LOI CHYARAM VILLAGE, Burma — The rebel soldiers climbing this mountain, rifles at their shoulders, are going into battle not with government forces, but against opium crops that are destroying communities in eastern Burma as they succumb to drug addiction.
Captain Glang Dang of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Palaung ethnic minority, claims his men are making progress, thanks in part to local villagers, who are helping knock down and burn waves of poppies now in full bloom.
It’s unclear, though, whether the rebel troops, who rely on the drug trade as their main source of income, can or will do more than just wipe out a few fields here and there to placate villagers desperate over the toll drugs are taking.
Burma was the world’s No. 1 producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan. After a few years of decline, regional and local demand has revived poppy production in recent years. In 2013, Burma produced 870 tons of opium, up 26 percent from 2012 and the highest figure in a decade.
In some of the communities along the rugged frontier of Shan State, half the residents are addicts of opium and heroin, even children as young as 13. Deaths by overdose are common.
“Drugs are destroying the lives of both adults and young people. That’s why we are doing this,” says Glang, who blames the army and ethnic Chinese groups for cat-and-mouse resistance to efforts to eradicate poppy fields and replace them with rice paddies and tea plantations.
“They open one side and close one side, close one side and open another,” he said. “They went up to the mountains and destroyed some and let some grow.”
Overall drug eradication efforts have waned. President Thein Sein’s spokesman, Ye Htut, indicated the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control the vast majority of the poppy-growing territory.