Author takes a trip into darkness

by Sarah Rooney

THE SHORE BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL: A Report from Inside Burma’s Opium Kingdom, by Hideyuki Takano. Kotan Publishing, 2002, 264 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

“The Shore Beyond Good and Evil” is a book about a little-known region called Wa. “The name ‘Wa’ is not indicated on maps,” writes author Hideyuki Takano. “Yet, despite its anonymity, perhaps no other place on earth wields such an effect over the world.” Just what is so influential about this 10,360 sq. km, semiautonomous territory in eastern Myanmar (Burma), bordering China? The answer is simple: The cool, dry climate of Wa State is ideal for the cultivation of a particularly valuable plant called papaver somniferum, better known as opium poppy, which is refined and smuggled around the globe as the lethally addictive drug heroin. Located in the heart of the Golden Triangle, Wa State is responsible for an astounding 40 percent of the world’s opium.

Fed up with reading journalistic “bird’s-eye views” of Wa State, Takano wants to go and see for himself what life is like in the opium-producing capital of the world. He decides to live in a traditional Wa village and chronicle one cycle of an opium crop, from the sowing of the seed to the poppy harvest. But getting into Wa State is no easy feat. The nearly impenetrable mountain region is controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and the Wa people have long had a reputation for savagery. The Wa were formerly headhunters living in villages approached by “skull avenues” lined with the severed heads of their victims. The British colonial administration put an end to headhunting in the last century, but the region is still a frighteningly lawless land. Luckily, Takano is no stranger to hard travel; he has searched for the yeti in remotest China and trekked through the most inaccessible parts of the African Congo. After negotiations with the UWSA, he rides into Wa State in a truck sitting on “a mountain of metal cans filled with [live] ammunition.” Takano’s journey into the unknown is told with arresting images. Describing a night spent in a Wa army base that was lit by the feeble glow of a single naked light bulb, he writes, “I felt this tiny light . . . was under threat from the vast darkness of the inner Wa State.”

Takano goes by the Wa name Ai Lao (literally, Eldest Brother Storyteller) and, with admirable zeal, throws himself into the hardscrabble routine of Wa village life. He joins in the back-breaking work in the poppy fields each day and downs the local hooch each night. Surprisingly, smoking opium is prohibited in Wa State; though, as Takao learns, this is not always rigorously enforced. Village healers use opium as a curative, and when Takano starts smoking to heal his aches and pains he soon finds himself hooked. The sometimes humorous tales of his attempts to secretly smoke opium in the heart of the world’s biggest opium farm make entertaining reading. Less fun for Takano is the incredible lethargy he suffers when he has to quit: “I felt as if each cell in my body was being rammed down by an intense gravity.” When Takano first saw opium, however, he was unimpressed: “So this smelly, muddy dumpling had invaded the hearts and minds of people, put the world’s police on alert and even triggered murders and wars. It didn’t seem to make sense.”

The Wa believe opium poppies sprang from the loins of a beautiful young Wa woman who, overwhelmed by suitors and unable to choose between them, killed herself. As her corpse lay on a mountainside, tobacco sprouted from her breasts and opium grew from her groin. Takano charts a less romantic but more plausible route for opium from the medicinal halls of ancient Greece, to India with Alexander the Great and finally to China on Dutch trading ships via Taiwan. Opium was used during the Ming Dynasty as a medicine alleviating anything from diarrhea to malaria. The Chinese soon developed a taste for opium as a recreational drug and began to trade Indian-grown British opium for Chinese tea. In 1840, the Opium War put an end to this trade and the Chinese had to grow their own opium in the high and dry regions of southern China, around Wa State. The drug has since been used by the Wa to fund an armed struggle against their Myanmar overlords. (Today, the UWSA and the Myanmar Army have reached a ceasefire and both benefit from the highly profitable opium business.)

“The Shore Beyond Good and Evil” is part-travelogue, part-anthropological study and there are lots of interesting tidbits to be gleaned within its pages. We learn, for instance, that opium is appropriately measured in units of weight called joi. We also get etiquette lessons on how to drink plai ko, Wa alcohol made from the fermented seeds of the ko plant. Just in case you ever meet any Wa drinkers, here’s what you do: Say ah (literally, “you and me”), touch a bamboo cup of plai ko to your lips and then hand it to your drinking partner to down in one.

But Takano’s book has a much greater purpose. “The Shore Beyond Good and Evil” highlights the plight of the Wa villager. Farmers spend half of each year growing opium to sell and the other half growing rice to eat. Over 50 percent of every farmer’s opium crop is confiscated by the Wa army as an “opium tax.” This feudal practice keeps the villagers trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty. Meanwhile, Wa army officers sell the opium abroad and get rich on the proceeds. “In a sense,” writes Takano, “farmers and consumers stand at opposite ends of a long tunnel with no idea about the darkness that lurks between them.”

In “The Shore Beyond Good and Evil,” Takano does a great service in demonstrating how villagers in Wa State are just as trapped as the heroin addicts who are shooting up in inner cities around the world.