Shan Drug Watch: Ten Years After

The following is a condensed version of what appears in Shan Drug Watch, Issue # 2, published today to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking – Editor

Ten Years After
June 26 marks ten years since the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) embarked on its 15-year plan to eradicate the cultivation and production of all drugs in Burma by 2014.
sdw-cover Over the last 10 years, the ruling Burmese junta has claimed the apprehension of hundreds of drug dealers, the confiscation of thousands of kilos of opium and heroin, and the destruction of thousands of hectares of poppy fields. The SPDC also say that there has been significant reduction in opiate production in Burma since the industry peaked in the country in the mid-1990s.

The picture might be one of remarkable success, but information revealed through S.H.A.N’s sources paints a very different picture.

According to S.H.A.N’s information, during the past decade the junta has not arrested major suppliers or traffickers as claimed, but mostly low-level dealers and users. SPDC might have suppressed cultivation in 13 targeted townships, but has failed in some 30 others, and, worryingly, poppy cultivation and production is increasing in villages outside the areas outlined for eradication.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Burma’s role in the world’s opium trade is a mere fraction of what it was 10 years ago, when it was responsible for roughly 50 per cent of the world’s illicit output. Now, UNODC says, the figure is around five per cent, and the amount of opium produced in Burma has dropped from nearly 1,800 tonnes in 1993 to 460 tonnes in 2007. But Burma’s isolation from the international community and censorship of information means it is difficult to check the accuracy of statements.

S.H.A.N has long believed that the 1993 figures of Burma’s extensive opiates production (1,800 tonnes) were grossly inflated, and consequently the much-ballyhooed reduction of drug production through 2006 was illusory.

In 2007, Xavier Bouan, from UNODC, was forced to agree. Speaking with Shan Drug Watch at a drugs forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) on September 12, Bouan conceded that the official estimates in the 1990s were based on U.S. satellite intelligence, and were probably not reliable. He went on to say: “We started to do our own survey only after 2000. Naturally, we made a few mistakes at first… [Now, most of] our findings converge with those of S.H.A.N.”

His words are a heavy blow to the regime’s claim that Burma is reducing its opium trade. Instead, it is possible that production is as high now as it was 10 years ago. All that has happened is that in recent years figures have become more realistic.

S.H.A.N believes that both the first two phases of the SPDC’s 15-year drug reduction plan have failed. The first phase, from 1999 to 2004, targeted 22 townships in Shan State, yet to date only seven of those can claim to be drug-free. Phase 2, from 2004 to the present, saw 20 townships – 16 in Shan State, four in Kachin – targeted for drug eradication. Currently, only six make any claim of success. And the truth of the claims is tenuous. All six are in Wa areas in northern Shan State under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), whose leaders are reputedly among the world’s most notorious drug traffickers.

With the focus primarily on northern Shan State during the first decade of the drug crusade, poppy farming has merely shifted to eastern Shan State and southern Shan State. Townships in those areas report 20-40 per cent increases in lands under poppy cultivation over the last two years, and official figures show nationwide input increased more than 20 per cent in 2007 and 2008.

Production of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and Ice (crystal methamphetamine) is also increasing.

Meanwhile, the north’s poor farmers, who depended on poppy cultivation for their livelihood, are suffering because neither the regime nor the ceasefire armies implemented viable alternatives to poppy cultivation.

With so little money and so few options, it will be more difficult to motivate people away from opium production. Especially when Burma’s military – the Tatmadaw – is complicit in the drug trade, as confirmed by Bouan, who said: “Everybody is involved in this trade in one way or another. Insurgents, militia, government, cease-fire groups; for all of them… it’s one of the only ways to survive and get cash.”

Ten years into the 15-year plan, evidence suggests that the junta does not intend to eradicate drugs from Burma at all, until and unless it suits the generals’ agenda.

Khuensai Jaiyen

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