, history shows that violence will likely return, in which case there is nothing like opium for dulling the pain.

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