Amid the opium fields

January 29, 2014

Loimgmain, Shan state, Myanmar

By Soe Zeya Tun

Ethnic Palaung and Lisu make their homes atop mountains that rise more than 5,000 feet above sea level in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Temperatures here can be far lower than in much of the country, with lows hovering around 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5°C) and sometimes dropping to as little as 37 (3°C) during the winter months. Tea and opium poppy plantations cover many of the surrounding hillsides.

I was one of eight Myanmar journalists who recently traveled to this remote region. Leaving Mantong township, we first took motorcycles along a dirt road only about 2 feet wide. After a day’s drive we reached a village where we spent the night. We hiked the entire next day to get to Loimgmain, a village surrounded by opium poppy fields.

Ngokhu, a 30-year-old man from the northern Shan capital of Lashio, traveled to Loimgmain to work in the poppy fields. He makes only 4,000 kyat (about $4) per day to plant and harvest. He huddles next to a fire to keep warm, wearing the same clothes he put on four months ago at the start of the cold season.

Gallery: Amid the opium fields

Ngokhu says he’s been working here for the past four years, because there are no other jobs, and he is able to send 600,000 kyat (about $600) to his mother each year. Ngokhu says he does not use opium. But a TNLA soldier and former drug user said Ngokhu’s watery eyes and dry skin show that he is still taking opium.

This TNLA soldier said the ethnic army group decided to destroy poppy fields because local people were becoming addicted to opium. He said Chinese traders were making money while locals remain poor.

Tar Khu Lang, the TNLA’s commander in chief, said the ethnic army group destroyed about 3,000 acres of poppies last year. He said about 10,000 acres in the region are under poppy cultivation, and pledged to destroy as much as possible.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said opium production in Myanmar increased 26 percent in 2013 to an estimated 870 tonnes, the highest since joint-assessments with Myanmar’s government began in 2002. The report said the increase is due to an expansion in the cultivation of areas in northern Myanmar from an estimated 51,000 hectares (510 sq km) in 2012 to 57,800 hectares (578 sq km) in 2014. It said 92 percent of opium poppy cultivation in the country is in Shan state, home to several armed groups that have been linked to the drugs trade for many years.

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