Wed, Mar 27, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Rising drug trade threatens Myanmar’s aspirations

Much of Myanmar remains lawless and mired in poverty, and villagers in remote areas have few options beyond farming poppies for opium and producing methamphetamines

By Jocelyn Gecker  /  AP, THON MIN YAR, Myanmar

Police control the towns, government soldiers patrol the roads, and ethnic armies rule the mountains. All of them get a cut.

“We give to the Shan militia, the police and the army,” Ar Loo said.

There is a law that bans growing opium poppies, but he said no one in his village has ever been arrested.

“We get permission from the local authorities, explaining that we need to do this to feed our children,” he said.

The government says it wants farmers to grow corn and other legal crops, but many poppy farmers say the terrible mountain roads mean getting legal crops to market is almost impossible.

Opium is different: The buyers come straight to your fields.

Ar Loo’s poppy field is a 48km trek into the jungle, an inconvenient location he chose after police launched an anti-narcotics campaign a year ago and warned farmers to switch to legal crops — or face arrest.

“The farmers are just finding fields deeper in the mountains,” shrugged Ar War, chief of a nearby community called Ywar Thar Yar, or Beautiful View Village.

Pointing at mist-shrouded jungles controlled by ethnic armies, he added: “It’s harder for police to find them there.”

Even with the campaign, part of the central government’s new anti-narcotics effort, police may not be looking that hard. The payoffs continue.

The Golden Triangle is defined by the area where Shan State meets the borders of Thailand and Laos. It was the world’s top opium-growing region for years, but in the 1990s, Afghanistan became the top producer and drug syndicates here began focusing more on methamphetamines.

Now heroin and methamphetamines are both on the rise.

In Thailand, authorities last year seized a record 82.2 million methamphetamine tablets, a 66 percent increase from the year before.

“These drugs are not produced in Thailand. They are from Myanmar,” said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who has vocally called on Myanmar to step up its policing efforts. “If Myanmar cooperates, that’s the end of the drug story. It’s better than it used to be, but still far from perfect.”

Authorities in Singapore, Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also reported record hauls that the UN says are predominantly from Myanmar.

Myanmar’s poppy cultivation, meanwhile, has more than doubled since 2006, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Myanmar produced an estimated 626 tonnes of opium last year, a 17 percent jump from the year before.

No one can say for sure what is driving the overall increase in Myanmar’s drug production, but Ar Loo, who doubled his poppy production last year, said his motivation was inflation.

“Food prices are going up. Gasoline is more expensive,” he said. “If the military or police force us to stop immediately, there will be problems. Because people will not have enough to eat.”

Experts offer other explanations — notably that cash-strapped ethnic armies are planning for the future.

Many rebels are resisting a government demand to form a joint patrol force with the army by 2015, but need more strength and leverage at the negotiating table.

“It’s an uneasy ceasefire, and most of the groups are jostling to be in a better bargaining position,” said Leik Boonwaat, UNODC deputy regional director for East Asia and the Pacific. “In order to be in a better bargaining position, you need money, you need more soldiers, and the best way to do that is drugs.”

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