The Sinister Secret Behind Shangri-La's Hazy Facade

Soft wisps of silvery mist unfurl across the lush peaks of Yunnan (South-Western Chinese province), Laos and Myanmar obscuring the vast expanses of emerald rice paddies. Yet cleverly disguised in these mosaic fields, a thriving industry for drugs continues to bloom. According to UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime) it is estimated that 3000 tonnes of marijuana has been grown and sold during the past 20 years in this Golden Triangle.

South East Asia has been crowned the lost ‘Shangri-La’, a rediscovered Utopia for tourists that appears an Eden of the past. Untainted by the rapid industrialisation of World’s Eastern Special Economic Zones, Yunnan, Laos and Myanmar are the last places in Asia where the sapphire sky remains visible to the naked eye. For the province “this was both a blessing and curse” as according to anthropologists who work in the region “to keep up with its reputation and sustain tourism, the curse of Shangri-La leaves Yunnan in limbo”.

The local municipal governments have prohibited any mass industrial activity in this ‘protected region’. To the untrained eye, this is a land of simple life, but behind the façade of heaven on earth, are a people driven desperate by poverty, with a severe lack of infrastructural development. The Golden Triangle has a total population of almost 1 million, but has less than 50 high schools.

The “Golden Triangle” region has a vast amount of heroin processing factories, mostly located deep in mountains and rainforests. “Southeast Asian heroin”, or SEAHEROIN as it has come to be known, is a highly refined version of the drug that is sold around the world.

Due to the low socio-economic status of South East Asia, Miao, Yao and Lisu farmers who dwell at the Golden Triangle area from generation to generations specialise in poppy cultivation. Majority of them are uneducated middle-aged women in decorated, pleated dazzling skirts with sophisticated patterns, batik apron and embroidery shoe. These women, due to the lack of an advanced government welfare and subsidy system, would be unable to fund basic survival without the poppy-growing industry as a source of economic income, and for some, a shortcut to fortune. More and more Hill-Tribe farmers participate in poppy cultivation, resulting in a fast growing illicit drug production industry. According to The Economist: “Laos was long regarded as one side of the Golden Triangle, which was responsible for producing over half of the world’s opium as recently as the 2000s.

After frequent government helicopters scan the fields, setting alight fields of suspected hemp crops. Villages had to find other ways to survive. Hemp crops behind hidden amidst wheat, potatoes and rows of corn.

The government cannot control the situation due to heavy corruption. As one of the largest opium production countries in Golden Triangle area, Myanmar lived mainly the national minority people for generations by poppy cultivation for livelihoods. In order to fight against the government to protect their opium farming, local farmers armed themselves. In these armed, the largest is the former Burma-Thai border Kun Sa (Khun Sa) group. They formed a powerful, armed force military of nearly 3,000 people in army uniform, with well-equipped weapons and actual combat experiences.

Though South East Asian governments have offered no way of alternatives for Golden Triangle population to thrive other than the tourism industry which allows for the young and literate population to develop a worldwide vision. it offers no solution for the Hill-Tribe farmers to make a living. I strongly suggest the government along the Golden Triangle border to work together to enhance their agricultural production other than opium poppy cultivation, stop corruption, building more public infrastructures, hospitals and schools with UN aid.