Burma(Myanmar) earthquake hits faded drug area

Burma(Myanmar) earthquake caused buildings to sway hundreds of miles away. The economic impact of the Burma(Myanmar) earthquake is limited as Golden Triangle opium production has declined.

Soe Zeya/Reuters/File
Men in central Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), play a game in the street Nov. 2, 2010. On March 23, a powerful earthquake hit the nation's easternmost province. Details of the damage from the Burma earthquake are sketchy because the area is remote and the military government keeps a tight lid on communication.

The earthquake that struck Burma Thursday night hit one of its more remote regions, once known as the world's premier producer of opium and its derivative, heroin.

The extent of damage within the tightly controlled country, officially called Myanmar, was hard to assess. It's economic impact will be limited because aside from agriculture and limited tourism, the only other industry of note in the so-called Golden Triangle is opium, and that has been in decline for more than a decade.

Homes and at least one bridge were damaged in several Burmese villages along the borders with Thailand and Laos, according to the Associated Press, which quoted residents' reports. Residents in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand also felt the tremors as far away as Hanoi and Bangkok. One woman in northern Thailand died after a brick wall fell on her.

The epicenter of the Burma earthquake occurred in its easternmost and largest province, Shan, which borders Thailand, Laos, and China. It was centered between Tachileik (a Burmese on the border with Thailand) and Kyaing Tong, a center of tourism for the small number of foreign tourists who visit the country each year.

Aside from tourism and agriculture, the rural region inside one of Asia's poorest countries does not boast much industry. Its biggest claim to fame is the Golden Triangle, which once produced the bulk of the world's opium and heroin but has since ceded that dubious distinction.

"When it comes to heroin, Burma has been much reduced in recent years," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug policy advocacy organization based in New York. "It has really been displaced by Afghanistan."

What remains of the drug industry serves Asia, he says. Illegal though it may be, the industry would feel the same effect as legitimate manufacturers would. Sales would be interrupted if Burma's already poor roads were damaged. Damage to the drug refineries could also affect production.

In recent years, China has intervened by sponsoring large-scale crop-substitution programs, especially large rubber plantations. No word yet on how they fared in the quake and the two aftershocks.

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