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Myanmar looks for poppy power substitute

The United Wa State Army territory is internationally regarded by drug experts as the main drug production area in Southeast Asia
The United Wa State Army territory is internationally regarded by drug experts as the main drug production area in Southeast Asia  

From Tom Mintier

YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- This year Myanmar will be the world's largest heroin producer and the authorities' battle to eliminate the poppy in one of the most lawless areas of the country has proven ineffectual.

Thai police only discover a small fraction of the heroin that hits the market and all they can do is confiscate and burn it. But they know the best way to tackle the problem is at its source.

It all begins in the mountainous areas of Myanmar and pictures provided by the United Nations Drug Control Program show fields full of poppy flowers.

The bumper crop will soon be transformed to opium and then processed into heroin for shipment to the rest of the world.

Yet the poor farmers who plant and harvest the crop make little money for their work.

The billions of dollars of profit come later and further down the chain of drug exporters and dealers at the wholesale and retail levels.

Dominating global production

CNN's Tom Mintier reports that Myanmar will soon be the leading producer of illegal poppies used to make opium and heroin, and looks at steps being taken against the deadly trade.

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This year the United Nations reports that Myanmar will be the world's largest producer of opium and heroin.

"It's very's very serious. The last figure of the crop for 2000-2001 (showed) that 68 percent of the global opium production is concentrated in Myanmar. Myanmar is number one." Jean-Luc Lemahieu, a U.N. representative told CNN in Yangon.

Some have accused the military government of doing little to stem the flow of drugs out of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma and still referred to by that name in some quarters).

The country's military leaders say much has been done to eliminate the poppy.

"We have used a lot of methods in the past by going there and destroying the fields and the people just became starving, they just hated the government because of the action in the past," U-Win Aung, Myanmar Foreign Minister told CNN.

Crop substitution

Pig farms have been built over opium growing land in Mong Zin village near the notorious Golden Triangle
Pig farms have been built over opium growing land in Mong Zin village near the notorious Golden Triangle  

An area of Eastern Myanmar along the border with Thailand is where most of the poppies are grown, above 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) in the mountains in an area controlled by the Wa ethnic minority.

The Wa signed a peace agreement with the Yangon government in the mid 1990's but this part of the country is still dangerous.

CNN had a dozen armed guards with its crew when traveling on the roads.

These hills were once fertile poppy production areas, but now the Wa have promised to get out of the drug business by the year 2005.

Crop substitution programs are now in place, yet this area of the Wa state has a dubious reputation and people here freely admit it.

"We know we have a problem (and) that is why we have a plan, a very comprehensive plan we started in 1999, a 15 year plan for the total eradication of narcotics drugs," says U-Win Aung.

It used to be one of the largest opium production areas in the entire state -- even the signpost calls it Poppy Mountain -- but it has now been renamed Coffee Mountain.

Coffee trees will soon produce beans where poppies once flourished now more than a thousand acres have been sowed with 150,000 plants.

Another project grows oranges planted three years ago and the trees are now bearing fruit.

Down from the mountains

The government is bringing diplomats to see fruit orchards, as well as briefing interested parties on Yangon's crop substitution program.

This is not the first time many of these diplomats have taken the tour.

The Pakistani Ambassador to Myanmar knows first hand the problems with drugs; a good deal of the heroin from Afghanistan is exported through his country.

"Well, it's a good effort, we have to wait and see how successful it is but the will is there. That is important. It's always important to try something to give incentive to the people everybody knows what is the menace of this problem," Yusuf Shah told CNN.

Part of that plan is to bring the Wa down from the mountains and away from the poppy production areas where they can grow lowland rice and technical experts from China are in Myanmar to supervise.

So far more than 50,000 of the Wa have been brought down from the mountains for projects like this one.

Meeting with the Wa

Farmers who used to produce opium told CNN that planting rice is better and more profitable, it also produces a commodity that is edible.

The Wa leaders are educating their people about the evils associated with the opium poppy.

One of these is Pao Yu-ie, it was after his visit to Myanmar's military leader Khin Nyunt, in December 1998 that the Wa promised to be out of the drug business in three years time, a promise he says will be kept.

Another Wa leader, Li Zhi Yu, met with CNN on a cattle farm created by the Wa community. He said he was not involved in the drug trade and that those who are lazy, do not want to work and are hurting the reputation of the Wa.

When asked about people involved in the drug trade Li Zhi Yu told CNN that those people should be put behind bars and prosecuted under the law.

Li Zhi Yu quickly added that the Wa region is part of the sovereign Union of Myanmar and if there is to be any prosecution it must be done in Myanmar and not in the United States.




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