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“The growers don’t know how to earn money except by growing opium”

A testimony on drug production and drug use in Myanmar

Shirlei ZEN

01 / 2009

In Myanmar, the second biggest opium producer in the world, young people seem to have forgotten the traditional benefits of opium and are now heavily consuming a stronger and more dangerous variation of this substance: heroin. This situation worries Stephen, who has been for many years, and most of the time out of his own funding, striving to stop drug use in his country. Stephen still has a long way to go. In his country, both the production and consumption of drugs continue to increase. Another big problem is the lack of freedom to carry out his projects, because of the military rulers of his country. Nevertheless, this Burmese man does not seem to be willing to give up his fight.

Tell us about your work.

I’m a freelance. I’ve also been involved with the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Program, in the state of Kachin for over 20 years, and with reforestation programs. Furthermore, I take part in a program aimed at combating the use of drugs, which I run independently from the government program, working together with the community. For the opium program, I can only accept very limited budgets, and most of the time I’m using my own family’s money. I also wrote many books, both in our language and in English.

How does this program tackle the issue of drug use?

First of all, I tried to collect data about the reality of what was happening in our state. In this process, I found out that many kids in our society were getting ruined by drug consumption. I have no idea how to solve the problem, but sometimes in my workshops I educate people about the consequences of using drugs and about finding alternatives to it.

What is the current situation of the opium producing communities?

The situation is very serious. I talk about this in my book. Around 2003/2004, there has been a slight decrease in the use of these drugs, but now the numbers are going up again. Communication networks in Kachin are very precarious, and transportation is very bad. That is good for the businessmen who want to grow the poppy in this area, because they are hard to find. They can also bribe the authorities. In other words, if you give money to them, you are allowed to grow the poppy. There is a lot of corruption.

How is land distributed in Myanmar?

Everything is owned by the state - land, water, everything. If you’ve got a plot, and if they want it, you’ve got to move out. We don’t have rights, and the constitution is not perfect. We live in a dictatorship.

What does opium mean for the communities who produce it? What traditional uses does it have?

During World War II, the British and the American used opium as a weapon to win the war against the Japanese, because opium, when it’s simply smoked, can energize human beings and animals. But now, with the advances of technology, opium is turned into heroin. Heroin is a very strong opium that people can either smoke or inject. If you inject heroin, you can, with the same amount of drug, have a much stronger reaction; hence people are turning a lot to injecting it. But when it is used in the traditional way, opium is smoked; it can be very good both to relax, and also to cure various diseases such as dysenteries, cholera, or even malaria. It can also relieve your tiredness. When you feed it to elephants and donkeys, it works in the same way.

Where is it processed?

I think they process heroin along the borderline with China.

Where are the main consumer markets?

Heroin is distributed by mafias all over the world. We are the second biggest producer in the world, just behind Afghanistan. We are part of what 15 years ago used to be called the “Golden Triangle” (Myanmar, Thailand and Laos) for the production of opium. Now production is more and more concentrated in the areas of Shan and Kachin states; these are the leading opium producing areas.

Are the producers marginalized by society in general?

In the old days, people from the remote areas used to grow poppy plants for their own consumption, but now, many businessmen are coming to these areas and hiring these people, giving them money in advance so that the landworkers have money to grow their plantations. When harvest time comes, what happens is that those businessmen come back to collect 2 to 3 times the amount of money that they had originally lent to the farmers. And so, instead of getting their money back, they take the opium. This is devastating for rural livelihoods.

Is there much violence involved in growing poppy?

The population of these areas is very low, so there is no violence

What is the relationship between the government and the poppy growers?

The government would like to eradicate it within 15 years. They use their own enforcement methods ruthlessly; they are not concerned with people’s livelihood. The problem is that the growers can’t see that poppy can be something very dangerous. They can only see that poppy is something good for the community, because of all the uses that it has always had.

It is said that there is a lot of money coming from the poppy plantations that is being re-invested into infrastructures. How does the government control this?

No, I don’t think that’s true.

How does the process of eradication of opium work in Myanmar?

This is a military government policy. One of the reasons that they are proceeding with this eradication is that by doing so, they can get some financial support from foreign agencies. So they are trying to eradicate it, but not very seriously. It is not easy to catch the farmers, and sometimes farmers grow opium in two different areas, one for selling it, and one to be found by the police. When someone gets caught, he goes to prison. In 1995, 96 people were condemned to the death penalty for producing opium.

Because of this eradication campaign, production of opium between 1998 and 2006 has suffered a 80% decrease, but now it is apparently going up again. What would you say is causing this?

These are governemental figures. It is very hard to collect genuine information. I have to use government information, but it is very difficult to assess how accurate it is.

For an eradication campaign to be successful, there must be an alternative to opium. What could this alternative be?

My experience is that we have to go to the poppy growing areas and educate people, taking into account their livelihood, their health, education, and food security. The growers don’t know how to earn money except by growing opium. We have to raise awareness and, most importantly, we’ve got to consider their food security. Without food, they will grow opium again. So if I’ve got a chance and if my family can support it, I’d like to start this awareness-raising program in our state.

Would the government support it?

I don’t hope for it, and I’d never want to make any connection with the government. They’ve got a top-down policy, and it is very difficult. Through the government, I can only do some training. The whole situation depends on whether the government approves of it or not.

In addition to your plans to educate and to give these people food security, there is also the need for them to have an alternative source of income. What could it be?

Right now, we don’t have a complete set of rules and regulations. At present, a lot of Chinese people are coming to live in Myanmar. We’ve got, first of all, to consider landownership and to stabilize community forest rights. This is a long term process, but we have to do it. We organize the people, and we teach them how to secure their land registration, which is very hard, although not impossible, to obtain.

Would you personally defend the total eradication of poppy, or would you have traditional communities allowed to grow poppy for their own use?

If you allow them to grow opium, they would grow it for selling, because the only way that these people can make money is through opium production. I’d eradicate everything, but I’d consider their livelihood. HIV is spreading very fast, together with moral corruption, trafficking of women, prostitution. We’d have to educate them before they could be allowed to grow it.

How would you like to see your community in the future? Can you imagine alternatives? What has to change?

Our goal is to have a state free from drugs. Opium used in the traditional way is good, but the young generation doesn’t understand how to use it in a wise way. The young people are now using it for their pleasure. They are not using it, but actually abusing it. I’m waiting for 2010 , after the election. If things go well, then there’s a chance that I will be able to promote the program in the community, but right now it is very difficult. You cannot just do what you want to do, you can only act depending on the situation and the conditions.

Palabras claves

opio, agricultura ilícita, droga, consumo de droga, geopolítica de la droga

, Myanmar


Foro Mundial de Productores de Cultivos Declarados Ilícitos


Interview realised during the Ist Global Forum of Producers of Crops Declared Illegal.



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