BANGKOK (Reuters) - Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar’s northern Shan state has surged in areas controlled by the military-ruled government, a report said on Tuesday, adding to signs of an opium revival in the so-called Golden Triangle.
The amount of land used in the Shan state to grow opium — a paste from the poppy used to make heroin — increased five-fold from 2006 to 2009 to nearly 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres), according to the report by the Palaung Women’s Organisation, a Thailand-based rights group.
The figure, based on field assessments, reinforces recent U.N. studies suggesting opium poppy cultivation in the world’s second-largest heroin producer is on the rise after a period of decline brought on by a crackdown on heroin trafficking in neighbouring China to curb the spread of HIV.
The report said Myanmar’s army officials and pro-government militia are extorting money from poppy farmers and leaving the crop intact, and that 37 million kyat (22,800 pound) in bribes were collected in one township alone between 2007 to 2008.
Such bribes would represent a large figure in a country where many people earn less than $1 day.
Myanmar government officials were not immediately available to comment on the report.
The study was conducted in two main Shan state areas — Mantong and Namkham townships — which earlier had been targeted to be opium-free by 2004 under a drug-eradication programme carried out by the military rulers of the former Burma.
Shan is dominated by ethnic Chinese and is home to several armed ethnic armies. It borders China to the north, Laos to the east and Thailand to the south, putting it at the centre of the “Golden Triangle,” Southeast Asia’s major opium-producing region.
The report said the military regime and a pro-government militia took control of the two townships examined in the report in 2005, when a cease-fire agreement ended with a rebel group, the Palaung State Liberation Army (PSLA).
“More of the regime’s troops and militias are everywhere. For us this has meant more drugs and more addiction,” said Lway Nway Hnoung, the main researcher of the report.
The report followed a study released last month by the United Nations anti-drug agency that said opium cultivation in Myanmar had increased for the third straight year with the number of hectares rising by 50 percent since 2006.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report said Myanmar’s opium production increased 11 percent in 2009, with Shan state providing 95 percent of the poppy. It said some ethnic groups were also stepping up opium cultivation to buy weapons to defend themselves against possible attacks by the military.
Myanmar’s army has maintained a sizable presence over the past few months in Shan state, where rebel militias are braced for an offensive that analysts said could turn into a protracted conflict, creating a refugee crisis for neighbouring China.
The junta wants ethnic groups to take part in a general election next year and has told local militias to disarm and join a government-run border patrol force or be wiped out, according to Shan state activists.
The mountainous Golden Triangle once accounted for more than 70 percent of the world’s supply of heroin, but poppy cultivation dropped to 24,157 hectares from 157,900 hectares between 1988 and 2006, according to UNODC. It is now far exceeded by Afghanistan.
Editing by Jason Szep and Jerry Norton