NAYPYITAW, Myanmar--The peace process in Myanmar is allowing law-enforcement authorities to effectively target the second largest opium industry in the world for the first time in decades.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Myanmar produced 580 tons of poppy-derived opium in 2010, accounting for 12 percent of world output and second only to Afghanistan.
But it says more than one-third of poppy fields have disappeared during the past year in the state of Shan, where most of the country’s poppy cultivation is concentrated and where some rebel forces that have been fighting the government are based.
The Myanmar government has pledged to eradicate drugs by 2014 and says it has already destroyed 23,600 hectares of poppy cultivation, more than half of the estimated 43,000 hectares across the country in mid-2011.
The campaign against drug production has become feasible because of recent cease-fires with rebel armed forces in the ethnic minority areas that are also major poppy production centers.
Ukan Nang Ati, 48, a farmer in Shan state, told foreign reporters who accompanied U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a visit to his village on April 30, that he had stopped poppy production.
He pointed to his fields, where he said he had mowed down his poppy plants, saying he was now growing potatoes and tea plants.
Large-scale opium production in Myanmar dates back to the post-World War II period, when remnants of China's Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) forces entered the eastern Burmese state of Shan and began planting poppies after their defeat by the Chinese communists.
Khun Sa (1934-2007), a drug king whose father had been a Kuomintang soldier, set up his base in the “Golden Triangle,” a notorious area of drug cultivation including Shan state, parts of Thailand and Laos. Khun Sa eventually surrendered to Myanmar's military government in 1996 and poppy cultivation was banned in 2002. However, drug production remained a major source of revenue for some rebel armed groups.
While the government of Myanmar boasts of its success in turning poppy fields into rice paddies, some analysts are skeptical about its pledge to eliminate the drug industry. Observers say many of the fields have simply been abandoned and point out that it is critical to find a way of replacing opium as a source of income for farmers living in mountainous areas and border regions.
Poppy cultivation can bring in a daily income of 5,000 kyats ($6, or 480 yen), according to the UNODC, more than triple the 1,500 kyats that rice cultivation earns. Until now, few farmers have even been aware that the crop is illegal.
A senior UNODC official said that just destroying poppy fields was not a solution. If progress is made in the peace talks, the next challenges will be not only finding jobs for former soldiers but reforming the entire agricultural economy.
The U.N. World Food Program plans, in the short term, to distribute rice and other food until next year’s harvest. It will then focus on creating jobs for former soldiers and promoting development through the construction of irrigation facilities and other public works.
"The United Nations has engaged in anti-drug measures here for more than 20 years, but there have been a succession of failures because of political instability stemming from the conflict between the central government and ethnic minorities," a senior U.N. official said. "It is necessary to make the most of this opportunity, where there have been cease-fires, to embark on long-term initiatives such as social rehabilitation of soldiers and improvements in farming productivity."
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