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June 25, 2009 (DVB), Burma remains the world's second largest source of opium, according to a UN report released yesterday that found a slight rise in opium poppy cultivation across Burma but decreasing levels worldwide.
While global markets for most illicit are either steady or in decline, the World Drug Report 2009 reported an increase in production and use of synthetic drugs in the developing world.
Burma remains the world's second biggest producer of opium behind Afghanistan. While levels of poppy cultivation for opium are a fraction of those of a decade ago, the market is still healthy.
Globally, there are thought to be around 189,000 hectares for cultivation, with 28,500 of those in Burma. Media reports of opium production in Afghanistan often link the trade to the presence of Taliban units, despite there being an increase in production since the US-led invasion to topple the Taliban in 2001.
In Burma, opium production, last year measured at around 410 metric tons, is often tied to increasing militarization throughout the country, most notably in the country's eastern Shan state.
In the past decade the government has lumped the army with a self-reliance policy, in which troops must be responsible for their own equipment and food, despite receiving meager wages.
Lower-ranking soldiers are often required to contribute up to 10,000 kyat ($US10) to their unit, despite being on a salary of around 30,000 kyat ($US30) a month.
"This has forced the army units to get involved in all sorts of illegal trade business, including drugs," said an expert on Burma's opium trade, Khuensai Jaiyen.
Burma's aggressive expansion of its military, coupled with the self-reliance policy, compounds a problem for once self-sufficient villagers in Shan state who now are forced to provide food for troops.
The increase from 25 battalions in Shan state a decade ago to over 160 has "caused great burden on the population, [making] it difficult to survive and difficult to feed the family," said Khuensai Jaiyen.
"If we don't grow opium, how can we get enough food? If I don't want to grow opium, I have to come into Thailand and send money back to my family to feed itself for a whole year but also the army."
Although cultivation of poppies may have increased in recent years, output of opium has decreased. Khuensai Jaiyen warns, however, to exercise caution about praising the ruling State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC) alleged eradication programmes.
"Some people might congratulate the SPDC; you had better congratulate the weather instead of the SPDC. Last year the downpour had destroyed, in some places, 60 percent of the fields," he said.
Reporting by Francis Wade