Burma fuelling China’s heroin crisis

China has seen a rapid rise in drug addiction this year, particularly in its southern Yunnan province where opium from Burma’s volatile Shan state is pouring across the border.

More than 60,000 people registered as heroin addicts in Yunnan province last year, a leap from 50,000 the year before, according to an official at an organisation which provides treatment for drug users along the China-Burma border.

“[Heroin addiction] has been one of the big problems in Yunnan over the past 20 years, and the government is trying really hard to crack down on drug traffickers and drug users,” he said.

He added that most of the drug traffickers were being arrested as they transported drugs from Burma into China, while a recent Al Jazeera report found that around 80 percent of heroin addicts in the Chinese border town of Nabang were from Burma.

In Yunnan, the Chinese government has opened more than 50 methadone treatment clinics which are being accessed by “thousands of users”, the official said.

Burma is the world’s second largest source of opium, after Afghanistan, and the findings will do little to support the Burmese government’s repeated guarantees that it is stamping out the country’s drug trade.

The majority of its opium market is allegedly controlled by the United Wa State Army in Shan state, which is made up of ethnic Chinese and which holds a tenuous ceasefire with the Burmese government. A UN report released in June last year found that Burma accounted for 28,500 hectares of opium poppy of a global total of 189,000.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) says that China’s growing role as a transhipment centre “can be attributed to an increase in ethnic Chinese influence in the heroin trafficking trade”.

One of the key areas of concern is the spread of HIV in Yunnan, which already has China’s highest rates for the disease. Its first wave of HIV infections in 1989 was among injecting drug users along the Burma border, and the province is now thought to have around 80,000 diagnosed.

The official said however that the alarm over the spread of HIV in Yunnan had forced the Chinese government into “a more open policy” regarding drug use, compared to heavily punitive measures that had previously been its approach.

Despite the burgeoning of the cross-border heroin trade, however, a serious problem remains within Burma.

A report in January by the Thailand-based Palaung Women’s Organisation (PWO) said that opium abuse was “devastating” Shan communities. The Palaung are an ethnic group from Burma’s northeastern Shan state, which accounts for 95 percent of the country’s opium output.

The report pointed the finger at the Burmese government’s acquiescence in the production of opium by drug lords “in exchange for policing against resistance activity and sharing drug profits”.

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