BANGKOK?Drug seizures and cultivation have surged in Myanmar, a UN expert said Thursday, particularly in areas where ethnic rebels are coming under increased pressure from the junta ahead of rare elections.
Last year 23 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in the military-ruled country, up from one million in 2008, said Gary Lewis, a representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
He said the numbers were likely to reflect a surge in production, rather than improved crime prevention.
"We believe that if you see an increase in seizure figures that is generally indicative over the medium- to long-term of an increased flow of drugs," Lewis told reporters in Bangkok.
The country has also experienced a "steep and dramatic" increase in opium cultivation, with 31,700 hectares (78,300 acres) of land set aside for illicit poppy growing last year, up by almost half since 2006.
This is still only a small fraction of the levels seen in the late 1990s, when Myanmar, as part of the so-called Golden Triangle with Laos and Thailand, produced nearly half of the world's opiates.
"We are at risk of having the situation unravel," Lewis said.
Drug production is thought to be fuelled by insurgent groups as well as by the chronic poverty and food shortages facing many communities.
Lewis said both poppy cultivation and the huge hauls of methamphetamine were concentrated in Myanmar's Shan State and represent "a nexus of money, weapons and drugs".
Some minority groups are believed to be cashing in on drugs amid an increasing sense of vulnerability in the run-up to Myanmar's first elections in two decades.
Armed minorities in Shan and Karen states continue to fight the government along the country's eastern border, claiming they are victims of neglect and mistreatment.
Myanmar's military regime has stepped up its decades-long campaign against minority groups as it strives to bring them to heel ahead of the polls, planned for sometime this year.
Myanmar accounts for 17 percent of the world's illicit poppy cultivation, but it is dwarfed by Afghanistan, which accounts for two thirds.
Despite greater growing areas, actual opium production in Myanmar was only slightly higher last year than in 2006 as yields were weak, the UN said.
Lewis said while global poppy cultivation has "dramatically declined" over the last 20 years, there has been a spike in production of amphetamine-type drugs which can be made in small, hidden laboratories.
Across Myanmar, Thailand and China, total seizures of methamphetamine ? also known as "ice" ? have trebled from 30 million tablets in 2008 to 90 million last year.