A Distortion of Reality: Drugs, Conflict and the UNODC’s 2018 Myanmar Opium Survey A Myanmar Commentary by TNI

The recently-released “Myanmar Opium Survey 2018” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) entails specific accusations against several of the conflict actors. This commentary explains how this further distorts, rather than reflects, the complex realities in Myanmar.


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Transnational Institute
Opium harvest in early 2019 in Pekhon Township, southern Shan State (TNI)

Transnational Institute

Opium harvest in early 2019 in Pekhon Township, southern Shan State (TNI)

5 March 2019

After decades of fighting between the central government and various ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar, the links between drugs and conflict have spiraled into a complex chain reaction. The roots of the conflict are political, but today very few of the conflict parties in drugs-producing areas can claim to have clean hands when it comes to the narcotics trade. Myanmar has been under military-dominated government since 1962, and it remains one of the most militarized countries in the world.

The recently-released “Myanmar Opium Survey 2018” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) makes the following conclusion: “[In] parts of Shan and Kachin experiencing a protracted state of conflict, high concentrations of poppy cultivation have continued – a clear correlation between conflict and opium production.”1 There is nothing controversial in this statement, and the description reflects the situation in the field.

The UNODC, however, then goes on to make specific accusations against several of the conflict actors. In the process, the UN agency makes a number of errors and appears to omit important information, thereby distorting realities of the situation on the ground.

According to the UNODC: “[In] Kachin State, the highest density of poppy cultivation took place in areas under the control or influence of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA); in North Shan, in areas of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); in South Shan, of the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA), and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) Shan State Army South (SSA‐S); and in East Shan, the People Militia’s Force (PMF); with each engaged in conflicts of varying intensity and frequency.”

All of these statements are contentious and, in many respects, wrong. The main opium cultivation in Kachin State takes place in two areas. In Sadung Township bordering China, cultivation takes place in areas under the nominal authority of two Border Guard Forces (formerly the ceasefire New Democratic Army-Kachin) which, in turn, are under the command of the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. The other main cultivation area is in the tiger reserve in Tanai Township, which is also under ostensible government control.

In contrast, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO: the political wing of the KIA) has for several years carried out a strict anti-drugs campaign, eradicating opium fields and arresting drug users. It has also provided tacit support for the Pat Jasan movement, an anti-drugs vigilante group. It should also be added that, in the past, the Transnational Institute has criticized both the Pat Jasan and KIO’s anti-drug measures for being overly repressive towards opium farmers and people who use drugs, rather than being in any way permissive.2 Our local sources, however, do confirm the KIO claim that there is presently no substantial opium cultivation in KIO-controlled areas. It is unclear how the UNODC arrives at its completely opposite claims about Kachin State, but it seems to be based on wrong assumptions about who “controls” which areas.

In northern Shan State, the UN agency then claims the highest density of opium cultivation is in areas under the control or influence of the MNDAA. This is a Kokang ethnic armed group that in 2009 lost control of the Kokang region after the Tatmadaw broke off its ceasefire with the MNDAA to launch a military offensive in support of a rival Kokang rival group. Since that time, the MNDAA has operated as a guerrilla force and does not control any major territory – and certainly not the main opium-growing areas in the region. These are instead located in areas that are controlled by Tatmadaw-backed militias, such as the Tarmoenye militia in Kutkai Township and the Pansay militia in Namkham Township.

Moving to southern Shan State, the UNODC report blames the RCSS and PNLA as the groups controlling the highest density of poppy cultivation. There is certainly significant opium cultivation in RCSS territory, especially in the Hsa Nin region of Loilem Township. However, the PNLA is the armed wing of the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation (PNLO), a small armed group that has a ceasefire with the government and controls two villages in Mawkmai Township. On the map in the UNODC report, the area supposedly controlled by the PNLA is in fact the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone in Hopong, Hsihseng and Pinlaung Townships, which are officially under government control. In the 2015 general election the seats in these areas were won by representatives of the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), a veteran Pa-O nationality party. Its military wing, the Pa-O National Army (PNA), has officially been transformed into a militia and is under formal control of the Tatmadaw. It would seem that the UNODC researchers mixed these two groups up.

In eastern Shan State, the UNODC report correctly claims that the main poppy cultivation areas are under control of various militia groups. However, it fails to mention that these groups are under the formal control of the Tatmadaw. Leaders of these militias have to send regular reports to local Tatmadaw commanders about their troop strengths, weapon supplies, ammunition and operational maneuvers.

In the light of such accusations and misinformation, it is therefore no surprise that the UNODC survey has come under strong criticism from ethnic armed organisations. In an open letter to the UNODC, the Kachin Independence Organisation rejected the findings of the report and demanded a retraction.3 The KIO also raised another important point. By omitting Tatmadaw positions on the maps and linking opium cultivation with armed conflict, the 2018 report appears to deliberately confuse the realities on the ground. In essence, the report makes it look as if only ethnic armed opposition organisations are behind opium cultivation in the country today.

Given the various links between drugs and conflict, this is an absolutely vital issue that needs to be discussed, transparently and openly, during political negotiations to achieve peace in the country. This is a matter of concern for all Myanmar’s peoples. However, the peace process initiated by the previous government of President Thein Sein is currently in a state of deadlock. In the meantime, there are different views and practices on drug policy in Myanmar, and there are very real concerns about the development of a new generation of grievances while social and political reforms stall. The humanitarian consequences of the drug trade remain acute.

