Burma: Drug use and rights abuses in Burma's ethnic areas out of control

The only men who aren’t using drugs in Palaung area are the monks, said a report by Palaung Women Organization (PWO). 91% of young people in Palaung area aged 15 and over are addicted to drugs, added Lway Poe Ngeal, joint general secretary of the local women’s rights group.

Poe* is a 25 year old Palaung woman who left Burma for better education opportunities in neighbouring Thailand. Her organization locally known as Ta’ang Women Organization is based in Mae Sot, Thailand. The women’s rights group advocates for the rights of an ethnic minority community concentrated in northern Shan State.

3 years after Burma’s long-awaited elections were held in November 2010, Palaung communities in northern Shan State in Myanmar (Burma) are suffering from the effects of an even greater upsurge in opium cultivation than in previous years, a report by Palaung Women Organization said.

According to PWO, opium cultivation across 15 villages in Namkaham Township has increased by a staggering 79% within two years. 12 villagers in the same area, who had not previously grown opium, have started to grow it since 2009. The organization criticizes Burma’s military regime’s “War on Drugs."

“The villages are under control of government paramilitary “anti-insurgency” forces. They are directly profiting from the opium trade”, Ngeal said. She explained that one of the most prominent militia leaders and druglords in the area is from the military–backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and was elected as an MP for Namkham Township, Northern Shan State, in November 2010. “He promised voters that they could grow opium freely for 5 years if they voted for him. He promised that he would protect those people and their opium fields would not be destroyed”, said the young woman.

“Government troops, police and militia continue to openly tax opium farmers. They collect bribes from drug addicts in exchange for their release from custody”, she added.

According to PWO’s report the druglord has been controlling opium cultivation and drug trading in the area for more than a decade. He controls it through his “anti-rebel” militia Ta-Ka-Sa- Pha, one of the numerous paramilitary forces set up by the regime to consolidate their control in conflict areas. These militia are allowed to act as local “warlords”, profiting from local businesses, legal or illegal. In 2006 his militia had almost 400 armed troops, and is reported to have recruited many more by the time of Burma’s first elections for 20 years in November 2010.

Opium replacing traditional Palaung tea growing.
Poppy cultivation has never been traditional for the Palaung people, said Poe Ngeal. The Palaung traditionally have grown tea on upland farms. The tea is famous in Burma for it high quality. The villagers in northern Shan State have been increasingly turning to opium as a result of military controls on tea prices and excessive taxation. The rising price of commodities throughout Burma and new restriction on trading of agriculture goods between townships in northern Shan State has been further reason for them to cultivate opium. “It takes a short time to grow and they get a huge profit from it”, explained Ngeal.

People are not forced to work in opium fields, but they do it for better wages. They don’t have any other choice. Wages often are paid in opium. There are Chinese who are ready to pay for it. But most of the people just use the opium for themselves, she added. They are forced to work at night and smoke opium or/and heroine to have more energy for work. Those who have been addicted for several years turn to injection to get a stronger effect.

Impact on women and children – dire poverty
Womens' lives in Palaung community are continuing to be devastated by the addiction of their husbands, sons and fathers, Ngeal explained. She said that drug addicts often resort to stealing money and food from their own families in order to pay for their addiction. Many Paloung men see drug use as a way of escaping their problems. The children are forced to give up their education, because their parents can no longer afford to pay for it.

As a result they become the victims of drug abuse, but the worse is the impact on daughters. In case mothers were forced to stop sending their children to school, it was daughters who were withdrawn first from school. Girls are also expected and coerced by their father to provide money for his drug habit. In one case, a women lost 8 of 11 children due to malnutrition and disease, and in another case, two daughters were trafficked by their addicted father.

According to the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), an independent media and research group, opium growing has now spread throughout Shan State and to other parts of Burma where it had never been grown before. The Burmese military regime is relying on the drug trade to fund its army and local security militia in the ethnic states, said their report, and stressed that only a political solution to the civil war can bring an end to the drug problems in Burma.

The actual area of opium cultivation in Northern Shan State is much higher than that given by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the PWO report. “The reason is that UNODC is relying on data from SPDC police both for eradication as well as for “ground truthing” surveys. We recommend them to independently verify data provided by the Burmese military regime before publishing it and to make sure that political analysis is not erroneous and misleading”, added the human rights activist.

The latest report of UNODC in December 2013 estimated that led by a 13 per cent increase in Myanmar opium cultivation to 57,800 hectares (from 51,000 ha in 2012), opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thailand rose for the seventh consecutive year. Myanmar is Southeast Asia's largest opium poppy-growing country and the world's second largest after Afghanistan.

Palaung’s future
There are still serious human rights violations in Palaung areas. People are running away from their homeland. The Army fired shells into the village of Pan Pyat, in Kyaukme township, northern Shan State, the last PWO report said. The army killed the village headmen and seriously injured two women.

Most of the 300 families in Pan Pyat have fled to the nearby town of Kyaukme, where they are sheltering with relatives or in temples. The number of displaced people in Palaung areas is now over 4,000. Burmese troops entered the village, and began firing their guns into houses, apparently targeting the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, suspected to be hiding in the village.

“Today it is still dangerous to talk about drugs and human rights in Burma. The police follow us all the time”, added Ngeal.
As a human rights activist and social worker in Burma I don’t know how to believe this government and ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Ngeal said. “They are the same persons as before but they just changed their clothes. How can we talk about peace when ethnic people suffer and Burmese government troops are killing innocent civilians? Nobody listens to their voice.”

Palaung people expect the next Burma general elections in 2015.

*The interview was arranged in Mae Sot, Thailand thanks to Minority Rights Group International (http://www.minorityrights.org/) and Gender Project for Bulgaria. It was a part of a journalism training and field visit in Mae Sot and refugee camps in Thailand and the project Minority Realities in the News.

Photos: Poe Ngeal, joint general secretary of the local women’s rights group  Palaung  Women Organization


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Mae Sot, Thailand
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Date: 11/05/2014




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