December 15, 2015 / 6:44 AM / 2 years ago

Myanmar's high opium output a huge test for Suu Kyi government: U.N.

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Opium production in Myanmar has stabilized for a third year, the United Nations said on Tuesday, but remained a daunting challenge for the untested government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that takes power in February.

A policeman holds poppy plants after a field was destroyed above the village of Tar-Pu, in the mountains of Shan State January 27, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Myanmar produced an estimated 647 tons of opium in 2015, second only to Afghanistan, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a new report.

That figure was steady from the previous year, as was the total area under opium poppy cultivation, which stood at 55,500 hectares (212 sq miles) in 2015, the UNODC said.

Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s chief in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, warned against calling the stabilization a “success”.

“Production remains at high levels, and displaced farmers without alternatives may return to growing poppy,” he told Reuters.

Myanmar is a major producer of not only opium and its derivative heroin, but also the highly addictive drug methamphetamine, known across Asia by its Thai name “ya ba,” or crazy medicine.

The illicit industry is worth billions of dollars, and is driven by poverty, conflict and Chinese demand.

Narcotics pose another headache for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which will soon govern a large, impoverished and fractious nation after winning a landslide election victory in November.

“Given the scale of the challenge ... she has a big task in front of her. It’s not something that’s going to be fixed in a day,” Douglas said.

The NLD’s election manifesto contained only two fleeting references to narcotics.

“We do recognize the existence of this problem but we’re too preoccupied with preparations for transfer of power and can’t find a chance to think of it seriously at the moment,” Win Htein, a senior NLD leader, told Reuters.

Suu Kyi has often addressed the issue of drugs in her speeches, he said.

Even under an NLD government, the military will retain formal control over the ministries of defense, border affairs and home affairs - all crucial to counter-narcotics efforts.

Most drugs are produced in border areas controlled by ethnic rebel armies or by the Myanmar military and allied militias.

Myanmar, Laos and Thailand make up the so-called Golden Triangle, which churns out a quarter of the world’s opium.

The area under cultivation in Laos also stabilized at 5,700 hectares (22 sq miles) in 2015, while Thailand had only a few hundred hectares, said the UNODC.

Most Golden Triangle opium and heroin goes to China, but they are also widely available in Myanmar, where addiction is common and many injecting drug users are HIV-positive.

Experts fear that Myanmar could soon witness an explosion in methamphetamine use, already common in the rest of Asia.

The Myanmar police launched an aggressive poppy-eradication campaign in 2012, a year after a semi-civilian government replaced military rule. However, the UNODC’s Douglas said its impact had been “minimal”.

He called for the scaling up UNODC projects in Myanmar to provide opium farmers with alternative sources of income, such as coffee.

Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Editing by Simon Webb and Paul Tait

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