by Larry Jagan
Opium poppy cultivation in Burma has increased alarmingly in the past two years amid fears that region's worsening economic crisis will encourage an even greater spurt in growth, warns the United Nations.
Falling international commodity prices and increase political instability in Burma's border area has fuelled fears that many of Burma's poppy farmers will find it impossible to resist the temptation to return to their old ways. In the past few years there has been a dramatic fall in the area under poppy cultivation and opium production, but these gains have been reversed in the past two years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) annual survey just released.
"The problem of poppy production in the region has been contained but not solved," the UNODC chief in Bangkok, Gary Lewis told Mizzima. "There have been significant increases, especially in Myanmar, which are threatening to rise further because of the worsening economic conditions faced by former poppy farmers."
More than ninety percent of the poppy grown in south-east Asia – Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – is grown in Burma's north-eastern Shan State, though significant strides have been made in Burma over the past decade to dramatically reduce the cultivation of poppy and the production of opium.
Poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares under poppy cultivation to around 30,000 in 2008 in Burma. Opium production has fallen from more than 1300 metric tonnes to 410 during this period. This is the equivalent of producing 40 tonnes of heroin. This reduction has been largely the result of international pressure on two of the largest opium producers in Burma's Golden Triangle – which borders China, Laos and Thailand -- the Kokang and the Wa. Both are rebel ethnic groups, with large guerrilla forces, but have ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.
The Kokang virtually ceased opium production in 2003 and the Wa in 2006. But in the past two years both poppy cultivation and opium production have begun to grow again. "The trend is certainly upwards with a significant increase in the land under cultivation in Myanmar," said Leik Boonwaat, UNODC chief in Laos, who has also been stationed in Myanmar. "For former opium farmers who already live in dire poverty are facing twin levers of increasing opium prices and falling commodity prices that may encourage them to reduce poppy growing."
The prices of most commodities grown or produced in Burma as alternatives to poppy, particularly maize and rubber, have fallen by more than fifty percent, according to the UN's annual drug report. Tens of thousands of former poppy farmers are facing a bleak future, according to an ethnic leader in northern Burma, who declined to be identified. They are almost certain to resume growing poppy, simply to survive, he said.
Most of the Wa and Kokang's alternative crops -- tea, rubber and fruit – are sold to traders across the border in China. But these merchants are no longer interested in buying these products from Burmese producers as demand in China has all but dried up.
Chinese traders are not even buying jade from the Pangsan market. There are even tougher times ahead for the Wa in particular, a source in their capital told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. The leaders are really worried about the future, he added.
"The price of opium has more than doubled in the past few years – from $153 a kilogramme in 2004 to $ 301 currently on the Myanmar market – making it hard for former opium growers to ignore this incentive to return to poppy cultivation," Leik Boonwaat told Mizzima.
With declining prices for their substitute crops and soaring market prices for opium, thousands of former poppy growers are at risk of returning to their traditional crop to produce the extra cash income they need.
Already there are significant signs that Burma's poppy growers are returning to their old trade. In the past two years there has been a distinct upward trend, according to the UN's latest annual report. Although opium production fell a little last year compared to the year before, this is because the yield was worse.
The greatest increase has been in Southern Shan state, where the Wa leadership is in the hands of the Chinese gangster Wei Xiao Gang – who is wanted on trafficking charges in the United States.
While the UN survey suggests that in the main Wa area – Wa Special Region 2 – there has been no resumption yet of poppy cultivation, there has been a steady increase in both eastern and northern Shan state. More worrying is the steady increase in poppy cultivation in both Kachin and Kayah states.
The fragile situation in the northern Wa areas is also of great concern to international anti-drug agencies, according to senior Thai intelligence officers. So far the Wa ban on poppy production, punishable by death, is holding but this may not be the case in the year.
Wa leaders have always know that the situation remained precarious – the ban was never a popular move – and depended on the poor Wa farmers having greater food security and an alternative source of a cash income.
"The Wa leaders may even be forced to renege on their promises to the UN and international community if the economic and security situation deteriorates further," a UN drugs official familiar with the problems in Shan state told Mizzima, but declined to be identified.
The current political problems in Burma – the planned elections in 2010 and the junta's efforts to disarm the ceasefire groups, especially the Wa -- is dramatically increasing instability in the border regions, which have been traditional opium producing areas and this mounting uncertainty is also going to increase the pressure on former opium growers to return to their poppy fields.
Aware of these problems – and the danger of more former growers resuming poppy cultivation, the UN believes there is an even greater need now to step up action against the drug smugglers.
"Already there are important measures in place for the cooperation and exchange of intelligence between drug enforcement agencies in the region – through the border liaison offices that were established several years ago," said Mr. Lewis.
Smuggling routes have changed in the past few years, with tighter border controls especially along the Myanmar border with China. "Certainly traffickers have had to change their transport methods and routes – much is now being moved through Laos from Myanmar, to meet the demand of the drug addicts in southern China, Thailand and Vietnam," said Mr. Boonwaat.
But some of the Golden Triangle opium production is heading out to India, Europe and the United States through the Rangoon port, according to Burmese government officials.
Last week the authorities seized some 118 kilogrammes of heroin stowed away on a ship, the Kota Tegap, headed for Italy via Singapore. It was hidden between planks of timber that was part of an export consignment.
The ship is owned by the ethnic Chinese Burmese businessman, Kyaw Sein and left the Asia World terminal, owned by the son of the notorious former drug baron Lo Hsing Han. Tun Myint Naing is also targetted by US sanctions. So far no arrests have been made, but investigations are continuing, according Burmese officials.
The ship had actually sailed, before it was ordered to return to port. It was Chinese intelligence who alerted their Burmese counterparts.
"This type of intelligence sharing is happening on a regular basis," Pithaya Jinawat, the deputy Secretary general of Thailand's Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) told Mizzima.
"The Chinese have tipped off the Thai authorities and Lao officials on several occasions in the past couple of years that have resulted in seizures of illicit drugs and the arrest of many traffickers," he said.
"There is no room for complacency," said Mr. Lewis "There is much more that needs to be done." In particular, to combat the money laundering of the proceeds of illegal activities and the illicit drugs trade.
Not all countries in the region have put anti-money laundering legislation in place. But then law enforcement agencies, judges and advocates all need to be trained. In this regard Asia has a long way to go.
But perhaps UNODC's biggest problem in trying to stamp out drug production and trafficking in the region is the lack of funds. The agency needs more financial support from donors to be able to effectively carry out all its work – especially in Myanmar," Mr. Boonwaat confided.
For the donors who provide these funds, there is a much greater concern: the spiralling growth in meta-amphetamines (ATS). As the UN tireless tackles the problem of opium production – the Chinese gangsters in the Golden Triangle have turned increasingly to yaa baa (as ATS is commonly known in this region).
Our fear is the production of yaa ba has become the most effective crop substitution for the Red Wa and the Chinese gangsters who back them," said a Thai military intelligence officer on condition of anonymity.