Ho Hui is a ray of hope in Myanmar’s drug war

Located in a hill surrounded by unsightly, balding mountains, Ho Hui village was simmering under the midmorning May summer sun, the air thick and humid, inhospitable to visitors.
But Ho Hui villagers considered the denuded mountains and their unwelcoming climate a blessing since it freed them from the poppy menace.
“Poppy likes cold weather. See, it is now very hot. With no forest, poppy becomes dry and it doesn’t grow well,” one Pa-Oh man told The Myanmar Times in his ethnic accent. He used to grow opium in the mountainous area.
U San Ngwe, wearing a white vest and a longyi, his face sunburned, was a rare resource in the village as he was the only one who could speak the Myanmar language. Only Pa-Oh and Shan ethnic languages are usually spoken in this place.
“As there were many clashes before, learning the Myanmar language was a problem. If one knew Myanmar, the Myanmar military would accuse him of being a (drug) porter,” U San Ngwe, who had been a porter five times, said laughing.
Ho Hui, with a population of 573, is in Hopong township in southern Shan State. The whole village used to rely on poppy cultivation for its livelihood, but since 2016 it has become a poppy-free village, the villagers proudly said, adding there are no more poppy planters or users in the village.
While it may be hard to believe that a village in southern Shan State, where most of Myanmar’s poppy plantations are, can be poppy-free, The Myanmar Times found this to be true during a recent visit.
“Some don’t believe it, but we have actually done it. We have decided not to grow poppy. The villagers dare not use opium, because if anyone is found using it, they will be arrested and turned over to the police,” U San Ngwe said.
While Ho Hui was among those villages included in the 15-year drug eradication project of the government (1999-2014), residents said the project helped little to make the village a poppy-free zone.
“Roads were built and K30 million (US$22,000) was provided to the villagers as part of the so-called Emerald Operation. That’s all,” U Saw Kyaw, another villager said. But he said the main reason they stopped cultivating poppy was because of the decline in production due to climate change and the high amount of protection money they have to pay to government authorities and armed ethnic groups to engage in the illicit trade undisturbed.
“The earnings were not sufficient to cover the cost of cultivation. For taxes, if a group of three comes, we have to pay all of them. Because we were planting something illegal, we could be arrested, so they asked us to pay them,” said villager U Saw Kyaw.
While there is a huge difference between the money they earn from growing poppy and from growing their current crops of turmeric, ginger, and maize, living without having to worry about their safety is preferable, he said. According to village leader U Sein Than, one viss of raw poppy can earn them K400,000 to K1 million, so the difference is huge compared to their current earnings.
Apart from growing seasonal crops, U Sein Than also grows coffee as part of the alternate development project implemented and supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The agency is carrying out a five-year pilot project for over 1000 villagers in 60 villages in Hopong, Loilen and Ywangan townships of Shan State.
For this project UNODC provides all input including technical assistance. For fair trade in coffee production, UNODC helped conclude an agreement between local farming collective group Green Gold and French coffee company Malongo.
The project is successful in some villages; but some villages lack interest because it takes about three years to get their money back in coffee farming while it only takes three to five months to profit from poppy growing, local-based programme coordinators and villagers said.
“A viss (1.6 kilograms) of raw opium brings at least K300,000 while the same amount of coffee fetches K800. The coffee plants go well at first but after about a year, some plants die because of hot weather,” said coffee farmer U Htee.
However, U Sein Than is pleased that by growing seasonal corps including coffee he can live without worries.
“We can’t eat meat like before. We can’t buy luxuries like TVs and others. We don’t want to live a life where we constantly fear getting imprisoned. Now we’re poor. But we can go anywhere freely. We can sing songs while planting the crops,” U Sein Than said he seems to have no regrets abandoning the lucrative life of a poppy farmer.
“The fact that our alternative development programme is helping communities feel more secure is very gratifying, even if it is only in a few dozen villages so far. We have a long way to go,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said. He also joined the May 24 trip and visited three villages – Ho Hui, Sam Hpu and Bant Sauk – where the coffee projects are based.
While the efforts of Ho Hui villagers to eradicate poppy cultivation are not enough to erase the image of Myanmar as a global poppy producer, it provides a ray of hope in the country’s uphill struggle against illegal drugs.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Myanmar’s seemingly Sisyphean struggle to eradicate drug use and production.

Source: Myanmar Times

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