BURMA: Ethnic Women Expose Opium Fields in Junta Strongholds

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Sunday, January 31, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'One of the most damning points of this new report is to show the extent of opium being grown in areas under the control of the Burmese military regime,' said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights group monitoring rights violations in Burma.

'The regime has tried to give the impression that poppy cultivation continues in areas only under the control of ethnic rebel groups,' she told IPS. 'But these women have seriously undermined that picture.'

'What these women have done must come as a rude shock to the regime,' Stothard revealed. 'They were able to do so because women have been largely under the radar in how information and intelligence is gathered in the field.'

Yet Stothard admitted that the women involved in the report, ‘Poisoned Hills’, released on Jan. 26, had embarked on a dangerous mission to complete their task. 'They took great risks in gathering this information for they know what it means to be seen as an enemy by the junta.'

Some 30 women from the Palaung ethnic community, who live close to the border that Burma shares with China, were involved in the report that took two years to produce, said Lway Aye Nang, co-author of the groundbreaking report. 'They were all above 25 years. Some had basic education — middle school, high school; some had gone to university.'

The Palaung are one of some 130 ethnic communities who live in Burma, also known as Myanmar. These include the Shan, the Karen and the Kachin. The majority of the South-east Asian country’s estimated 56 million people are Burmans.

There is little mystery why the Palaung women were drawn to serve as grassroots researchers for the report produced by the Palaung Women’s Organisation (PWO), based in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burma border. 'They were directly affected by the consequence of opium cultivation in their communities,' Lway Aye Nang remarked in an IPS interview.

'We have been motivated in this research by the suffering of women in our communities whose lives are continuing to be devastated by the addiction of their husbands, sons and fathers,' the report declares in its introduction.

Most disturbing, according to PWO, is the litany of abuse wives face from their heroin-addicted husbands. These women, who make a barely livable income working in the tea cultivations in that hilly terrain, are verbally and physically abused when their husbands, who are reportedly unemployed, need money for a heroin fix.

'The women have suffered more because of this,' said Lway Aye Nang. 'The men use violence to get money from their wives. They sometimes steal things the women own or things from the house to sell to buy drugs.'

Besides domestic violence, the Palaung women endure other trials. They range from being infected with HIV by their husbands to the inability to educate their children as the household incomes are drained to pay for the male heroin addiction.

The PWO’s report goes beyond shredding the Burmese regime’s picture of the opium fields in the northern stretches of Shan state, part of the infamous drug-producing and -trafficking area spread across Thailand and Laos and dubbed the ‘Golden Triangle’. The 55-page ‘Poisoned Hills’ also questions the findings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

'Between 2007 and 2009, PWO conducted field surveys in Namkham and Mantong townships, and found that the total area of opium cultivated increased almost fivefold over three years from 963 hectares in the 2006-7 season to 4,545 hectares in the 2008-9 season,' states the report.

'The amounts are far higher than reported in the annual opium surveys of the (UNODC), and are flourishing not in ‘insurgent and ceasefire areas,’ as claimed by the U.N., but in areas controlled by Burma’s military government,' adds the report.

'Namkham and Mantong are both fully under the control of the (Burmese regime). The areas have an extensive security infrastructure, including Burmese army battalions, police and pro-government village militia.'

The U.N. drug agency’s findings, although more conservative, indicated that opium production was on the rise in north-eastern Burma, an area more extensive than the two townships surveyed for the PWO report.

The area under opium cultivation had expanded by 11 percent since 2008 and by 'almost 50 percent since 2006, reaching a total of 31,700 hectares in 2009,' the U.N. agency revealed in mid-December in a survey, ‘Opium Poppy Cultivation in South-East Asia’. 'More than one million people are now involved in opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar, most of them in Shan State, where 95 percent of Myanmar’s poppy is grown.'

But the current area of opium cultivation is still well below what it was in the 1990s, when the land area covered by opium fields was nearly five times the current number and earned Burma the notoriety of being the world’s leading opium producer.

Burma gave way to Afghanistan as the world’s largest supplier of heroin after the junta declared publicly in 2000 that it was committed to eradicating opium fields in the country by 2014. Some eradication efforts saw the number of opium fields dwindle till 2005, for which the Burmese regime won much needed praise and support from the UNODC and the international community.

Yet such praise by the UNODC of the junta’s efforts to end heroin production blinds it to the actual picture on the ground, said Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the ‘Shan Herald Agency for News’, a web publication based in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai. 'This is what the report by the PWO also confirms.'

'They (UNODC) rely too much on official information the junta gives them,' said Khuensai, who has written extensively about Burma’s narcotics trade. 'They need to work with the local ethnic groups to get a better picture.'

The courageous women of Palaung have provided that picture.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?