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The Opium and Heroin Business Is Booming in Southeast Asia's 'Golden Triangle'

A new UN report says opium poppy production in parts of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand has tripled since 2006, and addiction to heroin and other drugs is also on the rise.
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Opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle" has tripled since 2006 and remains the primary means of subsistence — and the drug of choice — for farmers in many parts of rural Myanmar and Laos, according to a new UN report.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that cultivation in the two countries rose marginally this year, up to 63,800 hectares from 61,200 hectares in 2013. The vast majority of that production — which yielded an estimated 762 tons of opium and, after refinement, 76 tons of heroin — took place in Myanmar's Shan state.


Shan includes parts of the so-called "Golden Triangle," a lawless region along the border with Laos and Thailand. The state is notorious for its turbulence amid the simmering, half-century long civil war with the government in Yangon.

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Despite cultivation remaining roughly static, lower "farm gate" prices — the cost at which farmers sell their product to wholesalers — and eradication efforts caused Myanmar's overall opium production to fall by nearly a quarter, from 870 tons in 2013 to 670 tons this year.

Poppy growing in Myanmar remains below the peak it reached in the mid and late 1990s. A nationwide eradication effort saw an 86 percent fall in cultivation between 1998 and 2006. But growing regional demand and a lack of economic options for growers has led to a steady uptick in cultivation in the years since.

'It's a tremendous problem in these remote areas — these are virtually drug economies.'

Today, only Afghanistan, where growers planted some 224,000 hectares of opium in 2014, devotes more land to the crop.

While the average household in Myanmar not growing opium poppies in 2014 earned around $1,730, those who grew poppies made about 15 percent more —$2,040 according to the UN's estimate. Across Southeast Asia, the trade in opiates and heroin was estimated at more than $16.3 billion this year.

"These are extremely poor areas of Myanmar," Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's representative in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VICE News. "Until those people get better connected into a large development plan, they aren't going to have much chance to move away from this economy."


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The burgeoning demand for opiates is fuelled largely by China, were the number of heroin users has risen by roughly 500,000 since 2007, to 1.3 million. Douglas said many users consider heroin from the Golden Triangle purer than Afghan heroin.

Preliminary UN data shows opium use grew 83 percent in poppy-producing regions of Myanmar, and heroin use more than doubled in the same areas. In Kachin state, a secondary but sizeable growing region, the UN estimated that one in 25 people over age 15 used opium this year. In some towns, addicts inject heroin openly, and media reports have depicted local police even joining in with them.

Douglas concedes that many of UNODC's figures may be underestimating the true nature of drug use in rural areas where locals are reticent to admit they use.

Perhaps more troubling in Myanmar was an 87 percent increase in the use of amphetamine-type substances (ATS), most often ingested in the form of highly-cut uppers called "yaba." Yaba is widespread in Southeast Asia, and in recent years has appeared in India and Bangladesh, often selling for as little as $1 per pill. Unlike opium, which to an extent can be tracked with aerial and satellite imagery, meth labs are hard to pick out.

The labs, which have cropped up with regularity in many former opium-growing areas, are easily supplied with a steady quantity of precursor chemicals from China.


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"It's a tremendous problem in these remote areas — these are virtually drug economies," Nicolas Swanstrom, director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, told VICE News. "It's difficult to overestimate the impact these illegal economies can have.

"I think when UNODC makes these assessments, it can really be much larger," added Swanstrom, who carries out research in Myanmar several times every year. "You see the effects, people being high or low - it has to be bigger than the official estimates."

Myanmar, like most Southeast Asian countries, has strict prohibitionist laws against drug use and trafficking. In 1988, the regional bloc ASEAN aimed to make the Southeast Asia drug-free by 2015. Critics say that approach, and a lack of viable alternatives for growers, ensures no long-term solution can be reached — and leaves a place for organized crime to flourish in anarchic regions.

"It doesn't make sense any more to think in terms of drug-free deadlines," Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute's drugs and democracy program and co-author of a 2014 report titled "Relapse in the Golden Triangle," told VICE News in July. "It's an illusion that you can make the drug market disappear when in fact the size of the market has not been reduced at all."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @SamuelOakford

Photo via Flickr