Asia’s Opium Resurgence
Image Credit: Tom Fawthrop

Asia’s Opium Resurgence


The colourful profusion of red and white poppies adorning the northern mountains is a familiar sight in Laos early each new year.

Generations of ethnic hill tribes, mostly Hmong, Akha and Yao villagers, have long welcomed the bountiful harvests of opium poppy in the region, while the sight of the flower in full bloom has beguiled tourists and photographers alike.

But such natural beauty is the last thing on the minds of US anti-narcotics agents and other embassy officers faced with a resurgence of this traditional crop. Indeed, while some locals may see the crop as a blessing, to Western officials the poppies are seen more than anything as the source of the heroin addiction plaguing cities back home.

Less than a decade ago, opium production in the Golden Triangle—where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand blur together—was on the decline. Thailand had for decades been trying to eradicate opium, and was followed in 2002 by the Laotian government, which launched a rapid eradication campaign following intense pressure from the US government and the UN drug agency. China, meanwhile, had pushed the Wa ethnic rebel forces in northern Shan state to impose a strict ban on poppy cultivation.

By 2005, Laos was proclaiming itself to be opium free, while the United Nations reported that Burma’s harvests had fallen by more than 50 percent from their peak. Indeed, the following year, then-UN Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa predicted that the days of the Golden Triangle were numbered.

The optimism was apparently misplaced. Last year’s annual UN opium survey for Southeast Asia reported a 22 percent increase in opium poppy cultivation on a year earlier, while in Laos production surged 55 percent.

There are both political and economic reasons for the failure of externally imposed opium eradication campaigns in Burma and Laos.

In Laos, hill tribe farmers in three provinces in the north of the country are now said to be quietly, but increasingly, defying the government ban on cultivation to try to make ends meet. As commodity prices for other crops have tumbled, poverty rates among poor farmers have been rising. With the price of opium meanwhile soaring, it’s easy to see why growing numbers of farmers are being tempted to cultivate poppies.

Similar economic pressures apply to the Shan states in Burma. As the United Nations has noted, opium poppies are by far the most lucrative crop for farmers, with a single hectare able to generate $4,600 in income in Burma—13 times what a hectare of rice could.

The economic incentives to flout the rules have been compounded by the complex politics of the Shan state, where the military junta’s attempt to subjugate ethnic rebel armies—along with decades of  oppression, unrest and lawlessness—have contributed to a flourishing opium trade and heroin trafficking used to fund all sides in the armed conflict.

March 7, 2011 at 08:07

Talk about completely missing the point. The only reason opium is not harvested with 21st century technology is because of the very nature of what the opium is ultimately used for. Because the pharm. industry has billions and billions of dollars to contribute, they are able to provide much more advanced methods of procurement. But make no mistake, whether the opium is extracted by scaring the poppy head, or by water/solvent based extraction, there is virtually no difference between the actual alkaloid compounds. Also, some legal poppy farms produce varieties of the poppy plant that produce more thebaine than morphine and codeine. Because thebaine is the precursor to the more modern opiods such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, the value of the plant remains the same or sometimes higher than the plants that produce high contents of morphine and codeine. Should the nations that compose the “golden triangle” decide to allow legal poppy farming for pharmaceutical purposes, you can count on modern and advanced procurement methods to take the place of the crude tools that are used to harvest opium from the poppy now. The difference you are trying to create between the two are only circumstantial. No one is suggesting we legalize poppy farming as a solution to combat the poverty within these nations. But that also does not mean that the legalization of the farming would not help the nation from a financial and medical standpoint. If for no other reason than helping these nations provide their own citizens with proper medical care and decent stocks of morphine for medical purposes, this plan would be a successful one. And that is not at all to mention the obvious perils and consequences of prohibition of ANY substance. I think what is flawed here is your prospective on this issue.

February 25, 2011 at 14:17

“Opium is the tool used by the imperial powers led by Britain to rob wealth from China, it destroys morality, it destroys country, it destroys society, it destroys family and it destroys individual. It took 150 years of wars, millions of lives, and untold amount of agony for China to get out the destructive power of Opium”

It’s not totally accurate to say opium ruined China. China was going through a very bad period, but opium was consumed in many countries all around the world (and has/had been for thousands of years). For instance, the British were quietly consuming (eating, not smoking) more opium per head of the population than China. Opium was sold in Britain for over 300 years so it wasn’t a new drug either. In fact, most countries barely had any reported social or health problems with opium, it was mostly (and still is ) alcohol. The Chinese were badly done by economically and opium no doubt exacerbated it. If it wasn’t opium though, some other substance to help people forget their predicament would have replaced it (probably alcohol).

February 24, 2011 at 19:19

ASEAN is really a joke! The international organization of “beggars” – The “Have” (Singapore, Brunei) vs. “Have Not” (all the rest). How can such a dysfunctional group achieve anything great. China’s 10+1, originated by Wen Jia Bao is just a “charity” on the part of China, to contain ASEAN and gives out a glimmer of hope to these pathetically corrupt and ill-governed nations. It will not amount to anything but a poorly functioning regional groupings. And now ASEAN wants to get the US, Russia, India in? For what? Have a BBQ party every year? What a joke!

