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Myanmar tackles its opium problem

Myanmar said its plan to completely eradicate the country from drugs has been put back five years to 2019, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that Myanmar's opium production rose by 26 per cent in 2013.

NAY PYI TAW: Myanmar said its plan to completely eradicate the country from drugs has been put back five years to 2019, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that Myanmar's opium production rose by 26 per cent in 2013.

A key obstacle in tackling Myanmar's drug problem is poverty -- with about 26 per cent of the population earning about US$2 a day, growing opium is a lucrative option.

As the country commemorates International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Thursday, more than US$130 million worth of drugs up in smoke.

But even as Myanmar tries to get narcotics off the streets, its production of opium continues to grow. The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime said opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar more than doubled from 21,600 hectares in 2006 to 57,800 hectares last year.

That makes Myanmar the second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, accounting for about 25 per cent of global poppy production.

The UN is calling for more resources and money to be pumped in to help tackle the problem.

Jason Leigh, the country manager for the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime in Myanmar, said: "200,000 households, which is what the UN estimates, are dependent on poppy cultivation, and a majority of them are growing poppy because they're too poor, they don't have any other resource for funding.

"Right now the programme is reaching about 15,000 of these households -- that leaves 185,000 households that are falling into the trap of becoming dependent on poppy for their own survival, and (the number is) growing every year.

"There's no silver bullet, it's going to require time, it's going to require money and it's going to require the partnership of a number of different actors."

It is a problem that the Myanmar police acknowledge, and they are increasingly looking at alternatives for farmers.

Zaw Lin Tun, a senior officer with the drug enforcement division in the Myanmar Home Affairs Ministry, said: "Opium cultivation is increasing, we cannot deny it. But we do have a plan to control it... We are introducing coffee, to make it a long-term crop. We (just have to) get villagers interested, to change their behaviour and grow coffee.

"In other areas where we can grow rice, we introduce rice for their food... So in the village project area, we provide crops, seeds and livestock, animals and also we provide training."

Authorities say that growing opium poppy plants over one hectare land can earn a farmer about US$1,000 -- that is about 10 times more than what he can make by growing ordinary crops.

Unless the Myanmar government can reduce poverty in this country and help farmers to make a decent living, it will be extremely difficult to convince them to move away from this lucrative market for many years to come.

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