Children walking through an opium plantation in Shan State, Myanmar. The country has struggled to stem the tide of narcotics from its remote and violence-scarred border regions. Photo: AFP/Phyo Hein Kyaw
Children walking through an opium plantation in Shan state, Myanmar. Photo: AFP/Phyo Hein Kyaw

As long as the Myanmar army relies on militias to control ethnic areas in the north of the country, the opium trade will continue to flourish.

The red and white flowers covering the hills of Shan State have mostly faded for now. In Sa Lone Tone village, the poppies have been harvested. The dried paste has been extracted, bought by traders and is already on its way to fuel the heroin trade through Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yahu is a 22-year-old Kayan ethnic. Like most of the people in his village in the remote hills of Pinlaung township, he owns a small field where he grows poppies, the only cash crop available.

He has been working the fields, cutting the poppy capsules to collect the opium paste, since he was a kid. “We know it is bad but we do it because we need the money. There is no way we could make a living with other crops. Prices are too low and transportation is too difficult,” he says.

It is a risky business though. Recently, Yahu’s field was burned by the Myanmar army. The government’s sole response to the drug issue is eradication, impoverishing local farmers and shifting the problem somewhere else without solving it.

A Taang National Liberation Army (TNLA) soldier sets fire to poppy plants during the destruction of an opium field, near Loimgmain village, Mantong township, in the northern Shan state, January 16, 2014. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said opium production in Myanmar increased 26 percent in 2013 to an estimated 870 tonnes, the highest since joint-assessments with Myanmar's government began in 2002. The report said the increase is due to an expansion in the cultivation of areas in northern Myanmar from an estimated 51,000 hectares (510 sq km) in 2012 to 57,800 hectares (578 sq km) in 2014. It said 92 percent of opium poppy cultivation in the country is in Shan state, home to several armed groups that have been linked to the drugs trade for many years. Picture taken January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: CIVIL UNREST DRUGS SOCIETY) - RTX17KST
A militia soldier sets fire to poppy plants during the destruction of an opium field in the northern Shan State. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Second biggest producer

Most of the poppy growing villages of Myanmar are located where the eye cannot see, away from the main roads. Myanmar is the second biggest producer, after Afghanistan, with 90% of the country’s poppy crop being grown in the shadowy mountains of Shan State, which has been embroiled in a decades-long civil war as a result of the trade.

“Food insecurity and poverty in the rural areas fuel illicit opium poppy cultivation, which is reinforced by the armed conflicts and ethnic tensions in Shan and Kachin States,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Despite claims that Asia’s notorious opium producing “golden triangle” of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos had died due to a drastic reduction in poppy growing between 2000 and 2006, cultivation continued under the radar and has reached new heights in recent years with 55000 hectares under cultivation in the region in 2015 compared to 20,000 in 2006.

Increased heroin demand in neighboring China is one of the main reasons for increased cultivation, creating fertile conditions for the continuation of the decades of ethnic insurgencies.

Farmers like Yahu experience militias collecting taxes every now and then, supposedly to protect them from the destruction of their poppy fields.

While politically-motivated insurgents tax poppy farmers, a long tradition of military-backed militias known as “pyithu sit” in Burmese are also said to be heavily involve in the trade.

“The Myanmar Armed Forces have long had a policy of recruiting paramilitary forces to assist against ethnic armed groups. In exchange, they are permitted to operate as local ‘warlords’ profiting from both legal and illegal businesses,” says May Phoe Ngeal, an activist from the Palaung Women’s Organization.

“We have another player now, the Southern Shan State Army [which became a militia in 2012 after signing a ceasefire with the government]. They offer protection against eradication and get taxes in exchange,” said Jochen Wiese of the UNODC.

The militias seem to operate freely throughout Shan State. Another worth mentioning is the Kaung Khar militia, a 200-strong unit whose alleged leader U T Khun Myat has been elected twice as a Member of Parliament for Kutkai township representing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), formed by the country’s former ruling junta. He is currently Deputy Speaker of the Lower House.

Border Guard Forces

“The pyithu sit are everywhere in our government-controlled areas. They deal drugs, force villagers to work for them and tax the poppy growers. This is not rule of law,” says Shan Nationalities League for Democracy MP Sai Wan Hleng Kham who represents Lashio in Shan State.

In 2009, the Junta set up the Border Guard Forces (BGF) policy which was meant to turn ceasefire groups into politically neutral and business oriented militias under the command of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

While such groups now flourish in ethnic areas where most of the poppies are grown, the policy has been blamed for conflict breaking out between the army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which refused to be turned into a BGF.

The conflict has seen renewed intensity since late November after the KIA formed an alliance with other armed militias in the Chinese border area around the town of Muse.

With no political solution to the conflict in sight, the militarized landscape of northeastern Myanmar is not going to change, putting paid to any development programs for the area. In the meantime, poppies will continue to bloom on the Shan State hills.

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