Friday, August 18, 2017

Parliament accepts urgent poppy proposal

A Kachin politician yesterday blamed China for undermining Myanmar’s efforts to root out rampant opium poppy cultivation. In defending an urgent proposal put to parliament, MP U La Gan Zal Jone said that more than 10,000 acres of opium fields that residents want destroyed in Kachin State are owned and run by “the rich neighbouring country”.

“These poppy plants are commercially operated by nationals from the neighbouring country so it disgraces our country’s sovereignty,” he said.

U La Gan Zal Jone, who represents Kachin’s Waingmaw township – where thousands of anti-drug vigilantes were locked in a stand-off with police – called on parliament to support field eradication missions.

The proposal was put to the floor at the urging of Christian anti-narcotics group Pat Ja San. Despite being notorious for their hardline, militia-inspired tactics, including publically beating drug users, kidnapping dealers and donning military fatigues, the group was described to parliament as a community-based organisation made up of mothers and children in Shan and Kachin states who oppose illegal narcotics. They were also described as providing education to local poppy growers and rehabilitating drug addicts.

Yesterday, Pat Ja San re-launched an eradication campaign after being locked in a stand-off with Kachin State authorities for nearly a week. Around 2400 mostly young, Christian, ethnic Kachin volunteers have been permitted to clear two northern Kachin sub-townships, Sadon and Kan Pai Tee, with around 200 troops expected to provide security.

A representative of the poppy cultivators also lobbied parliament earlier this week, and threatened that if the vigilantes proceed with the clearance campaign farmers will have to use arms to stop them.

Farmers have previously asked that the eradication campaigns be delayed for a year as harvest season approaches, and they need time to find an alternative income. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, opium poppies are produced primarily by subsistence farmers who rely on money generated from poppy cultivation to stave off food insecurity, debt and poverty.

Pyithu Hluttaw representative U La Man Naw Aung from Ingyanyan township of Kachin State yesterday seconded the urgent proposal to support the eradication campaign.

“In fact, these poppy plantations are commercially operated by wealthy people from the neighbouring country who are afraid of losing their business and that’s why they are trying to disturb the community-based anti-narcotics organisation,” U La Man Naw Aung told reporters.

Pat Ja San vigilantes have previously sought help from the government and the Tatmadaw to pursue their campaign against local poppy growers, but the officials began blocking the missions after farmers responded with deadly force to earlier attempts to destroy the crops. A teenage member of Pat Ja San was shot dead while trying to strip fields last month, and on February 3 a clearing team accompanied by soldiers clashed with angry cultivators.

Pat Ja San has requested the National League for Democracy wade into the issue. The request puts the NLD in a tight spot mediating between ethnic armed groups, the military and impoverished farmers. Poppy cultivation serves as a major source of revenue for several ethnic armed groups, as well as corrupt military and government officials. The NLD is currently in the midst of power-sharing negotiations with the military, in which the commander-in-chief is believed to have lobbied for control of the chief minister positions in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.

Myanmar is the leading opium producer in Southeast Asia, and is second in the world only to Afghanistan.

The proposal to support the anti-narcotics campaigners was approved with 357 votes for and 10 against, with five abstentions. It is scheduled to be discussed tomorrow.

Translation by Zar Zar Soe