Trouble in the Triangle

Opium and Conflict in Burma
22 ဇူလိုင်လ 2005

A collection of ten papers that analyse the relationship between drugs and conflict in Burma and the consequences of the Burmese illicit drugs economy for neighbouring countries.

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Special Reports

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? This volume consists of ten papers elaborated from drafts presented at the December 2003 international conference held in Amsterdam to discuss issues on international engagement with Burma through the prism of drug policy. The articles analyze the relationship between drugs and conflict in Burma and the consequences of the Burmese illicit drugs economy for neighboring countries. The latter part of the book widens its focus to place Burma in the international context of the global drug trade, and to draw parallels with Afghanistan and Colombia. The collection takes an indepth look into the long and dramatic history of drugs, armed conflict, ethnic strife and ceasefire agreements in Burma and presents recommendations for a humane and effective response from the international community. This book is part of a joint project on drugs and conflict in Burma, undertaken by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Burma Centre Netherlands (BCN). The project aims to stimulate local, national, and international communities to rethink their drug eradication strategies in order to provide a coherent approach to development, national reconciliation, and democracy building, and to strengthen Burma's civil, political, and ethnic groups in developing alternatives to the current repressive drug control policies.

  1. Local Perspectives
    1. Opium Anarchy in the Shan State of Burma - Adrian Cowell
    2. Shan State Politics: The Opium-Heroin Factor - Chao Tzang Yawnghwe
    3. Ethnic Conflict and Dilemmas for International Engagement - Tom Kramer
    4. The Long Hard Road Out of Drugs: The Case of the Wa - Jeremy Milsom
    • Appendix to Part 1: A View from Below: Two Opium Farmers in Their Own Words
  2. Regional Perspectives
    1. Thailand's War on Drugs - Don Pathan
    2. The Black Hole of "China White" - Guilhem Fabre
    3. Illicit Narcotics on the India-Burma Border and India's Role in Combating Drug Smuggling - Soe Myint
  3. Global Perspectives
    1. Burma in the Global Drug Market - Martin Jelsma
    2. Drugs: The Major Obstacle to Afghan Reconstruction? - Alain Labrousse
    3. Drugs and Armed Conflict in Colombia - Ricardo Vargas M.


Martin Jelsma, Tom Kramer, Pietje Vervest
Transnational Institute, Burma Centrum Netherlands

The real point about opium in the Wa States and Kokang is that opium is the only thing produced which will pay for transport to a market where it can be sold. To suppress opium in Kokang and the Wa States without replacing it by a crop relatively valuable to its bulk, would be to reduce the people to the level of mere subsistence on what they could produce for food and wear themselves or to force them to migrate. Shan State commissioner, John S. Calgue, 1937 (1)

Burma is, after Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of illicit opium. Most of it is grown in the Shan State, located in the northeast of the country. (2) These areas are inhabited by a wide range of ethnic minorities, who have suffered badly from decades of civil war and governmental neglect.

The above words of the Shan State commissioner remain as valid today as they were in 1937. For many farmers in these impoverished areas, opium is the only viable cash crop they can grow. In the remote hills of Wa inhabited areas along the China border where a large portion of the annual opium crop is grown, some 250,000 households living at subsistence level depend upon the opium economy.

Many poppy farmers say that their fathers and forefathers also grew opium, and that it has been there for "over one hundred years." According to a Wa legend, long ago in the mountains of Loi Mu lived a beautiful woman named Ya Lem, also known as Nang Hong Loi Mu (the Beauty of Loi Mu). Many eager young suitors came to seek her hand in marriage. However, she could only select one, which proved impossible, causing her great consternation. So she killed herself. From the breast of her corpse sprouted tobacco, and from her groin came poppy. And so, since that time, the Wa people have raised tobacco and poppy.

The civil war in Burma began virtually with independence in 1948, and the country has been under military rule since 1962. By now most of the armed opposition groups have signed cease-fire agreements with the military government, which today calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The Sword of Damocles

A sword of Damocles is hanging over the Shan state. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), with its estimated twenty thousand soldiers and the largest of the cease-fire groups in Burma, has committed itself to a regional wide ban on opium to be implemented in June 2005. The Wa legend of Ya Lem is drawing to a close, and once again the story will not have a happy ending.

