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Burma's Former Opium Growers Face Humanitarian Crisis, warns UN - 2003-12-18


United Nations anti-drug officials are warning of a looming humanitarian crisis in northern Burma, where opium growing is being eradicated but without income replacement for poor farmers. At the same time, some ethnic dissidents charge the anti-drug program is being manipulated by the Burmese military government.

The head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Burma, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says 150,000 people in northern Burma have lost income to opium eradication efforts and are facing a humanitarian crisis.

In Burma, the world's second largest producer of opium, subsistence farmers in remote mountainous areas have traditionally grown opium poppy as a cash crop to help them survive chronic rice shortages.

Some former rebel groups that have been granted autonomy in exchange for a ceasefire, have pledged to end poppy cultivation within a few years. They have even forcefully relocated some opium producing villages.

But experts say these groups have not provided the necessary support as the farmers lose their main source of income.

Mr. Lemahieu says, without international aid, as many as two million people could be facing a humanitarian crisis in the next two years as the eradication programs peak.

"That means that the situation will worsen in the future," "It will not improve. Denying assistance at this moment is very cynical and, from the humanitarian perspective, not acceptable."

For the last few years, the United Nations has been running a pilot program in the Wa area, near the Chinese border, which helps farmers as they abandon opium cultivation. But U.N. officials have not been able to expand the effort to other opium-growing areas because of a lack of funding.

International donors have been reluctant to give large amounts of aid to Burma's military government because of its history human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, eradication efforts have produced results. Surveys by the United Nations and the U.S. government show a two-third drop in opium cultivation in Burma in the past few years.

But some Burmese dissidents dispute these statistics.

Keun Sai, an ethnic Shan activist, says Shan exiled dissidents have published their own statistics this week, showing that four times more opium is actually being produced than reported by the international surveys.

"I don't know how the experts work out those figures, but according to the local people, especially in the south and east, the poppy growing areas have increased," he said.

Mr. Lemahieu, of the U.N. drug agency, acknowledges that opium cultivation has increased in some areas but blames this on the lack of a nationwide eradication program.

"If you squeeze the balloon in one place, it will bulge up somewhere else," said Mr. Lemahieu. "So what is happening is that people who are forced out of opium cultivation will go to other places and will try to cultivate it there."

Mr. Lemahieu says that despite setbacks in some areas, there has been a significant reduction in Burma's opium production overall.

But Keun Sai says it is not really just a matter of money, the problem is the Burmese military government uses the anti-drug effort for its own political agenda.

Keun Sai says the government targets opium farmers in certain areas, yet allows allied ethnic groups to engage in the trade unmolested, often with the support of corrupt local officials.

"The war there is very selective," he said. "They choose very carefully who to wage against."

Keun Sai says any anti-drug aid that goes to the Burmese government gives Rangoon more money to fund its military and repress the population.

Mr. Lemahieu of the U.N. anti-drug agency says he understands that some dissidents do not want international donors to help the Burmese government. However, he says, U.N. funds are not channeled through the Burmese government but rather are directly applied.

The suffering of peasants who have been forced to abandon opium cultivation without the necessary support has led some international experts to call for a slower yet more sustainable opium eradication program.

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