Opium figures: Worlds apart
Before 1962, the year the military took over the reins of government, poppy growing was unheard of apart from the Shan State. But now, poppy planting in 4 other states (Karenni, Kachin, Chin and Arakan) and 3 divisions (Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe) are being recorded ...
Opium figures: Worlds apart
The experts and the people on the ground never see eye to eye
Khun Seng (Chang Pingyun aka Ronald Chang) with Khun Sa (Chang Chifu). Both are on the US wanted list
The fact is best illustrated by one of my favorite comic strips where the king, speaking on top of the tower of his castle, announces, “I see a land of milk and honey,” and one of the peasants who are, of course, on the ground turns to his neighbor and groans, “The view must be different up there.”
In fact, it was this cartoon that flashed through my mind when I recently saw a newspaper report on the UN’s drug agency saying the region could see itself opium-free in the coming years.
While the experts are jubilant with the success story in Burma, the peasants themselves are saying more and more of them have been pushed into poppy cultivation each year. In 2002, the New Light of Myanmar itself reported destruction of a poppy field in Magwe division. Early this year, Narinjara was reporting about two farmers being arrested on 2 March for poppy cultivation in Buthidaung, Arakan State.
Before 1962, the year the military took over the reins of government, poppy growing was unheard of apart from the Shan State. But now, poppy planting in 4 other states (Karenni, Kachin, Chin and Arakan) and 3 divisions (Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe) are being recorded.
The UN and US experts confidently refer to their satellite photographs and annual survey trips conducted together with the military officials to back their yearly estimates.
The peasants, on the other hand, are giving us two different versions: the official one when they know their survival is in peril if they dare speak the wrong thing and the unauthorized one when they know they are safe to say anything they want.
“What do you expect us to do when we are burdened with the job of feeding not only our families but also the Army that never stops demanding more and more as well as other armed groups and poppy growing is being permitted by them?,” a farmer roared in desperation when S.H.A.N. put the question to him. S.H.A.N. of course wasn't packing a gun at that time.
“The proximity of an army causes prices to go up; and high prices cause people’s substance to be drained away,” reads The Art of War, the classic military treatise written by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago. “When their substance is drained away, they will be afflicted by heavy exactions. With this loss of substance and exhaustion of strength, the homes of the people will be stripped bare, and their incomes dissipated; at the same time government expenses for (the military) will amount to almost half its total revenue.”
For both the poppy farmers and small dealers, therefore, there is no doubt in their minds that poppy cultivation is on the rise and not on the decline as trumpeted by both Rangoon and the international drug busters. But how much is being produced each season is something beyond their scope, an answer that can be given only by those who make the most of it i.e. state tax collectors and principal drug entrepreneurs.
According to the Shans, the annual output during the British days was never more than 40 tons, although suspicious British officials thought the actual figures must be twice or even three times as much.
But three decades later, following Independence, Kuomintang incursion and in-house strife that rocked the nation, Shan figures that have swollen considerably with time were still less than those of the international experts. According to The Politics of Heroin by Alfred W. McCoy, the US figure for 1970 was 500 tons. But 6 years later, in his proposal to Washington for assistance, Khun Sa’s aides had stated only the sum of 200.
When I put the question to Khun Seng, Khun Sa’s uncle who was handling his day to day business affairs about this, he told me that the harvest for each year at that time was running between 120-180 tons. “We simply decided to put down 200 tons to be on the safe side,” he said.
For 1988, he put them at 160-230 tons. His figures were remarkable as they ran contrary to the one given by Khun Sa the previous year, 900 tons, which was hotly debated and rejected by Thai drug officials. Chaovalit Yodmanni, then Secretary General of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) said Khun Sa’s figure was “not possible” as “a vast tract of land would be needed for the cultivation of enough plants to meet Khun Sa’s target.” (Bangkok Post, 29 January 1987)
When I mentioned this to Khun Seng, he laughed and shook his head. “That’s Khun Sa’s little game,” he said. It was a game that would soon prove in favor of the regime he was fighting against.
As years went by, law enforcement officials, for some reason of their own, appeared to have changed their minds about “Khun Sa’s impossible figures” and instead began vying with him to predict larger yields each year. Two years after his figures had been discredited, the US government put forward its estimate for the 1989 season, 2,625 tons.
The numbers in fact so irked Rangoon that it had kept up a debate against them year after year. In 1998, it conducted its own official survey and even submitted its own figure, 665.28 tons.
However, the year 1998 also marked the end of the generals’ continued war against UN and US figures. The following UN figures are themselves self-explanatory:
1996 - 1,760 tons
1997 - 1,676 tons
1998 - 1,303 tons
1999 - 895 tons
The dwindling numbers, as one can see, appeared to be proving that the generals were really doing the job without assistance from the outside. Thenceforth, both sides have seemed to have buried their hatchets.
Farmers, meanwhile, are deeper and deeper in trouble. Until 1996, they had at least ground experts like Khun Seng, the drug entrepreneur who had been a missionary school graduate and ex-university student, to testify in their defense. But since then, he is believed to have gone into retirement and his successors like Wei Hsuehkang are, to all appearances, media-shy.
So I placed an inquiry to one of Khun Sa’s former close aides, “The UN says the 2004 output was 370 tons. What do you think?”
He told S.H.A.N. he doubted anyone, even Wei, could prove a more competent reckoner than Khun Seng. “Why don't we do it by extrapolation from his figures given to you?” he suggested. And this was what he wrote, which showed the production has been on the increase by the decades:
1976 - 180 tons
1986 - 230 tons
1996 - 280 tons
2006 - 330 tons
“Drug experts,” he concludes, “are like economists. They live in a different world unlike businessmen who know what one little mistake in their data and calculation can do to them.”
I didn't argue with him on this, of course. I just thought he must know better than me when the topic in question is drugs.