Opium and the Disconnect Between Farmers and Users

At the end of every year in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, red and white poppies burst into picturesque bloom, festooning with color the hills and mountain slopes of northern Myanmar, which ranks as the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan.

At the other end of the opium pipeline lie millions of wrecked lives from misguided policies treating addition as a crime. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, decades of forced opium eradication by successive military regimes have had no more success in winning the so-called war on drugs, which is often brutally directed against poppy cultivation and much of the ethnic population concentrated in the conflict-ridden Shan state in the north.

Now opium farmers are speaking out for the first time against the government’s hardline drug policy, with backing from the Trans National Institute, a research and advocacy body based in Amsterdam in an effort to find a path between cultivation and eradication that would allow farmers a way to make a living, spotlighting more the need to reform end-user destinations.

The Third Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum was recently held in the town of Pyin Oo Lwin and brought together 30-odd representatives of local communities involved in poppy cultivation in the major opium growing regions.

“Opium farmers are not criminals,” said a farmer from Kachin State. “We don’t grow opium as a big business to become rich. We grow it as a means of supporting our families.”

The new Myanmar government “should introduce policies that support opium farmers rather than criminalizing them,” said Tom Kramer, the Yangon-based TNI representative. “Myanmar’s harsh drug laws should be reformed and made more humane.”

Policy Alternatives Needed Globally

TNI advocates global drug policy alternatives based around rural development and moving the handling of narcotics and drug addiction policy away from police and army enforcement and into the reformist sphere of health priorities, harm reduction, treatment clinics and decriminalization.

Opium from Myanmar is converted into the far more dangerous drug, heroin often in makeshift jungle laboratories, and smuggled by international gangs from the Golden Triangle where Myanmar meets Thailand and Laos to the west. Western media has invariably depicted the prime victims of the drug wars as the heroin addicts on the streets of London and New York. However the recently founded Opium Farmers Forum claims the farmers living off the poppy-lands of Myanmar and the civilian population of the Shan state subject to periodic military bombardment are also victims.

An opium farmer from Hsihseng Township in southern Shan State told the recent forum “the opium farmers are suffering from the destruction of opium fields by different government departments and ethnic armies.”

“Opium supports our living,” said another farmer, from northern Shan State. “With the cash earned from opium, we use it for our health, social welfare, education, and developmental needs of our communities such as repair of roads, bridges, schools, water and electricity supply”

According to a Ta-ang opium farmer: “We grow opium to make income to support our living, education of our children, and to solve our health problems. Opium supports 90 percent of our household income. ”

Not surprisingly all the opium farmers and their representatives at the forum declined to reveal their names and the rules of the meeting protected their anonymity.

“We, opium farmers and representatives of opium farming communities from Kayah State, Shan State, Kachin State and Chin State are not rich and we grow it for our survival,” according to a statement by the Third Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum. “Therefore, we should not be treated as criminals. We demand to be involved in decision-making processes about drug policies and development programs that are affecting our lives.”

Development, Opium and Crop Substitution

While authorities across the planet have long advocated crop substitution as the answer to the farmers’ plight, such projects have had little impact in Myanmar. Three new projects are now underway in Hopong Township in southern Shan state, which accounts for 55 percent of all the opium cultivated in the country (with northern Shan state representing another 35 percent)

But narcotics enforcement has more often meant campaigns to eliminate and destroy the opium crop without giving the farmers any alternatives. TNI director Martin Jelsma, however, calls forced eradication a violation of human rights.

“In the absence of sustainable alternative income sources, eradication of smallholder farmers constitutes a violation of their right to be free from hunger and live a life in dignity.”

Along with the undeniable destruction of lives in western societies, opium derivatives have long provided the world with its most effective pain relief. It is also widely used in Myanmar for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery and cough. The medicinal benefits to hill-tribe communities and ethnic peoples has long been ignored by governments and drug authorities while the national government’s rural health facilities have failed to reached these remote parts of the country.

Anthropologist and UNESCO consultant David Feinberg has long advocated decriminalization and "benign neglect" of the international ban on opium. For many observers it is a cruel irony that in western world we take for granted that hospital patients have the right to pain-killing morphine injections derived from opium poppy, and yet US government pressure to strictly enforce opium eradication over many decades, has been responsible for denying villagers the only medicine available in many parts of Shan and other ethnic states.

However senior staff with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledge that to make a real difference they would need huge donor funding over many years, to plant the seeds of a viable alternative to the current opium economy.

So given the reality that opium is likely to be dominate the economic landscape for many years to come even with a more democratic NLD government taking over in 2016, maybe the drug authorities should seriously the farmers proposals to take some of the opium crop out of the black-market under international supervision.

The opium farmers have recommended to the Myanmar drug authorities that ‘part of the opium cultivation should be legalized to help families meet their basic needs, and to preserve the medicinal value of opium and its traditional and veterinary use. ‘

It was aired by opium farmers at a workshop called ‘Opportunities for Development-Oriented Drug Control in Myanmar’ .January 2015 attended by high-ranking members of the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).

Drug-Free ASEAN 2015

While the CCDAC drug authorities have started listening to a reform agenda from the farmers and civil society, this year is also notable for the ministerial declaration of a “Drug-free ASEAN in 2015.’Hard-line enforcement is still the mantra of ASEAN leaders, but recognition that the old recipes for narcotics suppression have failed is growing across the globe, if slowly.

The recent landslide success of the opposition NLD party demonstrates that Myanmar is changing, raising hopes that the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi can provide a boost to the adoption of more rational socio-legal approach to the use and abuse of drugs.

Tom Fawthrop (tomfawthrop@gmail.com) is a Chiang Mai-based journalist and filmmaker specializing in Southeast Asia.