Drugs and Conflict in Burma

01 December 2005



Burma/Myanmar is undergoing yet another humanitarian crisis while entering a new critical political stage. In the Kokang region, an opium ban was enforced in 2003, and since mid-2005 no more poppy growing has been allowed in the Wa region. Banning opium in these Shan State regions where most of the Burmese opiates were produced, adds another chapter to the long and dramatic history of drugs, conflict and human suffering.

TNI tries to bring nuance to the polarised debate on the Rangoon-focussed political agenda, the demonising of the cease-fire groups and repressive drug policy approaches. Hundreds of thousands of people from the many ethnic minorities in the Shan and Kachin States, who depended on the opium economy, have been sacrificed in an effort to comply with international pressures about drug-free deadlines.

Community livelihoods face being crushed between the pincers of the opium ban and tightened sanctions. The unfolding drama caused by the opium bans is forcing the international community to rethink its strategies. Enforcement of tight deadlines has resulted in major food shortages and may jeopardise the fragile social stability in the areas. To sustain the gradual decline in opium production, alternative sources of income for basic subsistence farmers have to be secured.

Without adequate resources, the longer-term sustainability of "quick solutions" is highly questionable. Since military authorities are eager to comply with promises made, law enforcement repression is likely to increase, with human rights abuses and more displacement a potential outcome. Already opium production is increasing in southern Shan State and several other areas in the country, while the regional drugs market is experiencing ‘withdrawal symptoms’ and consumer shifts to other substances. Harm reduction approaches need to be introduced to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the north of the country where infection rates among injecting drug users are among the highest of the world.

The only viable option lies in a simultaneous easing of drug control deadline pressures, introducing more humane policies towards drug users and opium farmers and increasing international humanitarian aid efforts. This requires stronger international engagement of a different kind to that we have seen so far, especially with the cease-fire groups that control most of these parts of the country and that are now under pressure from the military regime to disarm and participate in the 2010 elections. Instead of isolating them, the international community should actively engage with the cease-fire groups on political and socio-economic issues, and find ways to provide humanitarian aid to communities in their territory.

TNI on Drugs and Conflict in Burma

Alternative Development or Business as Usual?
China's Opium Substitution Policy in Burma and Laos
TNI Policy Briefing 33, November 2010

The Chinese government has launched opium substitution programmes in northern Burma and Laos. They include large-scale rubber plantations and other crops such as sugarcane, tea and corn.  However, the poorest of the poor, including many (ex-) poppy farmers, benefit least from these investments. They are losing access to land and forest, being forcibly relocated to the lowlands, left with few viable options for survival. Investments related to opium substitution plans should be carried out in a more sustainable, transparent, accountable and equitable fashion with a community-based approach. They should respect traditional land rights and communities’ customs.

Neither War Nor Peace
The Future Of The Cease-Fire Agreements In Burma
Tom Kramer 
Transnational Institute, July 2009
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first cease-fire agreements in Burma, which put a stop to decades of fighting between the military government and ethnic armed opposition groups. These groups had taken up arms against the government in search of more autonomy and ethnic rights. This paper explains how the cease-fire agreements came about, and analyses the goals and strategies of the cease-fire groups. It also discusses the weaknesses the groups face in implementing these goals, and the consequences of the cease-fires. The paper then examines the international responses to the cease-fires, and ends with an overview of the future prospects for the agreements.

From Golden Triangle to Rubber Belt?
The Future of Opium Bans in the Kokang and Wa Regions

Tom Kramer
TNI Policy Briefing 29, July 2009

In the Kokang and Wa regions in northern Burma opium bans have ended poppy cultivation. The bans have driven poppy-growing communities into chronic poverty and have adversely affected their food security. The Kokang and Wa authorities have promoted Chinese investment in monoplantations, especially in rubber. These projects have created many undesired effects and do not significantly profit the population.

