Burma's Opium Production Back on Rise

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Paul Hilton / Bloomberg News / Landov

Poppies grow in a field in Burma's Shan State

News for farmers making a living off the isolated fields and forests of Burma has been dismal over the past few months. Prices for rubber, a key crop, are down an estimated 75% in the southeastern Mon State. Rice has lost a quarter of its value, while maize has been cut by half. Teak, betel nut and palm oil have also been ravaged by the global drop in commodity prices, throwing millions of Burmese who barely cling to the poverty line further into distress.

But one crop in Burma hasn't been affected: poppies, the colorful blooms that have been processed into opium for thousands of years, and, in more recent history, refined into heroin. A Feb. 2 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime found that the price of opium in Burma, also known as Myanmar, increased by 15% last year. As a result, Burmese land dedicated to poppy cultivation actually expanded in 2008, despite promises by the country's ruling junta to combat its reputation as one of the world's most notorious narco-states.

The uptick in last year's Burmese poppy cultivation signals just how easy it is for impoverished farmers to turn to a delicate red flower when things get tough. Most of Burma's poppies flourish in the northeastern Shan State, which abuts the infamous Golden Triangle, where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. (The flowers are also grown in Kachin and Karen states.) And given the omnipresence of opium and heroin smuggling in Burma — the nation is the world's second-largest poppy producer, after Afghanistan — it's hard to imagine how the trade can flourish without at least the tacit support of the military regime that has ruled there since 1962.

Back in 1999, Burma's top brass unveiled a 15-year plan to completely eliminate opium cultivation. For a few years, production, as measured in part by U.N. helicopter forays over Burma, did indeed decline. But the U.N. now reports that poppy land has increased by 33% since the lowest levels recorded in 2006. Last year was the second consecutive year of growth, and the trend shows how unlikely it is that the junta will make good on its goal of completely wiping out poppies by 2014. (The alarming statistics didn't stopped Myanmar T.V., however, from claiming earlier this month that the anti-drug effort is going forward with "added momentum" and "remarkable progress.")

Opium and heroin aren't the only drugs that provide an economic lifeline to Burma. For years, an influx of Burmese-made methamphetamine has flooded into neighboring Thailand and China, feeding Asia's chemically induced highs. There are some signs that the Burmese government is trying to stanch the drug flow. In January, a high-profile raid in the Burmese commercial capital, Rangoon, netted a large amount of heroin loaded onto a ship bound for Singapore, according to the Irrawaddy, a media organization run primarily by Burmese in exile in Thailand. But the raid appears to have been galvanized by foreign anti-drug agents, and, as the Irrawaddy points out, it's not clear whether the Burmese junta would have raided the ship without international pressure. In the mean time, Southeast Asia's largest narco-state continues to thrive. And some Burmese farmers are able to fill their bellies for now, even as they are feeding the world's drug habit.