Myanmar’s Opium Growers Struggle to Get by With Potatoes

Ukan Nang Ati, 48, used to scrape a living growing opium in the isolated countryside behind the village of Kyauk Ka Chan in Myanmar’s mountainous north. Then soldiers swept through Shan State and razed swathes of poppy fields to the ground.

Pointing to a denuded area on a steep slope behind him, the farmer from the Pao tribe said he’s now trying to feed his wife and two children by growing potatoes and tea leaves, even though that earns him a fraction of what he made cultivating the blooms that are processed into opium paste and refined into heroin.

“Two-thirds of the people in this area don’t grow food to eat for the whole year, so they are dependent on growing poppy to get this money to buy food,” Jason Eligh, Myanmar manager for the United Nations drug office, said in an interview yesterday. “When you eliminate the poppy, many get put in a situation where they have no money, no food and are at a huge disadvantage.”

A person who works in a poppy field will earn around 5,000 kyat ($6) a day, while a person who works in a rice paddy will make 1,000 kyat, maybe 1,500, Eligh said. “That is the challenge, and there is no silver bullet.”

Basic economics and survival instincts may drive Ukan Nang Ati and thousands of Myanmar’s impoverished ethnic minorities back into the opium trade. Illicit drug production has been an economic lifeline for the country formerly known as Burma, which under decades of military dictatorship went from being the world’s biggest exporter of rice in the 1960s to the second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan.

‘Breathtaking’ Changes

All that is changing in what visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday called an “exciting” transformation under new leadership composed of former generals. The new leaders held the country’s most inclusive elections since 1990 on April 1, and have brokered cease-fires in rebel areas, including the Shan state, where ethnic minorities have relied on drug money to fund their insurgencies.

“The government is getting serious on the issue of opium poppy cultivation and the consequence that it has in the region and in the country,” said Gary Lewis, regional director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in an interview yesterday. “They destroyed more than one-third of the crop this year in the entire Shan state, which is a massive undertaking compared to Afghanistan, where 3 percent of the crop is destroyed.”

China, Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, is a “huge” market for opiates, which are refined into heroin along Myanmar’s eastern borders, according to Eligh. The Shan State, which shared borders with China and Thailand, another market for drugs and transit point for their export, has been the biggest domestic opium producer.

Drug Fight

Myanmar’s economic and political opening, after decades under a military dictatorship, has led the U.S. and European Union to begin to ease sanctions. The country’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, is coming to the capital tomorrow to take an oath on the constitution for the first time and a seat in the 664-member parliament.

Kyauk Ka Chan, a remote village of 2,000, has become the poster child for the government’s fight to eradicate drug production by 2014.

“That is not realistic,” said Guillaume Foliot, deputy country director for the UN World Food Program, which is providing Ukan Nang Ati and others with free bags of rice to compensate for their loss of income. “It’s a matter of crossing one bridge after another, and the magnitude is such that it would be delusional to believe that one would fix everything with free food distribution.”

UN Leader Visits

The UN’s Ban yesterday traveled to Kyauk Ka Chan, dotted with bamboo houses built on sticks and connected through dirt roads, in a 30-minute ride on a military helicopter from Heho airport in Shan, which served as a base in World War II for first Japanese, and then Allied forces.

The UN leader met with villagers and was presented with a document crammed with statistics, prepared by the government’s committee for drug abuse control. It said that opium was introduced into what is now Myanmar by a 16th century trader from Venice, Cesar Fredericke, who brought it from India, and that opium production “did not exist in Myanmar before it became a colony” under the British in 1886.

In a country with little government openness, the admission by Myanmar’s new rulers that the nation cannot shoulder the burden of eradication on its own marks a significant shift, according to Foliot. To highlight its commitment to addressing the drug problem, the government says it destroyed 23,584 hectares (58,277 acres or 91 square miles) of poppy since 2011, three times the amount in 2010, according to data provided.

Opium Grower

Dressed in his tribe’s traditional attire, with a purple turban of toweling on his head, Ukan Nang Ati’s story of a repentant opium grower finding a legal way to make money is the one the new government, led by former generals, is eager to sell.

“The problem is that eradication is not the solution,” said Foliot, who was deployed to Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. “It is only part of a solution because people will go back to the crop.”

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