Comment
0
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

Myanmar opium fight failing; soldiers shooting up

Monday - 3/17/2014, 9:26am  ET

In this Jan 28, 2014 photo, addicts use needles at a cemetery in Nampatka village, northeastern Shan State, Myanmar. Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard to get high. Some junkies lean on white tombstones, tossing dirty needles and syringes into the dry, golden grass. Others squat on the ground, sucking from crude pipes fashioned from plastic water bottles. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

ESTHER HTUSAN
Associated Press

NAMPATKA, Myanmar (AP) -- Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard in this northeastern Myanmar village to get high. When authorities show up, it's for their own quick fix: Soldiers and police roll up the sleeves of their dark green uniforms, seemingly oblivious to passers-by.

Nearby, junkies lean on white tombstones, tossing dirty needles and syringes into the dry, golden grass. Others squat on the ground, sucking from crude pipes fashioned from plastic water bottles.

Together with other opium-growing regions of Myanmar, the village of Nampakta has seen an astonishing breakdown of law and order since generals from the formerly military-run country handed power to a nominally civilian government three years ago.

The drug trade -- and addiction -- is running wild along the jagged frontier. In this village, roughly half the population uses.

"It's all in the open now," Daw Li said at the cemetery, wiping tears from her cheeks. As she stood before the graves of her two oldest sons, both victims of heroin overdoses, she could see addicts using drugs.

"Everyone used to hide in their houses. They'd be secretive," the 58-year-old widow said. "Now the dealers deal, the junkies shoot up. They couldn't care less if someone is watching.

"Why isn't anyone trying to stop this?"

___

Myanmar was the world's biggest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003. The government spent millions on poppy eradication, and drug syndicates began focusing more on the manufacturing methamphetamines. But within just a few years, poppy production started picking up.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the country produced 870 tons of opium last year, a 26 percent increase over 2012 and the highest figure recorded in a decade. During the same period, drug eradication efforts plunged. President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, indicated the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control the vast majority of the poppy growing territory.

Nearly a dozen ceasefire agreements have been signed with various groups, but several insurgencies, including the Shan State Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, continue to hold out. If Thein Sein goes after the rebels' main source of income, the drug trade, he risks alienating them at a delicate time.

But many opium-growing towns and villages, including Nampakta, are under government control. Here, authorities are in a position to crack down but have chosen not to.

"When I first assumed this post, I said to my bosses, 'We need to take action to stop drugs,'" said a senior official in Nampatka who spoke to The Associated Press on condition he not be named because he feared retribution.

"I was told, quite flatly, 'Mind your own business.'"

He said every family in the village is now affected: "Half the population of 8,000 uses. It's not just opium or heroin anymore, but methamphetamines."

Ye Htut said methamphetamines are currently a bigger problem for Myanmar than opium, with the precursor chemicals flooding into the country from neighboring India, but that several recent drug busts show the government is taking law enforcement seriously. Those seizures focused primarily on meth, including the reported seizure of 1 million tablets in Yangon this month.

Though the government eradicated only about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of opium poppies last year, barely half the total of 2012, Ye Htut said he is hopeful future poppy eradication efforts -- this time with the help of the U.S. -- will be more successful. He said sanctions imposed on the country when it was under military rule made it difficult to finance crop alternatives for poor poppy-growing farmers.

____

The No. 123 Infantry army base and several police posts overlook waves of white and pink poppies in full bloom on both sides of the dusty road leading to Nampakta, blanketing the sloping valleys and jagged peaks as far as the eye can see.

Farmers living in wooden huts dotting the landscape say the crops are patrolled by government-aligned civil militias known as Pyi Thu Sit, which hold sway over many parts of Shan and Kachin states, the country's biggest producers of opium.

Jason Eligh, country manager of the U.N. drugs and crime office, said pretty much anyone with a gun has a role to play.

The militias force farmers to grow poppies, lend them money for seeds, protect fields from being eradicated and ensure that buyers collect the opium and get it to market, collecting fees every step of the way.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>