Opium growing falls but farmers are facing disaster
Larry Jagan in Bangkok
Reduction in cultivation is creating a humanitarian crisis in isolated villages along the border, say aid workers
Opium production in Myanmar has fallen dramatically over the past 12 months and China and Thailand have hailed the reduction as a major success in the campaign to stamp out the region's drug trade.
Myanmar's two neighbours have prodded Yangon to reduce opium cultivation amid worries about the rising drug dependence among their youngsters.
But aid workers in the region are warning about a dark side to this success story. They say little has been done to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the villages along Myanmar's isolated, mountainous border with China, villages that for centuries have relied on the sale of opium poppies to survive.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been left dependent on food handouts as a result of the reduction in poppy cultivation, they say.
More than 500,000 people were now dependent on food aid, said Sheila Sisulu, of the World Food Programme (WFP), who visited areas hit by the crisis last month.
'Farmers' incomes have fallen by more than 70 per cent. This is likely to become worse unless the government in Yangon changes its policy' and introduces alternative means of generating income, she said.
Disease and malnutrition have risen alarmingly, according to international aid workers who have access to the area. The WFP and Japanese development groups are distributing emergency aid.
Poppy production in Myanmar's section of the Golden Triangle, which borders China, Laos and Thailand, is expected to fall 54 per cent this year, according to estimates in the latest survey by the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
This year's decline is part of a long-term trend. Myanmar's opium production had fallen by almost 75 per cent since its peak in 1996, the head of the UNODC in Yangon, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, said.
By the end of June next year, areas under control of the Wa ethnic minority will be completely free of opium, Wa leader Bau Yuxiang has claimed. He has even promised to cut off his own head if they fail to reach this goal.
But the end of poppy cultivation also will mean disaster for many of the farmers who rely on it as their only source of cash income. At the northern tip of Burma, the Kokang - Burma's rural ethnic Chinese - banned poppy production last year under extreme pressure from Beijing.
The result has been catastrophic, Mr Lemahieu says.
'The population fell by 60,000 [from 200,000 to 140,000], with the most people heading inland in search of a better living,' he said. 'Two out of three private Chinese clinics and pharmacies closed their doors and one in three community schools stopped operating.
'About 6,000 children were forced to leave school, effectively halving the enrolment rate compared to the previous year.'
The humanitarian crisis is likely to be replicated in Wa areas next year if they succeed in ending opium cultivation. Wa leaders and poppy farmers are worried. Most Wa villagers have traditionally relied on poppy crops to survive.
'We buy rice in the lean season [with money from selling poppies] and it pays for clothes, medicines and school books for the kids,' said Na Pha, an 80-year old grandmother from a village near the UN project centre at Mongkok.
Even Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt understands the problem.
'The anti-drug drive will achieve success only if the food, clothing and shelter requirements, and basic health, education, economic and social needs of poppy farmers can be fulfilled,' he told diplomats in Yangon recently.
Mr Lemahieu said: 'China and Thailand are playing an important role in increasingly providing bilateral assistance.' But even this was unlikely to stave off the looming humanitarian crisis, he said.
Crop substitution and alternative-income programmes will only produce a fraction of the money that poppies previously did. The future looks bleak, according to UN officials. Many former poppy producers will turn to working in the sex trade and other illegal activities.
Trafficking in women and children, already a major problem, will worsen, experts predict. Many women and young girls already are ending up in brothels in Thailand, the mainland and even Taiwan.