Opium Keeps Burma in International Spotlight on World Drug Day

Nyein Nyein The Irrawaddy

Officials from Burma’s anti-narcotics task forces on Wednesday called for collaboration among the public, authorities and international supporters of the country’s drug eradication program as the world marked International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

There is much work to be done, as Burma remains the world’s second biggest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, according to the World Drug Report 2013 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UNODC launched the report to coincide with World Drug Day on Wednesday and said “the use of prescription drugs and new psychoactive substances is growing,” while there is a “decline in the use of traditional drugs, such as heroin and cocaine in some parts of the world.”

Burma also marked the day, holding an event at which it destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of illegal narcotics.

About 15 substances, including marijuana, methamphetamines and the regional plant Mitragyna speciosa, worth more than 4.4 billion kyat (US$4.6 million) were destroyed.

Wednesday was the third mass destruction of narcotics this year, with heroin and other illicit drugs seized from Rangoon, Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions, as well as Arakan, Mon and Karen states, said Pol Col Win Naing of the Central Anti-Narcotics Task Force.

Pol Lt-Col Tin Aung, the deputy director of law and research in the International Relations Department of the Anti-Narcotics Task Force, said the government body is “ready to work together with the ethnic groups in fighting the drug problem.” So far the task force has collaborated with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and its militant branch, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), he said.

As a result of the RCSS cooperation, Tin Aung said the pursuit of drug dealers in Shan State had become easier as “the scope for them [to operate] has narrowed.”

On Tuesday, there were reports of a bomb blast in Namkham, Shan State, where an anti-narcotics task force was executing a drug raid. One official was reportedly killed and two others were injured, according to Pa Khu Lan, the vice chief of state for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). He told The Irrawaddy that it was not clear who had carried out the attack, adding that drug-related violence had decreased in recent years.

Captain Khin Maung Thein, of the Rangoon Anti-Narcotics Task Force, said Shan State accounted for the largest drug haul, while the psychoactive substance Mitragyna speciosa was especially prevalent in southern Burma’s Tenasserim Division. Use of Mitragyna speciosa (bein-sa-ywat in Burmese) is restricted in Southeast Asia, where it is used nonetheless for medicinal purposes and casual consumption.

Use of the substance is prohibited in Burma and the plant is categorized by the government as an illicit drug. Khin Maung Thein said Mitragyna speciosa is widely used in southern Burma by laborers in the fisheries industry.

Officials on Wednesday called attention to the need for sustainable income generation for poppy growers in Burma, where substitution crop programs in Shan State and elsewhere exist but are not sufficiently attractive alternatives for many. The UNODC recently said about 300,000 families rely on poppy cultivation for their livelihoods.

Anti-narcotics officials emphasized the need for awareness training and international support for such families.

Burma and its neighboring countries have engaged in recent years in a collaborative effort to address the region’s lucrative drug trade, but Southeast Asia remains a center for opium cultivation and methamphetamine production.

China on Tuesday said police from four countries (Laos, Burma, Thailand and China) had arrested more than 1,300 suspects during a two-month anti-drug campaign, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. The joint campaign against drug trafficking, called “Safe River,” was conducted in the Mekong River region, where China, Laos, Burma Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam share trade routes.

Last week, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) released a report stating that drug use and trafficking in Mon State communities is deeply rooted, with government initiatives to prevent narcotics abuse lacking.

Additional reporting by Sanay Lin from Rangoon.