Ethnic Shan rebel leaders say the Burmese government has not demonstrated a serious commitment to fighting the drug trade in eastern Burma’s Shan State, despite joining a drug eradication program with the rebels and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)’s anti-narcotics committee said on Monday that the joint efforts to battle the drug trade started in October last year, but that little progress had been made on the ground.
“We reached the agreement more than a year ago, but we can’t implement anything,” Lt-Col Sai Harn, head of the RCSS anti-narcotics committee, told The Irrawaddy. He said collaboration was weak with Burmese authorities.
“Since meeting in Tachileik last year, we have not had any official meetings,” he said. “They met us unofficially. When we asked them something, they did not give us a clear answer. They said they did not get an order from higher officials.”
The RCSS is the political wing of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), one of the largest ethnic rebel groups in Burma.
In late October last year, it joined the UNODC and the Burmese government’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) in meetings in the border town of Tachileik to cooperate on creating alternative development projects to benefit farmers who currently have few other options besides growing opium poppy.
The RCSS, the UNODC and Burmese authorities agreed to conduct a pre-assessment in nine villages in Mong Pan Township and 11 villages in Mong Nai Township in February and March. In the pre-assessment, local residents told the RCSS that they would prefer growing other crops besides opium poppy if the alternatives provided a sufficient income.
“They used to grow substitute crops in the past, but there was no good market, so they grew opium to earn more,” Sai Harn said.
Burma’s is the world’s second-largest opium producing nation after Afghanistan, and Shan State is believed to be the largest drug-producing region in the country.
Since reaching a ceasefire with the government in December 2011, the RSCC has opened several offices and appointed liaison officers for communications. It says it has struggled to get in touch with Burmese authorities working on the drug eradication project, and that it has been told that the UNODC cannot offer technical or financial support for alternative development projects without an official green light from Burmese authorities.
Sai Harn said he met in early April with UNODC country manager Jason Eligh in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, and that he received assurances that the UN organization would discuss the needs assessment in Mong Pan and Mong Nai with the government later that month.
The RCSS says it asked a Burmese official, Pol-Col Win Tun about the launch date of the needs assessment, and was told that he would need to ask the UNODC for further information. At the same time, he said the UNODC has claimed it cannot not offer financial or technical support for the assessment without approval from Burmese authorities.
The UNODC highlighted in a report last week how poor farmers without alternative ways of making a living often turn to opium production. The UN agency estimated in an annual survey that Burma would produce 870 metric tons of opium this year, a 26 percent increase over production last year.