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Southeast Asia, explained

Are half of Burma's poppy fields up in smoke?

According to the United Nations, the world's second-largest opium grower is getting closer.
Myanmar opium 2012 02 29Enlarge
Lashio, MYANMAR: A Burmese soldier stands guard as seized narcotics burn in 2007. (KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A United Nations official says close to half of Burma's poppy crops have been eradicated.

If true, this would signal a staggering turnaround for the world's second-largest opium producer.

Only Afghanistan produces more opium than Burma (officially titled Myanmar), where officials are attempting to scrub the nation's tarnished image at breakneck speed. A highly ambitious vow to rid Burma of opium production by 2014 is among many sweeping reforms.

Gary Lewis, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime representative for East Asia and the Pacific, has just returned from Burma's remote poppy country in troubled Shan State, a war-torn region producing 90 percent of Burma's poppy plants. 

During a Bangkok conference set up to unveil a new report evaluating the U.N.'s global drug control progress, I asked if Burma's drug eradication spree is legitimate.

The good news: according to Lewis, Burma's government has recently destroyed 21,000 of its 43,000 known hectares of poppy crops.

"We believe the government's effort is sincere," Lewis said.

As always, there are complicating factors.

The Lancing Deception: Before fields are mowed down, farmers can slice into their poppies, collect the "opium latex" that oozes out and sell it to opium processors. Lewis concedes that pre-eradication lancing took place in a significant number of fields.

Reuters correspondent Andrew Marshall, who accompanied the Burmese drug eradication squads, corroborates this. (His rare report from the poppy fields is highly recommended.)

Bankrupting Poor Growers: Poppy growers are not villains getting rich off the drug trade. They're desperately poor farmers who grow poppy because it's a premier cash crop. Grow rice or vegetables and you've got to waste time and fuel hauling your crops to a middle man. Grow poppy and the middle man comes to your fields with no prodding.

If the government wants to deprive farmers of their choice crop, Lewis said, officials must aid them in growing alternative crops.

"Done as it's being done now," he said, "no, it's not sustainable ... eradication is never the only solution."

Meth in Abundance: Why grow poppy when there's an alternative unaffected by weather cycles, easy to smuggle and increasingly favored by drug users?

That alternative, produced by narcotics syndicates in Burma, is methamphetamine. If seizures are a decent measure, its use is on the rise:  International Narcotics Control Board figures show Southeast Asian seizures shooting up more than 40 percent between 2009-10.

Meth is far more valuable to Southeast Asia's vast laboring class: long-haul truckers, construction workers and the like. No wants to dig a well on heroin. But meth pills allow workers to work harder, longer and with fewer pains.

As Francis Wade with the Democratic Voice of Burma asks, "Where is Burma's 'War on Methamphetamine?"

Writes Wade: "The government can wax lyrical about its elimination of poppy fields in certain areas ... but going deeper into unravelling the forces governing the methamphetamine market ... is a task one doubts the government has either the capability or inclination to carry through."

http://www.globalpost.com/globalpost-blogs/southeast-asia/myanmar-opium-poppies