Almost one year after Burma’s long-awaited elections were held in November 2010, Palaung communities in northern Shan State are suffering from the effects of an even greater upsurge in opium cultivation than in previous years. Local paramilitary leaders, some now elected into Burma’s new parliament, are being allowed to cultivate and proﬁt from drugs in return for helping the regime suppress ethnic resistance forces in Burma’s escalating civil war. As a result, drug addiction has escalated in the Palaung area, tearing apart families and communities. Burma’s drug problems are set to worsen unless there is genuine political reform that addresses the political aspirations of Burma’s ethnic minority groups.
Research carried out by Palaung Women’s Organisation in Namkham Township shows that:
Opium cultivation across 15 villages in Namkham Township has increased by a staggering 78.58% within two years. 12 villages in the same area, which had not previously grown opium, have started to grow opium since 2009.
A signiﬁcant number of these villages are under the control of government paramilitary “anti-insurgency” forces, which are directly proﬁting from the opium trade.
The most prominent militia leader and drug lord in the area, “Pansay” Kyaw Myint, from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, was elected as an MP for Namkham in November 2010; he promised voters that they could grow opium freely for 5 years if they voted for him.
Drug addiction in Palaung communities has spiralled out of control. In one Palaung village, PWO found that 91% of males aged 15 and over were addicted to drugs. Drug addiction is causing huge problems for families, with women and children bearing the burden of increased poverty, crime and violence.
This case study therefore highlights the nexus between drug production and power relations in Burma’s conﬂict-ridden Shan State. While Burma’s military-controlled government continues to use military means to suppress the demands of the ethnic peoples for justice and equal rights, it needs to rely on its army infrastructure, including local paramilitary forces, to suppress the ethnic resistance movements. These forces in turn are sustained by the opium trade.