Newsbrief: UN Drug Office Predicts Humanitarian Crisis as Myanmar Opium Ban Goes Into Effect | 12/19/03

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is warning of a looming humanitarian crisis among opium-growing peasants in the ethnic Wa region of Myanmar's (Burma's) remote Shan State when an opium eradication program it is sponsoring goes into full effect after the 2005-2006 crop year. Farmers in the region -- some of the poorest in a poor country -- depend on miniscule opium plots to provide cash that allows them to buy rice when their land doesn't produce enough to feed their families.

While the United Nations has begun alternative development programs, it still expects significant problems as peasants lose as much as half their cash incomes -- about $250 a year -- once eradication goes into complete effect. In an interview published Monday by the UN press agency, UN Wire, UNODC Myanmar Representative Jean-Luc Lemahieu called the risk of a humanitarian crisis "very real," adding, "it is more than a risk, it's becoming a reality."

The eradication campaign is aimed at Wa-controlled territories within the Shan State, areas remote from and not under the control of the central government in Yangon (Rangoon). In this mountainous and remote region near the Chinese border, tribal languages and Chinese are heard more frequently than Burmese, and Western tourists are not permitted. According to the UNODC, some 343 villages in the area grow opium to make up for rice shortages, and UN representatives in the area are also expecting trouble. Project manager Jeremy Milsom told UN Wire it would be "very difficult" for villagers to make up the difference and there would be "severe difficulties" when the ban goes into effect.

Government officials, both regional and national, are expressing little concern. United Wa State Party leader Xiao Mingliang told reporters in Pang Sang, capital of the Wa region, that there will be food shortages after the cutoff, but that the crop substitution and alternative development would ameloriate the worst effects. Li Zu Ru, vice chairman of the party's central committee said preparations were in place, before mysteriously adding that peasants totally reliant on the poppy crop have already been relocated.

Meanwhile, emergency food aid for the region has already begun. The UN World Food Program delivered 760 tons of rice to famine-threatened former opium farmers in the region in November. Since the ban began to be implemented in the 2001-002 growing season, tens of thousands of farmers have turned to alternative crops, but have been driven to the brink of starvation by low prices and poor yields.

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