The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) has accused the Burmese government of exacerbating drug abuse in Kachin State and fueling ongoing conflict in the region.
In a report released on Wednesday entitled “Silent Offensive”, KWAT criticised the Burmese government’s anti-insurgency policies, accusing it of allowing local government-allied Border Guard Forces (BGF) units to grow and trade opium in exchange for fighting against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
“The Burmese government routinely blames the ethnic ‘insurgents’ as the main culprits in the drug trade, but it is now members of its own military, including its Border Guard Forces and proxy militia who are the leading armed players in the drug business in Kachin areas,” read the report.
The conflict in Kachin State has increased drug production in the region, which in turn has led to increasing drug use among all age groups—especially youths—in Kachin communities, which invariably also increases the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS.
The report also says the situation has exacerbated gender discrimination, as women are forced to bear the physical and monetary brunt of increasing drug abuse among men in Kachin communities. Yet KWAT says that drug consumption among Kachin women is also increasing—particularly the consumption of “ya-ba” amphetamine pills by female migrant workers along the Kachin-China border.
KWAT also raised doubts about the survey methodology and projections reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regarding drug production in the Kachin State.
The Kachin women’s group said its estimates and conclusions vary significantly from those of the UN.
The UNODC estimated in 2013 that there has been a 10 percent reduction in opium cultivation in Kachin State since 2012. But KWAT notes that the UNODC survey did not include opium production in Chipwi Township, an area that is now under control of government-affiliated forces and has evolved into what the NGO calls a “high-risk” opium growing area.
“This is worrying, as the UNODC opium surveys are accepted internationally as the most reliable assessment of drug trends in Burma and are influential in shaping the policies of international donors,” read the KWAT report.
Jessica Nikhum from KWAT told DVB that the UNODC’s reported decrease in opium cultivation from 5,100 to 4,600 hectares in Kachin State “relied heavily upon satellite imagery to assess cultivation” and did not carry out “verification on the ground” in order to accurately assess the production figures.
Nikhum further pointed out that other regions which KWAT identified in their ground survey as “high-risk” opium-growing regions, such as northern Shan State, weren’t even listed in the UN survey. These regions are also controlled by the Burmese army and allied militias.
At the same time, regions such as the KIA’s stronghold of Laiza were listed as “high risk” in the UN report, but Nikhum said that, “the KIA has already cleaned-up everything. There is no more opium there.”
The UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia, Jeremy Douglas, told DVB on Wednesday that that the UN used a combination methodology to assess the production of opium fields in Burma that also included a ground verification process.
Douglas further added that, “We [UNODC] do have very good access by and large to most points of intense [opium] production and we also have extremely good [satellite] imagery to help us identity points which need verification and ground-truthing”. This process, he said, “Allows us to draw pretty good conclusions on the [amount of] hectares under [opium] cultivation.”
On being asked about the non-inclusion of the Chipwe region as an opium production zone as pointed out by KWAT, Douglas told DVB that he would verify the matter and include any further findings in an upcoming UN survey.
Opium production in Burma has been rising despite the government’s stated ambition to eradicate cultivation by 2014. Opium, once a cash crop for poor farmers in the region, has over the years evolved into a political tool that has fueled the black market narco-economy in the region, where historically these drugs have also been the primary source of funding for weapons.
The UNODC in 2013 estimated that 92 percent of poppy cultivation in Burma is in northern Shan State and the remainder is in Kachin State.