Opium Turns Hillside Town Into ‘Widow Village’

By Salai Thant Zin 10 January 2015

KANZAM, Chin State — New Year’s Eve passed quietly in Kanzam, a small village in northern Chin State. While other villages in remote Tonzang Township were busily preparing for a celebration, this one remained eerily still. Kanzam’s old and weather-beaten Catholic chapel was barred shut and entirely without décor. No bells were ringing, no churchgoers singing, no priest stood in the chapel, once the holy heart of this pious village.

Bordering India’s Manipur and Mizoram states to the west and Sagaing Division to the east, Tonzang Township is Chin State’s most mountainous and sparsely populated area, with little to no access to roads. Kanzam village dates back more than a century, its remaining residents said, and in the past it has been home to up to 100 people. In the 1990’s, they said, a new crop was introduced to the hill-dwelling agrarians. Since opium crept into their lives, the village population dove to 22.

There is not a single living man in his 30’s left in Kanzam. In fact, the village is home to only three males, all around the age of 18. Neighboring villages refer to it with a spooky epithet—Widow Village—because drug use has claimed so many of its men. Only three children attend the local primary school, as their parents tend poppy fields and brew rice liquor in the daytime.

“Drug dealers come through forests on mountain ranges, they don’t use main roads,” Chin State Police Chief Myint Lwin told The Irrawaddy after a recent visit to the desolate town. He explained that dealers from Moreh, in India, and from Sagaing Division’s Tamu and Kale cross into the obscure terrain to buy raw opium, which was in high demand around 2010. At its peak, he said, the product brought in between 1 and 3 million kyats (US$1-3,000) per viss, a Burmese measurement equal to about 1.6 kilograms, or 3.6 pounds.

As demand waned, however, prices dropped to around 700,000 kyats for the same yield. Despite the steep decline in value, poppy cultivation was still easier and more profitable than most other crops, so production remained steady.

A rise in addiction followed naturally from increased production, and while the village’s men were the first to fall, women have also become users. Mang Lian Lung, a woman from Kanzam, said that the drug helps her make it through long and difficult days in the fields.

“I became addicted to opium while working at a poppy farm,” she said. “The job is tiring, but smoking opium keeps me active. I know it’s not good, but I can’t help it.”

‘Poppy Made the Mountains Bald’

The rugged top of the Arakan Yoma mountain range bulges through the center of Chin State, the poorest, sparsest and least connected of Burma’s administrative regions. The climate and soils vary throughout the state, where many still rely on traditional agricultural practices.

Villagers said that opium became a hot crop in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when drug and arms dealers from neighboring Sagaing Division paid villagers to take up cultivation. State police said the crop later seeped into other areas in the northern part of the state.

Farmers adapted to the new production cycle: they cut and burn hillside forest in April and May, till in July, sow the seeds in August and September and harvest from December to March. The practice hasn’t gone unnoticed, leaving a distinct mark on an otherwise untouched landscape. A hunter lamented that the felling of large trees to make room for poppy “has made the mountain bald.”

The complete history and scale of the problem in Chin State is still unknown. The United nations has been involved in anti-narcotics activities in Burma since 1974, but the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conducted its first cultivation survey in Chin State just last year. Only a negligible amount of the country’s 670-ton annual production potential comes from Chin State (most of the country’s opiates are sourced from the “golden triangle” where Shan State borders Thailand and Laos), but the new data shows cause for concern.

Tonzang and nearby Tedim townships were areas of interest when the UNODC made rounds. Its research, drawn from field visits, interviews and various imaging systems, found that about 1,100 hectares of land were under cultivation in Chin State in 2014. A lack of any previous data meant that no trends could be yet be identified.

To those who live there, however, the pattern is clear. Ba Min, chairman of the Kale district chapter of the National League for Democracy, said the drug problem “has become serious,” and that local law enforcement and government officials are exacerbating the problem. Bribery and other forms of corruption are rampant, he said, hampering efforts to curb drug production and trafficking. “It is quite clear who is involved,” he said. “It’s an open secret.”
Chin State authorities said that they have a plan to eliminate poppy production within three years. While education initiatives and some minimal punitive actions are already underway, the biggest obstacle is that the government has presented no sustainable agricultural alternatives in the region.

Authorities and locals are both hopeful that development will ease the dilemma, pinning their hopes on a new road being built from the coarse mountainside to Sagaing Division. Ease of transport will likely make a variety of crops more profitable for farmers, as they will no longer be faced with the choice of selling drugs to traffickers or walking seven miles to the nearest marketplace.

“We don’t grow poppy because we love it,” confessed Mang Lian Kai, one of the three young men left in Widow Village. “We promise, we will never grow poppy again if a road and a mobile network are built.”