UN sees 'worrying' Myanmar opium resurgence

Bangkok - Opium cultivation in military-run Myanmar rose for the second year in a row in 2008, the UN's anti-drugs agency said on Monday, jeopardising Southeast Asia's goal to rid itself of the illicit crop.

Despite massive drops in cultivation since the 1990s, Myanmar remains the world's second biggest opium producer as poverty, rising opium prices and the global financial crisis force many impoverished farmers into the trade.

A UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report noted a 3.0 percent increase in cultivated area in 2008, when the crop was grown on 28 500 hectares (85,214 acres) compared to 27 700 hectares the year before.

Since 2006, poppy cultivation in and around the Golden Triangle area, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet under the cover of thick jungle and mountains, has risen 26 percent, after having declined 87 percent since 1996.

"Containment of the problem is under threat because there is, for a number of reasons, the risk of resurgence," said Gary Lewis, the UNODC representative for East Asia and the Pacific, at the report's launch in Bangkok.

"The increase in cultivation is worrying because it indicates an intent to produce more," he said.

"More farmers in remote areas with very little access to infrastructure, education, health assistance and other things that would make their lives easier have decided to plant more."

Lewis pointed to a hike in opium prices - Myanmar saw prices almost double from $153 a kilogramme in 2004 to $301 in 2008 - as an incentive for poor farmers to use their fields to plant opium poppies.

"We have to also consider something that is now coming into our focus, and that is the impact of the global financial crisis on commodity prices and what that is likely to mean for farmers," he added.

Overall, the report noted a 3.3 percent rise in cultivation since 2007 in Southeast Asia.

Thailand is cultivating insignificant amounts, UN officials said, while in Laos, a small producer, there was a 7.0 percent hike since 2007 in the amount of land used to grow opium, with 1,600 hectares under cultivation last year.

The region - especially Myanmar's mountainous and lawless border regions - once hid vast poppy fields which supplied most of the world's opium.

Under pressure from governments including close ally China, Myanmar began a campaign in the 1990s to eradicate the crop, and soon Afghanistan took on its mantle as the world's top opium producer.

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