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According to a recent United Nations report, Myanmar has surpassed Afghanistan to become the leading global producer of opium in 2023. The report attributes this shift to a significant 95% reduction in opium cultivation in Afghanistan following a drug ban imposed by the Taliban in 2022. Consequently, the global supply has transitioned to Myanmar due to political, social, and economic instability resulting from a 2021 coup, which prompted many individuals to turn to poppy farming, as stated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Tuesday.
The report highlights that Myanmar’s opium poppy farmers now earn approximately 75% more, with the average price per kilogramme of the flower reaching around $355. From 2022 to 2023, Myanmar experienced an 18% increase in the estimated land used for illicit crop cultivation, expanding from 40,100 to 47,000 hectares (99,000 to 116,000 acres).
While the cultivation area has not returned to the historical peak of nearly 58,000 hectares in 2013, the report notes a continuous expansion and increased productivity in poppy cultivation in Myanmar over the past three years. The expansion of opium cultivation areas was most prominent in Myanmar’s northern Shan state border regions, followed by Chin and Kachin states. The yield also grew by 16% to 22.9 kilogrammes per hectare due to more sophisticated farming practices.
The report links the rise in opium production to the violent political turmoil in Myanmar. The economic, security, and governance disruptions resulting from the military takeover in February 2021 continue to drive farmers in remote areas toward opium cultivation for their livelihoods. The armed conflict in Shan state and other border areas is expected to further accelerate this trend.
The report mentions a “convergence” of criminal activities associated with opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia, closely tied to poverty, lack of government services, challenging macroeconomic environments, instability, and insecurity. Northeastern Myanmar, part of the infamous “Golden Triangle,” is identified as a region where opium and heroin production historically thrived due to lawlessness.
In recent decades, as opium production in the region declined, methamphetamine, in the form of tablets and crystal meth, has become more prevalent. The UNODC notes that the region’s increasing drug production contributes to a growing illicit economy, combining high levels of synthetic drug production with drug trafficking, money laundering, and various online criminal activities, including casinos and scams.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan, the world’s former top opium producer, witnessed a drastic collapse in cultivation after the Taliban regained power in 2021 and pledged to eradicate illegal drug production. Poppy crops, which accounted for nearly a third of the country’s total agricultural production by value last year, saw the cultivation area shrink from 233,000 hectares in late 2022 to 10,800 in 2023.
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