By: Tom Fawthrop

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.”