SYDNEY: Opium production in Myanmar almost doubled last year as farmers in the Golden Triangle region turned to the illicit crop in the wake of the military’s power grab, a report from the United Nations has found.
The surge in opium, the raw ingredient of heroin, emphatically reversed a decadelong trend of falling cultivation.
“Economic, security and governance disruptions that followed the military takeover of February 2021 have converged,” said Jeremy Douglas, the representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia. Farmers, he added, “have had little option but to move back to opium.”
Centred on northern Myanmar and including parts of Laos and Thailand, the thickly forested and mountainous Golden Triangle region was the world’s biggest source of heroin in the 1990s. That changed when opium cultivation surged in Afghanistan following the US-led invasion and Asian organised crime groups switched to industrial-scale production of methamphetamines in Myanmar. Even after the sharp rise in opium production, meth and other synthetic drugs remain the major earners for drug syndicates operating in Myanmar.
According to UNODC estimates, total opium production increased 88% to 790 metric tonnes in 2022, up significantly over the 420 tonnes of 2021 and the biggest crop since 2013. The area of opium poppy cultivation increased 33% to 40,100 hectares in 2022, and crop yields rose 41% per hectare to their highest level on record.
Meanwhile, farm-gate prices of opium rose 69% during the year, earning farmers as much as US$350 million, more than double the previous year. Drug traffickers in the country made much more. The UNODC estimates that the value of the overall opiate economy in Myanmar, including earnings from exporting opium and making heroin, was worth as much as US$2 billion in 2022.
A spokesman for Myanmar’s military regime did not respond to a request for comment.
The UNODC said the political and economic uncertainty following the military’s ouster of Myanmar’s elected civilian government in early 2021 played a role in the expansion of opium farming.
Employment collapsed as Myanmar’s economy contracted by almost 18% in 2021, when the country was hit by sanctions and foreign investment was withdrawn. The country posted modest 2% growth in GDP in 2022, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, and is forecast to grow by 3.3% in 2023.
The UNODC said the global slowdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic plus sharp rises in fuel and fertiliser prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added to the economic woes faced by the country.
Combined with high prices for raw opium, there was a “strong incentive for farmers to take up or expand opium poppy cultivation,” the UNODC report said.
Myanmar has been gripped by a humanitarian and security crisis since the military takeover amid an armed resistance by pro-democracy protesters aided by some of the ethnic armed groups that control parts of Myanmar. Other ethnic groups, including many in the Golden Triangle, have backed the military or remained neutral.
Analysts have said the need for weapons by all sides in the conflict and the cratering of its legal economy have created a powerful impetus to expand Myanmar’s illicit economy.
The UNODC’s data also indicates that the preoccupation of security forces with fighting rebels and quashing dissent has taken the government’s focus away from disrupting the illicit drug trade.
In the 10 months to the end of October 2022, opium seizures by law enforcement totalled 1 tonne, less than half of the level in the full year of 2021 despite the sharp escalation in opium cultivation. The confiscation of heroin also fell sharply – from 2 tonnes to 1.2 tonnes – over the same period.
The UNODC said the latest increase in opium production in Myanmar has been helped by more sophisticated farming techniques in the remote and impoverished northern regions, including the use of irrigation systems and larger, well-organised fields. Douglas said the United Wa State Army – Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group, identified by the US and other countries as narcotics traders – had helped the farmers with fertiliser and irrigation systems.
Government eradication efforts have also stalled. Just 1,403 hectares of land was cleared of opium poppies last year, down 70% from the previous year. At the same time, a UN flagship programme that supports farmers to move from opium to legal crops like coffee has also been jeopardised by the instability in the country, it said.
The UNODC’s Douglas called for a regionwide response to the resurgence of opium cultivation in Myanmar.
“The impact on the region is profound, and the country’s neighbours need to assess and candidly address the situation,” he said. “They will need to consider some difficult options.”
UNODC is advocating for investment in “socioeconomic resilience and basic livelihoods” of farming communities in northern Myanmar, as well as monitoring and countering heroin trafficking in the region.