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The power of the flower

The T’ang National Liberation Army declared a war on opium in 2012, but the Shan State militia must tread lightly, as addiction and loss of income could spell ruin for the area’s people

Text and photography by Vincenzo Floramo
In the remote mountains of northern Shan State, Myanmar, close to the Chinese border, a rebel militia has been waging a hidden, protracted war against an enemy that possesses no weapons, nor even an army.

Shot in the dark: ammunition is dispensed among officers of the TNLA’s 101 battalion. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

This rugged area is well known as a hotspot for the cultivation of opium poppies, the plant from which morphine and heroin are synthesised. It is a practice that has been profitable for some producers, but at a high social cost.
Quickly does it: in just 40 minutes, 15 soldiers destroyed every poppy plant in this field. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the cultivation of opium in Myanmar increased by 26% last year, marking the highest rise since the UNODC and the Myanmar government began their assessments in 2002.
Smoke and mirrors: Aikun, 29, smokes opium in his bamboo hut. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

Myanmar is the second-largest opium-producing country in the world after Afghanistan, and Shan State remains the centre of Myanmar’s opium activities, accounting for 92% of the country’s total cultivation.
Pick and choose: a Chinese-Myanmar farmer scrapes the milky fluid – the substance used to make opium – out of an unripe poppy pod. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

The north of the state is the home of the Palaung ethnic minority, many of whom have cultivated and harvested the “sleepy plant” for years. But the production of opium and heroin, while lucrative, has been quietly devastating the Palaung population. In some villages, 80% of the men are addicts.
Up in flames: a TNLA officer pours flammable liquid on a pile of opium poppies Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

To fight the damage caused by opium to their people, the armed organisation of the Palaung minority, the T’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), declared war on the opium poppy in 2012. The TNLA introduced prohibition laws in the Palaung community areas under their control and today, cultivating, costuming and selling drugs is strictly prohibited.
Public display: when the army seizes a large quantity of opium from local traffickers, they often burn it in public as a symbol of strength in its war on drugs. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

The TNLA claims to have 1,500 soldiers which, this year, were mainly put to use destroying poppy fields during the harvest season. The commanders of this ragtag army have accused the Myanmar-Chinese minority of controlling the poppy fields and working in collusion with local militias and the Myanmar army.
Pick and choose:
a Chinese-Myanmar farmer scrapes the milky fluid – the substance used to make opium – out of an unripe poppy pod. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

The goal of the TNLA is to replace the poppy fields with other crops such as corn and tea, but the challenge is daunting and the process must be carried out gradually, as the area’s economy is dominated by poppy cultivation – a major source of income for the state’s people.
Troops begin a two-day march to another TNLA camp in Shan State. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo



Vincenzo Floramo was born in Trieste, Italy, in 1968. After completing school, he studied photography in Spain and in 1992 began to live a nomadic life between Asia, South America, North America and Europe, which continues to this day. His work has been published by the Guardian, Bangkok Post, Foreign Policy and many others. Portrait: Antolin Avezuela

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