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Myanmar Reclaims Crown As World's Opium King

By Peter Janssen     Jun 19, 2001 in Technology
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND (dpa) - With the destruction of Afghanistan's poppy crop earlier this year, Myanmar (Burma) has reclaimed its crown as the world's leading producer of opium and heroin, albeit by default.
The country already holds the dubious distinction of being Asia's top producer of amphetamine type stimulants (ATSs).
With the Taliban's enforced eradication of 100,000 hectares of poppy fields in the Golden Crescent this year, world attention is likely to shift to opium output from the Golden Triangle, the tri- border area between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
The overwhelming bulk of the triangle's opium has traditionally been grown in the Shan State of Myanmar.
Compared with Afghanistan, Myanmar's efforts to eradicate poppy growing have been slow-paced and success has been largely weather-related.
"The yields have been terrible for the past three years because of the weather, something to do with the El Nino," said one Western drug enforcement agent based in northern Thailand.
According to U.S. State Department estimates, Myanmar's opium production reached 1,085 tons last year, less than half of its peak output in 1989 of 2,400 tons.
For the U.S. market the Golden Triangle stopped being its major supplier of heroin in 1996, after the surrender of former drug kingpin Khun Sa to Myanmar troops, leading to a temporary disruption in the heroin trade.
Nowadays, heroin from the Golden Triangle accounts for only 25 per cent of the U.S. market and a similar percentage of Europe's.
The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), which launched a crop substitution programme in the Wa territory of the Shan State in 1997, claims some of the credit for Myanmar's reduction of its opium growing area by 35 per cent over the past three years.
Even Myanmar's military junta, which has relocated an estimated 50,000 Wa families from the poppy-growing terrain of the northern Shan state to the Thai-Myanmar border, has contributed to the reduction, Western diplomats in Yangon admit.
Myanmar was overtaken by Afghanistan as the world's main supplier of opium and heroin during the past decade, but this year, with Afghanistan out of the picture and heroin prices already soaring in Pakistan and Yangon, Myanmar's efforts to wipe out opium growing will be put to the test.
"In terms of opium production, Myanmar is number one again," acknowledged UNDCP regional representative Sandro Calvani.
Calvani warned a drug conference in Yangon in May, "The latest news from Bolivia and Afghanistan of a complete illicit crop elimination are certainly good news, however, they also bring the obvious risk that the problem will migrate to another angle of the world and it is very likely that it will be our corner."
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the Golden Triangle's heroin trade never went away, although it has certainly been overshadowed by a boom in Myanmar's methamphetamine trafficking.
"We haven't seen heroin shipments from this area diminish, although they tend to be smaller in size, about 20 kilograms each," said William Snipes, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bangkok.
There is also evidence that with the Thai military's more vigilant crackdowns on drug traffickers along the Thai-Myanmar border this year, shipments have shifted to other routes through Yangon (Rangoon), India and China.
For instance, a shipment of 56 kilograms of heroin was stopped at Yangon port this January, with the assistance of Myanmar authorities.
Myanmar's military regime, however, claims to have little control over the Shan State, where both heroin and methamphetamine production continue to flourish in illicit labs along the Thai-Myanmar border.
If anything, Myanmar's recent policy of relocating the Wa, a Mon- Khmer ethnic minority group whose capital is Pang Sang, eastern Shan State, to the border areas is exacerbating the drug problem.
An estimated 50,000 Wa families, or 200,000 people, have been moved to the border area since late 1999.
"The reason these Wa have been moved is to prevent them from growing opium up there, but in reality when they come close to Thailand they are still planting opium in the mountainous areas," said Lieutenant General Wattanachai Chaimuenwong in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Sources along the Thai-Myanmar border say drug traders are going into the areas controlled by the Wa families and encouraging them to grow more opium. There are even reports of double-cropping, or two crops a year, to boost production.
All the Golden Triangle needs now is a good opium growing season, which the area hasn't enjoyed for the past four years, for the heroin industry to take off, anti-narcotic officials concur.
"It depends on how high the price is and what the Myanmar government's policy on eradication will be this year," said UNDCP's Calvani. "The demand is still high because the heroin users are not taking orders from the Taliban."
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