February 20, 2012

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

“When you open the windows for fresh air, flies sometimes get in.” So declared one of Myanmar’s ruling generals after his long-isolated country started welcoming foreign tourists in the late 1990s. The “flies” were undesirables like us, the journalists, who exploited this new openness to enter Myanmar as tourists and buzz around the place.

I recalled the general’s words (which he stole from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping) while researching a Special Report on Myanmar’s new opium war with photographer Damir Sagolj. We were invited by the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), Myanmar’s main anti-narcotics taskforce, to witness its opium-eradication efforts and hear an appeal for half a billion dollars to help wean impoverished farmers off poppy-growing.


Cops and poppies in Shan State (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Yes, invited. Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, a fact it has always been reluctant to publicise. But in an unprecedented move, Damir and I were issued with journalist visas and travelled with officials from the CCDAC and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

We were allowed to freely interview and photograph poppy-growers in remote villages of Shan State. “Soon, the trip goes well beyond expectations,” wrote Damir in his blog. “We go to places never visited by the foreign press. We witness history being made.”

We were invited for a reason, of course. The CCDAC wants international assistance for Myanmar’s poppy farmers, and needed us to show the world that it was serious about opium-eradication. The UNODC is also appealing for more funds to help a constituency — former poppy-growers — which too often fails to elicit the sympathies of donor countries.

Myanmar also needs the foreign media to tell the bigger story of what are hopefully historic reforms. President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has released political prisoners, loosened media restrictions and entered peace talks with ethnic insurgent groups. But it will need continued media coverage to convince the world that the reform process is real and irreversible.

So keep the windows open. Don’t worry about the flies. After half a century of isolation and neglect, Myanmar needs all the fresh air it can get.






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  • About Andrew

    "I am Southeast Asia Special Correspondent for Reuters and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. I have lived in and reported from Asia for 20 years. I am the author of The Trouser People, a political travelogue about Myanmar and football, and co-author of The Cult at the End of the World, about Japan’s Aum Supreme Truth Cult and high-tech terrorism."
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