24 Apr 2014 04:00
Burma’s war-torn Shan State is a well-known hotspot for the cultivation of opium poppies, the plant from which morphine and heroin are synthesized. In the state’s remote mountains near the Chinese border, the T’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) rebel militia has been waging a hidden war against opium cultivation.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), the cultivation of opium in Burma increased by 26% in 2013, marking the highest rise since the UNODC and the Myanmar government started their assessments in 2002. One of the main factors leading to an increase in poppy cultivation is the fact that farmers have few other ways to make a living.
Burma is the second largest opium-producing country in the world after Afghanistan; and Shan State remains the center of the country's opium activities, accounting for 92 per cent of the country’s total cultivation.
The north of the state is the home of the Palaung ethnic minority, which has been cultivating and harvesting the "sleepy plant" for years.
While very profitable for producers, the production and consumption of opium has a high social cost in Burma’s impoverished north. In some villages up to 80% of men are addicts.
To fight the economic and social damages caused by opium, the armed organisation of the Palaung minority, the TNLA declared a war on the plant in 2012. TNLA introduced prohibition laws in the Palaung community areas under their control. Cultivating, costuming and selling drugs is now strictly prohibited.
The TNLA claims to have 1,500 soldiers, who this year were ordered to destroy poppy fields during the harvest season. The commanders have accused the Burmese Chinese minority of controlling the poppy fields and working in collusion with local militias and the Burmese army.
TNLA’s goal is to replace the poppy fields with other crops like corn and tea. But changes have to be implemented gradually opium represents a major source of income for local peasants.