Shan govt militias ‘aiding opium trade’

Burmese army troops and local militias in southern Shan state are reportedly taking bribes from local farmers in return for allowing the continued cultivation of opium, despite government assertions that it is stamping out the trade.

A man in Nansang, one of seven townships in Shan state alleged to be heavily involved in the industry, said that bribes ranged from 50,000 kyat ($US55) to 80,000 kyat ($US90) per acre of opium grown. Farmers in areas run by government-backed militias from the ethnic Pa-O group were being forced to hand over a certain quantity of the drug.

“Now all the local populations are growing opium – this is their only source of income since there are no regular jobs available,” said the Nansang resident.

“Now every household in villages [near to the seven townships] are growing opium,” he said. “They have to bribe the army and Pa-O militias, of which there are two – Red and White Pa-O.” He added that Chinese were increasingly buying up areas of land in the state’s southern regions, also to cultivate poppies.

A resident of nearby Pinlon said that it takes around one million kyat ($US1,150) to grow an acre of poppies for opium – those who cannot afford the cost are often found helping out on farms during harvest seasons, earning around 10,000 kyat ($US12) a day.

With average annual wages hovering around $US400, the financial incentives to work in Burma’s lucrative opium industry are therefore substantial. The Pinlon local said that university students and even children of soldiers are often seen helping out with cultivation of poppies.

Shan state has long been Southeast Asia’s biggest source of illicit drugs, and once held the distinction of being the world’s top producer of heroin until it was usurped by Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

A damning report by the US State Department in March said that Burma had “failed demonstrably” in its proclaimed efforts to eradicate the country’s narcotics industry. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that between 2006 and 2009, opium cultivation in Burma increased from 21,500 hectares to 31,700 hectares, despite repeated assertions in state media of success in its elimination programmes.

Another report released last year by the Thailand-based Shan Drug Watch claimed that junta-backed militias had taken over ethnic armies as Burma’s main drugs’ producers. Rising hostilities between ethnic armies and the Burmese had, according the report’s lead author, Khunsai Jaiyen, prompted a clampdown on their drug production and mobility.

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