Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar has doubled over the past three years after a long period of decline. This is according to Meng Sutie, the director of the Yunnan Public Security Bureau, who was quoted last week in an article in China Daily's English-language edition about drug trafficking between Myanmar and China.
Meng also told China Daily that the volume of synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamines, smuggled into Yunnan from Myanmar now exceeds the volume of opiates. The rise in synthetic drugs poses a new challenge to villages along the Yunnan-Myanmar border, many of which already struggle with the scourge of opiate addiction and related problems.
Meng estimates that opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar fell from more than 200,000 hectares in the 1990s to fewer than 14,000 hectares in 2007. Now, he says plantings have risen back to 26,800 hectares – although it is difficult to make reliable estimates about the size of the illegal poppy crop in impoverished and politically fractured Myanmar.
In addition to the opium and heroin that are made from the poppies, stimulant drugs such as the mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine known by its Thai name, yaba (literally, "madness drug"), are produced in increasing amounts in low-tech laboratories in Myanmar.
Opiates and synthetic stimulants alike are produced both in areas controlled by the Burmese government in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, as well as in areas administered by breakaway ethnic groups. The most notable such independent breakaway area is Wa State, which abuts southern Yunnan and has a border crossing at the town of Meng'a in Pu'er prefecture.
Various parties, including the US government, have accused both the United Wa State Army, which controls Wa State, and Myanmar's ruling junta of supporting production and trade in illicit drugs.
Burmese smugglers account for 80 to 90 percent of the drugs entering Yunnan, estimates Meng. He also told China Daily that authorities currently seize two to three tons of opiates annually, and in 2010 they seized more than four tons of synthetic drugs.
Smugglers use tactics such as hollowing out stones and filling them with drugs or soaking their clothes in drugs and then drying them out before crossing the border and extracting the drugs out of the fabric.
Drugs have had a devastating impact on many Chinese villages along the 1,997-kilometer (1,240-mile) border between Yunnan and Myanmar. Widespread use of heroin by injection has caused an HIV epidemic in many border regions and Yunnan now has the highest HIV rate of any Chinese province or autonomous region. In the border city of Ruili, it is estimated that two-thirds of injection drug users are infected with HIV.
The presence of drugs has also brought guns and a heightened risk of violence to border areas. As China Daily reports, "According to Wang Hailiang, Party chief of Yunnan's armed police force, 25 officers have died in shootouts with armed drug traffickers during the past five years. In 2010 alone, 28 trafficking cases involved guns."
The recent rise in smuggling of synthetic stimulants is yet another challenge for populations that have already been hit hard by drugs. But there is some hope: a Dehong native that we spoke to recently said that the village where she was born, near the Burmese border, used to be rife with drug problems but has improved in recent years due to education programs and better policing.
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