THON MIN YAR, Myanmar — Deep in the lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, sloping fields of illegal poppies have just been scraped dry for opium. This is the peak season for producing drugs here, and in Myanmar's nascent era of democratic change, the haul has only increased.
Opium, its derivative heroin and methamphetamines are surging across Myanmar's borders in quantities that the United Nations and police in neighboring countries say are the highest levels in years.
Two years after replacing a long-ruling military junta, the civilian government is still struggling to get a foothold in its war against drugs. The trade is centered in a remote, impoverished area where the government has little control and where ethnic armies have waged civil wars for decades — wars financed with drug money.
The Associated Press was granted rare access to Myanmar's drug-producing hub in the vast, jungle-clad mountain region of northeastern Shan state, deep in a cease-fire zone that was closed to foreigners for decades. It's a land dotted with makeshift methamphetamine labs and tiny, poor villages where growing opium is the only real industry. The trip was part of a U.N. mission allowed only under armed police escort.
President Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with a patchwork of rebel groups in the region, but the peace is extremely fragile and sporadic fighting continues. Cracking down on drug syndicates or arresting poor opium farmers risks alienating the ethnic groups he is courting for peace talks.
“To stop the drug problem, we need peace. And that is what the government is trying to achieve now,” said police Col. Myint Thein, head of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse and Control, which controls the country's drug policy. “But that is just one of so many challenges. This is a very difficult task. It will take time.”
Foreign aid that could help combat drugs is just beginning to trickle back into the area, which is rife with corruption. But the toughest task may be transforming the destitute rural economy, filled with poor farmers who view growing opium as the best way to provide for their families.
Dozens of those farmers live in Thon Min Yar, a village in southern Shan state that is far in every sense from Myanmar's postcard-perfect pagodas and colonial relics. So obscure it does not appear on maps, it is an image of dirt-road squalor and government neglect.
Its 73 bamboo huts have no electricity or running water. Its people have no access to health care, no job prospects, not enough food and no aspirations other than survival. Toddlers and teens get a one-sized-fits-all education in a one-room schoolhouse.
Almost everyone in Thon Min Yar is an opium farmer.
“My father and my grandfather grew opium. I have no other way to make money,” said 28-year-old Peter Ar Loo, a father of two.
He does not smoke opium, but sometimes he envies the life of an addict. They seem more carefree, he said.
But he added, “Using opium only benefits one person. Selling it helps my whole family.”
Opium farmers like Ar Loo are not the people getting rich from the drug trade. They are among the poorest people in one of the world's least-developed countries.
In a good year, Ar Loo makes about $1,000 from an acre-sized field of poppies. That doesn't include business expenses which he calls “paying respects” — a roughly 15 percent opium tax doled out to local authorities who turn a blind eye in exchange.
Police control the towns, government soldiers patrol the roads and ethnic armies rule the mountains. All of them get a cut.
“We give to the Shan militia, the police and the army,” Ar Loo said.
There is a law that bans growing opium poppies, but he said no one in his village has ever been arrested. “We get permission from the local authorities, explaining that we need to do this to feed our children.”
The government says it wants farmers to grow corn and other legal crops, but many poppy farmers say the terrible mountain roads mean getting legal crops to market is almost impossible.
Opium is different: The buyers come straight to your fields.
Ar Loo's poppy field is a 30-mile trek into the jungle, an inconvenient location he chose after police launched an anti-narcotics campaign a year ago and warned farmers to switch to legal crops — or face arrest.
“The farmers are just finding fields deeper in the mountains,” shrugged Ar War, chief of a nearby community called Ywar Thar Yar, or Beautiful View Village. Pointing at mist-shrouded jungles controlled by ethnic armies, he added, “It's harder for police to find them there.”
And even with the campaign, part of the central government's new anti-narcotics effort, police may not be looking that hard. The payoffs continue.
The Golden Triangle is defined by the area where Shan state meets the borders of Thailand and Laos. It was the world's top opium-growing region for years, but in the 1990s, Afghanistan became the top producer and drug syndicates here began focusing more on methamphetamines.
Now heroin and methamphetamines are both on the rise.
In Thailand, authorities last year seized a record 82.2 million methamphetamine tablets, a 66 percent increase from the year before.
“These drugs are not produced in Thailand. They are from Myanmar,” said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who has vocally called on Myanmar to step up its policing efforts. “If Myanmar cooperates, that's the end of the drug story. It's better than it used to be, but still far from perfect.”