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John Metzler Archive
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Oh, and Burma is still a force in the global opium market

UNITED NATIONS — South East Asia’s notorious “Golden Triangle” has long been the nexus of opium production, which in turn has supplied a steady stream of heroin to the global market. This perverse globalization has seen a recent surge in Burma’s illegal opium cultivation according to a report released by the UN.

Warning of an “alarming upsurge” in Burma’s opium crops, the report states that opium production had jumped almost 50 percent in the past year to 460 tons. Nonetheless Afghanistan remains the undisputed number one producer of the drug, which has fueled continued instability in that South Asian land.

In both countries we see resource-rich lands that through corruption, collusion and lax control have allowed a lucrative drug culture to become entrenched as a major economic player and enduring threat to any government. Indeed Burma had a far worse problem until serious international drug eradication efforts stemmed the cultivation a decade ago. Other countries like Thailand have witnessed massive cuts in drug production too as the legal economy expanded. But in Afghanistan opium cultivation by Taliban forces has not only destabilized the countryside, but has fueled the coffers of the terrorist insurgency.

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Antonio Maria Costa director of the UN office on Drugs and Crime concedes that over the past years Burma “was priced out of the opium market by much higher yields and cultivation in Afghanistan.” Still Burma is the world’s second largest opium producer which has entrenched corruption and encouraged instability and addiction. While there was no outright blame placed on Burma’s left-wing military rulers, many observers including the United States government allege that while cultivation takes place in remote regions often far from formal government control, the regime profits from the illicit trade at certain stages in trafficking.

According to UN statistics, the value of Burmese opium production this year was $120 million, a jump in 67 percent over 2006. Ninety percent of poppy cultivation among the three “Golden Triangle” countries (Burma, Laos and Thailand) is centered in Burma.

Transparency International, a watchdog organization, cites recent pro-democracy protests against the military regime in Burma as being fueled by “corruption, poverty and repression.” The group lists Burma as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. To some degree narcotics play a role in the equation.

Afghanistan poses a wider danger though. According to the UN’s Afghanistan Human Development report 2007, opium poses a major challenge to the expansion of the rule of law. “Opium production was estimated at approximately 6,100 tons in 2006, representing an increase of about 49% from 2005. “ The Report warns, “Opium in Afghanistan is worth around $3.1 billion or almost 50% of Afghanistan’s legal GDP.” That’s half the entire economy!

The Report advises, “ The Afghan economy is far more dependent on the production, refinement and export of narcotics than any other in the world with per capita income from narcotics exceeding official development assistance.” The document adds cautiously, “Anti-government elements are likely reaping benefits from opium with threatening implications for security throughout the country and the region.”

Islamic fundamentalist Taliban forces have turned to this lucrative business which has undermined government efforts at security, stability and promoting the rule of law. The drug trade not only destabilizes the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul but fuels the widening insurgency increasing the dangers to American and NATO coalition forces serving in Afghanistan.

So what is to be done? Effective law enforcement remains key, though this is often sadly the weakest link given corruption. Eradication programs which often center on growing alternative crops for former poppy cultivators work only to a point. While it seems simple to say farmers should grow different crops, this rarely allows for either a comparable price or a market for those alternative goods. Nor does it account for the drug kingpins who have often pressed farmers into dependency and indentured servitude. Governments and the private sector should envisage creative alternative crops which would realize competitive prices and offer farmers genuine options to growing this opiate of corruption and violence.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World

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