Myanmar: Opium use increasing, say border aid workers

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MAE SAI, Thailand-Sitting on a stool playing Chinese chess at the Operation Dawn Rehabilitation Centre near Mae Sai, Kyaw Thura, 39, of Shan State, recalls his days as an opium smoker.

"It used to just be a few people smoking opium in our village, but now everyone is smoking," he said. After 22 years of smoking opium, he finally decided to kick the habit and journeyed many miles to this retreat for drug users located in the hills which used to be home to Khun Sa, the Golden Triangle's most infamous drug lord.

Ironically, it's now home to more than 100 "brothers," as they call themselves, men who have come to the rehabilitation center to give up drugs.

The Taiwanese pastor who runs the centre says that 70 percent of the men are from inside Burma and the rest from Thailand.

"My village has gone crazy, even children and old people are smoking it all day," said Kyaw Thura, as he slapped down a wooden chess piece in a winning move.

"Because there is a lot more opium growing in the area, and a lot more people smoking, our village has many problems now, like stealing, sickness and no one works properly. It's really very sad."

Having seen the effects opium has had on his village, he said he felt compelled to travel to Thailand so he could "give up" and then return to help his friends and family do the same.

According to a survey released on Monday by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, opium cultivation in Burma has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2006 and 11 percent since last year, and it could have been a lot higher if weather conditions had been better for cultivation.

Gary Lewis, the regional director of UNODC, warned that previous efforts to contain poppy cultivation and opium production are "unraveling" and that "the situation is likely to get progressively worse as a result of political insecurity in the north and economic pressures."

The economic pressures come in the form of lower prices for alternative crops to opium, a result of the global economic crisis, and the drop in demand for maize and rubber from China.

The UN survey says most of the drug production comes from areas controlled by ethnic armies, with a 40 percent increase in Shan State and a slight increase in the Kachin and Karen areas. There's also a concern that ethnic armies are selling their drug stocks quickly now in order to buy weapons in the face of a growing risk of conflict with the government regime, as a result of its order for ethnic armies to transition into a government-controlled border guard force.

"Cease-fire groups-autonomous ethnic militia like the Wa and Kachin-are selling drugs to buy weapons and they are moving drug stock to avoid detection," said Antonion Maria Costa, the head of the UNODC, based in Vienna.

While the UN blames ethnic and cease-fire groups for the increase in drug cultivation, a report soon to be released by the Palong Women's Orgaization (PWO), titiled "Poisonous Hills," says that the Burmese government is also playing a larger part in the "unraveling" of drug containment efforts.

The PWO says that police "anti-drug teams" extort opium growers by demanding bribes to turn a blind eye and to fill out eradication reports incorrectly to show that drug production is decreasing.

Because Burmese police have formed illicit relationships and are able to profit from illegal drug production, the PWO says in its report that "this is enabling drug abuse to flourish. In one village surveyed in Mantong, it was found that that the percentage of men aged 15 and over addicted to opium increased from 57 percent in 2007 to 85 percent in 2009."

A survey in Nam Kham and Mantong townships during 2007-2009, two townships heavily controlled by the junta's army, found that the total area of opium cultivated increased almost five-fold, from 964 hectares in the 2006-7 season to 4,549 hectares in the 2008-9 season.

An ethnic Kachin cease-fire group, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), denied certain findings in the UNODC report, however.

"It is untrue. We never try to make our budget by selling opium and other drugs," said La Ja, the KIO general secretary.

Lapai Naw Din, the editor with the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, said that Wa and Kachin cease-fire groups began to plant more opium as the junta regime placed more restrictions on border trade after the fall of former Burmese premier Gen Khin Nyunt in 2004. More opium is grown in order to fund their armies, he said.

According to the "Neither War Nor Peace" report by the Transnational Institute, armed cease-fire groups have sought various illegal avenues, such as logging, mining, gambling and drug trafficking, to finance their organizations.

The increase in drug cultivation and production is not only a concern people inside Burma but also for neighboring countries, such as Thailand, where large quantities of drugs cross its border on a daily basis, making local communities susceptible to drug abuse and associated crime.

"The police try to stop the drugs coming through here, but it's not working, more and more are coming" said Ning, 19, who lives on the street. He told The Irrawaddy that he was addicted, as he inhaled the smoke from a burning purple ya-ba pill he had heated up through aluminum foil.

"The problem is Burma? We're right next door. It doesn't matter how much they try, we're swimming in the stuff" he said, as he exhaled the vanilla smelling fumes.

"I know it [drugs] make me crazy," he said. "I can't sleep or eat well, but I carry drugs around so much that it's hard to stop. Every time I do a job I take drugs to keep me going till the next load."

Tempted by the money, many street children are lured into working as drug carriers, or "mules," for drug traders. Fetching the drugs from the Burmese side, they carry it across the border to Thai dealers who avoid the risk of going through customs.

"Many of the children end up in very dangerous situations because of the drug trade," said Kru Ngaow, the founder and director of Child Life, a center for children who need a refuge while they try to stop using drugs.

"If the drug trade increases, then the children will suffer and more of them will work as drug mules, which gives them money to buy drugs and they also steal from the packages."

Opium finds it way all along the Thai border, entering refugee camps in Mae Sot and the surrounding communities.

"Our opium comes from Shan State, and it's destroying my village" said a 49-year-old lady, who had travelled on foot for hours to the DARE Clinic on the edge of Mae La refugee camp to seek help with her opium addiction.

Set up in 2001, the DARE network is the only organization on the border that provides refugees with a comprehensive service that helps combat the affects of drugs by using outreach workers who present education programs.

"By neglecting the issue, the Burmese government has used drugs as a tool to suppress ethnic people's minds. By enabling them to give up drugs, we free their minds." said Pam Rodgers, a founder of the DARE network.

"Despite the massive progress we've made, the overall situation continues to deteriorate as more drugs are produced and more people become addicts inside Burma and along the border areas," she said.

Another concern along the border is the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and its growing control of the region. With Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) territory diminishing, there will be a rise in drugs coming through the Mae Sot area. The KNLA strickly prohibted drug trade in its area.

With the combination of the regime-backed DKBA assuming control of the drug trade in its area, drug cultivation increasing in many ethnic cease-fire group areas in the north, and the Burmese army exploiting ways to profit from the eradication effort, the concerns of law enforcement agencies, the UN and other groups are justified.

As the drugs are shipped to locations around the world, it's the communities in Burma and along the border that will pay the highest price, perhaps, because of the growing presence of drugs and a lack of resources to fight the problem at the local level.