UN opium survey distorts the facts, says think tank

By FRONTIER

YANGON — The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has been accused of “distorting realities of the situation on the ground” in its latest Myanmar opium survey, in a report by the Transnational Institute, a think tank based in Amsterdam.

In the report, A distortion of reality: Drugs, conflict and the UNODC’s 2018 Myanmar Opium Survey, released on March 4, TNI takes issue with accusations the UN agency makes about armed ethnic groups.

They include the Kachin Independence Organisation, political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, which issued an open letter to the UNODC on February 15 that rejected the survey’s findings and demanded a retraction.

TNI’s objections to the survey centre on this observation: “[In] Kachin State, the highest density of poppy cultivation took place in areas under the control or influence of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA); in North Shan, in areas of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); in South Shan, of the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA), and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) Shan State Army-South (SSA-S); and in East Shan, the People’s Militia Force (PMF) …”

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“All of these statements are contentious and, in many respects, wrong,” says TNI.

It says the two main opium-growing areas in Kachin are at Sadung in Waingmaw Township bordering China, where cultivation takes place in areas under the nominal control of two Border Guard Force groups under Tatmadaw command, and in the tiger reserve in Tanai Township, which is also under ostensible government control.

TNI said its sources had confirmed that there was currently no substantial opium cultivation in areas controlled by the KIO, which has for several years carried out a strict anti-drugs campaign, including eradicating opium fields.

“It is unclear how the UNODC arrives at its completely opposite claims about Kachin State, but it seems to be based on wrong assumptions about who ‘controls’ which areas,” the think tank says.

Referring to northern Shan, TNI says that since the MNDAA lost control of the Kokang region in 2009 it has operated as a guerrilla force and does not control any territory. TNI says the main opium-growing areas in Kokang are controlled by Tatmadaw-backed militias, such as the Tarmoenye militia in Kutkai Township and the Pansay militia in Namkham Township.

In southern Shan, TNI acknowledged that there was “certainly” significant opium cultivation in territory controlled by the RCSS, a signatory of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and observed that the PNLA has a ceasefire with the government and controls two villages in Mawkmai Township.

“On the map in the UNODC report, the area supposedly controlled by the PNLA is in fact the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone in Hopong, Hsihseng and Pinlaung townships, which are officially under government control … it would seem that UNODC researchers mixed these two groups up,” TNI said.

It said that in eastern Shan, the UNODC report correctly claimed that the main poppy growing areas were under the control of various militia groups “but fails to mention that these groups are under the formal control of the Tatmadaw”.

TNI said it was no surprise that accusations and misinformation in the UNODC survey had attracted criticism from the KIO and other armed ethnic groups.

“In essence, the report makes it look as if only ethnic armed opposition organisations are behind opium cultivation in the country today,” it said.

A response to the criticisms released by the UNODC on February 27 was “unsatisfactory and does not address the underlying flaws in the report,” TNI said.

It said the UN agency’s failure to correct the original report in the February 27 statement had drawn further attention to the problems with what the UNODC calls “ground truthing”.

“The UNODC claims ‘that the report does not aim to describe precise control of a particular area’. But if this is the case, why did the report make incorrect assertions that, indeed, are very precise – and the UNODC still apparently stands by,” TNI said.

International organisations such as the UNODC need to be aware that inaccurate reporting is a high-risk activity that could have a negative effect on efforts to promote peace and political reform in Myanmar, the think tank said.

The links between drugs and conflict were a vital issue that needed to be discussed, transparently and openly, during political negotiations to achieve peace, it said. “This is a matter of concern for all Myanmar’s peoples.”

UNODC Myanmar country manager Mr Troels Vester told Frontier on March 5 that the UN agency stood by its findings. The research “was conducted over a period of months using a combination of technology and, in as many places as possible, ground truthing,” he said.

“In all places we verify initial findings, and we have data reviewed and peer reviewed also by our research section in HQ. Data like this can certainly be contentious, but data are needed in the discussion about drugs and conflict more than ever.”

Vester said the language and presentation of data was also careful and accurate. “We make a point to say opium poppy cultivation is taking place at high levels in areas under the control or influence of different groups based on very accurate data we have verified,” he said.

UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Mr Jeremy Douglas said the results of the survey were solid. Ultimately, he said, “We need more access, more data, more verification, deeper and deeper analysis [which is] crucial for informed discussions, plans and decisions, and ultimately resolving issues. Otherwise various groups and individuals simply point fingers at each other and others.”

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