Though we may think of the Golden Triangle as having passed its golden age, the reality is that heroin production in Myanmar over the past decade has been on the rise, with opiate trade incentivized by the country’s own military government. What impact does this have on the global heroin supply?
Though Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest opium producer, cornering 90% of the global market, Myanmar remains a major player. The amount of land used for opium poppy cultivation has more than doubled in the past ten years. The world supply of opium increased five-fold between 1980 and 2010. The UN World Drug Report draws some ominous connections between the increase in global opium supply and the consequences it entails for heroin users:
“Global opium poppy cultivation in 2014 reached its highest level since the late 1930s. The increase in estimated opium and heroin production has not yet been reflected in an increase in heroin supply in most regions. But in some countries there have been signs of increases in heroin-related indicators such as mortality and health emergencies, and in others indications of increased purity and lower prices.”
Myanmar is the main supplier of heroin to Southeast Asia, and supplies most of China’s 2.2 million heroin users. Lao PDR supplies Southeast Asian heroin (all processed in Myanmar) to a lesser extent. A significant amount of the heroin used in Australia and New Zealand is also sourced from Myanmar.
While opium is also cultivated for the production of legal opiates, you can be certain that 100% of the opium produced in Myanmar is consumed illegally in the form of opium or heroin. Legal opiates are produced in federally regulated production settings, labs, or controlled fields by farmers employed by international pharmaceutical companies.
Why the Opium Poppy is the Cash Crop of Choice
Poppy plants can grow in unfavorable conditions, at high elevations and on steep slants, making the hills of Myanmar ideal growing territory, much like Afghanistan. Furthermore, other cash crops suitable for upland cultivation like as fruit trees, tea and coffee take years to mature, whereas poppy fields can be harvested every three to four months.
High yield, ability to grow in inhospitable terrain, and guaranteed buyers combined with economic instability and severe food insecurity make poppies the perfect plant. For many Myanmar farmers, growing poppies is not only practical, but is often their only reliable source of income. Of course, most if not all participating farmers are aware of the vital link that they play in the drug production chain, but are unable to envision an alternative. Once they commit to harvesting poppies, in most cases their fate is sealed. Many farmers look to growing poppies as a short-term investment in order to make some quick cash, but after the income ensues and they have made contact with the next link in the chain, they are often ‘convinced’ to remain in the business.
The Tatmadaw and Opium Trade
Since the late 1980s, the ruling military party of Myanmar has used the drug economy as a means to finance its political objectives. Taxing farmers, traders and traffickers has become an accepted means through which army units stationed across Shan State (where most opium production is located) are able to finance themselves. The vulnerability of poppy farmers is hugely exploitable and even army-mandated crop destruction has become a means to extract bribes or ‘protection fees’ from farmers, paid in desperation in order to save their livelihoods.
The drug trade has also been used by the Myanmar Army as a way to finance a large number of local militias. These militias have been deployed to protect development projects across Shan State, including oil and gas pipelines and dams, and to seize land from farmers for large-scale agricultural projects that contribute money to conflict efforts. Militias are not paid directly by the government but in return for their services they have been granted various business opportunities, including the right to tax poppy farmers and to refine heroin and sell drugs without facing punishment.
The Real Price of Heroin
The other harsh reality is that a significant amount of opium, converted into heroin, stays inside the borders of Myanmar, making its way into the lungs and veins of vulnerable citizens who can purchase heroin at an alarmingly cheap rate. As the poppies continue to grow, so does the rate of addiction among Myanmar people. Heroin use is the main driver of HIV and AIDS, and continues to kill more people than ethnic conflict in the war-torn country.
The results of the recent election in Myanmar could be a step in the right direction, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has hardly commented on how they plan to tackle Myanmar’s opium addiction and production. “We recognise the existence of this problem but we’re too preoccupied with preparations for transfer of power and can’t find a chance to think of it seriously at the moment,” said senior NLD leader Win Htein.
The future of Myanmar’s political situation and ability to regulate their illegal drug trade remain uncertain. For now, it looks like heroin production in the region will continue to rise, along with heroin use and addiction worldwide.