Twenty Years on, the Wa-Burmese Cease-fire looks shakier
Tom Kramer, The Nation (Thailand), 24 April 2009
The recent tension between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Burmese military Government has led to speculation about a renewal of the armed conflict. Tom Kramer examines the two decades of cease fire.

Harvesting trees to make ecstasy drug
Tom Blickman, The Irrawaddy, February 3, 2009
Many people believe that ecstasy is merely a synthetic drug that is manufactured solely with chemicals, so-called precursors. However, the main raw material for ecstasy, safrole, is extracted from various plants and trees in the form of safrole-rich oils—also known as sassafras oil. Preventing ecological damage and unsustainable harvesting of safrole-rich oils is urgently needed to preserve fragile ecosystems.
Go to the article in The Irrawaddy

Drug report in Southeast Asia
Martin Jelsma and Tom Kramer, The Nation (Thailand), 16 January 2009
The Southeast Asian drugs market is going through a process of profound transformation. The decline in opium cultivation has led to a shortage of heroin on the regional market, resulting in a reduction in quality and an increase in price. Drug users are therefore under pressure either to quit or look for more affordable substitutes. While some people shift to 'yama' (methamphetamines), more drug users have started to experiment with pharmaceutical replacements, principally opioids and benzodiazepines. The assumption that reducing opium production would lead to less drug use has been proven wrong.

Withdrawal Symptoms in the Golden Triangle
A Drugs Market in Disarray

Tom Kramer, Martin Jelsma and Tom Blickman
Transnational Institute, January 2009

Despite a significant decline in opium production in Southeast Asia over the past decade, the region suffers from a variety of ‘withdrawal symptoms’ that leave little reason for optimism. The rapid decline in production has caused major suffering among former poppy-growing communities in Burma and Laos, and poses serious questions about the sustainability of the opium bans in those countries, as well as an increase in health risks among consumers, including rising HIV/AIDS rates. A pattern is emerging across the region in response to the repressive drug control policies and the criminalisation of drug users that shows an increased use of stronger drugs and more harmful patterns of use.

Irrawaddy, Vol. 16, No. 11, November 2008
Two-part drugs special in collaboration with TNI
- Withdrawal Symptoms The days of smoking opium are passing in Burma. Instead, drug users are injecting heroin or using methamphetamines, writes Martin Jelsma.
- Burmese Daze The decline of opium production in the Golden Triangle does not mean that the Burmese junta has gone overboard in its eradication efforts, writes Tom Kramer.

Withdrawal symptoms for Golden Triangle drug trade
Martin Jelsma and Tom Kramer, The Nation (Thailand), 23 August 2008
Opium production in the Golden Triangle has decreased significantly over the past decade. But the rapid decline has caused major suffering among former poppy-growing communities in Burma and Laos, making it difficult to characterise developments as a "success story".

Withdrawal Symptoms
Changes in the Southeast Asian drugs market

Drugs and Conflict Debate Paper 16, August 2008
A significant decline in opium production in Burma and Laos, which has been heralded as a major success for international drug control policy, is having a devastating effect on farmers and is triggering worrying consequences for drug users. This TNI briefing aims at contributing to a better understanding of current market dynamics in Southeast Asia, essential for designing more effective and sustainable policy responses consistent with human rights and harm reduction principles.

HIV/AIDS and Drug Use in Burma/Myanmar
TNI Policy Briefing 17, May 2006
The increasing number of injecting drug users (IDUs) and the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma presents one of the most serious health threats to the population in the country, and also to the region at large. Infection rates among IDUs in Burma are among the highest in the world. The international community needs to make a firm commitment to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma and should ensure sufficient and long-term financial support for HIV/AIDS and harm reduction programmes.

TNI/BCN Press Release Opium Bans Will Cause Human Misery in Afghanistan and Burma 25 June 2005
On the occasion of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking on 26 June 2005, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of the rebel groups in Burma, has declared opium free the areas under their control in northern Burma. In Afghanistan, the opium ban issued by President Hamid Karzai in 2002 will be enforced more rigorously. These bans are in response to pressure from the international community. Banning opium has an immediate and profound impact on the livelihoods of 4.3 million people. Many more are indirectly dependent on income generated on the illicit market. The consequence will be a downward spiral of poverty in the opium growing regions of both countries.

