Myanmar Takes Lead as Largest Opium Source, Laos Defies Trend

Myanmar Takes Lead as Largest Opium Source, Laos Defies Trend
Women cut opium bulbs in a poppy field in Myanmar, the second largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan. (Photo: Reuters)

Opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle has experienced a notable expansion over the past year, with Myanmar witnessing the most substantial increase due to ongoing civil unrest. In contrast, Laos is observing a decline in opium production.

Following the declining trend of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, Myanmar now stands as the world’s largest source of opium.

Since the military takeover in Myanmar, farmers in remote areas have been forced to divert their income to cultivating and producing opium from poppy plants. This has led to an 18 percent increase in cultivation from 40,100 to 47,100 hectares since 2001.

“The intensification of conflict in Shan and other border areas is expected to accelerate this trend,” said United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas.

However, the trend doesn’t seem to extend into Laos. The Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2023: Cultivation, Production and Implications by UNODC indicated that since 2015, cultivation has declined by around 16 percent in Laos. Only this year, opium fields went from approximately 5,700 hectares to 5,000 hectares.

Nevertheless, the expansion of opium cultivation feeds into a growing illicit economy in the Mekong region, which brings together continued high levels of synthetic drug production and a convergence of drug trafficking, money laundering, and online criminal activities including casinos and scam operations. 

“The crime and governance challenges in the region are compounded by the crisis in Myanmar. Southeast Asia needs to come together to find solutions to both traditional and emerging threats,” Douglas added.