Published March 24, 2013
THON MIN YAR, Myanmar – Deep in the lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, sloping fields of illegal poppies have just been scraped dry for opium. This is the peak season for producing drugs here, and in Myanmar's nascent era of democratic change, the haul has gotten only bigger.
Opium, its derivative heroin and methamphetamines are surging across Myanmar's borders in quantities that the United Nations and police in neighboring countries say are the highest levels in years.
Two years after replacing a long-ruling military junta, the civilian government is still struggling to get a foothold in its war against drugs. The trade is centered in a remote, impoverished area where the government has little control and where ethnic armies have waged civil wars for decades — wars financed with drug money.
The Associated Press was granted rare access to Myanmar's drug-producing hub in the vast, jungle-clad mountain region of northeastern Shan state, deep in a cease-fire zone that was closed to foreigners for decades. It's a land dotted with makeshift methamphetamine labs and tiny, poor villages where growing opium is the only real industry. The trip was part of a U.N. mission allowed only under armed police escort.
President Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with a patchwork of rebel groups in the region, but the peace is extremely fragile and sporadic fighting continues. Cracking down on drug syndicates or arresting poor opium farmers risks alienating the ethnic groups he is courting for peace talks.
"To stop the drug problem, we need peace. And that is what the government is trying to achieve now," said police Col. Myint Thein, head of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse and Control, which controls the country's drug policy. "But that is just one of so many challenges. This is a very difficult task. It will take time."
Foreign aid that could help combat drugs is just beginning to trickle back into the area, which is rife with corruption. But the toughest task may be transforming the destitute rural economy, filled with poor farmers who view growing opium as the best way to provide for their families.
Dozens of those farmers live in Thon Min Yar, a village in southern Shan state that is far in every sense from Myanmar's postcard-perfect pagodas and colonial relics. So obscure it does not appear on maps, it is an image of dirt-road squalor and government neglect.
Its 73 bamboo huts have no electricity or running water. Its people have no access to health care, no job prospects, not enough food and no aspirations other than survival. Toddlers and teens get a one-sized-fits-all education in a one-room schoolhouse.
Almost everyone in Thon Min Yar is an opium farmer.
"My father and my grandfather grew opium. I have no other way to make money," said 28-year-old Peter Ar Loo, a father of two.
He does not smoke opium, but sometimes he envies the life of an addict. They seem more carefree, he said.
But he added, "Using opium only benefits one person. Selling it helps my whole family."
Opium farmers like Ar Loo are not the people getting rich from the drug trade. They are among the poorest people in one of the world's least-developed countries.
In a good year, Ar Loo makes about $1,000 from an acre-sized field of poppies. That doesn't include business expenses which he calls "paying respects" — a roughly 15 percent opium tax doled out to a variety of local authorities who turn a blind eye in exchange.
Police control the towns, government soldiers patrol the roads and ethnic armies rule the mountains. All of them get a cut.
"We give to the Shan militia, the police and the army," Ar Loo said.
There is a law that bans growing opium poppies, but he said no one in his village has ever been arrested. "We get permission from the local authorities, explaining that we need to do this to feed our children."
The government says it wants farmers to grow corn and other legal crops, but many poppy farmers say the terrible mountain roads mean getting legal crops to market is almost impossible.
Opium is different: The buyers come straight to your fields.
Ar Loo's poppy field is a 30-mile trek into the jungle, an inconvenient location he chose after police launched an anti-narcotics campaign a year ago and warned farmers to switch to legal crops — or face arrest.
"The farmers are just finding fields deeper in the mountains," shrugged Ar War, chief of a nearby community called Yar Thar Yar, or Beautiful View Village. Pointing at mist-shrouded jungles controlled by ethnic armies, he added, "It's harder for police to find them there."
And even with the campaign, part of the central government's new anti-narcotics effort, police may not be looking that hard. The payoffs continue.
The Golden Triangle is defined by the area where Shan state meets the borders of Thailand and Laos. It was the world's top opium-growing region for years, but in the 1990s, Afghanistan became the top producer and drug syndicates here began focusing more on methamphetamines.
Now heroin and methamphetamines are both on the rise.
In Thailand, authorities last year seized a record 82.2 million methamphetamine tablets, a 66 percent increase from the year before.
"These drugs are not produced in Thailand. They are from Myanmar," said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who has vocally called on Myanmar to step up its policing efforts. "If Myanmar cooperates, that's the end of the drug story. It's better than it used to be, but still far from perfect."
