The Opium Farmers of Myanmar

By Nathan A Thompson 12/16/15

I could say, “despite the best efforts of drug enforcement, opium cultivation continues.” But that would be a lie. There are no “best efforts” here.

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Myanmar’s Opium Farmers About the Impossibility of Drug Control
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In a beautiful mountain valley in Shan State in Myanmar (formally known as Burma), a ray of sunlight cuts through the clouds and picks out a white wooden church on a hill. Beneath the hill is a large field of opium poppies; their bald heads bear the black scars of a recent harvest. Jay U Aung*, the village chief, surveys his crop. “There are very few police,” he says. “Even if they work every day they can’t destroy all the poppy fields.”

I would begin this paragraph, “despite the best efforts of drug enforcement, opium cultivation continues…” but that would be a lie. There are no “best efforts” here. In these angry mountains only greed, ignorance and idealism entangle in a murky game of politics. And all the while opium sap pours downhill like black blood.

 

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Hopes were high in 2006 when opium production hit record lows. The partnership between the Myanmar government and local ethnic armed groups (EAGs), who had previously used the opium trade to fund their campaigns for autonomy, was working. As part of ongoing ceasefire negotiations, the EAGs used their influence to enforce a ban on poppy cultivation. 

But the seeds of relapse were already sown. The underlying causes of poverty were not addressed. Farmers were not given viable alternative crops to grow and, because of the resulting scarcity of opium, prices soared. The most recent figures, released in 2014 by UNODC, show that poppy cultivation has more than doubled since then. 

Martino, another farmer from Shan State, lives near the church on the hill. He has a Christian name because he is Karen, an ethnic group who make up the majority of the country’s 5% Christian population. He sells his opium for $385-$616 per Viss – a traditional Burmese measurement equivalent to 3.6 lbs. He also grows maize as a staple to feed his family and their few livestock. He’d sell maize but, at $0.23 per Viss, what’s the point? “[We’d] like to change to selling maize [instead of opium] if there was a good price,” he says. 

 

Martino, via author

For Martino, Aung and other opium farmers, life at the hard edge of economics leaves them little choice. “The first reason we grow poppy is to build community infrastructure,” Aung says, counting the first of three reasons on stubby, farmer’s fingertips. Indeed, it was only last year that the village road was made passable. Before that, during the long rainy season, it became a red slop that took all day to squelch through on foot. “Second, there are no job opportunities here,” he continues. “And third, we struggle for our daily food so we need the money.” 

The opium grown by Martino and Aung is destined for local and international markets. At least, according to the UNODC who are, somewhat problematically, almost exclusively relied upon for statistics on the Myanmar drug trade. “[UNODC] figures are, at best, guesstimates, and are not scientific data,” advises a report by the Transnational Institute (TNI), an international research and advocacy organization.

“Drug use was far more common in poppy-growing villages than non-poppy-growing villages in 2014,” says UNODC. Reuben, my fixer, tells me that it is worst among students. As I spend time in the opium areas of Shan State, it seems like the wayward youth prefer drinking and tearing around town helmetless on cheap motorbikes to staring at a wall in opiate bliss. But I’m wrong. “It is very common,” confirms Oo Khin, a local student. “Some of my friends use opium.” 

 

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In order to stop addiction consuming their communities, Aung and Martino are under strict instructions not to get high on their own supply. “There is no opium addiction [in my village],” says Aung. “It destroys generations and neighboring villages will look down on us so the village law bans opium use.” If a community member is caught taking opium they are let off with a warning. The second time the warning might include a beating by family members. Eventually, if a person persists with their habit, they will be exiled.

If the exile drives away from their village through the mountains to other remote opium-farming communities they might find a warmer reception. After all, the drug has a long history of recreational and medicinal use. “Before 1970 most men used opium recreationally,” says an elderly man from neighboring Kachin State interviewed in the TNI report. “Women and children did not use opium recreationally but 90% of the households did use opium as a medicine against diarrhea, fever or to treat gunshot wounds… It was a healthy drug.”

