NEW DELHI: A new report titled “Silent Offensive,” by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, which monitors abuses in Myanmar’s remote borderland states of Shan and Kachin, has provided a valuable insight into the country’s underreported heroin crisis.

The report, based on in depth interviews in eight towns in northern Burma, concludes that “the renewed conflict against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since June 2011 is fuelling drug production and worsening existing drug abuse among Kachin communities.” The report elaborates on a government-militia nexus that is fuelling opium production in the region, saying “thousands of acres of poppy fields are being cultivated in these government militia areas, and are being taxed not only by the militia but by other government officials. Despite the taxes, increased numbers of villagers are turning to opium cultivation, as the conflict has prevented them growing other crops, and has blocked transport and markets.”

The situation is so grim that in parts of Myanmar, syringes used to inject heroin are traded as currency. “Drivers on the Muse-Mandalay road, the main trading route to China, commonly use both heroin and “yama”. At some petrol stations in Muse, syringes and distilled water are given instead of small change,” the report says.

The insights offered by the report paint a contrasting picture to the White House backed portrayal of Myanmar, as a country that is becoming a freer society as it moves away from a totalitarian regime. In the borderlands, however, insurgency continues to wreak havoc on the lives of the people, with estimates indicating that a shocking 80 percent of Kanchin youth as addicted to drugs.

The report follows a landmark deal between the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the government of Myanmar that aims to counter crime and drug threats. However, as the report finds out, there are flaws in UNODC’s engagement with the region, ranging from the methodology of annual opium surveys to the failure of taking into account the political influencing drug production and the need to bring in local community based organisations as key actors.

Nevertheless, the UNODC data paints a grim enough scenario. Myanmar is the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan and the largest producer of synthetic drugs in Southeast Asia. Opium production soared to an all time high in Myanmar of 870 tonnes in 2013 according to UNODC figures.

In recent history, Myanmar has been an opium producing country, being the world’s largest poppy producer in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1987 it had an average annual opium production of about 700 tons, which continued to increase until 1996 when it reached annual production levels of some 1,600 tons. In 1991, Afghanistan replaced Myanmar as the world’s largest producer of opium, primarily due to its higher opium yield per hectare. However, the area under cultivation remained larger in Myanmar than in Afghanistan until 2002.

In 1999, the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (GOUM) and local authorities in areas affected by opium poppy cultivation developed a 15-year plan to eliminate illicit crop production by the year 2014. Until 2006 there was a considerable decrease in the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar but illicit opium poppy cultivation has since increased, although it is still well below the levels reached in the 1990s.

In 2013, opium cultivation in Myanmar rose 13 percent from 2012 levels, to 57,800 hectares, more than doubling since 2006, when it was 21,600 hectares. This increase led to a rise in opium production of some 26% in comparison to 2012.

“Criminal activity in Myanmar is undermining development efforts, increasing human insecurity and threatening the peace process,” the UNODC’s regional representative Jeremy Douglas said in a statement.

The agreement pertains to the period between 2014-17, and involves the setting up of a joint programme governance committee. It covers transnational organized crime, anti-corruption, criminal justice, and provides an alternative development for opium poppy farmers.

"We believe that the new relationship we have set in motion will contribute towards a safer and more stable community, and increase the confidence of the citizens of Myanmar to look to the criminal justice system to provide stability and access to justice,” Douglas said.

The 2013 Opium Survey also noted that in Myanmar, drug use was higher in 2013 than in 2012 for all three types of drugs investigated, opium, heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS, locally called yaba). Drug use was much higher in poppy-growing villages than in non-growing villages for all three drugs.

Myanmar’s economic scenario is a major factor for the continuing rise in poppy production, as evinced by the fact that while the area under poppy cultivation in Myanmar increased by 13% in 2013, the number of households growing poppy remained roughly the same, as farmers on average dedicated a larger portion of their land to poppy cultivation than in 2012. The average area of poppy per opium growing household more than doubled from 0.17 hectares in 2002/2003 to 0.43 hectares in 2013. This implies a larger dependency of those households on opium.

Furthermore, the Myanmar survey found that many households not only earn income from the cultivation of opium poppy on their own land, but also by labouring in the poppy fields of other farmers. Alternative development projects thus need to address both of these groups, as a reduction in poppy cultivation for many households means the loss of an opportunity to generate income from poppy-related wage labour.

As the UNODC’s 2013 Opium Survey noted, “there is a strong link between poverty and poppy cultivation.” In poppy growing villages in Myanmar, significantly higher proportions of households are in debt and are exposed to food insecurity than in non-poppy growing villages. Furthermore, households in poppy-growing villages on average suffer longer from food insecurity than households in non-growing villages. Thus, in poppy-growing villages, opium cultivation seems to be a means to earn cash income in order to purchase food in months when households’ food resources have been depleted. In other words, poppy farmers try to compensate for a lack of alternatives in their opportunities for earning income in order to subsist.

Incomes patterns in poppy-growing and non poppy-growing villages in Myanmar are complex and differ in much more than just poppy cultivation. Despite indicators of great vulnerability (as seen in higher levels of debt, food security, and drug use), households in poppy growing villages in all regions, with the exception of East Shan, had a higher average income than those in non-poppy growing villages. On the other hand, households in non-poppy growing villages had better access to salaried jobs and petty trade.


UNODC Opium Survey 2013:


Kanchin’s Women’s Association In Thailand, “Silent Offensive” Report: