Its two-stroke engine spins a metal blade, which is more commonly deployed to tame the suburban gardens of wealthy Westerners. But today, in a remote valley in impoverished Shan State, Myanmar police armed with weed-whackers are advancing through fields of thigh-high poppies, leaving a carpet of stems in their wake. When the police are finished, their uniforms are flecked with a sticky brown sap harvested from these flowers for centuries: opium.
The area under poppy cultivation has doubled in the past five years. Now, emerging from half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar says it wants to buck that trend. Since taking power a year ago, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein has launched a series of political and economic reforms. Myanmar officials allowed a Reuters reporter and photographer to visit former conflict areas in remote Shan State to examine the campaign, marking the first time in decades that Western journalists were able to report freely in the region. The five-day journey with the UNODC and local police came as Myanmar appeals to foreign donors for half a billion dollars to finance a program it says will wean , households off poppy-growing over the next three years.
It is an ambitious goal. But opium had been harvested from some poppies before they were destroyed, Reuters found. And while more poppy is being destroyed, more is also being grown: the total area under cultivation will likely rise by about 10 percent between and , the UNODC estimated. It is part of the Golden Triangle, which is probably named after the gold once used to buy opium.
Here, and in neighboring Kachin State, poppies thrive not just on cooler weather and higher altitudes, but on poverty and conflict. For half a century, Myanmar has been torn apart by fighting between government forces and various ethnic rebel groups ranged along its borders, where people have endured the worst human rights abuses.
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But the U. As in Afghanistan and Colombia, the drug trade has long fueled conflict in Myanmar, providing cash to buy weapons and a lucrative product to fight over. Recent peace talks between the government and ethnic rebel groups — including two factions of the Shan State Army — have allowed poppy eradication in what were once no-go areas for the Myanmar authorities. But the ceasefires were fragile, and a poorly managed eradication campaign could cause them to unravel.
Chopping down opium poppies is the easy part. Helping former poppy-growing families develop alternative crops and livelihoods is complicated and costly. In Afghanistan, on the other side of the Himalayas, opium production is so vast and sophisticated that it resembles a legitimate agribusiness in some areas. But in Myanmar, poppies are produced mainly by subsistence farmers who depend upon the cash opium generates to buy food.
The UNODC argues that the ceasefires create a rare opportunity for the international community to help Myanmar tackle its opium problem — and, by extension, its civil war. Getting it will be an uphill task. Thanks to sanctions, Myanmar receives less humanitarian aid per capita than almost any other poor country. We need international support. They also make it a regional hub for manufacturing and distributing narcotics.
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It shares a porous 2,km frontier with China, where 2. The road east from its capital, the former British colonial hill-station of Taunggyi, is a ribbon of blacktop unfurling through rice fields and bustling market towns. At the roadside, Buddhist novice monks in maroon robes held out bowls to solicit donations.
This reporter traveled in UN vehicles sandwiched between trucks carrying armed police. Their presence was not ceremonial. Last July, outside the nearby town of Loilem, a rebel group called the Shan State Army South ambushed a Myanmar police convoy, killing six people, reported the Shan Herald Agency for News, a news service run by Shan exiles in Thailand. Hostilities subsided in December after the SSA S signed a ceasefire, but men with guns still roam this restive region. The Pa-O are devout Buddhists, known for growing poppies and building beautiful temples.
At the village of Kyauk Ka Char, the first stop in the five-day tour of the state, the temple was the grandest structure in a community of simple wooden houses with rusting tin roofs. The villagers wore turbans, in the Pa-O style, and smoked cheroots and chewed betel nut. Lewis delivered a stark message.
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Nobody said a word until a local schoolteacher, who was translating between Pa-O and English, urged people to talk freely without fear of arrest. The authorities had destroyed their poppies once before, in , and given them no compensation or assistance.
Many people grew cordia trees, whose leaves were used to make traditional Myanmar cheroots. But the recent influx of cheap Chinese cigarettes meant that fewer people smoked cheroots, making the leaves increasingly unprofitable. Transporting these crops to market was also a problem.
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Opium is the dried latex obtained from the seedpod of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum. Opium is composed of several different alkaloids, including morphine, codeine, and thebaine which make up the main narcotic constituents of opium. The other alkaloids such as papaverine and noscapine have no significant effect on the central nervous system.
Frequently used in the production of heroin, opium is traditionally harvested by scoring the immature seedpod of the opium poppy, thereby allowing the opium latex to seep out through the incision. The fresh white opium latex is left for several hours to dry and is then collected by being scraped off the pod with a special blade-like tool.
The opium is a yellow-brown sticky substance at this point and is further dehydrated before being used either in the production of heroin, or the alkaloids extracted and used for pharmaceutical purposes. The cultivation of opium poppies for medicinal properties dates back to ancient times. Opium continued to be widely used as a medicine throughout the American Civil War until the introduction of morphine, which could be injected at controlled dosages. Recreational use of opium became popular in China during the 17th century, with marking the beginning of opium prohibition in China, though usage continued to increase for nearly years after prohibition came into effect.
During prohibition in China, opium was trafficked into China by British through the East India Company under the control of the British. The Chinese emperor confiscated a large quantities of this opium in an attempt to stop the trafficking of opium into China, leading to the two Opium Wars in and Use of opium decreased in the early 20th century, with many countries now prohibiting production and use, and due to the wide availability of morphine and heroin preparations.
Legal opium production is now done for the purpose of producing prescription opioid medications and is tightly regulated in most of the world. Opium is still available pharmaceutically in tinctures that are produced by a few pharmaceutical companies. These tinctures are essentially the same thing as laudanum, an alcoholic-preparation containing opium which was highly popular prior to the 20th century.