Drugs could also offer traffickers a path to greater riches once trade barriers are lifted. Thailand’s intelligence indicates that the rebel-controlled drug syndicates are planning for when 10 Southeast Asian countries lift trade barriers to become a single market in 2015.
“In 2015, these drug dealers will want to invest in legitimate businesses. So right now they are trying to boost their capital, and pumping out large amounts of drugs can help them achieve their goal,” said Narong Rattananugul, acting head of Thailand’s Office of Narcotics Control Board.
Most of Myanmar’s drugs are trafficked through its porous 1,100km border with Thailand.
His country seizes drugs almost daily, Narong said. “The problem cannot really be solved,” he added.
The drugs that exit the Golden Triangle ripple out across all of Asia, which is why Myanmar is seeking the world’s help.
“This is not just Myanmar’s concern. The whole international community should cooperate in eliminating the drug problem,” Myint Thein said. “We cannot afford it alone.”
Foreign funding has been trickling back into the country, now that most sanctions imposed during military rule have been lifted. The US just reactivated a poppy yield survey in Shan State that was discontinued in 2004. The EU and Germany have contributed US$7 million for UN anti-drug projects over the next two years, but that is a tiny fraction of the money needed.
Earlier this month, Myanmar sent a high-level delegation to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna for the first time to highlight the link between drugs, poverty and conflict, and to ask for financial help.
In October last year, Myanmar quietly revised a deadline the ex-junta set in 1999 to wipe out illicit drugs by next year. It changed the date to 2019 and set a more realistic target.
“Our objective is to reduce opium poppy cultivation as much as we can.” Myint Thein said. “There is no country where you have zero drugs.”
For years, soldiers with sickles were sent to destroy poppy crops, which was easy, but ineffective.
“The government now realizes eradication doesn’t work,” said Jason Eligh, the UNODC representative in Myanmar who is leading a UN pilot project to help farmers switch to legal crops. “The government is starting to understand the value in admitting mistakes and admitting failure. These are small steps, but this is progress.”
After being unable to access the drug-and-conflict zone for decades, the UN agency was allowed to enter southern Shan State for the first time in January last year. The breakthrough came a month after the government signed ceasefire agreements with different factions of the Shan State Army.
Convincing farmers to try planting new crops is one of many challenges ahead, Eligh says.
“The farmers don’t just want to eat. They need to make money,” he said, adding that the government needs to offer farmers a path to a better life, with better roads, new schools and health centers and, most of all, peace and security.
“A process has begun. Will a process continue? I don’t know,” Eligh said. “These are groups that have been killing each other for decades. We’ve only been talking a few months. I would say this is a fragile relationship.”