In Rebuff to UN, KIO Says Opium Cultivation Growing Under Army ‘Protection’

By Lawi Weng 27 June 2019

Opium production has increased in Kachin State, including in areas under government control, according to a survey by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The group claimed its findings throw into doubt the accuracy of a 2018 UN study that suggested overall cultivation was declining, with production increases being limited to those areas under KIO control.

The KIO surveyed a total area of more than 10,110 hectares in Kachin and northern Shan states over a period of eight months from July 2018 to March 2019.

In a report issued on June 26, the KIO noted that its survey found a much higher level of cultivation than an earlier survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The KIO’s Fact Finding Commission in Kachin and Northern Shan States dispatched 19 research teams to interview 9,953 key informants of different ethnicities, professions, and age groups in 19 townships over the eight-month period.

In Kachin, the commission found that 6,918.23 hectares were under opium cultivation. This is nearly double the amount reported by the UNODC in its 2018 survey. The five townships in northern Shan State covered by the survey had 3,192.4 hectares under cultivation, according to the KIO.

“Our survey was intended to find out the scope of the illegal drug problem in Kachin and northern Shan states. We want to find the best way to solve the illegal drug problem,” Colonel Naw Bu, a spokesperson for the KIO, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The KIO’s report differs markedly from the UNODC’s findings, which suggested that opium cultivation in Kachin had decreased overall, but had increased in KIO-controlled areas.

Early this year, the KIO sent an open letter to the UNODC denying the agency’s assertion and demanding it retract its findings.

The survey by the UNODC put total opium cultivation in Kachin State in 2018 at 3,400 hectares.

The UNODC singled out Kachin State’s Danai Township, which has been the scene of clashes between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—the armed wing of the KIO—and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), as a significant center of opium growing. According to the KIO’s survey, however, Danai is far from alone, with Shingbwiyang, Sadung and Kanpaiti townships also producing large quantities. The KIO said the UNODC’s survey did not even mention some opium-growing townships such as Putao and Sumprabum.

The KIO claimed that taken together, Kanpaiti and Sadung townships—both of which are under the control of the Tatmadaw-supervised Border Guard Force—form the single largest opium-growing area with 4,651.67 hectares under cultivation.

The KIO survey also reported opium production in five northern Shan townships—Namkham, Kutkai, Kunlong, Tangyan and Lashio. Those areas are under the control of seven local armed militias that take orders from a Tatmadaw light infantry division, the organization said in its report.

The KIO claimed that most heroin and methamphetamine refineries were located in militia-controlled areas under the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State. Most of the illegal drug trafficking into Kachin State came from Muse or Namkham along the Chinese border or via Mandalay, it said.

According to the KIO, local militia groups protect illegal drug production, growing and distribution, but “tax” or demand bribes from traffickers. The KIO accused government-allied security forces of arresting only users and retail drug sellers, while allowing Chinese drug kingpins to go free.

The KIO claims that while opium cultivation and drug production and distribution declined in 2014-16 due to the poppy-eradication campaigns launched by Patjasanwas, a local anti-drug group, drug production has increased since then because the Tatmadaw has obstructed the group’s activities.

“It can clearly be seen that the failure of government law enforcement and corruption have caused the drug problem to worsen,” the KIO said in the report.

It urged the Myanmar Army to stop protecting the drug-trading activities of its allied militia groups and Border Guard Force, and called on the government to start taking responsibility for comprehensive law enforcement against narcotic drugs, including cracking down on corruption at every level.

The KIO also asked the UNODC and other international agencies to carry out more effective, in-depth research into the drug problem in Myanmar, and to put more pressure on the government to tackle the problem effectively, instead of blaming ethnic armed organizations.

“We [call into question] the report from the UNODC, who say opium cultivation is steadily decreasing in Kachin and Burma as a whole,” the KIO said.

The UNODC issued a statement saying, “We have looked into the KIO survey and [there are] two completely different data collection and reporting periods and methodology.”

The 2018 UNODC Myanmar opium survey collected data on poppy cultivation from December 2017 to March 2018.

The KIO surveyed cultivation from July 2018 to March 2019.

“[The] discrepancy between surveys is exactly why an independent and peer reviewed UN survey is needed,” the UNODC said.

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