The enforcement of these bans will directly threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people in the Shan State who depend upon the opium economy. They add another chapter to the long and dramatic history of drugs, conflict, and human suffering in the country. In the Kokang area, an opium ban went into effect in 2002, and the result has led to food shortages and many parents taking their children out of school. The UN World Food Program has begun distributing emergency aid in northern Shan State in response to the unfolding crisis.

The Wa authorities acknowledge that it is going to be very difficult for the farmers in their area. "Frankly speaking if you ask the farmers if they agree with the poppy ban, none of them will raise their hands." (3) Wa leaders, nevertheless, are determined to implement the 2005 opium ban, and are even willing to follow in the footsteps of the Beauty of Loi Mu, vowing: "Next year will be the last year of poppy cultivation. If you come to my township then and you still find any opium here, I will cut off my head!" (4)

A major worry is that the pace of reduction and eradication will not be matched by the capacity to create alternative livelihoods for opium farmers in a sustainable manner. In the absence of revenue from opium as the main cash crop, families will not be able to meet the cost of basic needs like food, clothing, health care, and education. Currently, essential needs are not being met as families are subjected to confiscation of land and forced relocation.

The Regional and International Context

Rural communities risk being sacrificed in an effort to comply with international pressure about drug-free deadlines and U.S. drug control certification conditions, as well as drug-related security concerns from neighboring countries, especially Thailand and China. In response to such pressures, both officials in Rangoon and local authorities are trying to curry favor with the international community by announcing harsh measures against illicit crop production. Community livelihoods face being crushed between the pincers of the opium ban and tightened sanctions.

The SPDC drug control strategy also contains highly controversial repressive measures, such as obligatory registration and compulsory treatment for drug users and military inforced eradication operations against farmers. Between 1985-1988 the United States supported the government in carrying out aerial chemical-spraying operations of opium fields using the herbicide 2,4-D (one of the ingredients also used in the Agent Orange defoliant), similar to what the U.S. was doing at the time in Guatemala and is still doing in Colombia today.

Operating under the UNODC umbrella, the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) in 1998 started the Wa Alternative Development Project (WADP) with the objective of supporting the commitment of the Wa authorities to have their region opium-free by 2005. The purpose of the project is to improve food security, promote alternative livelihoods and the basic improvement of living conditions, health care, and education in four townships. However, the problematic relationship between the UNODC project and the 2005 ban has reduced the program's objectives to becoming merely the provision of humanitarian assistance to an economically opium-dependent population under severe pressure to abolish a crucial component of its survival strategy.

Towards a More Humane Drug Policy

In early 2003, the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Burma Center Netherlands (BCN) jointly started a project on "Drugs and Conflict in Burma (Myanmar)." The project aims to stimulate national and local authorities as well as the international community to rethink their drug eradication strategies to correspond with a coherent approach to development, national reconciliation, and democracy building in the country, and to strengthen Burmese civil society groups, political opposition, and ethnic groups in developing alternatives for the current repressive drug control policies.

A research mission was undertaken in September 2003 to the Thai/Burmese border areas, to Rangoon, and into the Wa hills in Shan State. The mission visited groups in armed opposition; met with civil society organizations; had extensive discussions with cease-fire groups; talked to drug control officials of the military government in Rangoon; spoke with UNODC representatives in the capital and local staff of the Wa Alternative Development Project (WADP); and visited villages dependent upon poppy cultivation.

In December 2003, TNI and the BCN co-organized an international conference in Amsterdam to discuss the dilemmas for drug policy responses in Burma. The conference was a unique gathering, the first one giving voice to some of the opium farmers, and which took place behind closed doors to ensure frank and open discussion. Invited were some fifty participants, including around twenty people from Burma (from cease-fire regions and exile groups), international experts on the drug issue, Burma support groups, and representatives from European governments and NGO development organizations. The conference aimed to identify the problems related to drugs control efforts in Burma and to specify policy options and recommendations for the international community towards a more humane and considerate drug policy.

