Take Control or Leave Opium Farmers Alone, Pa-O Leader Tells Burma Govt

By Sanay Lin 19 August 2014

RANGOON — An ethnic Pa-O political leader has issued advice to the Burmese government on its opium eradication efforts—either take serious action or stop harassing the farmers who are left with few choices but to grow poppies.

Political parties met with government peace negotiators and ethnic armed groups in Rangoon on Monday in the latest talks in efforts toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement. A leader of the Pa-O National Organization (PNO) used the meeting to report his observations on the impacts of government opium eradication efforts in rural Shan State—where the Pa-O ethnic group mostly lives and where most of Burma’s massive illicit opium crop is grown.

Khun Soe Myint, a member of the PNO’s Central Committee, said that although the government professes to take a zero-tolerance approach to poppy cultivation, local authorities regularly levy taxes against farmers growing the crop, which is used to produce heroin. But paying dues to unscrupulous local officials doesn’t stop farmers later being targeted by the same authorities in so-called eradication efforts, he said.

“Our region doesn’t have shooting and gun-firing, but we don’t feel safe because our opium plots get destroyed during the harvest season,” Khun Soe Myint told The Irrawaddy after the talks, repeating his message to the government during the meeting.

“They say it is part of a government project and they raid the houses of opium cultivators and arrest them since they find opium and drugs in their homes. The lives of opium cultivators are at risk.”

Khun Soe Myint said he had visited remote areas of Mauk Mae Township and Pin Laung Township and found that “75 percent to 100 percent” of all villagers lost most of their incomes to taxes collected by authorities or by local militias.

He argued that rather than the current “muddled” approach, which left farmers in a precarious situation, the government should either allow opium cultivation in a regulated form or take charge by offering farmers some alternatives and taking action against local officials who break the law.

“None of the villagers want to cultivate opium. They are doing this because of poor transportation [infrastructure] and the situation of the market for crops,” he said.

“If the government doesn’t want them to cultivate opium, it should effectively take control over that issue. But now, it is acting muddled and the ones who finally have to suffer are the local farmers.”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Burma produced an estimated 870 metric tons of opium in 2013—a 26 percent rise on the previous year and the second largest opium crop in the world after Afghanistan.