Irrawaddy, Vol. 13, No. 10, October 2005
Four-part drugs special in collaboration with TNI
- A Pipe Dream? Martin Jelsma suggests that instead of destroying vast quantities of opium, Burma's military government should look to maximize its medical potential.
- A Downward Spiral As drug eradication programs threaten to eliminate opium poppies from Burma’s farmlands, hundreds of thousands of people stand to lose their primary source of income. Tom Kramer investigates the potential for a humanitarian crisis.
- Kicking the Habit Drug use and HIV/AIDS in Burma are spiraling out of control. Tom Kramer looks at harm reduction policies in the stricken country.
- Whither the WA The United Wa State Army are reputed to be the world’s largest armed drug trafficking group. Don Pathan evaluates their role in efforts to make Wa-controlled territory

Trouble in the Triangle. Opium and Conflict in Burma
Edited by Martin Jelsma, Tom Kramer, Pietje Vervest. Silkworm Books, July 2005
In response to international pressure to eliminate opium from the Golden Triangle, Burma has announced harsh measures for all illicit poppy production. But the enforcement of the ban on opium will directly threaten the livelihoods of some 250,000 families in the Shan state who depend on the opium economy. A major worry is that the pace of eradication is not matched by the capacity to create alternative livelihoods for opium farmers. A humanitarian crisis looms, jeopardizing the fragile social stability in the ceasefire regions. What alternatives do these families have for their survival?

Downward Spiral
Banning Opium in Afghanistan and Birma

TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 12, June 2005
Opium farmers in Afghanistan and Burma are coming under huge pressure as local authorities implement bans on the cultivation of poppy. Banning opium has an immediate and profound impact on the livelihoods of more than 4 million people. These bans are a response to pressure from the international community. Afghan and Burmese authorities alike are urging the international community to accompany their pressure with substantial aid. Opium growing regions in both countries will enter a downward spiral of poverty because of the ban. The reversed sequencing of first forcing farmers out of poppy cultivation before ensuring other income opportunities is a grave mistake. Aggressive drug control efforts against farmers and small-scale opium traders, and forced eradication operations in particular, also have a negative impact on prospects for peace and democracy in both countries.

Drugs and Conflict in Burma (Myanmar). Dilemmas for Policy Responses
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 9, December 2003
The enforcement of the opium ban in the Wa region in Burma heralds yet another humanitarian disaster in this region of Burma. By mid-2005 no more poppy growing will be allowed, and hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the opium economy risk being sacrificed in an effort to comply with international pressures to meet drug-free deadlines. The only viable and humane option lies in a simultaneous easing of drug control deadline pressures and increasing international humanitarian aid efforts. Both require stronger international engagement of a different kind to that we have seen so far. TNI is co-hosting a seminar in Amsterdam on drugs and conflict in Burma in mid-December. This briefing has been published as background information to the seriousness of the situation in Burma, offering some innovative suggestions for humane policy options.


International conference Drugs and Conflict in Burma. Dilemma’s for Policy Responses organised by TNI with Burma Centre Netherlands, Amsterdam, 14-15 december 2003. In preparation of the seminar a new issue in TNI Briefing Series is published. A report of this conference Harm reduction for poppy farmers in Myanmar? appears in the AHRN (Asian Harm Reduction Network) Newsletter 34, April 2004 [PDF document].

AlJazeeraEnglish - China's economic boom has managed to lift millions of people out of poverty but some parts of the country are still battling social problems, including soaring rates of drug addiction. One of the worst-affected areas is China's southern province of Yunnan on the border with Myanmar, one of the world's biggest sources of heroin. With a hit costing just a few cents, authorities there are fighting a losing battle to control the problem. Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley reports. (Mar 11, 2010)