THON MIN YAR, Myanmar (AP) — 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.