The Golden Triangle – the rugged tri border region covering Laos, Burma and Thailand – has been blamed as the scourge for the world heroin and drug addiction. It is reputed to be the world’s biggest producer of opium, contributing two thirds of the world supply.
To the impoverished tribesmen who inhabit the mountains controlled by semi autonomous warlords, opium has literally become the elixir of life. It not only cures them of their illness but in times of drought and famine, the opium they stock is traded in the lowland towns for food and necessities. It has become the number one cash crop with demands and profits far surpassing any crop or activity they have known.
The evil and misery wrought by drug addiction blamed on opium is well publicized but lesser known or forgotten is the fact that it was the British government that became the biggest drug pusher in the world and commercially brought tons of opium to these shores and reaped untold profits from it.
The opium plant is not indigenous to this region. The recent rise of large-scale heroin production in S.E. Asia is the culmination of 400 years of western intervention in Asia. When Britain had nothing to offer for China’s tea and silk it dumped tons of opium from India into China. In the peace treaty of 1858, after the 2nd opium war. The defeated Chinese government (which had passed a law forbidding opium smoking as early as 1729) was at length compelled by British military pressure to make the importation of opium into China legal.
When the French were controlling Indochina, and the CIA were fighting the secret war in Laos and supporting the Kuomintang to undermine Communist China in the early 1950s, poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle was deliberately encouraged by French and American intelligence agencies, wrote Alfred McCoy in his book “The Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia.”
Despite its notoriety as a hallucinogenic drug, opium’s medical use as a pain-killer is indispensable. When it is bonded with acid (acetic anhydride) it becomes heroin, the highly addictive and body-wasting drug, many times more dangerous than opium. To ordinary folks as well as the medical profession it is the wonder “cure-all’ medicine. To the poor farmers it has become their only tool of economic survival after years of oppression, exploitation and neglect by the various contending powers in the region.
The eradication of opium cultivation in Thailand (after more than 20 years of US pressure) has back-fired. Today many hilltribes like the Akhas and Lahus are desperate, thousands are flocking to Bangkok to survive as cheap labourers and more are coming to Malaysia to survive and feed their families. Worse still Thailand is now flooded not only with heroin but amphetamine pouring down from Golden Triangle. What used to be opium addiction confined to old folks has become a national worry involving school children hooked on amphetamine. It is on the verge of declaring a national disaster.
Covering the opium issues has been most complex and challenging. While corrupt generals, officials, drug pushers have got rich, the tribal folks who toil and sweat to sow the poppy seeds get pittance and the blame. My sympathy goes to them.
It is spring, which means, in the Shan highlands, the end of the hot weather, not the cold. The seeds are scattered on the mist covered mountain slopes by tribal folks. It is the beginning of another year of planting.
With warm sunshine, fertile soil and nourishment from torrential spring showers, the seeds germinate quickly, sprouting shades of green. It is time to get rid of unwanted weeds and spread some fertilizer so that the plants will grow big and strong.
Weeding time is laborious and taxing but working in the early morning in warm sunshine on misty slopes, has its compensation. The mountain people are strong and hardy folks, adept at working with their hands and at home on the mountains.
In the cold winter months, which come after the rainy season, the hills are alive with the bloom of poppies. On mountain slopes the flowers spread in hues of red, white, violet and crimson. Sometimes the slope on both sides of the mountain is covered with such magnificent colours, as far as the eye can see.
Soon the flowers will wither and the petals will fall, exposing the green succulent poppy pod. It is time for another round of work.
Natali, a Lahu woman who has lived on the mountain for 30 odd years, gathers her few implements into her wicker basket and sets forth for the poppy field. With sturdy legs she goes up the mountain slope and reaches the poppy plants in good time.
I struggle along trying to keep up with her. Minutes later I came along side. panting for breath. Natali chuckles. exposing a wide set of teeth stained dark with betel nut Juice.
Without further ado, she sets about her job with great dexterity. Holding the poppy pod with her left hand she deftly slices it with a small knife held by her right.
She makes three close incisions in quick successions, turns it around and makes the same on the other side of the green pod. White sticky latex oozes from the cuts and collects around the pod. After making three set of incisions on one pod, she moves on to the next. I scramble along and follow, snapping picture and watching her. She miles and chuckles and says something in Lahu which I couldn’t comprehend. I smile back and there is complete accord between photographer and subject.
When all the pods of poppy have been tapped, Natali takes a break. Later in the day she comes back and scrapes the sticky latex latex that has coagulated on the poppy pod. Soon she has collected a sticky lump, the size of a fist. Happily she trods home.
Inside the dim and smoke-filled hut, two elderly Lahu men are having their fill of opium pipes. They lie down on the bamboo floor, their heads propped up by some blankets, talking incessantly in low amiable tones. Ai Sam, a Shan lies in a comer, scraping the black contents (residue) from a pipe and talking all the time in a low murmuring tone. He mixes the opium scraping with white “Thamchai” powder (aspirin) and heats the concoction over a small oil lamp, pressing and stirring the mixture with a metal rod that looks like a handle of a spoon. He rolls the concoction into a long pencil size stick. In no time Ai Sam breaks off bits of the opium stick and fills his pipe and puffs away pipeful after pipeful.
The night is still and cold on the mountain, save for the occasional snorting and squeaking of the pigs underneath the stilt hut. The bubbling sound of the opium pipes and low voices of men drag on far into the night. Ai Sam is backing the Shan State, telling us of his great youth that has gone by… of lost treasures and gold … the great army of the Shan princes and the battle he fought with the Burmese. How they cut up the liver of the enemy and roasted them to eat.
“You know something,” says Ai Sam. “If not for the opium I would have died long ago. When you are severely sick and no medicine can cure you, this is the last resort. Take garlic and opium and toast them over a fire. After toasting, eat them and you will be OK.”
The sweet aroma effuse
entices the senses
Amidst the fragrant fumes
an oil lamp flicker
Dark shadows wobble and dance
all round is darkness
In the mountain man can forget
the sorrows of ten thousand ages