United Nations drug control officials are calling on the international community to ease restrictions on humanitarian aid to Burma's military government. The officials say urgent funding is needed to help farmers give up their opium crops in northern Burma.
During a conference in Bangkok, U.N. officials called for more aid to curtail illegal opium production, particularly in Burma. The United Nations and many countries have long fought the opium trade in Burma, as well as in neighboring Laos and Thailand - the so-called Golden Triangle countries. Opium is made into the highly addictive and illegal drug heroin.
Sandro Cavani, the U.N. Drug Control Program representative for Asia and Pacific, warns the governments of the region may soon face a new challenge if a recent crackdown on opium production in Afghanistan cuts world heroin supplies.
"It is highly probable there is the risk that the drought of heroin, the drought of opium, might soon represent a challenge for the Golden Triangle, of course Myanmar and Laos, which are the producing countries in the region," he said.
Mr. Cavani says the continuing international diplomatic isolation of Burma only makes the fight against opium harder. U.N. officials warn that without help, farmers can not find alternative crops to grow.
Many nations and human rights groups have called for aid to be restricted to Burma until the military government improves its human rights record. The U.N. Drug Control Program representative in Rangoon, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says opium reduction programs in Burma need more international support to ensure success.
The United Nations, with $12 million in funds from the United States and Japan, is working to wean Burma's northern Wa people away from opium farming.
U.S. data show opium production in Burma fell to 860 metric tons in 2001 from a peak of 2,500 metric tons in 1996. But Mr. Lemahieu says more resources are needed.
"There is one thing in reducing it fast, there is another thing in giving a livelihood, a sustainable livelihood to the farmers who are dealing traditionally with opium, and that is not coming forward."
Mr. Lemahieu says delay will only lead to higher social and economic costs related to opium production. Farmers often become addicted to their product, while the violence of the drug trade can be damaging to village life.