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Poppy Cultivation: Indian Government Agencies Concerned About Myanmar's Tonzang

Myanmar's Tonzang Poppy Cultivation Spurs Indian Drug Trafficking Concerns. Officials Alarmed as Heroin Flow into India Escalates.

By Rajeev Bhattacharyya
New Update

Poppy cultivation
Poppy cultivation | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

The disturbed state of Manipur is all set to renew the crackdown on poppy cultivation with a refreshed task force comprising officials drawn from different departments.

According to data released by the government, poppy cultivation had spread to as much as 18,000 acres of land in the hill regions between 2017 and 2023, which was eradicated in a series of operations over the past few years.

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While expectations are high on the impending operations to be launched against poppy cultivation in Manipur, a section of government officials engaged in the task of monitoring and curbing drug trafficking in the Northeast is concerned about developments across the border in Myanmar. They are of the view that poppy cultivation at Tonzang in Myanmar's Chin State—contiguous to Manipur's Churachandpur district—is not only thriving with impunity, but most of the opium extracted from the poppy and its products, such as heroin, are being smuggled into India.

Seizures indicate that the most prolific routes to India are through Mizoram, which is linked to different destinations in the country. From the Northeast, some consignments of heroin are smuggled out to Bangladesh, which is evidenced by the confiscations of heroin by the Border Security Force (BSF) along the border over the past three years.

Tonzang in Myanmar
The red circle indicates the location of Tonzang in Myanmar | Courtesy: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

The burgeoning cultivation at Tonzang was referred to in a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released in January, which said, "Chin State showed high poppy cultivation density in the mountains north of Tonzang town, near the international border with India." The report also mentioned a similar trend in other regions of Myanmar with "increased sophistication of farming practices and concentration of opium poppy cultivation."

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Why has Tonzang emerged as a hotspot of poppy cultivation?

A group of government officials had carried out an intensive analysis of the situation in Tonzang during July to August based on the data provided by the UNODC report, satellite imagery, and information gathered from their sources in the Northeast. Officials claimed that no other zone in Myanmar contiguous to India has such vast tracts of land under poppy cultivation, where the entire gamut of activities is being conducted in an organised manner. The phenomenon is also observed in some areas in the Naga-inhabited region in Myanmar adjoining the eastern districts of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, but they are disorganised and cover less land.

In Tonzang, an official claimed that poppy cultivation was the result of an interplay of "many factors such as poverty, lack of services, and insecurity, which were aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, very high farm-gate prices for opium, and the military coup early in 2021 that pushed rural households to rely more on opium cultivation."

Figures given in the UNODC report about the size of the plantations seemed to confirm the conclusions arrived at by the officials. It said that the plots ranged between 0.25 hectares to 2 hectares, indicating that most of the cultivators are small-scale farmers. They were found at altitudes between 1000 metres and 2000 metres above mean sea level. Cultivation starts from September and ends in January, marking the completion of one crop cycle, which is also the same practice in other regions of Myanmar.

Poppy cultivation in Myanmar
Poppy cultivation in Myanmar's Tonzang | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

According to UNODC, the average dry opium yield per hectare in Myanmar was 19.8 kilograms, and it requires 10 kilograms of dry opium to produce 1 kilogram of heroin. But under sophisticated conditions, it requires 8 kilograms of opium to produce 1 kilogram of heroin. Tonzang had about 640 hectares under poppy with a total potential of 13 metric tons of opium in 2022.

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The officials are firmly of the view that an organised apparatus and network exist to facilitate the cultivation of poppy and production of heroin in Tonzang, ensuring the supply of funds to the farmers and trafficking of heroin to multiple destinations. They did not rule out the possibility of the involvement of militant outfits that had linkages with suppliers in other parts of India and Myanmar. They also arrived at the conclusion that poppy cultivation in Manipur was the outcome of a 'domino effect' of developments in Tonzang.

An overground rebel outfit in Manipur, active in Churachandpur and having a ceasefire with the government, is the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), which has a branch in Myanmar called ZRA - Eastern Command. It draws its support from the Zomi-inhabited region that extends to Tedim in Myanmar's Chin State. During January to February, when this correspondent covertly visited some regions in the neighbouring country to gather information on the resistance movement, several leaders of opposition groups alleged that ZRA-EC was engaged in the cultivation of poppy in Tonzang, and a section of Myanmar military personnel was involved in trafficking. Among the leaders was Pu Vela, a founder member of Kalay Peoples' Defense Force, who also claimed that the opium and heroin were exported to India through multiple routes.

Poppy Cultivation | Colossal Production of Heroin

Pu Vela's claims are echoed by Indian government officials who believe that a massive quantity of heroin produced in Tonzang could be flowing into India. They said that Tonzang had the capacity to produce 1.3 metric tons (1.3 tonnes) of heroin last year, which is 1300 kilograms. The seizures of opium and heroin in Myanmar's Chin State between November 2021 and October 2022 were negligible, with only one report that 10 kilograms of heroin had been confiscated in Kale, which borders Chin State.

"So the pertinent question is where exactly had the 1300 kilograms of heroin produced last year in Myanmar's Chin State gone? Even if it is assumed that about 50 percent (750 kilograms) of heroin was consumed in Myanmar, then it is highly possible that another 50 percent would have been exported to India last year," an official from the group pointed out. He underscored the need for greater surveillance along the border and highways in the Northeast between March and September, besides exploring options to wean away the farmers from their dependence on the drug barons.

Heroin and synthetic drugs originating in Myanmar (such as Yaba) are seized almost every week, mostly in Mizoram and Assam. On 7 October, three persons were arrested in Assam's border district of Karimganj after they were found carrying heroin concealed in soap cases inside a vehicle. The unrest in Manipur has prompted the traffickers to focus more on the routes through Mizoram that link up with Assam and other destinations on the country's mainland and with Bangladesh.


Rajeev Bhattacharya is a senior journalist in Assam in India. He has worked with The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Times of India and Times Now, and was the managing editor of Seven Sisters Post. He is a Chevening Fellow and author of “Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men” and “Lens & The Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast.” He reports on India’s northeast and its border regions with Myanmar, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh.

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