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Economic instability and armed conflict have left farmers in parts of the country “little option” but to start growing the drug, says Jeremy Douglas, Bangkok-based regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

After a military coup plunged Myanmar into chaos and civil war, devastating the economy and leaving much of the country dangerous and unstable, many farmers turned to an old reliable: opium.

Economic instability and armed conflict have left farmers in parts of the country “little option” but to start growing the drug, undoing years of work to reduce opium production in Myanmar’s border areas, said Jeremy Douglas, Bangkok-based regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Using a combination of satellite imagery and field reporting, a new UNODC report has found an increase of 33 per cent in opium production since the February, 2021, military takeover. There has also been a switch from small, less-organized plots to sophisticated, much larger farms, often operating with the apparent protection and encouragement of armed militias.

The World Bank estimates that roughly 40 per cent of the country, formerly called Burma, now lives below the poverty line, “unwinding nearly a decade of progress on poverty reduction,” after the economy contracted 18 per cent in the first year after the coup. It has struggled to recover since, hit by the twin headwinds of COVID-19 and fuel price spikes caused by the war in Ukraine.

Richard Horsey, a senior Myanmar adviser for International Crisis Group who was not involved in the research, said “at times like these many farmers see opium as particularly attractive – given predictable demand and the fact that brokers will typically buy the entire crop at the farm gate.”

Opium is quick and easy to grow, and its high value makes it worth planting in areas where other crops wouldn’t be economical. It’s easy to store and transport, including by foot if people need to flee an area, and holds its value well, often better than the local currency.

This has long made the drug an attractive crop for farmers in eastern Myanmar. The region where the country borders Laos and Thailand is known as the “Golden Triangle,” and was once the centre of the global heroin trade.

The growth of the Myanmar economy post-2011 – when there was a partial shift to democracy – combined with decades of anti-opium campaigns by both the government and international bodies, as well as changes in the global drug market, had resulted in a substantial drop in poppy production. According to the UNODC, from a recent peak of 870 metric tonnes in 2013, annual total opium production had dropped to around 400 tonnes in 2020.

This has reversed in the years since however, with the UNODC estimating production last year was around 790 tonnes, and potentially as high as 1,200 tonnes, with an expansion in both the amount grown and the yield per hectare, because of the increased use of fertilizers and irrigation.

Since the military takeover, Myanmar has been rocked by conflict, with multiple armed groups battling junta forces, both those aligned with the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) and ethnic militias that have long-controlled parts of the country. Unlike in the past, when fighting was largely confined to border regions, today almost all of Myanmar is affected by some kind of armed unrest, with assassinations and attacks even inside the military capital Naypyidaw.

Much of the increase in opium production has occurred in Shan State, which a database of attacks and clashes in Myanmar maintained by the International Institute for Strategic Studies shows to be a relatively peaceful part of the country.

This comparative calm is not attributable to the government however, which has little footprint in Shan, but various local armed groups, all of which have a vested interest in maintaining stability while the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, battles anti-coup forces in other parts of the country. The government has also long been accused of giving allied or at least neutral armed groups in the region tacit approval to produce opium, while cracking down on their rivals.

The Myanmar military government could not be reached for comment. Kyaw Zaw, a spokesman for the exiled NUG, said that administration “does not tolerate drug production and trade” and had cracked down on traffickers in areas of the country it controls.

Though Myanmar is a major producer of opium and heroin, the biggest consumers are elsewhere in the region, and globally, and Mr. Douglas predicted the junta will face renewed pressure from the international community to act on this issue, particularly as the economic downturn that resulted from the coup has driven the recent spike in production.

“If this surge continues, we’re going to see the product going further afield,” he said, noting that until the early 2000s even much of the heroin in Canada came from this region. “Golden Triangle heroin is the best in the world, and it will be in demand.”

How Myanmar responds to this remains to be seen. The junta likely lacks the capability to crack down on narcotics production in parts of the country where it already struggles to assert control, and in any case, the incentives for farmers will remain.

Under Myanmar law, drug possession can see someone imprisoned for up to 10 years, while penalties for drug trafficking start at 15 years and can result in the death penalty.

“A policing and criminal justice response is insufficient to address what is ultimately a poverty and conflict issue,” Mr. Horsey said.

Kyaw Zaw, the NUG spokesman, said that “long-term combat of opium production and the drug trade requires a stable economy and systematic promotion of other economic opportunities for poppy farmers.”

“Neither of these is possible right now due to atrocities and terror campaigns of the military,” he said, adding the coup had “overturned decades of effort in successful drug eradication in Myanmar.”

“Ending the economic slide means ending the conflict, which means a return to democratic path and civilian rule,” Kyaw Zaw said.

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