Pubdate: Fri, 08 Jul 2005
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2005
Author: Tom Fawthrop, In Vientiane


AFTER about 200 years of opium poppy cultivation, the Laotian 
government last month declared their country "opium-free", winning 
acclaim from international drug suppression agencies for a major 
victory in the war on drugs.

The United Nations drug and crime control agency UNODC confirmed a 
drastic poppy reduction of 73 per cent during the past five years in 
their most recent opium survey, ending the country's reputation as 
the world's third-largest producer.

But while many benefits have come from the initiative to tackle the 
illicit trade, not least Laos' relations with the West, others 
suggest the eradication of the opium crop has brought new problems to 
the most vulnerable parts of the population.

Academics, researchers and non-governmental organisations claim that 
rapid opium repression has been a disaster for the hill-tribe 
communities and the opium shortage has led to a far worse drug epidemic.

The rush to wipe out opium poppy fields in line with a 2005 deadline 
was spearheaded by the United States and Europe.

An estimated 65,000 hill-tribe people have been displaced from the 
mountains of northern Laos, where the opium poppy thrives, as part of 
the eradication programme.

UN development consultant Dr Charles Alton said the mass relocation 
has come at a cost to the fragile communities.

"Hill-tribe people moving to new villages not only lack sufficient 
rice, but they face fresh diseases - malaria, gastro-intestinal 
problems, and parasites," he said.

An international group has documented the plight of the Akha, Hmong 
and other tribes. Members of all ages are dying of malaria and dysentery.

Soaring mortality rates - at 4 per cent, twice that of hill farmers 
in their former mountain habitat and almost four times the national 
average - have been recorded.

The small-scale Hmong anti-communist insurgency linked to the 
pre-1975 CIA's secret war is now reduced to an estimated 2,000 men, 
women and children, most of whom are ready to surrender, according to 
a US diplomat.

The communist authorities in the country's capital, Vientiane, have 
long tolerated opium poppy cultivation among the hill tribes that 
make up more than 45 per cent of the population. In 1999, the Laotian 
authorities argued that opium poppy cultivation could not be 
eradicated until alternative crops and economic development were 
already in place.

However, the US government and narcotics agencies upped the pressure 
in 2000. A promise of AUKP45 million in aid by the UN drugs control 
agency led to a capitulation by the Laos authorities. In 2001 they 
abandoned a more balanced approach and plunged headlong into a 
hardline Western agenda of all-out war on the opium poppy.

Western embassies concede that their anti-drug policy may have been 
over-zealously translated into harsh narcotics repression by the authorities.

"The implementation of opium eradication had probably been too rapid 
and lacked resources," said Sandro Serrato, the EU's chief of mission in Laos.

Mr Serrato said the EU sympathised with the Laos government's 
resettlement strategy arguing " there is such a scattered population, 
the government feels that only by bringing people down from the 
remote areas, can they provide social services and development."

The shift of EU policy is at odds with many non-governmental 
organisations and academics. Respected Laos academic and researcher 
Houmphanh Rattanavong said: "Resettlement has caused the disruption 
of the hill tribes' way of life. Opium has many uses - as a major 
cash crop, for medicine and in traditional ceremonies and festive events.

"Now it is the lack of opium that is far more dangerous."

The Laotian people, both in the lowlands and the hills, have recently 
become victims of amphetamines known locally as "ya ba" and heroin 
flowing across the country from laboratories in neighbouring Burma.

The so-called success in wiping out opium has only contributed to far 
worse drug, social and economic problems, said anthropologist Dr 
David Feingold.

"The present opium eradication programme is ill-conceived and badly 
executed," he said.

"Its likely long-term consequences will be increasing heroin use and 
greater vulnerability of highland girls and women to trafficking and 
unsafe migration. Both of these outcomes will contribute to 
exacerbating HIV/AIDS in the country."
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