Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer. It produces about 10 percent of the world's heroin, compared with around 85 percent for Afghanistan. Most of the Myanmar's production is made into heroin, which finds its way into China, Thailand and India. Within Myanmar heroin is quite cheap: around $1 per injection. [Source: Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012 +++]

In the 1980s Burma-Myanmar was the world's largest producer of illicit opium. Although Afghanistan replaced it in 1991 as the largest producer, Myanmar's output climbed to a high of 1,600 metric tons in 1996. Poppy cultivation in 2009 totaled 17,000 hectares, a 24 percent decrease from 2008. Production in the United Wa State Army's areas of greatest control remains low. Shan state is the source of 94.5 percent of Myanmar's poppy cultivation; Efforts to eradicate opium cultivation have pushed many ethnic rebel groups, including the United Wa State Army and the Kokang to diversify into methamphetamine production. [Source: CIA World Factbook, UNODC]

Production and trafficking of opium and heroin is centered in eastern Shan State. Much of Myanmar’s heroin flows to China. According to the Los Angeles Times reported: Myanmar's production is closely linked to long-standing conflicts between the government and ethnic minorities, including the Shan, who have the largest area under cultivation, and the Kachin, who are increasing their production the fastest. These groups often have used the proceeds from the opium trade to fund their resistance movements. Although the Myanmar government has signed a series of cease-fire agreements in recent months, these haven't been in place long enough to convince people that they'll hold nor that it's necessarily in their interest to find alternatives to opium. For poor farmers, growing opium can earn about 19 times more than growing rice. +++

A major driver of regional opium and methamphetamine production is strong demand from China, aided by porous borders with Myanmar and Laos. China accounts for over 70 percent of all heroin consumption in East Asia and the Pacific, the U.N. said. "It's all very simple and at the same time very complex," said Chouvy, a researcher with France's National Center for Scientific Research. "It's easy to state the problem, but it's very difficult to implement solutions."

Opium Supply from Myanmar and Southeast Asia in 2020

Myanmar production was around 14 kilograms per hectare in 2020 and total opium production in 2020 was down 20 percent from the previous year. Data from2019 indicated that 14 percent of the global area under opium poppy cultivation was located in Myanmar but because of low yields per hectare it produced around 10 percent of the world's opium. Myanmar’s opium yields of 14 kilograms per hectare in 2019 and 2020 were about half that of Afghanistan. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]

According to the UNODC: Opium produced in countries in South-East Asia, mostly Myanmar (accounting for 7 percent of global opium production) and, to a lesser extent, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (about 1 percent of global opium production), supplies markets in East and South-East Asia and in Oceania.

The area under opium poppy cultivation continued to decline in Myanmar and fell by 11 percent, to 29,500 hectares in 2020. Since 2013, the area under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar has shrunk by almost 50 percent. Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar continues to take place mainly in Shan State (bordering China, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Thailand), which accounted for 84 percent of the total area under opium poppy cultivation in that country in 2020.

Opium and Heroin in Myanmar in the early 2010s

Myanmar's cultivation of illegal opium increased for a sixth consecutive year in 2012. In October 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Despite stepped-up eradication efforts by the government, the amount of land used to grow opium in Myanmar increased 17 percent during 2011, the sixth straight annual increase, according to a United Nations report. In contrast with Afghanistan's production, which tends to be on larger plots and on a more industrial scale, growers in Myanmar tend to work smaller fields in remote border highlands areas. [Source: Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012]

“Land devoted to opium production in neighboring Laos, meanwhile, grew 66 percent, albeit from a far smaller base, while in Thailand it declined by 4 percent, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction," Gary Lewis, the U.N. office's regional representative, said in a statement from Bangkok, Thailand. "Unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy." +++

The United Nation’s “Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Challenges for Asia and the Pacific” said in 2012 the area under opium poppy cultivation and potential opium production reached their highest levels since 2003. The total area under opium poppy cultivation was estimated at 51,000 hectares, a 17 percent increase from the 43,600 hectares under cultivation in 2011. Potential opium production also saw a sharp increase, up 13 percent to 690 tonnes in 2012 from 610 tonnes in 2011 and 580 tons in 2010. An estimated 300,000 households were involved in opium poppy cultivation. [Source: Tim McLaughlin, Myanmar Times, November 8, 2013]

Myanmar's poppy cultivation more than doubled between 2006 and 2012, according to the UNODC. In 2011 the price soared almost 50 percent from $205 per kilogram in 2010 to $450 per kilogram in 2011. The upward trend began in 2007 when opium production increased 27 percent from the year before . In 2007, even though it was the second largest producer of opium in the world it produced only five percent of the world’s supply compared to 93 percent from Afghanistan.

History of Opium Production in Myanmar

By some estimates 90 percent of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle comes from Myanmar. Through much of 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Burma (Myanmar) was the largest opium producer in the world. Drug officials calculated that at that time Burma earned as much money from the opium trade as it did from all legal trade.

