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Turning a new leaf? Ethnic rebels along Myanmar's rugged frontier help eradicate poppy fields

  • Myanmar Poppy Eradication-1.jpg

    In this Jan. 30, 2014, photo, a Taang National Liberation army officer carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder while walking through a poppy field blooming with flowers close to Loi Chyaram village, a Taang self-governing area in northern Shan state, Myanmar. The rebel soldiers climbing this mountain, weapons at their shoulders, are doing battle not with government forces, but with opium crops that are destroying communities as they succumb to drug addiction.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)The Associated Press

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    In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, young Taang National Liberation army officers rest at a roadside make shift store after hiking for hours to destroy a poppy field close to Loi Chyaram village, a Taang self-governing area in northern Shan state, Myanmar. The rebel soldiers in this region are going into battle not with government forces, but against opium crops that are destroying communities in eastern Myanmar as they succumb to drug addiction. In some of this region's communities, half the residents are drug addicts, even children as young as 13. Deaths by overdose are common. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)The Associated Press

  • Myanmar Poppy Eradication-3.jpg

    In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, Taang rebels set fire to a poppy field close to Loi Chyaram village, a Taang self-governing area in northern Shan state, Myanmar. It's unclear whether the rebels troops who rely on the drug trade as their main source of income can or will do more than just wipe out a few fields here and there to placate villagers desperate over the toll drugs are taking. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)The Associated Press

  • Myanmar Poppy Eradication-4.jpg

    In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, Taang National Liberation army officers patrol through a gravel road in the mountains searching for poppy fields to destroy close to Loi Chyaram village, a Taang self-governing area in northern Shan state, Myanmar. In regions like the Shan state, drug eradication is complicated by the government's reluctance to force major changes while trying to forge a cease fire with the rebel forces.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)The Associated Press

  • Myanmar Poppy Eradication-5.jpg

    In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, a Taang National Liberation army officer holds a poppy flower as volunteers destroy a poppy field on rebel instruction close to Loi Chyaram village, a Taang self-governing area in northern Shan state, Myanmar. In some of this region's communities, half the residents are drug addicts, even children as young as 13. Deaths by overdose are common. “Drugs are destroying the lives of both adults and young people. That's why we are doing this,” says Captain Glang Dang of the Taang National Liberation Army. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)The Associated Press

The rebel soldiers climbing this mountain, rifles at their shoulders, are going into battle not with government forces, but against opium crops that are destroying communities in eastern Myanmar as they succumb to drug addiction.

Captain Glang Dang of the Taang National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Palaung ethnic minority, claims his men are making progress, thanks in part to local villagers, who are helping knock down and burn waves of poppies now in full bloom.

It's unclear, though, whether the rebels troops who rely on the drug trade as their main source of income can or will do more than just wipe out a few fields here and there to placate villagers desperate over the toll drugs are taking.

Myanmar was the world's No. 1 producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan. After a few years of decline, regional and local demand has revived poppy production in recent years. In 2013 Myanmar produced 870 tons of opium, up 26 percent from 2012 and the highest figure in a decade.

In some of communities along the rugged frontier of Shan state, half the residents are addicts of opium and heroin, even children as young as 13. Deaths by overdose are common.

"Drugs are destroying the lives of both adults and young people. That's why we are doing this," says Glang, who blames the army and ethnic Chinese groups for cat-and-mouse resistance to efforts to eradicate poppy fields and replace them with rice paddies and tea plantations.

"They open one side and close one side, close one side and open another," he said. "They went up to the mountains and destroyed some and let some grow."

Overall drug eradication efforts have waned. President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, indicated the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control the vast majority of the poppy growing territory.