The opium question

Another issue that has been prevalent in the recent history of the country and now seems more in the background but only because surpassed by others of greater impact or urgency, is opium.
The commitment to the ending of both opium production and trade in Myanmar continues to have the support of foreign donors and international structures to counter the spread of drugs and drug addiction. That of opium is one of the emergencies never really challenged by the military regime in power until 2010, and the source of funding of ethnic militias and local ‘warlords’ in the areas of internal conflict.


Narcotics pose yet another problem for the democratic parties, but it is not among the priorities of the government-led program. “We recognize the existence of a problem related to opium cultivation, but at the moment we are too busy preparing the transfer of powers to be able to seriously think about this also”, confirmed Win Htein, one of the League leaders.
Not an insignificant problem, however, and also related to the transition. Even under a government  of democratic guidance, in fact, the military, in addition to maintaining 25% of reserved seats in parliament, will retain control of the ministries of Defence, Interior and Borders. A circumstance, this latter which will allow them to continue managing, in partnership with the allied ethnic militias,  a substantial part of the drug trafficking that has its origin in the border regions themselves.


According to the latest statistics from a UN source, 200,000 people base their existence on the exploitation of 55,500 hectares of cultivation of opium poppy, and the conversion into profitable but less problematic crops is difficult. As reported by The Lashi, coordinator of the Forum of the opium growers in Myanmar: “For example, in the state of Shan, farmers are interested in growing nuts, legumes and jackfruit, – he says – and we also suggest coffee, so that in case of a commercial failure in one product, another can enter as substitute”.
Is it realistic to think of a program of total eradication of opium and the transformation of illicit crops into coffee plantations as proposed? Lashi La’s response is in the affirmative: “We calculated that more or less 150 million dollars would be necessary. A figure that appears modest when compared to other international initiatives against the production of drugs”. It is obviously necessary to convince farmers of the goodness of the replacement proposals, since opium is rooted not only in their economy, but also in their cultural and medical traditions.
“Further – the activist also notes  – the relative ease of cultivation is another obstacle. Not to mention the high value also in relation to its low weight. Conditions that make it difficult for the population to give up its cultivation. As well as the situation of conflict existing in different areas. It is easy, in case of the  necessity to escape, to carry the harvest with one, but not so for other agricultural products”.


One of the challenges to be overcome in order to start a concrete economic development of these areas is also the local use of opium, higher in areas outside government control. To the point that the ethnic militias themselves suffer because of the abuse of opiates. A problem of enormous dimensions in Myanmar, which also affects other countries, especially those of consumers: China, Laos and Thailand.
For the third year the Burmese production appears to have stabilized after increasing three times since 2006, with an estimated amount now of 650 tons. The acreage of opium cultivation is also stable. The reasons for this are various and certainly the national and international commitment is among these but, warns Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC representative responsible for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, “the production remains at high levels and the peasants made refugees by the conflict, if left without alternatives, could return to the traditional cultivations.


The challenge of methamphetamine should not however be ignored, which competes with opium derivatives, including heroin, but with a greater extension, in practice throughout the whole Asian continent, and particularly supported by Chinese demand. The huge market so close to home, where 70 percent of Asian heroin addicts live, makes local production and also its control crucial.

Stefano Vecchia




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