Friday, April 22, 2011

SOUTHEAST ASIA - In the shadow of poppy fields in bloom

For generations, the hill tribes - mostly Hmong, Akha and Yao and - welcome the abundant harvests of poppy fields and the sight of blooming delights tourists and photographers. But this natural beauty is the last concern of the U.S. anti-narcotics units. While some hill people consider this plant as a blessing, the Western officials see nothing else but the source of the heroin addiction that has plagued their cities.

There is a little less than ten years, production of opium in the Golden Triangle - the border area between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand - had stalled. For decades, Thailand had tried to eradicate opium and in 2002, under pressure from the U.S. government and UN agency against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Lao government had launched a campaign in the same direction.

In 2005, Laos has declared that it produced more opium and the UN announced that the crops of Myanmar had been reduced by half. The following year, the Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, said that the days of the Golden Triangle were counted. But apparently, this optimism was unfounded.

According to an annual survey by the UN in 2010, opium cultivation in Southeast Asia rose 22% over the previous year and has jumped 55% in Laos. The failure of campaigns to eradicate opium in Myanmar and Laos due to reasons both political and economic. In Laos, the hill tribes increasingly defy the ban order to make ends meet.

Commodity prices have fallen, the poverty rate among the farming population is increasing. And like opium prices soar, a growing number of farmers are naturally tempted by the poppy. Similar economic pressures exerted on the Shan State, Myanmar. As noted by the UN, poppy cultivation is by far the most lucrative for farmers, one hectare can yield 4 600 dollars, 13 times more than a hectare of rice.

In this economic incentive to transplant the complex politics of Shan State, where attempts by the military junta to submit the ethnic rebel armies have encouraged the parties involved in the conflict to use the opium trade and heroin trafficking to raise funds. Critics of the policy of the United States and the UN, the main reason for the failure of the fight against drugs in Southeast Asia is that it focuses on measures of coercion and sanction.

In Laos, the hill tribes are unhappy with the draconian treatment meted out to them. While many farmers are struggling to live ordinary food crops, poppy cultivation allows them to swap it against the rice to other villages and to provide painkillers to isolated communities with limited access to hospitals.

Paradoxically, despite the increased production of opium in the Golden Triangle, many hospitals and clinics in Myanmar and Laos are still difficulties in obtaining supplies of morphine. Hospitals in Rangoon, some doctors even advise families of patients in severe pain to get the opium to the black market.

As Myanmar is in the hands of the military junta, it will be impossible to recognize the country as a producer of legal opium subject to international control. Laos, however, being a country at peace, it is easier to regulate the cultivation of poppy. All that to say that if the opium was destroyed in some parts of Laos, other sectors suffer from a shortage of painkillers.

The problem is not limited to domestic consumption: if Laos could grow opium legally, it would represent a growing market for analgesics in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By then, many Laotians continue to wonder why the West accepts the opium cultivation in a small group of rich countries while their own, poor, landlocked, is supposed to live on coffee exports and Beerlao, domestic beer.

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