In Myanmar's new war on drugs, meet the weapon of mass destruction: the weed-whacker.
Its two-stroke engine spins a metal blade, which is more commonly deployed to tame the suburban gardens of wealthy Westerners. But today, in a remote valley in impoverished Shan State, Myanmar police armed with weed-whackers are advancing through fields of thigh-high poppies, leaving a carpet of stems in their wake.
When the police are finished, their uniforms are flecked with a sticky brown sap harvested from these flowers for centuries: opium. Myanmar produced an estimated 610 tonnes in 2011, making it the world's second-biggest opium supplier after Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The area under poppy cultivation has doubled in the past five years.
Now, emerging from half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar says it wants to buck that trend.
Since taking power a year ago, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein hasdramatically accelerated a campaign to eradicate opium poppies and shed Myanmar's pariah status as one of the world's top drug producers. It is also appealing
to foreign donors for half a billion dollars to finance a program it says will wean 256,000 households off poppy-growing over the next three years.
"Every year the international community spends millions of dollars [on anti-narcotics initiatives]in countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, and the outcome is not satisfactory," Sit Aye, senior legal adviser to President Thein Sein, said in an interview. "Here, with international assistance, we guarantee to wipe out the opium problem by 2014."
It is an ambitious goal. Police, soldiers and villagers armed with sticks and weed-whackers have destroyed 21,256 hectares (52,525 acres) of poppy fields since September, more than triple the area eradicated during the previous growing season, according to Myanmar's Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control. This has potentially prevented almost 30 tonnes of heroin, opium's most notorious derivative, from hitting the world market, according to calculations based on UNODC statistics.
But while more poppy is being destroyed, more is also being grown: The total area under cultivation will likely rise by about 10 per cent between 2011 and 2012, the UNODC estimated. This suggests that, with or without foreign assistance, Myanmar's three-year target is unrealistic.
Most opium produced in Myanmar comes from Shan State, a rugged and lawless region bordering China, Thailand and Laos. It is part of the Golden Triangle, which is probably named after the gold once used to buy opium. Here, and in neighbouring Kachin State, poppies thrive not just on cooler weather and higher altitudes, but on poverty and conflict.
Recent peace talks between the government and ethnic rebel groups – including two factions of the Shan State Army – have allowed poppy eradication in what were once no-go areas for the Myanmar authorities. But the ceasefires were fragile, and a poorly managed eradication campaign could cause them to unravel.
About 256,000 households are involved in opium poppy cultivation, the UNODC estimates. The opium yield from an acre (a third of a hectare) of Myanmar poppy is worth about $1,000 (U.S.). That's a life-saving sum of money in Myanmar, where a third of its 60 million people live on a dollar a day.
"The rapid elimination of opium poppy creates serious problems for these households," said Jason Eligh, UNODC country manager for Myanmar. "You have people who couldn't harvest their poppies, who don't have any money, having to survive for the next five or six months with almost nothing."
Alternative crops can't be planted until the rains come in June or July. "We've got a very narrow window," he added. "If they don't get help during that period, then there is a very real chance that they'll go back to poppy."