Opium production soaring, warns UN drugs tzar

Following years of decline, opium production in Burma is now trending “relentlessly upward”, the UN’s top drugs official warned in a speech yesterday.

Gary Lewis, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for East Asia, said Burmese output had soared over the past four years and now accounted for more than 95 percent of Southeast Asian production. “We cannot afford to take our eyes off the drug threat – something which I rather fear has happened in our region over the past decade,” he told an international crime conference in Melbourne.

Ethnic rebel groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kokang used to dominate poppy cultivation in Shan state, where the vast majority of Burma’s opium is produced. In recent years such groups have shifted to amphetamine production, which is more reliable and difficult to detect.

But as the Wa and Kokang have moved out of opium, others in western Shan state have moved in. “It’s the balloon effect. When the Wa and Kokang stopped growing, investors in other parts of Shan state decided to grow,” said Khuensai Jaiyen of Shan Drug Watch.

Journalist and Burma expert Bertil Lintner said there was still some poppy cultivation in Wa areas, but most now took place west of the Salween River. “It’s a larger area with more groups involved,” he said.

The Burmese military’s policy of self-reliance for its units was pushing it into opium cultivation and the industry is now dominated by junta-controlled militias, Khuensai said. “It has to look after itself. If you look closely you will find that the expansion of opium fields corresponds to the expansion of the military units in Shan state.”

Shan Drug Watch reports the Burmese regime’s nominal drugs eradication programme “has fallen way behind schedule, with 46 of Shan State’s 55 townships still growing opium”. It attributed this to the army’s “reliance on taxation of opium, and its policy to allow numerous proxy local militia to deal in drugs, including methamphetamines, in exchange for policing against resistance activity”.

All sides, including the UWSA, continue to refine opium into heroin, said Khuensai. Burma remains the second-largest source of the drug after Afghanistan. Most is smuggled into China, India, Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, North America.

China has recently seen a rapid increase in drug addiction, as heroin floods across the border from Shan state. 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.

Most experts agree that as long as there is conflict in ethnic Burma, drugs production will follow as a means to fund it. The Burmese army’s plans to absorb the UWSA and other ethnic armies as border guard forces is the latest source of tension. The UWSA opposes the plan and is believed to be flooding Thailand with methamphetamine to raise funds in preparation for a showdown with the junta.

Thailand’s northern branch of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) reported a surge in seizures of amphetamine tablets to 10.8 million between January and August 2010, from 2.9 million in the same period last year.

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