Myanmar war on drugs far from over

Despite government’s attempts to convince world it is winning its war on drugs, opium production has skyrocketed in the country since 2006

Despite government’s attempts to convince world it is winning its war on drugs, opium production has skyrocketed in the country since 2006

YANGON - Myanmar’s drug elimination museum is crammed with lavish propaganda portraying the evils of addiction. It lauds the efforts of the country’s generals to stamp out opium production in its far-flung regions.

One exhibit in the palatial, four-story building invites visitors to take part in a mock drug burning ceremony that uses orange lights to mimic flames.

"You can destroy and set fire to narcotic drugs that endanger the lives of human beings by pressing this button," reads a plaque in English above the light switch.

But despite the government’s attempts to convince the world it is winning its war on drugs, opium production in Myanmar has skyrocketed since 2006, wreaking havoc on ethnic communities.

Myanmar produces more of the drug than any country in the world bar Afghanistan, and a recently published in-depth report says that a program by Southeast Asian governments aimed at making the region "drug free" by 2015 has already failed miserably.

The report, released by an Amsterdam-based global network of scholars and activists called the Transnational Institute (TNI), says poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle -- a region straddling the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos -- has expanded rapidly in recent years after a decade of decline.

Vast swathes of land in conflict-torn areas of Myanmar are dedicated to poppy cultivation. And deep in the country’s wild jungles, mobile factories churn out millions of high strength methamphetamine pills destined for raucous tourist resorts in Thailand and elsewhere.

In 2006, poppy fields in Myanmar covered 24,000 hectares, according to figures from the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime. By last year they had more than doubled to 58,000.

Production in Myanmar declined sharply between 1998 and 2006 as rebel warlords agreed to enforce bans under pressure from the U.S. and other countries.

Mong La, an autonomous strip of land on the border with China, was declared "drug-free" in 1997 by the rebel National Democratic Alliance Army. The declaration was partly an attempt to appease China, which was angered by the large amount of opiates being trafficked to its southwestern Yunnan province.  

But many believe the gun-toting rebels who control Mong La are still using drugs as a cash cow, and have shifted from opium production to methamphetamines, which can be produced in small factories hidden from satellites by the jungle canopy.

The Amsterdam-based network said that all the main groups in Myanmar’s various ethnic insurgencies -- including pro-government militias -- are taxing the drug trade to fund themselves, and some are directly involved in production and trafficking.

The latter group includes the United Wa State Army, a heavily armed militia that controls land in the north of Shan state. The militia group has been described by the U.S. government as a "narco-trafficking army" and is believed to be the largest drug trafficking group in Southeast Asia. 

Myanmar’s reformist government is seeking to sign a nationwide ceasefire with various armed groups as the country emerges from decades of military dictatorship. But peace remains elusive as sporadic conflicts continue to erupt in parts of Kachin and Shan states, raising doubts about whether the new Myanmar can bring peace and order to its ethnic regions.

The Transnational Institute, which says peace-building efforts should be a key pillar of drug policy, has long campaigned for an end to "repressive" drug laws. They argue that criminalizing drug users and small-scale dealers disproportionately targets poorer communities.

"Repressive drug policies have led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of users in the region, overcrowded prisons and hampered access to health care and treatment," said the authors of the institute's report in a statement.

They added: "In turn the limited access to life-saving harm reduction services has led to the high incidence of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users."

Rising demand for heroin in China has also fuelled the recent explosion in opium production in the region, said Tom Kramer, the report’s lead author.

He stressed that the international community should focus on tackling poverty among farmers, and ending long-running conflicts.

"Alternative livelihood options need to be firmly in place before communities can be expected to abandon illicit cultivation," he said.

Opium bans have had "little permanent effect" and have seen production shift into different regions, including northeastern India and the south of Shan state, according to the institute's report.

The rise in drug cultivation has been matched by a surge in heroin addiction in certain regions. In northern Kachin state, some civil society groups estimate that up to 90 percent of the male population is addicted to heroin or other drugs.

At the same time, a chronically under-funded healthcare system has left addicts with few options. In Kachin’s capital Myitkyina, the majority of those trying to treat their addictions depend on alternative Christian rehab centers where staff have little or no medical training. 

The Transnational Institute’s report is based on hundreds of interviews with farmers, drug users, and small-scale dealers carried out between 2009 and 2013. A key conclusion is that the drug eradication policy adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- which Myanmar is chair of this year -- is flawed.

Co-author Martin Jelsma said, "Instead of holding on to the illusion of a drug free ASEAN, policies and resources should be redirected towards managing the drugs market in the least harmful way, because whether we like it or not, that market is here to stay."

He added: "Continuing on the same path is not only destined to failure but is also causing untold devastation to human lives across Southeast Asia.

"At a time the Americas are turning their back to the war on drugs, Asia should also start to rethink its drug policy."

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