Burma’s Opium Addiction

A rights group issues a disturbing report on the opium industry in one Burma state. The junta has to act.

Opium cultivation is on the increase in the Palaung communities in the northern Shan State of Burma. This fact was revealed in a study published last month by the Palaung Women’s Organization. Indeed, it would seem the local authorities are not only aware of the problem, but are aggressively promoting and protecting the opium trade there.

The group reported that opium growing in the 15 villages in Namkham Township has increased by 79 percent in the past two years. In 2008, there were only 617 hectares of opium fields in the area. This year the figure is expected to rise to 1,109 hectares. About 12 villages that hadn’t previously grown opium have started to grow it since 2009.

Drug addiction has also worsened in Palaung communities. In one village, the group discovered that 91 percent of males aged 15 and over were addicted to drugs. The drug menace has also caused the crime rate to go up, including a spike in cases involving domestic violence.

The group is blaming the local and national government for the revival of the opium industry in the area, even accusing a local MP of being the key protector of the opium trade in the region. The group cited testimony from a villager that former militia leader Kyaw Myint had promised Namkham voters that they could plant opium without regulation for 5 years if they voted for him. Kyaw Myint ran under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which dominated last year’s elections.

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Palaung farmers were tea growers, but the decline of the tea industry, which is heavily controlled by the junta-dominated government, has forced them to switch to opium growing in order to survive. Meanwhile, opium cultivation is tolerated because politicians, soldiers, police, and militia forces can collect high taxes and bribes.

The local women’s group believes that the national government allowed Kyaw Myint’s illegal drug activities to flourish in exchange for its support for the government’s military campaign against ethnic rebels. It said the issue “highlights the nexus between drug production and power relations in Burma’s conflict-ridden Shan State.” It added that the government “needs to rely on its army infrastructure, including local paramilitary forces, to suppress the ethnic resistance movements,” even if the pro-government forces are sustained by the opium trade.

This latest alternative drug report by a local NGO, which covered only one province of Burma, should inspire the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to conduct a more independent study of the drug situation in the country, since it only relies on the data submitted by the junta-backed government. The fact is that the UNODC reliance on government statistics has blinded the agency and weakened its capacity to address the worsening drug problem in the country.

At a minimum, the Burmese government should investigate the illicit drug cultivation in the Shan State. It should be ready to punish public officials and military officers who are found guilty of protecting the opium trade, and it should also assist opium farmers by promoting alternative crop development. Instead of turning a blind eye to the evils of drug use, it should launch an awareness campaign targeting the young about the need to combat the dangerous impact of illegal drugs in society.