Shan State, which had been ranked as the second-largest opium production, has now surpassed Afghanistan, which held the title of top producer for many decades, according to 2023’s report of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.
The report stated that between 2022 and 2023, Myanmar saw an 18% rise in the anticipated land used for opium cultivation, reaching 47,100 hectares (116,400 acres). Shan State was the largest contributor to this spike, accounting for 87% of production, followed by Kachin State with 10% and a combined 3% from Chin and Kayah states.
In addition, the yield per hectare experienced a remarkable 16% increase, reaching 22.9 kilograms per hectare, attributed to the adoption of more advanced farming practices. These practices include increased plot density, improved plant organization, and enhanced techniques such as the use of irrigation systems and potential fertilizers.
The highest percentage of cultivation areas is found in southern Shan State townships, including Panglong, Paikon, Loi Lem, and Hopong, collectively accounting for a significant 48% of the total opium cultivation in the region. The second-largest opium cultivation regions are located in Shan State’s northern reaches, notably in townships like as Tangyan and Namtu. These locations account for 22% of total opium cultivation. In the eastern part of Shan State, opium cultivation is prominent in townships such as Kengtung and Mongpeng, claiming the third spot with a notable 17%.
Prior to the military assuming control of the country in 2021, there was a noticeable downward trend in opium cultivation. The production decreased to 405 tons in 2020. However, following the takeover, opium cultivation has experienced a staggering resurgence, surging to 1,080 tons, which marks the highest opium production level since 2001.
Reports observed that ever since the coup, the country’s legitimate economy has been badly harmed by ongoing violence and political insecurity. As Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative explained “the economic, security and governance disruptions that followed the military takeover of February 2021 continue to drive farmers in remote areas towards opium to make a living.”
It should also be considered that Shan State became the world’s largest opium producer because of the consequence of Afghanistan’s political transformation in 2021. The Taliban took power and outlawed opium growing across the country. As a result, opium production has decreased by almost 95%.
What makes Shan State a hub of drug trade?
The rise of the drug trade in Shan State can be traced back to the longstanding armed conflicts in the region. Notably, the drug trade become boomed when remnants of the Kuomintang Army invaded Shan state in 1949. The KMT resorted to cultivating opium in order to finance their expanding military endeavors and to fight against the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, by the late 1950s, opium production had risen between ten twentyfold, providing an annual yield in the range 300- 600 tons.
In addition, General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962 and his ruthless efforts to create a centralized state, numerous ethnic groups took up arms and they also involved in drug trade as financing source. Similarly, Ne Win’s efforts to establish financially independent counterinsurgency militias further bolstered the drug trade by granting the militias legal protection for engaging in the drug trade to combat the state in return.
The drug production had skyrocketing increased after the military made ceasefire agreement with various armed groups in 1989. According to US government report, opium levels rose from 836 to 2,340 tons from 849 to 2,377 to between 1987 and 1995, with the area under cultivation expanding from 92,3 tares in 1987 to 154,000 hectares.
The military coup of 2021 caused tremendous violence and economic hardship, driving the country into the grim embrace of opium production.
Thus, Shan State’s great growing conditions, coupled with its long legacy of armed conflicts, have unavoidably created an ideal setting for a booming drug trade.