Beyond the dusty streets of Mae Sot, a border town on the edge of Thailand’s frontier with Burma, Lway Dang Jar shows me into a small yard surrounding the headquarters of the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO).
For the last two years, PWO has been carrying out surveys to discover Burma’s levels of opium growing, exposing the government’s complicity and highlighting failings in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s most recent regional opium report.
PWO’s new report, ‘Poisoned Hills’, grew out of one they published in 2006, detailing the desperate pressures opium addiction was placing on women and families. ‘We knew that a lot of people are dealing drugs, and a lot of corruption is happening,’ says Dang Jar. ‘We decided we needed to follow up on this, because the situation hadn’t changed.’
The Golden Triangle of Burma, Thailand and Laos is considered to be something of a success story where drug policy is concerned. It was once known as the world’s centre of opium poppy production, but the Burmese government has received a surprising amount of approval in the last 10 years for stamping out cultivation in the areas under its control. The UN has recently warned of increasing opium production in Burma, but in the same breath has suggested that this is mostly due to insurgent groups, and that in government-controlled areas the problem is under control.
But PWO’s research suggests a starkly different picture: opium production is soaring in government-controlled areas, with villagers reporting that government militias and police are demanding bribes in return for not destroying the crops, and then falsifying records – records that ultimately mislead the UN’s survey teams.
The Palaung live in Northern Shan State. Traditionally they are tea farmers, but the price of tea is controlled by the military government (the euphemistically named State Peace and Development Council – SPDC) and the price is too low to live on. In contrast, opium is a fast cash crop: plant it now, harvest in a year and pay for your family’s annual expenses.
Surveying the farmers without drawing attention was not easy. ‘We are very small communities; when someone disappears from the village, everyone knows. If you are away two or three days, they will gossip about you. It is very dangerous. Sometimes we had to work at night,’ Dang Jar reveals. Her colleague Lway Nway Hnoung was searched at the Burma/China border by drugs officials who thought she was trying to hide opium. In fact, she had been trying to conceal papers listing acreage of opium and crop yields for Shan State.
Despite the dangers, surveying the growers and their families was rewarding. ‘Most of the women, because they are so stressed about this, they really want to get help. But because they are not educated, they’re not aware of the help they can get from other people or realize that the government should help.’
When asked if they will carry out the survey again in future years, though, Dang Jar hesitates.
‘Just after we released the report, the SPDC went into some areas where we did the report and destroyed the opium,’ she explains. ‘But it was not good for the people, because there was no announcement, no compensation or work to replace it. And this is another challenge for us: that people start to blame us – because we released this report, their opium farm got destroyed.’