Opium production in Burma increased from 30 metric tons in 1948, when the country won independence, to a peak of 2,822 metric tons in 1996 (estimated based on satellite imagery). While opium production declined in Thailand between the 1980s and the mid 1990s, it tripled in Myanmar. In 1997, Afghanistan surpassed Burma as the world leader in opium production.

Largest illegal opium producers (1983): 1) Burma (60,000 hectares under cultivation produced 600 metric tons); 2) Iran (20,000 hectares, according to 1980 statistics); 3) Afghanistan (20,000 hectares); 4) (Pakistan 4,500 hectares); 5) Mexico (4,100 hectares); 6) Thailand (3,500 hectares); 7) Laos (3,500 hectares); 8) Egypt (300 hectares). Illegal opium production (tons in 2000); 1) Afghanistan (3,276); 2) Burma (1,087); 3) Laos (167); 4) Columbia (88); 5) Mexico (22); 6) Pakistan (8); 7) Thailand (6); 8) Vietnam (2).

For almost two decades now Afghanistan has been the world’s No. 1 opium producer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Burma accounted for around 20 percent of global opium production. Around 75 percent was produced in Afghanistan. For a brief period when the Taleban cracked down on opium producers in Afghanistan Burma was No. 1. Even though Burma is no longer No.1 it still produces a lot. In 1997, an estimated 2,600 tons of opium was produced, enough for 200 tons of heroin, or 60 percent of the world’s total.

Production in 2002 was 630 metric tons, down 26 percent from the previous year. It was the sixth year in a row that production was down. By the early 2000s, much of the heroin on the streets of Bangkok originated in Afghanistan—not Myanmar—and was transported by West African syndicates. The drop was attributed more to drought and a switch to amphetamines production than efforts by governments to stop opium production. Production can quickly rise again as has done in Afghanistan.

In 2001, Myanmar was the world’s top opium producer even though production slipped because of bad weather and eradication by authorities. That year production fell off in Afghanistan fell due to a ban by the Taliban. When the Taliban was ousted after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, opium production increased there and Myanmar fell to No. 2 again.

The Economist reported: “The government's efforts at repressing production were augmented happily by a simultaneous explosion in poppy growth in Afghanistan. The Taliban had seized Kabul in 1996 but it wasn't until 1999 that Afghanistan's opium producers really hit their stride. That year Afghanistan's market overtook Myanmar as the world's largest and began dictating prices worldwide (to ignore the remarkable blip of 2001). By 2006 it was growing seven times the amount of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos combined. A subsequent glut sent global prices plummeting, aiding the eradication efforts of the South-East Asian governments. [Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011]

Opium Use, Heroin Addicts and Treatment in Myanmar

Old people in some areas smoke opium to relax or as treatment for malaria. In the 1970s, old men smoked opium-laced cigarettes openly on trains. "I like daydreaming," one old man doing this told the writer Paul Theroux. In the past the government didn't bother arresting people on opium charges unless they had a lot of the drug. One reason for this was that the Burmese chemical testing methods couldn’t prove the presence of opium unless there was a lot of it.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Myanmar developed it own domestic habit. The heroin in Myanmar is very cheap, widely available and very pure and addictive. There were an estimated 300,000 to 1 million addicts in Myanmar in the early 2000s and the reported drug overdose fatality rate of addicts of 3 percent was five times higher than in the West.

A gram of high-quality 90-percent-pure heroin can cost as little as 10 cents gram in Myanmar, compared to more than $100 a gram on the streets of New York. According to some studies, 88 percent to 99 percent of the addicts in Myanmar are male. Half the men in some towns are addicts and at one time it was estimated 20 percent of the population in eastern Shan State were reportedly hooked. Accessing opium and heroin use is places like Shan State is difficult because few outsiders venture there.

In the 1970s, opium was widely used but heroin addiction was not a serious problem. The problem dramatically increased with the arrival of cheap syringes form China in the early 1990s. Heavy used began in the boomtowns on the Chines trade routes around the ruby and jade mining areas.

Crime and other social problems have increased with heroin use. The few drug rehab centers in Myanmar have waiting lists and treat addicts as young as 13. At a prison in Muse addicts in leg irons and wooden cages are forced to sit in the lotus position for excruciatingly long periods of time.

Decline in Opium Production in Myanmar in the 1990s and Early 2000s

Opium production declined from 1998 to 2006. Opium production peaked in the late 1990s when about 100,000 hectares was devoted to the crops and it was the No. 1 producer in the world. The figure declined after that and reached about 21,500 hectares in 2007 when Myanmar was the second largest producer in the world behind Afghanistan.

