Opinion & Analysis

Myanmar: Opium capital of the World

The political, social and economic turmoil from the 2021 Myanmar coup has pushed many to turn to poppy farming as a survival pathway. Hai Thanh Luong looks at how Myanmar has become the opium capital of the world. 

The political, social and economic turmoil from the 2021 Myanmar coup has pushed many to turn to poppy farming as a survival pathway. Farmers in the country’s remote, mountainous areas have resorted to growing the cash crop, which is a raw ingredient for producing heroin. 

Under the leadership of the Taliban, Afghanistan strictly prohibited the growing of poppy. This led to a 95 per cent decline in opium farming in Afghanistan after the country’s poppy fields were destroyed, creating a gap in the global poppy supply. 

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2023 Southeast Asia Opium Survey, the land dedicated to opium farming was projected to be 47,100 hectares, an increase from 40,100 in 2022. Myanmar now has the largest volume of opium suppliers worldwide.

The average estimated opium yield grew to 22.9 kilograms per hectare, surpassing the previous record of 19.8 kilograms per hectare set in 2022. 

The number recorded a historical high in the 1990s before reaching the peak of nearly 58,000 hectares farmed in 2013, when ice production and trafficking by transnational syndicates and armed groups started taking off. Poppy farming in Myanmar is rising and becoming more efficient after three consecutive years of growth, with the average price of the flower reaching about US$355 per kilogram

Heroin production and trafficking is the most lucrative aspect of the opium economy. An estimated 154 tonnes of heroin was exported from Myanmar in 2023, valued at up to US$2.2 billion. 

The United Nations has suggested means of alternative development through replacing poppy with other crops, such as coffee beans. But the length of technical cultivations, limited resources and a dependency on donations are issues that Myanmar will have to overcome. 

The  most substantial increases in poppy farming have been in Shan state, part of the so-called Golden Triangle — a notorious hub for drug production and smuggling. Shan is poor and remote, but has fertile soil with the right altitude to cultivate opium. Many locals who lost their jobs elsewhere in Myanmar have returned to Shan to work in opium farming. 

Cultivation has risen by 20 per cent. Simultaneously, cultivation has risen by 10 per cent and 6 per cent respectively in the Chin and Kachin states, which border India. 

Poppy farming has become ‘increasingly sophisticated’ and more productive due to densely organised plots, irrigation systems and the use of fertilisers. These inputs helping expand yield have been paid for and supported to growers by major armed groups associated with traffickers that are pushing for more cultivation and harvesting. 

The increase in crop prices has also attracted more farmers, though providers always controlled this form of ‘contract farming model’ with fixed prices. The COVID-19 pandemic and Myanmar’s economic crisis have made opium farming a more stable and appealing employment option. 

The economic, security and governance disruptions following the February 2021 military coup continue to push farmers in remote areas to rely on opium for their livelihoods. As the civil war sparked by the coup continued, cultivation risen by an estimated 18 per cent in 2023. The escalating conflict in Shan and other border regions will likely hasten this trend. 

Though Afghanistan’s banning of poppy cultivation cannot guarantee a complete stop of cultivation, Myanmar’s cultivation is overtaking Afghanistan’s. This will impact, either directly or indirectly, the regional and global drug trade. 

The growth of opium farming is fuelling an expanding drug economy in the Mekong region, which includes high levels of methamphetamine trafficking and related money laundering activities. The lucrative benefits of booming opium cultivation in Myanmar will be mutualised between transnational organised crime syndicates and armed groups to exploit heroin and amphetamines at a cheaper price.

This unpredictable trend of drug-related uses will lead to another pandemic of public health for regional consumers, as Southeast Asia is considered to have one of the highest rates of drug-users worldwide.

While Afghan peasants are liable to being sentenced under Sharia law as poppy crops are destroyed, farmers in Myanmar could be in contrast be forced to cultivate opium by armed groups to produce for traffickers. 

While Myanmar’s political crisis still exists, the United Nation’s bodies and donors should work closely and directly with farmers and communities. They should focus on improving socioeconomic conditions, developing sustainable development programs and reducing the poverty rate. By building a generation with more stable and sustainable access to different sources income, Myanmar will be able to build resilience to conflict and economic disruptions. 

Hai Thanh Luong is Lecturer at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University.in  Queensland.  

This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum