Deep in the lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, sloping fields of illegal poppies have just been scraped dry for opium. This is the peak season for producing drugs here, and in Myanmar’s nascent era of democratic change, the haul has only got bigger.
Opium, its derivative heroin and methamphetamines are surging across Myanmar’s borders in quantities that the UN and police in neighboring countries say are the highest levels in years.
Two years after replacing a long-ruling military junta, the civilian government is still struggling to get a foothold in its war against drugs. The trade is centered in a remote, impoverished area where the government has little control and where ethnic armies have waged civil wars for decades — wars financed with drug money.
The Associated Press was granted rare access to Myanmar’s drug-producing hub in the vast, jungle-clad mountain region of Shan State, deep in a ceasefire zone that was closed to foreigners for decades.
It is a land dotted with makeshift methamphetamine labs and tiny, poor villages where growing opium is the only real industry. The trip was part of a UN mission allowed only under armed police escort.
Burmese President Thein Sein has signed ceasefire agreements with a patchwork of rebel groups in the region, but the peace is extremely fragile and sporadic fighting continues. Cracking down on drug syndicates or arresting poor opium farmers risks alienating the ethnic groups he is courting for peace talks.
“To stop the drug problem, we need peace. And that is what the government is trying to achieve now,” said police Colonel Myint Thein, head of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse and Control, which controls the country’s drug policy. “But that is just one of so many challenges. This is a very difficult task. It will take time.”
Foreign aid that could help combat drugs is just beginning to trickle back into the area, which is rife with corruption. However, the toughest task may be transforming the destitute rural economy, filled with poor farmers who view growing opium as the best way to provide for their families.
Dozens of those farmers live in Thon Min Yar, a village in Shan State that is far in every sense from Myanmar’s postcard-perfect pagodas and colonial relics. So obscure it does not appear on maps, it is an image of dirt-road squalor and government neglect.
Its 73 bamboo huts have no electricity or running water. Its people have no access to healthcare, no job prospects, not enough food and no aspirations beyond survival. Toddlers and teens get a one-sized-fits-all education in a one-room schoolhouse.
Almost everyone in Thon Min Yar is an opium farmer.
“My father and my grandfather grew opium. I have no other way to make money,” said 28-year-old Peter Ar Loo, a father of two.
He does not smoke opium, but sometimes he envies the life of an addict. They seem more carefree, he said.
However, “Using opium only benefits one person. Selling it helps my whole family,” he added.
Opium farmers like Ar Loo are not the people getting rich from the drug trade. They are among the poorest people in one of the world’s least-developed countries.
In a good year, Ar Loo makes about US$1,000 from an acre-sized field of poppies. That does not include business expenses that he calls “paying respects” — a roughly 15 percent opium tax doled out to a variety of local authorities who turn a blind eye in exchange.