The Drug Problem in Burma

A new report by the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO), called “Poisoned Hills,” reveals that the war against drugs in Burma is not going nearly as well as previously thought.  Statistics used by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) say that the Burmese government has made great strides over the past decade in reducing opium cultivation.  However, the PWO claims the UNODC’s statistics are faulty, and supplied by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, which tailors numbers to gain increased international aid to help “fight” the war on drugs.  The “Golden Triangle” area, where Burma meets Laos and Thailand, has become notorious for being one of the worlds leading producer of drugs.

Image Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin

Shockingly, the PWO states that land used to cultivate opium increased fivefold in three surveyed townships from 2007 to 2009.  This data was compiled from three townships in Shan State in Northern Burma, where an estimated 90% of all Burmese opium is produced.

This has had an enormously detrimental effect on rural villages.  In one village in Mantong townships, 85% of men 15 and over are addicted to opium.  The report shows that opium-addicted fathers often resort to selling off their properties, sometimes including their own children.

Many farmers feel they have to grow opium to make a living. Decades of economic mismanagement under the current military regime has made opium the only lucrative crop. Many had previously grown tea, but as the government underpaid farmers for their crops, there was no longer any economic incentive to grow it.

To make matters worse, PWO’s findings show that the Burmese military regime is implicated in the drug trade. It may occasionally stage a show by burning a few bags of opium here and there, but in reality, it relies on the drug trade to finance its military operations.

Image Source: Irrawaddy

Just because the military junta backs the drug trade does not suggest the villagers enjoy peace and security in their farmlands. The big pool of money from the drug trade goes into the pockets of senior officials. Only a tiny trickle of it seeps into the pockets of soldiers on the ground. Unable to make a living with their meager salary, foot soldiers often extort money and food from the farmers in exchange for not burning their opium fields.

Furthermore, the drug menace in Burma is no longer limited to its national boundaries but poses immediate threats to the neighboring countries. Thailand reported the amount of opium it seized increased eightfold from 2008 to 2009.  The PWO points out that the main reason behind high drug production is the on-going civil war. All armed groups inside the country, including the SPDC and the ethnic militias use the drug trade to finance their operations.

The international community needs to address the burgeoning drug menace by pressuring the Burmese military regime to “implement a nationwide ceasefire and begin a tripartite dialogue as a first step toward establishing genuine peace and democracy.” The transnational nature of the drug problem in Burma warrants this concerted international action.

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