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Myanmar's opium fight failing as police join addicts

NAMPATKA, Myanmar -- Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard in this northeastern Myanmar village to get high. When authorities show up, it's for their own quick fix: Soldiers and police roll up the sleeves of their dark green uniforms, seemingly oblivious to passers-by.

Nearby, junkies lean on white tombstones, tossing dirty needles and syringes into the dry, golden grass. Others squat on the ground, sucking from crude pipes fashioned from plastic water bottles.

Together with other opium-growing regions of Myanmar, the village of Nampakta has seen an astonishing breakdown of law and order since generals from the former military-run country handed power to a nominally civilian government three years ago.

The drug trade — and addiction — is running wild along the jagged frontier. In this village, roughly half the population uses.

“It's all in the open now,” Daw Li said at the cemetery, wiping tears from her cheeks. As she stood before the graves of her two oldest sons, both victims of heroin overdoses, she could see addicts using drugs.

“Everyone used to hide in their houses. They'd be secretive,” the 58-year-old widow said. “Now the dealers deal, the junkies shoot up. They couldn't care less if someone is watching.

“Why isn't anyone trying to stop this?”

26-percent Increase in Opium Production

Myanmar was the world's biggest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003. The government spent millions on poppy eradication, and drug syndicates began focusing more on manufacturing methamphetamines. But within just a few years, poppy production started picking up.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the country produced 870 tons of opium last year, a 26-percent increase over 2012 and the highest figure recorded in a decade. During the same period, drug eradication efforts plunged. President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, indicated the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control the vast majority of the poppy growing territory.

Nearly a dozen ceasefire agreements have been signed with various groups, but several insurgencies, including the Shan State Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, continue to hold out. If Thein Sein goes after the rebels' main source of income, the drug trade, he risks alienating them at a delicate time.

But many opium-growing towns and villages, including Nampakta, are under government control. Here, authorities are in a position to crack down but have chosen not to.

“When I first assumed this post, I said to my bosses, 'We need to take action to stop drugs,'” said a senior official in Nampatka who spoke to The Associated Press on condition he not be named because he feared retribution.

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Daw Li weeps before the graves of her two oldest sons, both victims of heroin overdoses, at Nampatka village cemetery, northeastern Shan State, Myanmar on Jan. 28.

(AP)

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