The expansion and diversification of Southeast Asia’s synthetic drug market last year has led to a further decline in the production and demand for opium in Myanmar, although crime rings that traffic heroin continued to generate substantial profits, fueling conflict, a United Nations report said Thursday.
According to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), entitled “Myanmar Opium Survey: Cultivation, Production and Implications,” a downward trend that began in 2015 continued last year, when poppy farmers saw incomes decline due to trade disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Opium-dependent regions and communities are being impacted by changes in the drug economy,” UNODC Country Manager for Myanmar, Benedikt Hofmann, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.
“Alternative development programmes that offer viable, sustainable sources of legitimate income and assistance to communities in Shan and Kachin [states] are critical to the country’s future.”
According to the agency, even before the pandemic, opium farmers in Myanmar earned less than 10 percent of the money generated by the country’s opiate economy.
UNODC said that some 405 metric tons (mt) of opium were produced in Myanmar last year, or less than half of that produced in in 2013, while the area of opium cultivation fell 11 percent to 29,500 hectares (73,000 acres) in 2020 from 33,100 hectares (81,800 acres) a year earlier.
The vast majority of opium production continued to occur in Shan state, accounting for 84 percent in 2020, followed by Kachin state, accounting for 12 percent. Both regions saw production drop year-on-year by 12 percent and six percent, respectively. Kayah and China states accounted for four percent of the total production last year.
According to UNDOC, organized crime groups that traffic heroin in Southeast Asia continued to earn significant profits in 2020, despite the shift towards synthetic drugs.
Domestic heroin consumption of six tons was valued at between U.S. $144 and 315 million, according to the latest statistics from last year, while the export of heroin to neighboring countries was valued at between U.S. $500 million and $1.6 billion.
“Heroin also continues to pose a significant public security and health challenge for neighbouring countries as Myanmar remains the major supplier of opium and heroin in East and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia,” the statement said.
UNDOC said that according to the latest estimates, there are more than 3 million heroin users in the region consuming approximately U.S. $10 billion worth of the drug annually.
Drugs and conflict
The report noted that the illicit drug economy has seriously hampered multiethnic Myanmar’s efforts to establish long-term peace, particularly in the country’s various conflict zones controlled by armed ethnic insurgents.
“There is a longstanding connection between drugs and conflict in Myanmar, and any meaningful action to address the conflict will require breaking this cycle,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“The money generated has fueled a corrosive political economy and continued militarization, and it is clear that poor opium farming areas require better security and sustainable economic alternatives,” he said.
“The fact is that opium and heroin still remain an important source of income for organized crime even as the production of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs has again increased. It is important to develop strategies to address the overall drug economy.”
Last year, UNODC said in a report that the price of methamphetamines in East and Southeast Asia had dropped to its lowest level in 10 years as a result of sharp increases in supply.
The report said that the number of cases in which synthetic opioids identified among illicit drug supplies in the region jumped to 28 in 2019 from three in 2014, and that agents were seizing the substances in new locations as organized crime expands its business.