In 2004, Masaaki Sanada wrote in The Asahi Shimbun, In Myanmar, farmland used to produce opium shrank 29 percent on the year, to an estimated 44,200 hectares this year, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That's down more than 70 percent from the peak of poppy seed production in 1993. Opium output in Myanmar stands at an estimated 370 tons, down by 54 percent from last year and by 72 percent compared with its peak in 1998. [Source: Masaaki Sanada, The Asahi Shimbun, December 25, 2004 ++]

“With this decline, the gap is widening between Myanmar, the world's second-biggest opium producer, and the world's No.1 producer, Afghanistan, where opium output is expected to rise this year from last year's 3,600 tons. Intent on wiping out opium output by 2014, Myanmar has intensified its crackdown in major production areas like northern Shan state. In 2003, authorities confiscated roughly 1,500 kilograms of opium and about 570 kilograms of heroin. Some 3,850 people were arrested on drug charges. Laos also plans to stem poppy seed production by 2005. ++

“The plunge in poppy production this year, however, is partly attributed to bad weather. The region was short on rainfall last autumn, when the poppy seed harvest begins. Consequently, the drop in output has caused opium prices in Myanmar to shoot up from $130 per kilogram last year to $234 this year. With prices soaring, authorities fear that farmers who gave up growing poppies will replant the crop. Another disturbing trend is the increased flow of residents from northern Shan state, and other areas seeing tougher crackdowns on drugs, into areas inhabited by the minority Wa tribe, the main growers of opium. Poverty lies at the heart of this vicious cycle for farmers engaged in poppy seed production in Myanmar and Laos. ++

Book: “Shore Beyond Good and Evil: A Report form Inside Burma’s Opium Kingdom” by Hideyuki Takano (Kotam Publishing). Takano loved for seven months in the Wa State with people involved in the opium trade,

United Nations: Myanmar Opium Cultivation Up Despite Rise in Poppy Eradication

In October 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported: “Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar rose for the sixth consecutive year, despite a significant increase in eradication efforts by the Myanmar government. The UNODC report, “South-East Asia Opium Survey 2012 - Lao PDR, Myanmar, “ estimates that Myanmar opium poppy cultivation jumped 17 per cent in 2012 to 51,000 hectares (up from 43,000 ha in 2011) in spite of government claims to have eradicated 23,717 ha of opium poppy - more than three times the 7,058 ha it eradicated in 2011. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 31, 2012 ]

Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative, East Asia and the Pacific, said: "The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction. However we have seen more progress on responding to the root causes of opium cultivation in the past year than we have in the past decade...The significant increase in opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar coupled with significant increases in trafficking in methamphetamines and other illicit drugs reflect a growing human security threat to the region. Despite the important increase in eradication what really matters is the increase in cultivation. Cultivation indicates intention. And unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy."

"Eradication alone is not an effective response to reduce opium poppy cultivation. We must remember why farmers grow poppy. In most cases it is because they need cash to buy food to feed their families. Growing opium poppy provides much needed food security for many of them," said Jason Eligh, UNODC Country Manager in Myanmar. "In areas of conflict and instability like Shan and Kachin States with poor access to markets, there are few employment alternatives to poppy. A sustainable long-term solution to poppy can only come through significant investment in peace, the rule of law and alternative development. We strongly encourage” donor nationsin “development efforts in Myanmar that reduce poverty and food insecurity and improve people's lives."

Major General Kyaw Kyaw Tun echoed Mr. Eligh's comments: "Myanmar did a lot of poppy eradication last year. This shows that law enforcement can have a significant impact on opium cultivation. However, to effectively reduce opium cultivation we need to do a lot more alternative development, including strengthening the livelihoods of opium farmers.

A U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report in February 2008 noted a three percent increase in cultivated areas in 2008, when the crop was grown on 28,500 hectares (70,425 acres). Myanmar's foreign ministry in March accused the US of giving "inaccurate and politically motivated assessments" in its global narcotics report in February, which said there had been a significant increase in opium poppy cultivation.

Opium Growing Areas of Myanmar

The center of Myanmar's illicit drugs activities remains Shan State, which accounts for 90 per cent of opium poppy cultivation in the country, with the remaining 10 per cent located mainly in Kachin State. In 2012, strong increases in cultivation were reported by UNODC in South, East and North Shan States, as well as in Kachin. UNODC also estimates that 300,000 Myanmar households engage in opium cultivation, a 17 per cent increase from 2011 (256,000 households). Both Shan and Kachin States have areas of ongoing instability and conflict. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 31, 2012 ]

In Myanmar, opium cultivation took place in 37 per cent of villages surveyed in 2012, with relatively high concentrations in South Shan (48 per cent) and East Shan (43 per cent). When asked why they grow opium, 79 per cent said it was because of the high net income generated by poppy relative to other crops, while 45 per cent cited the need to buy food. In addition, 95 per cent of villages in Shan State said they received no agricultural assistance.

