Cablegate: Opium Eradication and the Decimation of Villages

Published: Thu 5 Dec 2002 01:57 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. Summary: The fate of Song Keh, a village that was
forcibly relocated in 1999 as part of the Wa opium
eradication program, illustrates what may happen more broadly
in the Wa territories as the Wa push forward with their
program. Left to fend for itself with only minimal supplies,
almost one-quarter of the village's population died within a
period of less than 3 years. Picked up by UNDCP as emergency
case when it was on the verge of returning to opium farming,
Song Keh is now slowly recovering from the trauma of the
experience. However, UNDCP does not have the resources or
the mandate to deal with the thousands of villages and
hundreds of thousands of villagers who will be affected by Wa
efforts to fulfill their pledge to make their territories
opium-free by 2005. As matters stand now, many villagers
will pay for that program with their lives -- a fact that has
caught the attention of Aung San Suu Kyi, among others in
Burma. End Summary.
2. Nothing illustrates the human cost of the Wa opium
eradication programs so well as the fate of Song Keh, a Wa
village that was forcibly relocated to the Nam Lwe valley (in
northern Shan State, near the border with China) in 1999. A
village of about 480 mostly Christian Wa, Song Keh was
originally located north of Pang Sang near Mong Maw in one of
the thickest opium growing regions of the Wa territories.
Relocated to Nam Lwe, the villagers were given essentially
the same support given all resettled villagers by the United
Wa State Party -- a stretch of wooded bottom land, 6 months
of food, building materials for their houses, some basic
medicines, and, in the case of Song Keh, 10 buffalo to help
with the initial plowing.
3. However, in Song Keh's case, as in the case of many
relocated villages, the supplies proved sadly inadequate,
leaving the village at the close of 2001 on the verge of
collapse. By October 2001, when Poloff first visited the
village, the population had dwindled to only 373 as death had
claimed almost ten percent of villagers each year since the
time they were relocated. Forty-two died in 1999, 36 in
2000, and 30 in 2001, with most deaths coming from
malnutrition, complicated by severe anemia, chest infections,
and intestinal diseases. Village food production amounted to
only about 10 percent of the village's annual needs and, even
supported by income from other jobs, villagers faced a food
deficit equivalent to four to six months of annual
consumption. In short, they were condemned to starve. The
original buffalo had all been slaughtered, there was no clean
water source or sanitation facilities for the village and,
out of desperation, most had moved back into opium
cultivation. Virtually all of the village's 67 acres had
been seeded in opium for the 2001/02 crop year in an effort
to generate cash for food.
4. That decision, in turn, nearly proved to be the death
knell for the village. As it turned out, Song Keh's fields
lay exactly in the middle of an area that the Wa and UNDCP's
Wa Alternative Development Project had designated as an opium
free area. Consequently, when the village's crop blossomed,
it was quickly felled by a joint Wa/UNDCP eradication program
in February and March 2002.
5. Fortunately, UNDCP did not leave the matter there, but
put together a program for the critically stricken village.
This included deployment of a mobile health team, child
immunization, the distribution of mosquito nets, and the
construction of new water points and toilet and sanitation
facilities. Clothes and rice (about 19 tons) were handed out
on an emergency basis. Seeds for summer and winter crops
were also distributed. A school was built, classes started,
and plans laid for the installation of three low-lift pumps
for irrigation, as well as a new rice storage facility.
6. The entire program cost less than $20,000, but the
effects were immediate. By November 2002, when Poloff
visited again, village deaths had dropped by two-thirds to
only 11 in the year to date; 42 children are in school; all
the village children have been vaccinated; and there is no
opium. All of the villages 67 acres have been seeded in food
crops for the 2002/03 winter season.
7. Song Keh is, of course, an extreme case. It was only one
of 13 villages that were relocated from areas north of Pang
Sang to areas around Mong Hpen in 1999 and 2000 and, while
there was suffering in all, none of the others ended up in
the desperate straits that developed in Song Keh. That said,
Song Keh is as vivid example as one will ever find of what
can happen when villages are forced out of opium production
without sufficient economic support.
8. For the Wa territories, of course, this is critical.
Over the next three years, the territories as a whole are to
complete a transition to opium-free status, essentially as a
result of Burmese and Chinese political pressure. Several
thousand villages with a population of between 300,000 and
400,000 people will be affected. As of now, however, only
those resident in the Wa Alternative Development Project area
(about 40,000 people) will receive any support at all (and
that only to the end of 2003). The rest will essentially be
left to fend for themselves or to the mercies of the Wa's
relocation program. In either case, many will die.
9. Two points are worth stressing about this situation,
First, the risks that the Wa are taking with their own
population gives some sense of the pressure they are under
from both the Burmese and the Chinese to get out of opium.
While the Wa have never been cautious about spending lives
for the sake of real strategic objective, the fact that they
are willing to spend lives in this cause gives a sense of its
importance to them.
10. Secondly, someone will pay for the elimination of opium
in the Wa territories and Burma more generally. It is not a
cost-free exercise. As matters stand now, most of those costs
will be borne by upland villagers who have few options other
than opium production. (Aung San Suu Kyi made this exact
point to the Chief of Mission and Poloff on December 2.) The
Wa authorities and the Government of Burma may kick in some
support, but, as Song Keh's experience demonstrates, it is
hardly likely to be enough. The international community,
which will benefit most from the elimination of opium here,
could also help. However, as yet, there is no sign that the
international community will act on a scale sufficient to
prevent a tragedy, essentially because of sensitivities about
work with the Wa in Burma.
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