Authorities in Singapore, Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also reported record hauls that the U.N. says are predominantly from Myanmar.
Myanmar's poppy cultivation, meanwhile, has more than doubled since 2006, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Myanmar produced an estimated 690 tons of opium in 2012, a 17 percent jump from the year before.
No one can say for sure what is driving the overall increase in Myanmar's drug production, but Ar Loo, who doubled his poppy production last year, said his motivation was inflation.
"Food prices are going up. Gasoline is more expensive," he said. "If the military or police force us to stop immediately, there will be problems. Because people will not have enough to eat."
Experts offer other explanations — notably that cash-strapped ethnic armies are planning for the future.
Many rebels are resisting a government demand to form a joint patrol force with the army by 2015 but need more strength and leverage at the negotiating table.
"It's an uneasy cease-fire, and most of the groups are jostling to be in a better bargaining position," said Leik Boonwaat, the UNODC deputy regional director for East Asia and the Pacific. "In order to be in a better bargaining position, you need money, you need more soldiers, and the best way to do that is drugs."
Drugs could also offer traffickers a path to greater riches once trade barriers are lifted. Thailand's intelligence indicates that the rebel-controlled drug syndicates are planning for when 10 Southeast Asian countries lift trade barriers to become a single market in 2015.
"In 2015, these drug dealers will want to invest in legitimate businesses. So right now they are trying to boost their capital, and pumping out large amounts of drugs can help them achieve their goal," said Narong Rattananugul, acting head of Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Board.
Most of Myanmar's drugs are trafficked through its porous 1,100-kilometer (680-mile) border with Thailand. Narong said his country seizes drugs almost daily and added, "The problem cannot really be solved."
The drugs that exit the Golden Triangle ripple out across all of Asia, which is why Myanmar is seeking the world's help.
"This is not just Myanmar's concern. The whole international community should cooperate in eliminating the drug problem," said Myint Thein, the anti-drug official. "We cannot afford it alone."
Foreign funding has been trickling back into the country, now that most sanctions imposed during military rule have been lifted. The United States just reactivated a poppy yield survey in Shan state that was discontinued in 2004. The European Union and Germany have contributed $7 million for U.N. anti-drug projects over the next two years. But that is a tiny fraction of the money needed.
Earlier this month, Myanmar sent a high-level delegation to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna for the first time to highlight the link between drugs, poverty and conflict, and to ask for financial help.
In October, Myanmar quietly revised a deadline the ex-junta set in 1999 to wipe out illicit drugs by 2014. It changed the date to 2019 and set a more realistic target.
"Our objective is to reduce opium poppy cultivation as much as we can." said Myint Thein. "There is no country where you have zero drugs."
For years, soldiers with sickles were sent to destroy poppy crops, which was easy but ineffective.
"The government now realizes eradication doesn't work," said Jason Eligh, the UNODC representative in Myanmar who is leading a U.N. pilot project to help farmers switch to legal crops. "The government is starting to understand the value in admitting mistakes and admitting failure. These are small steps, but this is progress."
After being unable to access the drug-and-conflict zone for decades, the U.N. agency was allowed to enter southern Shan state for the first time in January 2012. The breakthrough came a month after the government signed cease-fire agreements with different factions of the Shan State Army.
Convincing farmers to try planting new crops is one of many challenges ahead, Eligh says.
"The farmers don't just want to eat. They need to make money," he said, adding that the government needs to offer farmers a path to a better life, with better roads, new schools and health centers and, most of all, peace and security.
"A process has begun. Will a process continue? I don't know," said Eligh. "These are groups that have been killing each other for decades. We've only been talking a few months. I would say this is a fragile relationship."
Eligh's pilot project has already persuaded some farmers to switch, but they may end up switching right back.
A middle-aged farmer named Awa Wadaa grew opium for 20 years and was pulling in $3,500 a year in the five-month poppy season when the U.N. offered him a way out. In 2012, he worked year-round rotating crops of corn, potatoes and sunflowers, and earned just $500.
"I don't want to grow poppies. I understand it is illegal and that drugs hurt our children," Awa Wadaa said. But the father of five added that without his poppy-farming income, he can't afford to keep his children in school.
"If I can't find a way to make more money," he said, "I will definitely go back to growing poppies."
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report from Bangkok.