While tolerance to opium varies, everyone hates heroin. Opium has long been a part of people’s lives and traditions have grown around its use, fables and old wives’ tales that educate and protect. In some communities there is an outright ban, others allow medicinal use and some even allow old men to use it as an escape from the drudgery of subsistence farming. 

Heroin came like a shark in a swimming pool. “Kachin State and northern Shan State in [Myanmar] are facing a heroin epidemic,” reads the TNI report. “With problematic injecting heroin use being widespread among young people.” They estimate there are currently 300,000 addicts in Myanmar. 

Hardly any drug treatment is available. Apart from religious maniacs who, according to an investigation by the Global Post, capture addicts and use a combination of prayer and beatings to reform them. A forum of opium farmers released a statement this past September acknowledging that opium has “positive values,” but also called for improvements in services available to treat those who get addicted to heroin and methamphetamine—the region’s other major export. 

Aung and Martino don’t know who buys their opium. A different broker comes each time and they don’t ask questions. But according to the UNODC and TNI it’s ethnic Chinese gangs from the border with China who control the industry. The border region has long been a shitstorm of war, drugs and nefarious activities. It’s likely the opium is processed into heroin there, in secret labs, and then smuggled into China for distribution.  

 

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Some heroin will return to Myanmar to feed the habits of local addicts. But most will continue north into China. “China accounts for approximately 70% of heroin users in Asia,” says the UNODC. “And is the largest single heroin market in the world.” A smaller percentage will flow down through Thailand and Cambodia. It will run there, in the veins of local users, or find its way into international markets. 

The Chinese gangs are enmeshed with local EAGs and government officials and untangling the web of corruption is difficult. The Myanmar government has long fought to bring these wild regions under control and have a history of pacifying local militias by turning a blind eye to their drug activities. These government-backed militias are created as a tactic to splinter opposition groups. The Myanmar army breaks off disaffected armed groups, assimilates them and, as a reward, lets them carry on illicit activities. Militias trade in opium directly or tax farmers and brokers who operate in their territory. “I have to pay the army people 10,000 Kyat (nearly $8) each time they come,” says Martino. “They usually come once or twice a month.” 

Martino didn’t want to say which armed group he paid. But, according to Tom Kramer from TNI, it could have been a number of different bullies with guns. “Most farmers in conflict-affected areas say they have to pay informal tax to any armed group in their areas,” he says. “Including the [Myanmar army], militias and other armed groups.” Ashley South, another Myanmar expert, based in Chiang Mai University, says he wouldn’t be surprised if the farmers paid tax to “all of the above.”

There are a handful of blue-shirted policemen and morose-looking soldiers hanging around Aung’s village. I asked for a photo. They looked pityingly at me before my fixer ushers me away. I still snap a cheap shot when they’re not looking. They say they are government officials on a mission to decapitate a shitload of poppies with sticks.  

 

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“Government officials come at least once a year to destroy the fields,” says Aung. “Sometimes two or three times a year.” He doesn’t seem worried. I rattle off my name and passport number to a local cop, lying that I’m a teacher. “We still grow opium in areas the police can’t get to,” says Aung more quietly. “They’re only accessible on foot.” He watches as the soldiers march off into the mountain mist. 

“Farmers pay tax to [the Myanmar army] and local armed groups,” says a source in the Kantarawaddy Times, a local media group. “Obviously, the government are also involved in [opium] production; they only destroy a few [fields] to show the media but larger fields will be hidden.”  

Martino’s fields are certainly in good shape despite heavy rains that decreased this year’s yield. In his rough wooden house he hands me a gummy ball of opium. It’s wrapped in a black plastic bag that flares open like a cabbage. I have an urge to break off a bit and try it. Martino wouldn’t refuse. Better not. Instead I hold it under my nose. It smells of wild plants and wet earth. Outside, a heavy rain begins. The rainy season should be over by now. But the downpour sounds like a machine gun on his tin roof. 

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect sources from reprisals. 

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at ucanews.com. He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

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