Associated Press, 14 December 2011

Opium production in Myanmar increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2011, while its price skyrocketed nearly 50 percent, United Nations officials said Thursday.

An upward trend that started in 2007 saw opium production rise an estimated 5 percent in 2011 over 2010, from about 580 metric tons (640 tons) to about 610 metric tons (670 tons).

The average price for opium in Myanmar jumped from $305 per kilogram in 2010 to $450 per kilogram this year, an increase of 48 percent, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's annual South-East Asia Opium Survey.

Opium prices in Southeast Asia have been going up since 2002, with the recent sharp increase in Myanmar due to strong demand from neighboring countries and the depreciation of Myanmar's currency, the kyat, against the dollar the past year, the report said.

The steep price increase is "making production attractive to farmers," Jason Eligh, UNODC Myanmar country manager, said when releasing the report.

Shan State in the northeast bordering Thailand accounted for about 90 percent of opium production in Myanmar in 2011.

"The great intensity of cultivation is in areas of conflict," Eligh said.

Current cease-fire agreements between the government and armed ethnic groups is a good first step toward addressing poppy cultivation, but they must be followed up with peace agreements and programs that offer alternatives to opium poppy growers.

Eligh said the government has reported increased efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation, but added they also need programs that offer farmers other options. "They've got to set a realistic plan and a realistic time frame," to address eradicating poppy cultivation, he said.

Gary Lewis, the UNODC's Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific, said Thailand serves as a good role model of how to eradicate poppy cultivation.

Thailand has spent about $1 billion over the past 40 years on alternative crop programs and other measures to rid the country of poppy cultivation. "Their approach has been good," he said of Thailand, but added that hopefully other countries can do it a bit quicker than 40 years.

Overall opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar increased 14 percent in 2011, but production rose only an estimated 5 percent due to decreasing yields, the report said.

Opium production in Laos also increased in 2011, but Myanmar produced more than 90 percent of the opium in the region.

Globally Myanmar produces just under 10 percent of the world's opium, with Afghanistan producing nearly 90 percent, Eligh said.

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