The Survey estimates the total potential value of opium production in Myanmar at US$ 407 million, a 28 per cent rise from 2011 (US$ 319 million). Opium prices increased in Myanmar in 2012 to US$ 520/kg, a 15 per cent increase from 2011 (US$ 450/kg). This reflects the strong appreciation of the kyat, Myanmar's currency, against the US dollar. Overall, adjusted for inflation, the report finds that the price of opium has remained stable since 2006.

To assess the scope of opium poppy cultivation and opium production, UNODC has conducted opium surveys in cooperation with the Governments of Lao PDR (since 1992) and of Myanmar (since 2002). Using helicopter, satellite and village surveys from Myanmar and Lao PDR and figures from Thailand's own monitoring system, UNODC has created a detailed study of opium in South-East Asia. The results are compiled annually, often under hazardous conditions, and presented every year.

Drug Lords, Ethnic Groups in Myanmar

Among the main groups involved in opium growing and heroin processing in the frontiers of Myanmar have been 1) the army of the Shan drug lord Khun Sa; 2) the Shan United Army (SUA); 3) the Kuomingtang (KMT, remnants of the nationalist Chinese force that battled Mao's Communists); 4) the Wa (a tribe of former headhunters); and 5) the eastern Shan State army (a group of Kokang Chinese).

Many of these groups want independence from Myanmar and say that they are only in the drug trade as a mean of supporting their insurgent forces. Most of the these groups also have strong ties with members of their ethnic group on the Chinese side of the border, where some drugs flow on their way to Hong Kong and finally North America and Europe.

The Myanmar military regime has peace treaties with groups that supply heroin to America. The treaties with the Wa and the Kokang Chinese allows the groups to continue harvesting opium at least for several more years. Many oversees officials believe these treaties let the Myanmar military regime generals in on profits from the drug trade.

Many of the key operators in the heroin trade are structured like criminal gangs with an obsession for secrecy. They have their own heavily armed private armies and have legitimate businesses which they use as cover for the illicit transaction. One of Khun Sa's major lieutenants, Lin Chien-Pang for example, ran a karaoke club in Bangkok.

In the mid-1990s the Myanmar drug trade was largely controlled by Wa, Shan and Kokang warlords. In the late 1990s and 2000s it was controlled by the Wa

Opium Production in Myanmar’s Wa-Controlled Special Region #2

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Earlier this year, I traveled to Special Region #2 in northern Myanmar for the opium poppy harvest under the former guerrilla group that rules the region, the United Wa State Army. In the late 1980s, the government of Myanmar ceded a region where a fifth of the country's opium is produced, dubbed Special Region #2, to the United Wa State Army. The area was granted autonomy in exchange for an end to its decades-long war against the Burmese majority to the south. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“To get to the area takes first a small plane from Yangon, Myanmar's capital, and then 10 or 12 hours on dirt roads through half a dozen military checkpoints. The Wa has a fearsome reputation. As one United Nations official warned me, "They're quite a rough bunch of people." That's hard to argue with. The army leader who showed my colleagues and me around the area under Wa control told us one evening about how, as a young guerrilla in the early 1970s, he was responsible for going into the villages and taking down the human heads that villages hung each year to ensure a good harvest. But I have to say, the Wa people we met were also fine hosts. |||

“Our army guide took us to a newly opened "casino," a rough barn-like structure where the gamblers ran away when he walked up to a table. He then led us to a shed-like karaoke bar staffed by very young women imported from across the border in China. There, my colleague, encouraged by our enthusiastic host, sang John Lennon's "Imagine." |||

“In Special Region #2, the opium harvesters are not camera-shy. Barefoot women, some of them teenagers with babies on their backs, laboriously scored the poppy buds to draw out the opium gum, while others scraped the dried opium off buds that had been cut the day before. But unlike opium or coca farmers I've seen in Colombia and Bolivia — where an illicit crop can bring enough wealth to buy a pickup truck and a satellite dish — the average Golden Triangle family makes only $200 per year from its opium, according to the United Nations. |||

“As I watched the women harvesting opium, I noticed that one woman's baby was covered with scabs; another's was going blind from conjunctivitis — "pinkeye," a common illness here but one that's easily cured with antibiotics. In Special Region #2, it is a common cause of blindness. The Wa have little access to health care or medication, other than opium. Indeed, smoking opium to alleviate malaria, TB or any of the other endemic diseases results in a high rate of addiction in the villages. The region's extreme poverty is summarized by what passes for progress. The U.N. took us to a couple of model villages where the newest innovations were pit toilets and clothes for children. |||

“When we got to Pangkhan, the Wa capital, the Wa leaders held a banquet in our honor — involving nine shots of the local liquor — then took us to another shabby casino and several karaoke bars. The next morning, we met the Wa's top leader, Bao Yu-chang, the man who's vowed to eliminate opium by 2005. Opium means poverty, he told us. Then there was an 11 a.m. banquet — with six more rounds of shots and some bamboo worms, which tasted like deep-fried fat. And then the Wa's top leader and my colleague went bowling, because Pangkhan now has an eight-lane bowling alley. Perhaps the Wa would try harder to stay in the opium business if it were more lucrative. They seem lately to be embracing methamphetamine production. |||

Opium and Heroin Business in Myanmar

A typical opium farmer in Myanmar sells his opium crop for $600 to brokers that visit his farm in March when opium is harvested.. The money is barely enough to make ends meet. The raw opium in turn is sold for about $135 a kilogram. Opium is sold in vis, measurements that are worth about 1.6 kilograms. Some farmers have dealt with the same brokers for 20 years.

