A holiday in poppy fields

An opium poppy farmer harvests at an opium poppy field in Pan Lam village, Loilen Township, Southern Shan State. (Photo - EPA)

The Wa Self-Administered Division’s deplorable claim to fame has always been its poppy fields.   But the Wa authorities have a new plan – converting the poppy fields near the capital Panghsan (aka Pangkham) into a tourist attraction. 

The Wa area is in Shan State and the Wa leaders like to refer to their region as the Wa State, to the dismay of Myanmar authorities who have long resisted the idea that the Wa is a sovereign state or province, but is, instead, merely a special region.

“When Myanmar was under British rule, the colonists brought in poppy seeds for systematic cultivation in the area. The Wa authorities started the ban on opium cultivation in their territory in June 2005 and proclaimed their land an opium-free zone. We are now planning to turn these poppy fields into a tourist attraction for local and foreign visitors. There are ancient pagodas that were built over 120 years ago during the British colonial era. The [visitors] can observe the ways of life of ethnic people living nearby,” said Ya Nan Swoon, media communications officer of the Wa Self-Administered Division

To show the world that it gets serious with poppy eradication, the United Wa State Party organised a tour of the Wa Self-Administered Zone joined by 65 representatives of ethnic armed forces, journalists and observers during the first week of this month.  

There are more than 250,000 acres of poppy substitution farmland in the zone. Most are rubber, coffee, tea and tea plantations, according to the Farmland, Forest and Irrigation Department of the Wa Self-Administered Zone. The delegates visited these plantations in Maingmaw Township and in Pangwaing Township [of Maingmaw District].

The ethnic delegates included Kayin National Union Vice-chairman Phado Naw Si Pho Yar Sein, Chief of Staff General Kang Hsaung of the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army, and Chairman of the New Mon State Party Naing Htaw Mon.

Aung Myint, secretary of the United Wa State Party (UWSP)’s central office, said poppy substitution programme have been carried out for the last 25 years since the Myanmar government and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) signed a ceasefire agreement. 

The rolling hills of the Wa Self-Administered Division in Shan State. (Photo - EMG)

“After carrying out the poppy substitution programme, there aren’t any poppy plantations in the Wa area, where poppies were cultivated for 120 years. The programme has been successful for over a decade,” said Aung Myint. 

The former headquarters of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in Panghsan Township will reopen as another tourist attraction after refurbishment.

“This place [CPB’s headquarters] is located southeast of Panghsan (Pangkham). We’re planning high-standard renovation work on this historical site to attract local and foreign tourists. The renovation plan is still under review. The site has attracted visitors from lower Myanmar. Even the government officials have visited the place in the past. This site was renovated once in 1992, but it has not been renovated ever since. The former residences of CPB’s chairman and former Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw, and camp office are inside the headquarters,” said Tun Kyi, director of the Wa Area Health Bureau. 

The CPB had a commanding presence in the Wa region. 

After Myanmar gained independence from the British government in 1948, the CPB became a major force in the resistance against the newly formed government in Yangon. In the war against the Yangon government, the Burman-dominated CPB leadership relied primarily on armed groups in the border areas for muscle; these groups included the Shan, the Kokang, the Kachin, and especially the Wa. During this period, the Wa leadership came largely from the top ranks of the military resistance against the Myanmar army. 

The former CPB’s headquarters was built near Nam Hka Creek near the Myanmar-China border. Since 1960, the CPB operated its insurgent bases out of border areas in northern Myanmar. It entered the Wa area and built camp sites in September 1969. The headquarters was moved to Panghsan in July 1978 and the insurgent activities were conducted from this area.

CPB’s central committee chairman Thakhin Ba Thein Tin, vice-chairman Thakin Pe Tint, secretary Thakhin Maung Gyi, and political leaders Lieutenant Than Swe and former Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw resided at the headquarters for many years. The CPB and the central headquarters retreated from the Panghsan area on April 17, 1989.

 After the Wa dissociated themselves from the CPB in 1989, they were eager to establish their own identity and improve living conditions in their region. For Wa leaders, who were deeply influenced by the reform and open door policy in China, their number-one priority was state building, and state building required a large amount of capital. Consequently, opium, which had been cultivated in the area probably since 1830s, became a major source of tax revenue for the Wa leadership.

Since 1989, the Wa authorities have implemented a number of crop substitution programmes to reduce opium cultivation. Farmers were encouraged to grow tea, sugar cane, rubber, longan, and other crops, instead of opium. However, due to the lack of planning, technology, and cash support, most of these programmes either failed or were on such a small scale that their impact on the area’s widespread opium culture was insignificant.

According to a report released last December by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the cultivation area for opium poppy in Myanmar and Laos has increased for the eighth consecutive year, to now 63,800 hectares. It also said that Myanmar remains Southeast Asia’s top opium producer and the world’s second largest after Afghanistan.