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Opium farming has flourished under Myanmar’s junta

The military and rebels are reaping rich dividends from the dirty money and may not prefer a legitimate government
This photo taken on Feb. 3, 2019, shows a farmer working in an illegal poppy field in Hopong, Myanmar Shan state. Myanmar is the second biggest source of opium in the world after Afghanistan, with Shan state as its main production hub

This photo taken on Feb. 3, 2019, shows a farmer working in an illegal poppy field in Hopong, Myanmar Shan state. Myanmar is the second biggest source of opium in the world after Afghanistan, with Shan state as its main production hub. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 21, 2023 03:32 AM GMT
Updated: February 21, 2023 03:59 AM GMT

Everything in Myanmar is in the worst-ever state. The Southeast Asian nation has a broken economy and a broken society. To add salt to the wound, it is home to more than 1.3 million displaced people.

But when it comes to narcotics, Myanmar still holds the dubious distinction of being the world's second-largest producer of opium, a key source of many psycho-tropical substances such as heroin, morphine and codeine.

Despite the chaos, social unrest, and civil war, the army-ruled nation managed to increase opium cultivation last year.

The annual opium survey conducted by the UN stated that production in Myanmar increased last year, which was the highest since 2013 when the figure stood at 870 metric tons.

"Economic, security and governance disruptions that followed the military takeover of February 2021 have converged, and farmers in remote, often conflict-prone areas in northern Shan and border states, have had little option but to move back to opium," said Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which released the report on Jan. 26.

Myanmar’s economy has been hit hard by the coup and subsequent protracted fighting between the junta and anti-coup rebels, which also include armed Christian outfits, on multiple fronts.

"Myanmar's opium economy is pegged at $2 billion by the UN, while the regional heroin trade is valued at approximately $10 billion"

Most of the opium exported by Myanmar goes to China and Vietnam, while heroin processed in plants on the borders goes to many countries across the region and the world at large, Douglas said.

Opium churned out in northeastern Myanmar is shipped on horse and donkey caravans to refineries along the Thailand-Myanmar border for conversion to heroin to distribute in international markets.

The region, covering the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos — the so-called Golden Triangle — is historically a major source of opium and the production of heroin.

In May 2020, Myanmar witnessed Asia's largest ever drug haul in Shan state, totaling 193 million methamphetamine tablets, hundreds of kilograms of crystal methamphetamine as well as heroin and state-of-the-art production equipment and storage facilities.

Myanmar's opium economy is pegged at $2 billion by the UN, while the regional heroin trade is valued at approximately $10 billion. Together with Afghanistan, Myanmar is the source of most heroin sold around the world. 

Many Western nations, including the US, are trying to cope with drug overdoses. Provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics in the US stated there were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2021, an increase of 15 percent from 93,655 deaths in 2020.

Economic hardship and insecurity, along with higher global prices for the opium resin that is used to make heroin are pushing more farmers to switch over to opium cultivation in Myanmar.

Though technically illegal, opium cultivation to produce heroin has been tolerated as it benefits all stakeholders, mainly the Myanmar military and armed rebel ethnic groups, active in Christian-majority Kayah, Chin, Karen, and Kachin states.

The UN report — “Myanmar Opium Survey 2022: Cultivation, Production and Implications” —  has analyzed data since the military coup, showing a rise of 33 percent in cultivation area to 40,100 hectares, and an 88 percent hike in yield to 790 metric tonnes.

"The vast trove of money from the narcotics trade is active in Myanmar, benefiting both the army and rebel groups alike"

The most significant increases were registered in Shan state, where cultivation went up 39 percent, followed by Christian majority Chin and Kayah states, which rose by 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

Opium farmers' earnings grew last year to $280/kg, over strong demand, according to the report.

The report noted that farmers have sophisticated farming practices and high-yielding fertilizers at their disposal to increase the harvest now.

The ethnic conflict, triggered by the ousting of the democratically elected government of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has seen churches, convents and residences attacked in Christian-majority Kayah, Chin, Karen and Kachin states, claiming many lives, including pastors.

Christians form nearly 6 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million, while Buddhism is the official state religion.

The vast trove of money from the narcotics trade is active in Myanmar, benefiting both the army and rebel groups alike. The army is all set to hold a poll in August to hand over power to a civil government while the armed rebel groups are countering the moves by the army through a shadow national unity government.

Those players in Myanmar who are reaping rich dividends from the dirty money may not prefer a legitimate economy and a legitimate government as they do not auger well for them in the long term.

It is often said that dirty money from the narcotic trade is only attracted to short-term investment opportunities, especially when it plays a major role in economies under strain.

So, the civil war undertaken by the toil of Myanmar’s opium farmers, and with the hard-earned money of the world’s heroin addicts, is not going to do any good to the country or the world.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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