The United Nations says Burma's opium poppy cultivation has increased at an alarming rate this year. As Chad Bouchard reports from Bangkok, experts are concerned that weakened security in border areas may undermine successful eradication campaigns over the past few years in an area known as the Golden Triangle.
Officials with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime say opium poppy farming is expanding in Burma after several years of dramatic crop declines.
Poppy cultivation in Burma decreased more than 80 percent from 1998 to 2006 following an eradication campaign in the area where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet, an area known as the Golden Triangle.
But the number of hectares used to grow the crops in Burma has bounced back 29 percent this year.
A U.N. report released this week cites corruption, poverty and a lack of government control as causes for the jump.
Xavier Bouan is a crop-monitoring expert for the UNODC in Burma. He recently told journalists in Bangkok that security is loose in Burma's northeastern Shan state, where insurgents from the Shan ethnic minority have fought the military for decades.
"There's no possibility of improvement in terms of opium poppy elimination or conduction alternative development as long as there is not any peace and security in those areas," said Bouan.
U.N. officials say it is not clear if the recent crackdown in Burma against pro-democracy demonstrators has yet affected opium cultivation.
However, Sandeep Chawla, head of research and policy in the UNODC in Burma, says in general fluctuations in poppy crops can be tied to political stability.
"Yes, we are very concerned about it as we must be because if the spike is indeed the beginning of a trend, then it rather changes the picture, where if the trend continues next year then it will be even more to worry about. So we need vigilance now and we need to be very careful with the situation," said Chawla.
Analysts say the military may be distracted from its efforts to eradicate opium as it focuses on suppressing the pro-democracy movement.
Khuensai Jaiyen is the director of the Shan Herald Agency for News, which focuses on Burma's ethnic Shan community. He also is an expert on the Burmese drug trade.
He says Burma's military has already relaxed security in some areas, and the recent crackdown could worsen law enforcement.
"The army has no time to patrol the countryside anymore," said Jaiyen. "They were only focused on the possible unrest that might have cropped up in the main towns and cities. Their main focus has never been opium eradication. Their main concern is to cling on to power."
Burma is the world's second biggest producer of opium, which is used to make the highly addictive drug heroin.
Afghanistan is by far the world's top producer, with an estimated 90 percent of the world's opium poppy crop.