Special Report: Myanmar Declares War on Opium
In Myanmar’s new war on drugs, meet the weapon of mass destruction: the weed-whacker.
Its two-stroke engine spins a metal blade, which is more commonly deployed to tame the suburban gardens of wealthy Westerners. But today, in a remote valley in impoverished Shan State, Myanmar police armed with weed-whackers are advancing through fields of thigh-high poppies, leaving a carpet of stems in their wake.
When the police are finished, their uniforms are flecked with a sticky brown sap harvested from these flowers for centuries: opium. Myanmar produced an estimated 610 tonnes in 2011, making it the world’s second-biggest opium supplier after Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The area under poppy cultivation has doubled in the past five years.
Now, emerging from half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar says it wants to buck that trend.
Since taking power a year ago, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein has launched a series of political and economic reforms. It has also dramatically accelerated a campaign to eradicate opium poppies and shed Myanmar’s pariah status as one of the world’s top drug producers.
Myanmar officials allowed a Reuters reporter and photographer to visit former conflict areas in remote Shan State to examine the campaign, marking the first time in decades that Western journalists were able to report freely in the region.
The five-day journey with the UNODC and local police came as Myanmar appeals to foreign donors for half a billion dollars to finance a program it says will wean 256,000 households off poppy-growing over the next three years.