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Monday, April 7, 2014
Losing the war against heroin
Myanmar failing in the opium battle; soldiers and police shooting up

Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard in the northeastern Myanmar village of Nampatka to take drugs. When authorities show up, it's for their own fix: Soldiers and police roll up the sleeves of their uniforms, seemingly oblivious to passersby.

Together with other opium-growing regions of Myanmar, Nampakta has seen an astonishing breakdown of law and order since generals from the formerly military-run country handed power to a nominally civilian government three years ago. The drug trade — and addiction — is running wild along the 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," the 58-year-old widow said. "Now they couldn't care less if someone is watching. Why isn't anyone trying to stop this?"

Myanmar was the world's biggest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003. Then the government spent millions on poppy eradication. But within just a few years, poppy production started picking up. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the country produced 870 tons of opium last year, a 26 percent increase over 2012. 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. If Thein Sein goes after the rebels' main source of income, the drug trade, he risks alienating them.

But many opium-growing towns and villages are under government control. In Nampakta, 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,'" said a senior official in Nampatka who spoke on condition he not be named. "However, I was told, 'Mind your own business.'"

Though the government eradicated only about 12,000 hectares of opium poppies last year, barely half the total of 2012, Ye Htut said he is hopeful that future poppy eradication efforts — this time with the help of the U.S. government — will be more successful. He said sanctions imposed on the country when it was under military rule made it difficult to finance crop alternatives for poor poppy-growing farmers.

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