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Opium production booms in the territories controlled by rebels opposed to Burma’s military junta

In its latest report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the production of opium in Burma has risen dramatically this year: compared to 2009, the area cultivated has increased by 20 percent (from 31,700 to 38,100 hectares) and the actual crop has shot up by a staggering 76 percent (from 330 to 580 tons), thanks to much improved productivity, which has gone from 10 to 15 kilos per hectare.

This bonanza catapults Burma opium production to 16 percent of the world total, up from 5 percent last year, returning it almost to the levels of the ‘narco-paradise’ years of the 1960s and 70s, when the Golden Triangle comprising Burma, Laos and Thailand was the world’s biggest opium producer.

Over the following decades – once the Vietnam War had finished, and with it the CIA’s covert operations in the region – the bulk of opium production shifted gradually to Afghanistan, where it flourished firstly through the good offices of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen and then the Taleban movement (both supported by the US). This lasted up until 2001, when mullah Omar banned opium production, but shortly afterwards, with the American invasion and occupation, business was back in full swing.

Burma’s opium production – 92 percent of which is concentrated in the eastern region of Shan – continued to dwindle up until 2006. After this, thanks to the resumption of the Shan guerrilla independence movement’s activities against the military junta government (following an alliance between the two main rebel groups), production began to rise again, culminating in the 2010 boom that has one hand-in-hand with an escalation of rebel activities during the elections organised by the regime.

In the same period, opium production also shot up in the northern region of Kachin, where the remaining 8 percent of the poppy plantations are situated: this in territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headed by General Gam Shawng.

All the armed groups in Burma fighting the junta’s regime – including the Kachin rebels and the Shan State Army (SSA) headed by Colonel Yod Serk (the heir to Khun Sa, ‘the opium king’ who died in 2007) – are backed by the US, either through the Thai military secret services or directly through the CIA (not to mention Hollywood, as demonstrated by the film Rambo IV).

“Burma’s rebel movements increase drug production in order to buy arms with which to fight the junta”, wrote The Guardian newspaper last June, quoting a high-up UNODC source. “The minorities feel increasingly under threat from the government and rely on the drugs trade to finance themselves and control their territories.”


Enrico Piovesana