Opium cultivation in Myanmar jumped by a third last year due to the country’s deepening economic and political turmoil, abruptly reversing a six-year decline, the United Nations said in a report released yesterday.
In its annual Myanmar Opium Survey for 2022, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), found that the area of opium poppy cultivation was at 40,100 hectares last year, up from an estimated 30,200 hectares in 2021. The report noted that this increase “was recorded against the backdrop of significant social, economic, security and governance disruptions.”
The UNODC also found that the average estimated yield rose 41 percent to nearly 20 kilograms per hectare, the highest value since the UNODC started keeping records in 2002. The greatest increase – 39 percent – was seen in the eastern Shan State, which borders China, Thailand, and Laos, and is under the control of a patchwork of rebel armies and government-aligned militias. Increases were also identified in Chin State, where cultivation increased by 14 percent, Kayah State (11 percent), and Kachin State (3 percent). The report put the value of Myanmar’s opium crop at to $2 billion.
The report, which was based mostly on satellite data to determine cultivated area, collected during the first full growing season since the military takeover, demonstrates another of the pernicious second-order impacts of the military coup of February 2021.
The military takeover and the ensuing conflict have had a deleterious impact on Myanmar’s economy, which contracted by an astonishing 18 percent in 2021 and has since stagnated as anti-coup protests have broadened out into a nationwide armed struggle. The kyat has fallen sharply against the U.S. dollar, adding further upward pressure to the price of basic goods including food and fuel.
Noting that poppy cultivation has historically been linked with “poverty, lack of services, and insecurity,” the report drew a direct line between the expansion of the crop and the political and economic turmoil that has engulfed the country over the past two years.
“The sharp economic contractions that left a critically weak economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and the military takeover in early 2021 may have been among the determining factors that pushed rural households to rely more on opium, resulting in expanded and more intense poppy cultivation,” the report states.
In a statement accompanying the release of the report, Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s regional representative, said that the growth was “directly connected to the crisis the country is facing.” He added, “The impact on the region is profound, and the country’s neighbors need to assess and candidly address the situation, and they will need to consider some difficult options.”
As the formal economy has atrophied, Myanmar’s various shadow economies and black markets have filled the vacuum, while organized crime groups, drug syndicates, and allied militias in eastern Myanmar have taken the opportunity to consolidate their control.
In addition to opium cultivation, the two years since the coup have seen a surge in the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs – particularly amphetamine-type stimulants (ATSs) – from the conflict zones of Shan State. In May of last year, UNODC reported that the number of methamphetamine tablets seized in East and Southeast Asia exceeded 1 billion for the first time in 2021. These were part of a region-wide haul of almost 172 tons of methamphetamine – an amount seven times higher than that seized 10 years before.
The methamphetamine figures for 2022 have not yet been released, but given the upward trend in opium cultivation, it would not be surprising to see production reach another peak.
As Benedikt Hofmann, the head of UNODC’s Myanmar office, put it, “opium cultivation is really about economics, and it cannot be resolved by destroying crops which only escalates vulnerabilities. Without alternatives and economic stability, opium cultivation and production will likely continue to expand.”