This volume, which includes chapters by some of the main speakers of the conference, aims to stimulate and bring nuance to the currently very polarized debate on international engagement with Burma through the prism of drug policy. Between political pleas for strict sanctions aimed at pressuring for a democratic transition in Rangoon, and the efforts of the SPDC military government to hold onto power, little attention is being paid to developments at the local level in zones as remote as Kachin State and the Kokang and Wa regions in Shan State. Perhaps even more worrying, local communities in drug growing areas, or their representatives, have not been able to participate in any of the decision-making processes of anti-drug strategies that have such a tremendous impact on their livelihoods.

The first part of the volume provides clear analyses of the relationship between drugs and conflict in Burma. Focusing heavily on the Shan State, the authors explain the role the drug trade has played in more than fifty years of civil war and ethnic strife, and the many complicated twists and turns in insurgent politics of modern Burma. The authors show that few of the conflict parties have emerged with clean hands from the drugs trade, and warn against putting all the blame of the drug problem on one party only. Also, the authors analyze the failure of previous drug-control efforts by several of the conflict parties.

The second part of the book takes a closer look at the consequences of the drug problem in Burma for its neighboring countries. It analyzes the responses of the Thai, Chinese, and Indian governments and their respective drug policies, and highlights the growing drug addiction problem among the population in these countries. It also examines the crucial roles being played by China, Thailand, and India in influencing and shaping the drug policy debate in the region.

The final part of this book takes a wider view on the drug trade and the situation of drug producers and consumers. After taking a closer look at the position of Burma in the global drug trade, comparative perspectives from Colombia and Afghanistan places the struggle over drug policy in Burma within an international context and draws parallels with the Taleban opium ban in Afghanistan in 2000.

Moving the Debate Forward

The importance of the participation of local farmers, representatives from cease-fire areas and local and international NGOs operating inside Burma in shaping drug policy cannot be overstressed. Closer involvement by the international community with these groups must take place. By working together, a common agenda for a more humane drug policy in Burma, viable options for humanitarian aid and community development in areas affected by the bans, and international strategies vis-à-vis the cease-fire regions and noncease-fire-groups can be developed.

One element of a humane drug policy would be to allow farmers to continue small-scale production to meet their basic needs, especially if there are elderly or sick addicts in the household. More gradual reduction schemes for both supply and demand are basic conditions in order to allow economic or subsistence dependent people to adapt to change in a humane manner.

A gradual and sustainable decrease of the illicit drug economy could also have a positive impact on the HIV/AIDs crisis in Burma, which is largely related to intravenous drug use. It may also reduce the concerns related to drug trafficking in the region that includes the epidemic of yaba (methamphetamines) use in Thailand, serviced mainly from production facilities in Burma.

It could diminish the levels of corruption and the distortion of power relations that result from the revenues earned by armed groups: those under cease-fire agreements; those still in armed opposition; or by the military government. History has shown that few of the parties to the conflict can claim innocence insofar as deriving income from the illicit economy. Demonizing one specific player in the field, which often occurs, usually has stronger roots in politics than in fact.

In order to achieve a sustainable decrease, alternative sources of income for basic subsistence farmers have to be secured. Enforcement of the current tight deadlines does not allow for alternatives to be in place in time, despite genuine efforts undertaken by the UNDOC and other international agencies. A humanitarian crisis will occur, jeopardizing the fragile social stability in the poppy growing areas.

Without adequate resources, the longer-term sustainability of "quick solutions" is highly questionable. Since local 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. The only viable and humane option lies in a simultaneous easing of drug control deadline pressures while increasing international humanitarian aid efforts. Both require stronger international engagement of a different kind from what we have seen thus far.

The complex nature of the issues presented in this volume poses many dilemmas and requires carefully designed drug policy responses, both at the local level as well as internationally, to enable Burma to move toward development, national reconciliation, and democracy.


1. John S. Calgue, former Federated Shan State commissioner, 1937; quoted in Ronald Renard, The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle (Boulder and London: Lynne Rieder, 1996), 38.
2. In 1989, the military government changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. The use of either Burma or Myanmar has since become a highly politicized issue. The UN system uses Myanmar, but for the sake of consistency we have chosen to use Burma, which is the way the country is referred to in the large majority of the English language press and other publications.
3. Shoa Min Liang (member of the UWSA central committee), interview by Martin Jelsma in Panghsang, February 2004.
4. Ngo Shui (district chairman of UWSA Long Tan district), interview by Martin Jelsma in Long Tan, February 2004.