The brokers sell it buyers who work with the labs. The labs generally get their chemicals from China and India. The lab best produces 700-grams brick of China White with names like Double Lion of the Wa and 999 of the Shan. Local people are usually hired to smuggle it to China or Thailand. The drug lords have traditionally received money from taxes or for protection for the labs and smugglers.

In the 1990s heroin usually left the refineries in caravans with 50 to 100 people. About half of the caravan members carried the drugs. The other half were armed escorts, usually Wa or Shan soldiers armed with AK-47 and rocket-propelled grenades. The drugs were usually moved at night on jungle trails. There are so many trails and smuggling routes and many of them are in inaccessible regions that it is difficult for security forces to watch them all.

The drug syndicates usually just make deliveries. The deals has been worked earlier by dealers in Myanmar and crime gangs or intermediaries in Thailand or China, where the drugs are bound. These deals are often worked out by representatives of the dealers. Once in China or Thailand or wherever , people are hired to move the drugs to cities or ports or places that used to move the drugs to the next place. They are often subcontractors hired by big drug syndicates who move the dugs to lucrative markets in Europe and the United States. In the 2000s, much of this work was done by West Africans.

Opium Producing Farmers in Myanmar

In March 2013, Associated Press reported: “ Dozens of farmers live in Thon Min Yar, a village in southern Shan state that is far in every sense from Myanmar's postcard-perfect pagodas and colonial relics. So obscure it does not appear on maps, it is an image of dirt-road squalor and government neglect. Its 73 bamboo huts have no electricity or running water. Its people have no access to health care, no job prospects, not enough food and no aspirations other than survival. Toddlers and teens get a one-sized-fits-all education in a one-room schoolhouse. [Source: AP, March 25, 2013]

“Almost everyone in Thon Min Yar is an opium farmer. "My father and my grandfather grew opium. I have no other way to make money," said 28-year-old Peter Ar Loo, a father of two. He does not smoke opium, but sometimes he envies the life of an addict. They seem more carefree, he said. But he added, "Using opium only benefits one person. Selling it helps my whole family." Opium farmers like Ar Loo are not the people getting rich from the drug trade. They are among the poorest people in one of the world's least-developed countries.

“In a good year, Ar Loo makes about $1,000 from an acre-sized field of poppies. That doesn't include business expenses which he calls "paying respects" - a roughly 15 percent opium tax doled out to local authorities who turn a blind eye in exchange. Police control the towns, government soldiers patrol the roads and ethnic armies rule the mountains. All of them get a cut. "We give to the Shan militia, the police and the army," Ar Loo said. There is a law that bans growing opium poppies, but he said no one in his village has ever been arrested. "We get permission from the local authorities, explaining that we need to do this to feed our children."

Opium is different: The buyers come straight to your fields. Ar Loo's poppy field is a 30-mile trek into the jungle, an inconvenient location he chose after police launched an anti-narcotics campaign a year ago and warned farmers to switch to legal crops - or face arrest. "

In northern Burma opium, bans have ended a century old tradition of growing poppy. Between 20,000 and 30,000 ex-poppy farmers left the Kokang region as a result of the ban in 2002. People from the Wa region, where the ban was implemented in 2005, fled to areas where growing opium is still possible. Other ex-poppyfarmers are being relocated to areas near rubber plantations. These are often mono-plantations from Chinese investors. [Source: Wikipedia]

United Nations: Poverty Pushing Myanmar Opium Output Higher

In December 2013, Associated Press reported: Official efforts to stamp out opium production in Myanmar are falling flat because poor farmers don't have alternative ways to make a living, a U.N. agency The report said rising demand in Asia for illicit drugs has also have fueled Myanmar's increase. The U.N. agency said the trend is particularly alarming as economic integration and improved infrastructure binding Southeast Asia and southern China facilitate opportunities for criminal trafficking. [Source: Associated Press, December 17, 2013]

"The organized criminal networks that benefit from Southeast Asia's illicit drug trade are well positioned to take advantage of regional integration," UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Jeremy Douglas said in a statement. The report said that just over 9 metric tons of heroin was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, compared to 6.5 metric tons in 2010, while 2.7 metric tons of opium was seized in 2012 compared to 2 metric tons in 2010.

