In just a few short years, Burma has gone from a tightly controlled military dictatorship to a country that is rife with a new sense of possibility. Yet the initial euphoria of the country's opening has given way to the realization that many of its social ills defy easy solutions.
And so it is with the Palaung, an ethnic minority that is waging a bitter war against the opium economy that dominates Shan State, a remote, mountainous region in northern Burma. The Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a 1,500-strong, armed organization of Palaung people, has led the fight against opium, while simultaneously waging a war for autonomy against Burma's government. According to the TNLA Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Tar Khu Lan, opium production and consumption are tearing apart Palaung communities. In some villages, up to 80 percent of the male population is addicted to drugs, primarily heroin, methamphetamines, and opium.
The TNLA hopes to replace the opium poppy fields with rice and tea plantations, but the eradication of poppy it still in a very early stage. New crops are replaced gradually; since tea needs at least 4 years before harvesting, they have left some opium plantations intact, so the farmers still have a source of income during the shift. In the meantime, they have started planning corn, beans, and other vegetables. Around Loi Chyaram village, there is a sizable tea plantation that will be ready to harvest in a month.
The Palaung rebels accuse the Burmese Army, local militias, and Burmese-Chinese ethnic groups of hindering the destruction of opium poppies, due to their involvement in the narcotics business. Two years into the war, Burma remains the world's second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, doubling production between 2006 and 2013. This remains a titanic war for the TNLA, and the odds are against them.
These images by photojournalist Vincenzo Floramo document the TNLA's efforts in "Region 1," an area under this militia's control in the remote mountains of northern Shan state. In the photo above, a young soldier assists during a poppy field extermination on the hills around Loi Chyaram, a village of 200 people in the remote mountains of northern Shan state that is under the TNLA's control. Two years ago, before the TNLA arrived, villagers produced opium from fields right outside Loi Chyaram's gates. Today, the first plantations are a two-hour walk away, dangerously close to hills controlled by the Burmese army.