For governments in the region there have been some encouraging recent signs. In January, for example, Thai police seized 3,864,000 yaba tablets and 71 kilograms of ya ice (crystal methamphetamine) near Bangkok. The drugs, which had a street value of more than one billion baht, were believed to have come from Burma. A March raid near the Burmese frontier town of Tachilek, meanwhile, seized an additional 8.7 million pills.
But this success isn’t without costs – especially for poor local farmers, who bear the brunt of the more vigilant anti-narcotic effort. The reality is that the annual opium crop is the main livelihood for several hundred thousand poor farmers and ethnic minorities in parts of Burma.
The crackdown on opium cultivation “isn’t solving the problem,” Kramer says. “It’s only hitting the poor poppy farmers, and it’s high time to re-evaluate these policies.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Even UNODC’s communications chief in Bangkok, John Bleho, admits that some drug control measures “have driven opium growing communities towards chronic poverty and increased food insecurity.” But he argues that the United Nations still believes that the significantly ramped up opium eradication effort in Burma “is a positive development.”
The Burmese government is said to have a three-year alternative development strategy to promote crop substitution in an effort to help farmers transition from opium production. But this will require time and major international funding. In the meantime, there’s no program to compensate destitute farmers for the loss of their livelihood.
U.N. drug officials admit that unless massive international funding for crop substitution materializes quickly, poor farmers are likely to return to opium cultivation as soon as the next planting season comes round. In a region where medicine is scarce, the morphine-rich poppies provide effective treatment for acute pain, respiratory problems and a range of stomach ailments.
And there’s also the problem of corruption. Government officials have long been accused of complicity in the narcotics business. Kway Myint, a member of Burma’s ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, is a case in point. He reportedly ran for the regional parliament of Shan state on a platform of allowing opium production to continue in his district.
Nway H’noung, a spokesperson of the Palaung Women’s Organization, told the Bangkok Post’s Spectrum: “He promised people who voted for him, that they could grow opium for five years, and they can. He is the leader of the Panhsay People's Militia, a drug lord and now a government MP. His militia can be seen growing opium and they have the biggest acreage in the area.”
Nway is hardly an anomaly. According to the Shan News Agency’s 2011 Drug Watch Report, no less than seven sitting members of parliament – national and Shan-local assembly – are closely linked to the narcotics trade.
“The little people bear the brunt of any crackdown on drugs,” Kramer says. “But the government doesn’t go after those who make the big money. Nobody talks about the 42 militias in Shan state, who have been used by the state to control the conflict but who have become major players in the drugs trade.”
Few people, it seems, believe the new government in Yangon has the political will or the power to investigate high-ranking politicians, businessmen, militia leaders, and army generals implicated in the drug trade.
“The war on drugs has completely failed,” Kramer says. “It addresses symptoms and not causes. It’s high time to re-evaluate policies. It should address poverty and development issues.”
Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.