"The figures make clear that efforts to address the root causes of cultivation and promote alternative development need to be stepped up," UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov said in a foreword to the report. "Surveys of farmers in poppy-growing villages indicate that the money made from poppy cultivation remains an essential part of family income. Villagers threatened with food insecurity and poverty need sustainable alternatives, or they will continue out of desperation to turn to growing this cash crop."

The report also noted that "opium cultivation is generally linked to the absence of peace and security, which indicates the need for both political and economic solutions." Myanmar in 1999 declared a plan to eliminate illicit crop production by 2014, and production slipped to a low of 315 metric tons in 2006, but since then has been increasing.

Opium Trafficking from Myanmar

Mitchell Koss wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “On market day in the newly electrified town of Mong Pawk, we watched villagers bring their opium to Chinese women sitting by small scales. The opium buyers were a little more camera-shy and wouldn't answer questions. But the U.N. told us that a kilo of opium in Myanmar fetches only $120, about a fifth of what an ounce of high-quality Vancouver-grown marijuana — "B.C. Bud" — can retail for in New York City. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“From the Mong Pawk market, the opium goes global. The distance separating Special Region #2 from Yunnan province, China, across the river, is literally a stone's throw (I made it on my sixth try). According to the U.N., in the early 1990s, globalization gave rise to mainland Chinese organized crime syndicates that challenged the supremacy of the old Hong Kong/Taiwan smuggling groups, just as Shanghai now challenges Hong Kong as a business capital. When mainland Chinese syndicates began turning Myanmar's opium into heroin and smuggling it out, 60 percent of the drug began crossing China. And some of it began staying there. |||

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Heroin, which is refined from opium, typically travels through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and ends up in Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan, antinarcotics agents say. Heroin is also directly exported to China, where use of the drug increased significantly in the 1990s, creating a huge new market for traffickers. (The heroin sold in the United States comes mostly from Colombia, according to American officials.) [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 30, 2009 ~]

Antinarcotics officials say ethnic groups appear to be stocking large quantities of drugs near the Thai border and sending them across bit by bit. Small-time traffickers, often teenagers, can buy a fingernail-size bag of heroin for about $1.50 on the Myanmar side of the border, trek a few hours and sell it for up to $30 on the Thai side, Second Lt. Rungrot Lobbamrung said at the military outpost here. Stopping traffickers is particularly difficult along Myanmar’s mountainous borders. The Thai military has 1,500 troops dedicated to the interdiction of narcotics along the northern stretch of border with Myanmar, but it says it needs better equipment, like night vision goggles. ~

China and Myanmar’s Heroin Trade

A narrow river is all that divides much Myanmar from China. Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle area in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam is purified into heroin in jungle laboratories and smuggled into Yunnan province in China, where it is delivered to Chinese syndicates who ship the heroin to Kunming and then to Shanghai, Hong Kong and another coastal cities where it is loaded onto one of the thousands of ships that leave for North America, Europe or some intermediary point every day.

Most Golden Triangle opium and heroin is produced in Myanmar. China is now believed to be the main transit point for heroin from Myanmar to the United States. It is now estimated that two thirds of the heroin on the streets in New York originates in Myanmar and passes through China. These days large amounts of methamphetamines produced in Myanmar are also smuggled through China.

The drug deals are often financed by ethnic Chinese. According to U.S. News and World Report: "A broker...might be approached by another broker representing a Hong Kong businessmen who want to invest in a shipment of heroin...the investors strike a deal with a group of ethnic Chinese in the United States — for example, New York businessmen who own legitimate restaurants or retail stores. The heroin may change hands several more times between these U.S. importers and street retailers, who for the most part are not Chinese but Italian-American, African-American and Dominican."

A Chinese national by the name of Tan Xiaolin is believed to have moved three tons heroin between Myanmar and Hong Kong before he was arrested in 2001. He lived in a huge pink-and-green villa in China only a hundred meters form the Myanmar border. The powerful drug lord Liu Ming was killed in Burma after an attempt to arrest him ended in a firefight. He had his own army and smuggled large amounts of heroin from the Golden Triangle into various parts of China.

Wa, the Chinese and Myanmar’s Opium and Heroin Trade

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss, who visited Wa area in Myanmar, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new — albeit dirt — roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China. Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars — they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.” |||

Heroin Smuggling Between Myanmar and China

Most of the heroin and opium smuggled into China from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam are hidden in truckloads of timber, fruits and tea that pass through Yunnan on their way to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Chinese coastal cities. Much of it ends up in Hong Kong or the free-trade zones in southern Guangdong. Smugglers are generally paid around $1,000 to carry a kilo across the border from Muse, Myanmar to Ruili, China or $10,000 a kilo to transport all the way to Hong Kong.

The Burma-Chinese connection began in the 1980s when Chinese migrants began traveling to Burma to work on poppy farms. Some of these people began trafficking. The drug trade has transformed sleepy Chinese border towns, such as Ruili near Myanmar, into boom towns with karaoke bars, hostess clubs, drugs and prostitutes. "Our village used to quiet," a local elder told Newsweek. "Now there's heroin smoking, drinking, gambling. It's gotten kind of chaotic.”

