NEW DELHI: Myanmar, which is associated with years of military rule and has recently been in the headlines for a historic election where the pro-democracy opposition party National League for Democracy won a majority, is famous for something else (non political) as well. The small country is the region’s top producer of illegal narcotics.

According to the UNODC 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.

As the country moves to a democratic framework, a new drug is fitting itself into the political narrative in Myanmar. Candy pink tablets stamped with the number 88 may look harmless at first glance, but are actually Asia’s newest brand of methamphetamine. The number 88 refers to the year 1988 in Myanmar’s history -- when a bloody uprising, led by the NLD’s Aung Saan Suu Kyi who is poised to take the political reins in the country, paved the way for democracy in the country and the end of military rule.

“Right now, the 88 pills are the best stuff on the streets,” Zau Ring, a 35-year-old repairman and daily meth smoker living in the northern borderlands of Myanmar, told the Global Post.

According to the UN, Myanmar’s hidden jungle labs produce an astonishing amount of methamphetamine: possibly 1 to 2 billion pills per year. These jungles are hard to monitor as rebels that are opposed to the government hold sway, and drug trafficking remains a major source of revenue for these militias.

The 88 pills, Zau Ring says, are a welcome addition to the menu of narcotics sold freely in Myanmar’s north. “They’re much more potent than the typical pills, which quickly go up in flames,” he tells the Global Post, crouching on the floor of a flophouse in his hometown of Myitkyina. (His name has been altered to prevent his arrest). “It’s cool,” Zau Ring says. “Everyone in Myanmar knows ’88 is all about fighting for democracy.”

Being cool, however, is not a valid explanation for Myanmar’s long standing drug problem, with methamphetamine and most significantly, opium. 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:

The Global Post: