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Myanmar Tries to Kick Its Habit

August 10, 2003|Mitchell Koss | A documentary on the Golden Triangle by Mitchell Koss and Laura Ling will be presented this winter by the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Special Region #2 in northern Myanmar for the opium poppy harvest. But the former guerrilla group that rules the region, the United Wa State Army -- sometimes called the largest armed narco-trafficking group in the world -- claimed that I was watching one of the last harvests. It has pledged to end opium production by 2005.

If you're wondering why a group whose region's one source of cash is drug production now pledges to abandon it, so did I. The answer seems to be connected to three "isms": capitalism, globalism and tourism. But I get ahead of myself, so let's back up.

Myanmar has achieved notoriety in recent years for repeatedly jailing human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, arguably the world's second-favorite oppressed person, after the Dalai Lama. But the isolated country, still referred to by its old name of Burma by the State Department and some human rights groups, is even more notorious in some circles for its opium production as part of the Golden Triangle of drug-producing countries that also includes Thailand and Laos.

In the late 1980s, the government of Myanmar ceded a region where a fifth of the country's opium is produced, dubbed Special Region #2, to the United Wa State Army. The area was granted autonomy in exchange for an end to its decades-long war against the Burmese majority to the south.

To get to the area takes first a small plane from Yangon, Myanmar's capital, and then 10 or 12 hours on dirt roads through half a dozen military checkpoints. The tribal group of ethnic Chinese known as the Wa has a fearsome reputation. As one United Nations official warned me, "They're quite a rough bunch of people."

That's hard to argue with. The army leader who showed my colleagues and me around the area under Wa control told us one evening about how, as a young guerrilla in the early 1970s, he was responsible for going into the villages and taking down the human heads that villages hung each year to ensure a good harvest. But I have to say, the Wa people we met were also fine hosts.

Our army guide took us to a newly opened "casino," a rough barn-like structure where the gamblers ran away when he walked up to a table. He then led us to a shed-like karaoke bar staffed by very young women imported from across the border in China. There, my colleague, encouraged by our enthusiastic host, sang John Lennon's "Imagine."

Our real reason for wanting to see the region, though, was to check out a U.N.-run voluntary opium-reduction program being run in several hundred Special Region #2 villages, funded in large part by the United States. Farmers here traditionally grow opium for cash to buy food because they usually can't grow enough food for a whole year. Everywhere, fields of largely white flowers climbed the steep sides of the green mountains.

Once, in the mountains above Neiva, Colombia, in February 1999, I was caught by insurgents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while filming poppy fields for a documentary and was lucky to be let go with a warning. But in Special Region #2, the opium harvesters are not camera-shy. Barefoot women, some of them teenagers with babies on their backs, laboriously scored the poppy buds to draw out the opium gum, while others scraped the dried opium off buds that had been cut the day before. But unlike opium or coca farmers I've seen in Colombia and Bolivia -- where an illicit crop can bring enough wealth to buy a pickup truck and a satellite dish -- the average Golden Triangle family makes only $200 per year from its opium, according to the United Nations.

As I watched the women harvesting opium, I noticed that one woman's baby was covered with scabs; another's was going blind from conjunctivitis -- "pinkeye," a common illness here but one that's easily cured with antibiotics. In Special Region #2, it is a common cause of blindness. The Wa have little access to health care or medication, other than opium. Indeed, smoking opium to alleviate malaria, TB or any of the other endemic diseases results in a high rate of addiction in the villages.

The region's extreme poverty is summarized by what passes for progress. The U.N. took us to a couple of model villages where the newest innovations were pit toilets and clothes for children.

On market day in the newly electrified town of Mong Pawk, we watched villagers bring their opium to Chinese women sitting by small scales. The opium buyers were a little more camera-shy and wouldn't answer questions. But the U.N. told us that a kilo of opium in Myanmar fetches only $120, about a fifth of what an ounce of high-quality Vancouver-grown marijuana -- "B.C. Bud" -- can retail for in New York City.

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