“I will continue growing poppy so that my family can eat well,” said U Ba Tein, a 56-year-old Pa-O farmer sitting among dried poppy flowers in his field in Hwai Kyaing village in Pinlong township, southern Shan State.
Wearing Pa-O traditional clothing from head to toe, U Ba Tein does not speak Myanmar, only his native ethnic tongue. “My life is hard, and I work very hard every day in my fields but it’s still not enough to provide enough food and income for my family,” he said through a translator, and looking far older than his 56 years.
U Ba Tein said he started growing poppy about nine years ago when he saw that other villagers were farming the illicit crop. He quickly learned that it was easier to grow than other crops in the mountains and hills where he lives – and more lucrative.
“I see police come and destroy fields sometimes. But I didn’t even know it was illegal,” he said.
Hwai Kyaing village is three hours’ drive from Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. But U Ba Tein is oblivious to the changes occurring in Myanmar and the name “Thein Sein” means nothing to him, he says.
On the sunny day when the interview was conducted in mid-February the dried poppies look extra parched. The trip was organised by UNODC and included three Bangkok-based Associated Press journalists, as well as Shan State police officers. The trip was organised by UNODC to show the nature of the poppy problem, as well as highlight what the organisation is doing to solve it.
The field is on the side of a steep hill, making it difficult to stand – and getting to the field required trekking through thick jungle.
For 28-year-old Shan Ma Nan Mo Han, a resident of Taw Net village, the switch from poppy to alternative crops such as corn and avocado precisely demonstrates the scale of the government’s efforts to eradicate poppy: her family’s income has halved in two years.
“At least we do not need to worry about police coming to destroy our crops anymore, and we don’t need to be afraid,” she said.
“But sometimes we don’t have enough food,” she added.
Farmers from both villages cited the same benefits of growing poppy – it’s easier to grow than other crops and the buyers come to them, there is no need to bring crops to markets in town. The poppy season runs from October to February, and a number of farmers said the income earned from a successful five-month harvest is enough to buy food for a year.
A viss (1.6 kilograms or 3.6 pounds) of opium sap sells for about K500,000, or US$600.