By some estimates 20 percent of China’s illegal drug traffic passes through Lancang Prefecture in southwest Yunnan and 85 percent of the arrests in this part of Yunnan are in the village of Banlao. The price for slipping into Burma and bringing back a backpack full of heroin or amphetamines is as high as $120,000 — an inviting temptation in a land of peasants that earn less that $200 a year.

China's economic reforms have created a climate that is ideal for drug smuggling. So many consumer goods are smuggled and legitimately carried in and out China that it is not much more trouble using the same routes to smuggle drugs. Economic freedom given to the 20 or so major ethnic minorities in the Yunnan Province has made it easier for these groups to set up smuggling operation with their ethnic kin in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Drug trafficking has also created a corruption problem. Policemen and soldiers are usually poorly paid and the temptation to accept bribes is hard to resist. Drug dealers say they can usually escape arrest by paying off policemen. Out of fear of attacks from traffickers, the governor of Yunnan is protected by 100 bodyguards.

Combating Opium in Myanmar

Long-term solution to poppy requires significant investment in peace, rule of law and alternative development. The drug problem itself affects Asia and the world. According to Associated Press: “The drugs that exit the Golden Triangle ripple across all of Asia, which is why Myanmar is seeking the world's help. "This is not just Myanmar's concern. The whole international community should cooperate in eliminating the drug problem," said Myint Thein, the anti-drug official. "We cannot afford it alone." [Source: AP, March 25, 2013]

“Foreign funding has been trickling back into the country, now that most sanctions imposed during military rule have been lifted. The United States just reactivated a poppy yield survey in Shan state that was discontinued in 2004. The European Union and Germany have contributed $7 million for U.N. anti-drug projects over the next two years. But that is a tiny fraction of the money needed.

Thailand and China have put tremendous pressure on Myanmar to do something about narcotic production. Ministers from Myanmar and China have signed an agreement with the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) to helped opium farmers cultivate alternative crops. Thailand has offered to set up similar programs.

In the mid-1990s, U.N. and Japan funded modest programs in Myanmar to build roads and provided alternative crops for opium-growing peasants. The United States and Japan at that time pledged to give the Myanmar government $3.8 million to battle the drug trade. In 1999, Yangon hosted the 4th International Heroin Conference, organized by Interpol. The United States and Britain didn't attend the conference and human right groups said that holding such a meeting in Yangon sent the wrong message.

Opium Eradication Efforts in Myanmar

Some of Myanmar’s generals would like to see an end to the drug trade because it would take weapons out of the hands of the private armies and would earn them brownie points with donor nations. In the the 1990s and early 2000s Myanmar’s generals seem appeared to have clamped down more on drug activity as a way of boosting their image overseas.

To prove they were serious about doing something about the drug problem, the generals torched a ton of confiscated opium. Before an Interpol drug conference in 1999 they eradicated opium from 1,000 hectares of land, widely regarded as a token effort. In 1998, the Myanmar government claimed it had eradicated 41,000 acres of opium poppies and police said they seized 1.5 tons of opium (double from 1996). Western analyst dispute these figures and claim the eradication efforts were cosmetic.

In 2001, the Myanmar government claimed 9,317 hectares of poppies were eradicated, compared to zero in 2000. But this had little effect on production in United Wa State Army areas. The government claimed that 645 pounds of heroin and 8,500 pounds of opium were destroyed in 2002.

In October 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported: “From September 2011 to May 2012, the Myanmar government embarked on a massive eradication project, cutting down about 58,000 acres of opium, according to its figures, a near four-fold increase over the prior year. But it wasn't enough to counter the production increases. "Eradication doesn't work alone," said Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, author of the book "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy." "As long as you don't address the causes of illegal opium production, production will continue to go up and down. The solution is economic development." "We need some stability so we can present alternatives," said an official in Myanmar working on the drug issue. "Crop substitution is one of many approaches. But you can't just exchange poppy for corn." Ideally, he added, an integrated approach must include food security and better education, healthcare, roads and irrigation.[Source: Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012]

Ineffectiveness of Opium Eradication Efforts in Myanmar

In March 2013, Associated Press reported: “For years, soldiers with sickles were sent to destroy poppy crops, which was easy but ineffective. "The government now realises eradication doesn't work," said Jason Eligh, the UNODC representative in Myanmar who is leading a U.N. pilot project to help farmers switch to legal crops. "The government is starting to understand the value in admitting mistakes and admitting failure. These are small steps, but this is progress." [Source: AP, March 25, 2013]

After being unable to access the drug-and-conflict zone for decades, the U.N. agency was allowed to enter southern Shan state for the first time in January 2012. The breakthrough came a month after the government signed cease-fire agreements with different factions of the Shan State Army.

