Myanmar is the world’s second largest heroin producer after Afghanistan and accounts for the vast majority of heroin produced in the Golden Triangle, a region straddling the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
Farmers have increased opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar and neighboring Laos for the eighth year running, harvesting 63,800 hectares in 2014 compared to 61,200 last year, the UN’s Southeast Asia Opium Survey reported.
Opium production in the two countries reached 762 tonnes this year, almost treble 2006 levels. When processed, the opium produced an estimated 76 tonnes of heroin, the report said.
Despite the rise in cultivation, opium production in Myanmar actually declined for the first time in almost a decade because of lower crop yields, down from last year’s 893 tonnes.
The opium trade in Southeast Asia is worth an estimated $16 billion a year.
The increase in recent years has been fuelled by closer integration between Southeast Asian countries as governments look to boost trade, as well as rising demand from users in China, Laos, Singapore and Thailand.
"Plans are well underway to expand transport connections and relax trade barriers and border controls, including around opium producing areas," Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia representative at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said.
"The organized networks that benefit from Southeast Asia’s illicit drug trade are very well positioned to take advantage of regional integration."
The northern area of Myanmar’s Shan State "remains the center of Myanmar’s opium and heroin activities," the report said.
Opium production is a key pillar of the economy there and provides funding for ethnic rebels who have been at war with government troops for decades.
The report said that it was vital to help opium farmers find different ways to make a living. "Opium farmers are not bad people," said Cheikh Toure, the Office on Drugs and Crime’s manager for Laos.
"They are poor, food-insecure people, usually living far from centers and markets where they could sell other products. They need viable alternatives to growing poppy."
In 1999, the Myanmar government pledged to destroy all opium cultivation within 15 years but has been hampered by an increase in demand for opium and heroin and its lack of control over its borders.
The report noted that China, which is the world’s biggest heroin market and has a long porous border with Myanmar, saw the number of users rise by half a million between 2007 and 2013 to 1.3 million.