The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) said this week that its opium eradication agreements with Burma’s government and the UN “could not be achieved so far” in Shan State.
The ethnic rebel group agreed to the joint eradication projects in the past year, but it now says that the issue should be addressed more thoroughly during ongoing negotiations with Naypyidaw and in closer cooperation with the UN.
The drug eradication issue came up in talks soon after peace negotiations began in earnest early last year. The RCSS (the political wing of the Shan State Army South) then agreed with the government’s Central Anti-Narcotics Task Force and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the implementation of several pilot projects in Mong Nai and Mong Pan townships.
Numerous skirmishes between the Shan rebels and the Burma Army have since been reported, however, and implementation of the projects subsequently suffered.
In June this year, RCSS leader Lt-Gen Yawd Serk made a first-ever visit to Naypyiydaw to hold direct talks with President Thein Sein and military tensions between the sides have been reduced in recent months.
A RCSS report on opium trade and cultivation, released on Monday, said the discussions with Naypyidaw have yet to make an impact on the drug production in Shan State.
“The cooperation in narcotics drug eradication has been included as one of the most important points of the discussion. In spite of the agreements made, cooperation for the implementation could not be achieved in reality so far, as had been planned,” the report said.
RCSS deputy spokesperson Sai Murng told The Irrawaddy that drug eradication efforts had faltered due to “a lack of collaboration from government troops in the region.”
More than 300,000 Shan families grow opium poppies and the illicit crop is their main sources of income, according to the UNODC. Burma is the world’s second-largest opium producer after Afghanistan, and poppy cultivation has increased in the last six years in Shan State.
The RCSS said it has been battling opium production since 1999 through its own program, which is led by the RCSS Anti-Narcotics Task Force.
The group has been engaged in a decades-long rebellion against Burma’s central government in order to gain political autonomy and respect for basic rights for ethnic Shan groups.
In its report on Monday, the RCSS called for closer cooperation with the UN and Naypyidaw now that peace talks are progressing. “[S]olving the narcotic problems should not take longer. It should soon be implemented to benefit every party,” the report said.
“[T]he danger of narcotic drugs that Shan State people face today becomes more intense. Therefore, while we are trying to find political resolution, it is also time for us to solve narcotic drug issue.”
RCSS Anti-Narcotics Committee Secretary Sai Seng Wan said the group wants to wipe out opium production completely within six years after full implementation of joint projects start on the ground in Shan State.
“The 6-year plan of the RCSS is to be counted only from the time when all the stakeholders start working together in the process of the drug-eradication plan,” Maj Sai Seng wrote in an email.
Sai Murng, RCSS deputy spokesman, said the group would also cooperate and share information with authorities in China and Thailand, the main destination countries of the illicit trade.
Shan Herald Agency News editor Khun Sai, a long-time observer of the drug trade, said opium had been a key cash crop for impoverished Shan families for decades and Burma’s government had failed to create policies that addressed the issue and create alternative income sources.
“Despite the government’s willingness to do eradication and create alternative development for residents, its policies have not yet fully succeeded,” he said, adding that Burma’s government lacks the means to offer alternative livelihoods to Shan farmers.
“We were told by the government that financial issues play an important role here, as budget needs are key for development projects” in Shan State, Khun Sai said.