"I don't want to grow poppies. I understand it is illegal and that drugs hurt our children," Awa Wadaa said. But the father of five added that without his poppy-farming income, he can't afford to keep his children in school. "If I can't find a way to make more money," he said, "I will definitely go back to growing poppies."

Crop Substitutes for Opium in Myanmar and Problems with Such Programs

The Myanmar government says it wants farmers to grow corn and other legal crops, but many poppy farmers say the terrible mountain roads mean getting legal crops to market is almost impossible. In many places development agencies are try to convince farmers to grow wheat, which is fine because many farmers prefer noodles made from what to rice. The process has been slow because there are few wheat processing facilities and the poor roads make the collection of the crop difficult—on top of that there is intimidation and extortion by local militias, private armies and the Myanmar military. Members of the Chinese Kokang minority were encouraged to grow sugar in the 1990s when there was no sugar mill.

Even when the farmers can find buyers of their substitute crops they don’t make much money. One farmer told the New York Times in the 1990s that when he grew opium he made $650 and the buyer came to him. After being forced to switch to soybeans, her earned a tenth of what he did with opium and had to take the crops to a make himself. He now has trouble feeding his family of 10. In some places, tribal people that stopped growing opium poppies returned to opium growing after promised development programs failed to materialize, [Source: New York Times].

Some seem satisfied with relative peace the programs have brought. On Kokang chief told the New York Times, "Today, it is peaceful, so we don't need to grow poppies. If my people can have their stomachs full and something appropriate to wear they are happy enough. They don't need anything more."

Convincing farmers to try planting new crops is one of many challenges ahead, Jason Eligh, the UNODC representative in Myanmar who is leading a U.N. pilot project to help farmers switch to legal crops, said, “The farmers don't just want to eat. They need to make money," he said, adding that the government needs to offer farmers a path to a better life, with better roads, new schools and health centers and, most of all, peace and security...A process has begun. Will a process continue? I don't know. These are groups that have been killing each other for decades...I would say this is a fragile relationship.""The government is starting to understand the value in admitting mistakes and admitting failure. These are small steps, but this is progress." [Source: AP, March 25, 2013]

Eligh's pilot project has already persuaded some farmers to switch, but they may end up switching right back. A middle-aged farmer named Awa Wadaa grew opium for 20 years and was pulling in $3,500 a year in the five-month poppy season when the U.N. offered him a way out. In 2012, he worked year-round rotating crops of corn, potatoes and sunflowers, and earned just $500.

In 2012, Myanmar regime began a campaign in which it warned farmers to switch to legal crops - or face arrest. "The farmers are just finding fields deeper in the mountains," shrugged Ar War, chief of a nearby community called Yar Thar Yar, or Beautiful View Village, told Associated Press. Pointing at mist-shrouded jungles controlled by ethnic armies, he added, "It's harder for police to find them there." And even with the campaign, part of the central government's new anti-narcotics effort, police may not be looking that hard. The payoffs continue.

Growing Buckwheat Instead of Marijuana and Opium

Akio Ujihara—professor emeritus of Shinshu University in Japan who is known to some as Dr. Soba— introduced the idea of cultivating buckwheat in northeastern Myanmar—an area in the opium-producing "Golden Triangle"–as a substitute for growing poppies. Buckwheat flour is used to make soba. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 26, 2009 }{]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Ujihara studied soba for 32 years at the university, becoming a pioneer in the field. He developed four buckwheat varieties, including red-flowered Takane Ruby. Retiring from the university in 1999, he worked as a specialist for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, hoping to utilize his farming expertise while living in Myanmar for four years. During his stay, he visited villages in Shan State, where the entry of non-Myanmar areas normally is restricted due to rebel military activity, and instructed villagers on growing a heat-sustainable type of buckwheat called Kitawase. }{

“Since it is difficult to grow crops in the mountainous state, poppies had become the main cash crop. While opium production in Shan has decreased drastically due to the assistance of Japan, the United States and the United Nations, the villagers have had difficulty seeking an alternative, resulting in their facing either an income decrease or being forced to resume growing poppies. }{

“Under these circumstances, buckwheat stands out for its ability to be grown easily and well and be harvested in just 60 days despite the harsh terrain. Currently, 4,000 households are cultivating buckwheat in an area of 1,000 hectares, harvesting about 250 tons. The crop changeover led some villages to boast that they had no poppy farmers. Ujihara vouches for the quality of Myanmar-grown buckwheat, saying it is comparable to domestically grown produce. }{

“Many buyers of Myanmar-grown buckwheat are Japanese milling companies, soba restaurants and supporters of the project, with the volume of imports at about 70 tons. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, many people are not accustomed to eating soba, and the balance of the country's buckwheat crop is processed into shochu (an alcoholic drink) by local companies. "Myanmar soba is traceable and safe," Ujihara said. }{

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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