Burma synthetic drug output soaring

Production of synthetic drugs in Burma has soared while seizures of methamphetamine have risen 23 times in the past year, a UN report warns.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said however that production of opium, once a hallmark of Burma’s globally dominant drug market, has dropped from 410 metric tonnes to 330, despite more than a doubling since 2006 of land allocated for poppy growing.

But the report’s claims that the main focus of drug production was in areas controlled by Burma’s armed ethnic groups, particularly in Shan state, was refuted by a leading Burmese drugs expert, who said that opium production was predominantly in government-controlled areas.

“We found that [opium cultivation] by the Wa, the Kokang and other ceasefire groups has dropped, but has increased in the regions controlled by the [government] and the people’s militias. The Burmese commanders actually encourage the opium growing; they agree that they won’t get [profit] without the growing,” said Khun Sai, head of Shan Drug Watch.

Furthermore, the fall in opium production has been largely due to poor weather and not the Burmese government’s so-called 15-year drug eradication programme, the validity of which regional analysts have closely questioned.

Prices for heroin inside Burma have reportedly risen as production falls, according to a source close to the drug market. In parts of northern Burma’s Kachin state, where the economy is built largely on jade mining, local authorities are bribing opium dens and awarding them near-legal status, local residents say.

“The bribe initially goes to the local police chief and then is passed to [army] commanders,” said one villager in Kachin state’s Pakaunt town. “In our village, even students are using the syringes now, and they are not even spending a lot of money.”

Much of Burma’s methamphetamine output is making its way across the border into Thailand, despite police there intensifying border checks. Around 23 million methamphetamine tablets, locally known as ‘yaba’ (which translates as ‘madness drug’), were seized in Burma last, compared to one million in 2008, said UNODC representative Gary Lewis at the launch of the report in Bangkok yesterday.

A methamphetamine pill now cost around 7,000 kyat (US$7) in Burma’s northern Chin state, 4,500 kyat (US$4.5) in Rangoon and 1500 kyat (US$1.5) close to the Thai-Burma border.

There are seven main drug rehabilitation centres in Burma, located in Shan state and Karen state in the east, Kachin state in the north, and Rangoon and Mandalay divisions, as well as several close to the border. A Rangoon-based drugs treatment group said that levels of human trafficking and prostitution were rising in tandem with soaring drug use

Khun Sai said that when analysing Burma’s drugs problem, groups must look at “the whole [of] domestic human rights violations, such as forced labour, land confiscation and forced taxing. These have been on the rise and are getting worse under military rule.”

Lewis said that “We are in a situation where we are at risk of having the situation unravel”, while the UN also pointed to chronic poverty and food shortages as a cause of the drug problem.

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