BANGKOK // Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar has increased alarmingly in the past two years amid fears the region's worsening economic crisis will encourage an even greater spurt in growth, the UN warns. Falling international commodity prices and increasing political instability in Myanmar's border areas has fuelled fears that many of the country's poppy farmers will find it impossible to resist the temptation to return to their former ways. There is a real danger of an explosion of poppy growing and opium production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
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 UNODC's annual survey released recently. "The problem of poppy production in the region has been contained but not solved," said Gary Lewis, the UNODC regional head based in Bangkok. "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 90 per cent of the poppy grown in South East Asia - Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - is grown in Myanmar's north-eastern Shan State. Poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2000 to about 30,000 in 2008. Opium production has fallen from more than 1300 tonnes to 410 tonnes during this period. This is the equivalent of producing 40 tonnes of heroin. The reduction had been largely due to international pressure, particularly from Beijing, on two of the largest opium producers in Myanmar'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. Most poor farmers in the northern part of the country have grown poppy for several decades.
"The poor peasants in this region needed to have a cash crop to supplement their meagre income from farming," said Col Hkham Awang, Myanmar's anti-narcotics police chief. "They earned less than US$200 [Dh734] from each crop - and that all went on necessities, like clothes and shoes, and extra rice in the lean season." 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 restarted.
"The trend is certainly upwards with a significant increase in the land under cultivation in Myanmar," said Leik Boonwaat, the UNODC chief in Laos, who has also been stationed in Myanmar. "For former opium farmers who already live in dire poverty they are facing twin levers of increasing opium prices and falling commodity prices that may encourage them to increase poppy growing." The prices of most commodities grown or produced in Myanmar as alternative crops to poppy, particularly maize and rubber, have fallen by more than 50 per cent, according to the UN's annual drug report.
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. Chinese traders are not even buying jade from the Pangsan market, near the border with China. "The price of opium has doubled in the past few years - from $153 a kilogram 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," Mr Boonwaat said.
Already there are signs that Myanmar's poppy growers are returning to their old trade. The greatest increase has been in southern Shan state, where the Wa leadership is in the hands of Wei Xiao Gang - an alleged gangster who is wanted on drug trafficking charges in the United States. There has also been a steady increase in the north-east of Shan State. More worrying is the steady increase in cultivation in both Kachin and Kayah states over the past two years that had been nearly free of poppy fields for more than five years.
The Wa leaders admit there is pressure to reverse their poppy ban. "Everything is getting worse," said a 60-year-old former poppy farmer in the Wa area. "People are desperate for food and clothes. They want to know why there was an opium ban in the Wa area when there is no ban in other places." 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. Wa leaders have always known 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," said a UN drugs official familiar with the problems in Shan state.
The political problems in Myanmar - the planned elections in 2010 and the junta's efforts to disarm certain groups, including the Wa - is increasing instability in the border regions, which have been the traditional opium producing areas, putting further pressure on former opium growers to return to their poppy fields. "There is no room for complacency," Mr Lewis said. "There is much more that needs to be done."