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  • The War on Drugs
  • Paul Sarno (bio)


This article demonstrates the inadequate response of the international community to the suppression of drugs in Myanmar and the lost opportunity by the United States to reverse its policy toward interdiction since 2002. First, it provides a brief history of drug production in Myanmar and examines the reliability of surveys conducted by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the United States, both together with Myanmar, on opium cultivation and of estimates of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) production. Second, it sheds light on international and domestic efforts to halt the production and distribution of opium, heroin and ATS, and discusses the roots of the dramatic decline in opium cultivation and production over the twelve years preceding 2007. Third, it evaluates the alleged involvement of authorities under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the governing body of Myanmar, in the drug trade. Fourth, it concludes that extensive assistance by the international community and local authorities is vital to avoid a humanitarian disaster in the opium cultivation areas and consequent reversal of the favourable progression.

An Historical Overview

For centuries farmers have grown the opium poppy plant mostly in the far reaches of northern Myanmar for medicine and to raise cash. The British commercialized the cultivation in colonial times. After Independence in 1948, Myanmar nationals, often minority groups in the growing areas, have became the wholesalers, while ethnic Chinese merchants and international syndicates located in Thailand and, later, China have been the ultimate major purchasers of the poppy crop. Since [End Page 223] the completion of ceasefire agreements between the Myanmar government and various ethnic armed resistance groups starting in 1989, the latter have been given varying degrees of autonomy in their fiefdoms and are permitted to tax the poppy farmers, opium manufacturers and distributors.

Beginning in 1999, Myanmar and these local ethnic minorities agreed to eliminate poppy growing by 2014 and the former increased its suppression efforts after a period of lethargy. Thereafter, poppy growing and production were largely confined to the Shan State and to the Kokang and Wa ethnic minorities in whose areas most of the crop was being cultivated, until they banned such planting.

In 2000, production of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) was commenced, largely in the Wa regions. Most was sold in Thailand and China.

Measuring Drug Production in Myanmar

There is controversy about the reliability of the surveys of poppy cultivation and yield. First, farmers have developed a proclivity for planting further and further from the roads in already remote areas to escape detection and possible eradication. Second, they have established other strategies to evade periodic ground and satellite photographic detection and eradication, such as broadcasting seeds twice in the same field in one or two month intervals or in different fields at different times. Thus the poppy yield is harvested at disparate times. Third, other planters pour iodized salt on a field to accelerate rot of plant residue left after eradication and then re-broadcast using urea fertilizer to bring a poppy crop to fruition. There is also early cultivation in the hopes of harvesting before the surveying begins. Fourth, the personal on-site inspection portion of the UNDOC surveys are conducted principally by Myanmar government officials, including the police, albeit overseen by visits from UN personnel, and farmers and headmen are reluctant to admit income from poppy cultivation where the state policy is opium extermination. Fifth, much of the farmed areas are under the control of ethnic groups, and the surveyors cannot live amongst the thousands of cultivators throughout the usual growing season, much less the entire year. Therefore the surveyors' assessment cannot be as accurate as that of the farmers who reside there or the traffickers who visit often.

Any relatively precise quantification of the production of amphetamine tablets is much more nettlesome as their manufacture is more difficult to detect. Unlike opium production, virtually no acreage or extensive manpower or expertise is required in order to produce these pills in small mobile laboratories. No such [End Page 224] manpower is needed to transport them on routes which are altered constantly and they can be conveyed utilizing much less effort than...


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pp. 223-242
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