The White House has announced a partial lifting of sanctions on Burma in recognition of progress in its democratic transition. Restrictions are to be dropped on state-owned banks and businesses, although some 100 companies and individuals linked to the armed forces will remain iced. This relaxation comes at the request of longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who although barred from holding the presidency is effectively the country’s leader following November’s elections. But human rights concerns remain—especially around the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, persecuted and made stateless by the military junta that has now (mostly) surrendered power. And the multiple ethnic insurgencies in Burma’s opium-producing northern mountains, while receiving less world media attention lately, continue to vex the country.
In but the most recent abuse in these remote hinterlands, two civilians were this week apparently arbitrarily detained and beaten by Burmese army troops on suspicion of being Kachin Independence Army (KIA) militants in Kachin state. Despite a (partial) ceasefire signed ahead of the elections last year, much of Burma’s north remains a patchwork of areas controlled by militias either supported by or opposed to the regular army, known as the Tatmadaw—and all with their hands in the opium trade. And government eradication efforts leave opium-growing peasants little choice but to align with whatever militia will offer them some protection. The ceasefire accord (which only included a fraction of the militias) only mentions an eventual “consultation” on the eradication program. But this is unlikely to buy the program much support.
As Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Drugs and Democracy Program of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute told Burma’s Myanmar Times: “First of all, most opium farmers grow poppies due to poverty, and their needs have not been addressed yet. Second, a lot of opium and heroin production is now in areas controlled by Tatmadaw-backed militias, who are not included in the peace process.”
And, largely ignored by the outside world, the opium-growers themselves continue to press for a halt to eradication. The 4th Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum was held May 9 in Loikaw, Kayah state. The gathered growers issued a statement saying: “We grow opium because we are poor and do not have other livelihood opportunities to feed our families and send our children to school… We are not involved in the drug trade, we are not criminals, and we are not commercial farmers. Some of us also grow it for traditional and medicinal uses. It is important to differentiate between small-holder farmers like us, and those people who grow opium commercially… The government should not carry out any forced eradication of our opium fields unless and until they have provided access to sustainable crop substitution programs and alternative livelihoods to our communities.”
The statement especially urged that eradication should not take place during the harvest season. “By that time we have already invested a lot and also cannot grow another crop anymore that season. Instead of only eradicating our poppy fields, and demanding bribes and illegal taxation, government officials should provide basic services to us and long-term support to develop our communities. This should include food security, education and health services, electricity, infrastructure and communication. The government should allow poppy farmers to grow opium for a certain period, until they are able to sustain their livelihoods by other means.”
Even if many of these growers do (despite their protests) sell to local warlords involved in the heroin trade, some basic justice for Burma’s peasantry might go a lot further than eradication efforts in undermining the narco-economy. The statement urges: “Lack of land tenure security is one of the reasons why some of our communities have resorted to opium cultivation, as a survival mechanism. The government should recognize our ethnic and customary land tenure rights. The current land laws should be changed.”
And certainly these peasant communities were growing opium long before the international heroin trade got involved: “We also want the government to recognize medicinal and traditional use of opium, which is prevalent in some of our communities that have been involved in poppy cultivation for generations. Certain amounts of opium should be allowed for personal use. We want the government to find models to allow licensed opium cultivation for medicinal and pharmaceutical use, for local and international markets, in close discussions with us… The focus of law enforcement should be on the large traffickers and other big players involved in the drug trade. Now the government allows these big dealers to trade drugs freely, but they target people who grow opium for their survival. This is not right.”
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