For the Tatmadaw, security is the key priority – not drugs. Therefore, in a policy that has continued for decades, the military command has made strategic alliances with various armed groups, allowing them to be involved in drugs production and trade. These alliances have shifted over time, depending on the political environment and government needs. As a result, the main armed groups currently involved in drugs production and trade are Tatmadaw-backed militia forces. Most of them are located in Shan State. The main political objective of these militias is to maintain the status quo and focus on business.

On the other side of this equation, there are over 20 ethnic armed opposition organisations who, in general, seek to form a federal union based on democratic principles. Some have been in armed struggle with the central government for over half a century. But they are divided over strategies to try and achieve their goals. They also have different drugs policies, mostly reflecting local realities on the ground.

In Kachin State and northern Shan State, the KIO has imposed a strong anti-drug policy. These areas have seen very high numbers of injecting drugs users, and local communities feel that the governments’ response has been inadequate. Therefore, they have decided to take things into their own hands in seeking to stop poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. The Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which is also based in northern Shan State, follows a similar policy. As a result, they have clashed with both the Tatmadaw and government-backed militias in these areas.

In southern Shan State, some ethnic armed organisations, such as the RCSS and PNO, have also tried to carry out the eradication of poppy fields. However, these measures caused a strong backlash from local communities in their areas of control, upon whom they depend for support. Unable to provide alternative livelihood opportunities, these armed groups have therefore tacitly allowed small-scale farmers to cultivate opium in their territories. They also tax opium farmers (as they do with farmers growing other crops) and thus also derive some income from this.

At the same, the RCSS – which has had a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw since 2011 – has tried to put the drugs issue on the negotiation table with the government, and had in fact in October 2012 agreed with UNODC and the Central Committee for Drugs Abuse Control (the Myanmar government drugs coordination agency) on a joint initiative, including a needs assessment, to provide alternative livelihood programmes for poppy farmers. However, in 2013 the RCSS reported that the initiative was blocked by local authorities, to the great frustration of the organisation.4 It can be added that, in such cases of tacit allowance, the Transnational Institute has also argued that forced eradication, in the absence of viable alternatives, is inappropriate and amounts to human rights violations.5

The 2018 Myanmar Opium Survey Clarification

In response to criticisms of the Myanmar Opium Survey, the UNODC has released a “clarification”.6 But this is also unsatisfactory and does not address the underlying flaws in the report. In a technical explanation, the new UNODC statement does not answer the discrepancies raised above. Rather, the agency’s failure to correct the original report only draws further attention to the problems with what the UNODC calls “ground truthing”. This is exactly the point. The UNODC claims "that the report does not aim to describe precise control of a particular area". But, if this is the case, why did the report make incorrect assertions that, indeed, are very precise – and the UNODC still apparently stands by? The UNODC opium survey is undertaken annually and published jointly with the Myanmar government. It is thus essential that UNODC research and publications are always informed, transparent and accountable.

Myanmar is presently at a critical stage in political transition. This places the highest importance on the work of the UNODC and other international organisations. A neutral and factual survey that promotes accuracy about the realities on the ground could bring peoples together and serve as a basis for discussion, understanding and national reconciliation. But a biased and one-sided survey will only create further divisions and greater obstacles for mutual cooperation in the future. Passing the blame for the drugs problems in Myanmar – in this case opium cultivation – has long been practised by different local and international actors. Such accusations serve as a distraction, ignore realties in the field, and allow high levels of corruption and a multi-million dollar drug trade to flourish in the region.

The cycles of conflict and state failure have long needed to be ended. In the meantime, international organisations such as the UNODC need to be aware that inaccurate reporting is a high-risk activity that could have very negative impacts on efforts to promote peace and political reform. At the same time, it is important to reiterate that, in a conflict world of shifting authorities, the drugs and conflict chain reaction has led to a deadlocked situation where many parties have become involved in some way. This is not to deny that some of the ethnic armed organisations are responsible. This has never been a matter of dispute. But the UNODC's attempt to shift all the blame on to a select group of ethnic organisations at this time is unhelpful and ill-informed, and it is not surprising that the 2018 opium survey is continuing to attract criticisms.



1. UNODC, “Myanmar Opium Survey 2018: Cultivation, Production and Implications”, Bangkok, Thailand: https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Myanmar/Myanmar_Opium_Survey_2018-web.pdf

2. Transnational Institute, “People’s War on Drugs in Kachin State: Indication of Failed Policies”, TNI Commentary, 21 March 2016: https://www.tni.org/en/article/peoples-war-on-drugs-in-kachin-state-indication-of-failed-policies

3. Kachin Independence Organisation, “Open Letter to Jeremy Douglas” (UNODC), “Statement of objection to unfounded aspersion against KIA in UNODC's Myanmar Opium Survey 2018”, 15 February 2019: https://www.tni.org/files/open_letter_eng_myanmar_jinghpaw_miwa.pdf

4. Nan Tin Htwe, “RCSS calls on government to lift game on drugs”, The Myanmar Times, 1 September 2013: https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/8034-rcss-calls-on-government-to-lift-game-on-drugs.html; Saw Yan Naing, “No Progress in Drug Eradication Program: Shan Rebels”, The Irrawaddy, 24 December 2013: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/progress-drug-eradication-program-shan-rebels.html

5. Transnational Institute, “Connecting the dots... Human rights, illicit cultivation and alternative development”, 22 October 2018: https://www.tni.org/en/publication/connecting-the-dots

6. UNODC, “2018 Myanmar Opium Survey clarification”, 27 February 2019: https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/press-release/2019/UNODC_2018_Opium_Survey_clarification.pdf

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