Group denies tribes behind surge in opium cultivation

An ethnic activist group has rejected a UN report that suggests armed Myanmese tribes along the border with China are behind a resurgence in opium production, saying the report underplays the junta's role in the trade.

The most recent UN drugs report on Myanmar, dated December 2009, says that poppy cultivation has increased 11 per cent over the past year, and almost 50 per cent since 2006. It says more than one million people are now involved in opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar, most of them in Shan state which shares borders with Thailand, Laos and China. It is here where 95 per cent of the country's poppy is reportedly grown.

The report partially relies on data and information supplied by the Myanmar government.

Releasing the report, Antonio Maria Costa, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime executive director, said there were indications 'that the ceasefire groups - the autonomous ethnic militias like the Wa and the Kachin - are selling drugs to buy weapons', but made no mention of the junta's alleged involvement with the trade. 'The survey found that opium poppy cultivation took place in areas controlled by insurgency and by ceasefire groups,' the UN report said. 'Peace and security is essential to reduce opium poppy cultivation in those areas.'

However the NGO, Palaung Women's Organisation, has released its own report called 'The Poisoned Land' that contradicts much of the UN's findings. Among them is the claim that much of the opium production remains under the control of the Palaung State Liberation Army.

The PSLA, along with the Wa and the Kachin have signed ceasefire agreements with Myanmar's military. While the Wa and the Kachin still have their ethnic armies intact, the much weaker PLSA were forced to disarm and disband in 2005.

The Palaung researchers surveyed Mantong and Namkham townships in Shan state, both highly intensive opium growing areas. Since the dissolution of the PSLA in 2005, opium production has surged under the control of the ruling junta's army and their militias, they claimed.

The group also claims that UN mapping of opium areas is inaccurate. The amount of opium grown in the junta-controlled area of Namkam and Mantong is far larger than UN data indicates, they say.

'I don't think the UN has ever been to our area,' PWO executive member Lway Aye Nang said. 'This shows the politics of the UNODC affects the accuracy and reliability of their reports.'

Kuensai Jaiyen, a Shan journalist who was once a spokesman for the late notorious rebel and opium warlord Khun Sa, said: 'With the Burmese army profiting at every level, no wonder the junta is not serious about eradicating drugs.

'More poppy is grown today in areas under the control of the Burmese army than in other areas belonging to ceasefire groups.

'Before 1988 there were less than 50, and now there are 141 battalions of the Burmese army deployed in Shan state. Each military unit has to raise money locally to pay for its expenses. So money from drugs helps to meet these needs.'

The ruling junta has vowed to eliminate opium production and began a crackdown in October last year.

Gary Lewis, UNODC's regional director in Bangkok, said they could not 'rule out that the map is out of date or can contain an error'. But he added: 'Some PSLA members did exchange arms for peace in April 2005, we also know that the PSLA [or some splinter groups] are still active in those areas.'

Lewis said they were 'open to discuss with anyone who is interested to look closely at our survey. We are also open to analyse new evidence'.

The junta implemented an opium ban among ethnic minorities amid pressure from neighbouring China, where use of the drug significantly increased in the 1990s. Heroin has long been trafficked from Myanmar into Yunnan , alarming Beijing.

On a high

One million people are involved in growing poppies in Myanmar

The UN report says that since 2006 poppy cultivation has increased: 50%