Yangon, Myanmar – Opium poppy cultivation in the heroin-producing ‘Golden Triangle’ - the area adjoining Myanmar, Laos and Thailand - has nearly tripled since 2006, according to a new UN report.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in the findings of its annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey on Monday that poppy cultivated in Myanmar and Laos in 2014 reached 63,800 hectares - the equivalent of nearly 90,000 football pitches - up from 21,600 hectares in 2006.
The latest figure represents a rise in cultivation for the eighth consecutive year, boosting an industry estimated to be worth $16bn a year in Southeast Asia.
The problem is bigger than ever before because there are no laws in these areas.
Myanmar, the world's second largest producer of opium behind Afghanistan, together with Laos this year produced 762 tons of opium, most of which would have been refined with chemicals into roughly 76 tons of mixed-grade heroin to be trafficked into global markets and across the region, where drug use is on the rise.
"They [Myanmar and Laos] have to do better to stem the two-way flow of drugs in and out of their countries," Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told Al Jazeera.
"There is a lot of corruption at the borders and it is a big, big concern of ours," he said, adding that the trade also threatened development within the ASEAN Economic Community.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control did not respond to requests for comment.
The increase comes despite promises by the reformist Myanmar government to eradicate the problem.
Of the total area used to cultivate opium, 80 percent, or 51,400 hectares, was in Myanmar’s Shan State, where the world’s longest civil war has raged for more than 50 years.
Northern Laos accounted for just 9.72 percent of the total figure, according to the report.
In an effort to deal with the problem in its mountainous states, Myanmar's government pledged in 1999 to wipe out all opium cultivation over the course of 15 years, resulting in an 86 percent reduction from 1998 to 2006.
But, since then, a regional increase in demand for opium and heroin has triggered a resurgence of production, largely by transnational crime networks operating in parts of the country where the government is battling rebels.
With production on the rise, the Myanmar government stepped up efforts in the 2013-14 opium poppy season, eradicating 15,188 hectares of the crop, a 19 percent increase from the year before, according to government data.
Myanmar has little capacity to regulate its borders, resulting in human trafficking and a massive illegal trade in everything from drugs and precious stones, with most of the corruption happening along the borders with China.
"The problem is bigger than ever before because there are no laws in these areas," said U Nyan Win, spokesman for Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, adding that stymieing the drug trade will hinge on the success of a nationwide ceasefire.
"If there is no peace in Burma, then the problem will only get worse."
With easy access to drugs, the number of heroin users in China – the world’s single largest market -- grew by half a million from 2007 to 2013 to reach 1.3 million, according the UNODC report.
As of 2014, China accounts for nearly 58 percent of the 3.33 million estimated opiate users throughout Asia. In Myanmar, opiate use is now one of the highest in Southeast Asia, while preliminary assessments in the report show the use of heroin and methamphetamine in some villages in Shan and Kayah States has tripled since 2012.