John Chan
February 24, 2011 at 09:34

Opium is the tool used by the imperial powers led by Britain to rob wealth from China, it destroys morality, it destroys country, it destroys society, it destroys family and it destroys individual. It took 150 years of wars, millions of lives, and untold amount of agony for China to get out the destructive power of Opium.

All Opium/drug dealers and traffickers should be put to firing squad, the addicts must be rehabilitated through education camps.

February 24, 2011 at 05:07

“Until such a time, though, many Laotians will be left wondering why the West accepts opium cultivation in a small, select number of largely resource-rich countries, while their poor and landlocked nation is expected to survive on coffee exports and Beerlao.”

Because if they did that it would undercut the pharm comapnies. The pharm companies are the biggest lobby group in the US. Hence, the same reason they won’t allow the Afghans or any other poor country to do it because it would hurt their business.

Ali Baba
February 23, 2011 at 20:13

There is no mention that Burma once the major source eradicated, only to see Afghanistan, take over. Now isn’t it funny you mention the US agents being sort of worried? How is this when they are steep in Afghanland and the crop there
exploded by 5005%?

The real story is not Laos but South Asia, where they kill you for not having
a burka, for religious reasons. Yet have no qualms about drugs when it comes to religion.
Just what is America doing with regards to South Asia.

We know what they did in South East Asia, and it took more than 30 years
for get some controls in place. The US war on drugs is a farce. It is part and parcel of an economy in the billions. It starts at street level. Drug agencies
do not like to close shop. The industry starts with attorneys, court systems,
prisons, and turns full circle. Drugs is big business. It is in the billions.

February 23, 2011 at 11:13

This, and the recent war between Cambodia and Thailand are the reasons why we should never have accepted Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar into ASEAN. It was a huge mistake.

The war between Thailand and Cambodia has already shattered for the first time, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which the original members had strictly adhered to for more than 30 years. Even during the worst times in the 70s, the original members have never resorted to military action to resolve problems. And now Laos drug problem, ASEAN’s reputation among the international community will only deteriorate further.

February 23, 2011 at 02:17

Dear Tom,

Articles like this (if you can call it that) are ridiculous. It is scape goating at its worst! First, your photo of Hmong men smoking water pipes is misleading, and stereotypical, if not outright slander on an entire ethnic group! Smoking water pipes (tobacco) is a far cry from the use and addiction of opium, especially in the form of heroine. It’s like showing a photo of American men smoking cigarettes for a story on the use of Cocaine!

I am willing to bet you that this photo, or these Hmong men had NOTHING to do with your story, or even the problem of opium in Southeast Asia! In fact, they were probably innocent bystanders, and someone snapped a photo of them during tourist visit to their village. If these men had any legal recourse, they should sue you and The Diplomat for all your life’s savings…for slander, libel, you name it.

The problem with opium production is hardly the problem of local growers. It’s the powers of the military, the respective governments, warring drug lords, AND their corresponding henchmen on the demand side who fueled this industry. Why NONE of their photos and faces were part of this story is EXACTLY the kind of misinformation and lies stories like this help to perpetuate!!!

The fact is that the faces of the leaders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma should be plastered with stories like this! How about photos of the drug lords and rich suppliers, and the multi-millionaire dealers on the demand side? Where are their names and faces? Where is the photo of them sitting comfortable in their condos and yachts, eating caviar?

If you’re gonna write about the problem of opium, write about the REAL people behind it…and STOP scapegoating poor Hmong villages going about their daily lives trying to find the next meal! Thanks. A response is much appreciated, if not printed for the world to read (that there just MIGHT be another side to all of this nonsense “news”).

- Informed Hmong Person

February 22, 2011 at 21:35

It’s the prohibition of these things that is causing problems everywhere. Regardless of the possible physiological effects of opium and other drugs, the war on drugs, a failed US world policy through the UN is a dismal failure. It’s about time we adjusted the law in recognition of this dismal failure.
Prohibition is the problem, not the solution.

Knowledgeable commentator
February 22, 2011 at 19:33

An interesting paper, although with a flawed argument.
You cannot decently compare, unless you confuse them (which is the case here and in most papers on this topic), opium production (whether illegal in Afghanistan, Burma, Laos, etc., or legal in India, and in India alone) and Concentrate of Poppy Straw (CPS) production (legal in France, UK, Australia, Turkey: no opium production in Turkey!). There is no such thing as “opium cultivation”: poppies are cultivated and opium is harvested from poppies.
Now, comparing legal opium production in India with illegal opium production anywhere in the world (including in Laos) makes sense. But not with legal CPS production: this a completely different economic activity / model. Opium production is highly labour intensive. CPS is not at all labour intensive (use of combine harvesters!). Opium production makes economic sense only in a context a poverty and legalising opium production in Afghanistan, Burma, or Laos would not solve the poverty problem of these countries and of the opium farmers. This a false solution. The real solution is to offer something else than opium production to the poorests of the poor: a way out of poverty by producing something less labour intensive and much more profitable (as opium production is very rarely profitable!).

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