British Colonialist Era
When the British envoy Michael Symes visited Bago in 1795, during the Konebaung era, it was believed to be at a time when Bago was celebrating the annual Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda festival. In his memoirs, he recorded the event and remarked that as a foreigner, he was surprised and pleased to witness that there was not even one event of tomfoolery and drunken brawls among revellers though thousands of people participated with clean joy and glee in the festival, where as England, it could be quite different. There could be fornication and drunken brawls, and all kinds of liquor and wine would be flowing in the festivals of English cities and towns. In his memoirs he openly admitted his admiration for the poise and noble bearings of the Myanmar nationals which he encountered in Bago.
Contrary to Mr. Symes, another foreign visitor to Myanmar, Mrs. Ernest Hart painted a different picture of Rakhine and Tanintharyi regions of Myanmar, which were already under the British rule when she visited the country. In her book entitled "Picturesque Burma", she wrote that it is a noble obligatory of all state governments to rule justly and wisely over the nations and peoples which they have colonized. But the British government on the contrary had allowed people to open bars and brothels opium dens, breweries and distilleries freely in the Rakhine and Tanintharyi regions. Low class foreigners with shady characters, and mostly opium addicts and alcoholics were frequent visitors to those regions and unintentionally tainted the locals with their despicable habits, witchcraft and black magic.
Smoking is more harmful than eating opium and this odious habit spread into Myanmar proper from Rakhine region where the British government, once they had occupied it, gave licenses and permits to sell opium and allowed the opium dens to operate freely.
The first Anglo-Myanmar War erupted on 5 March 1824 over the issue of Shinmaphyu Island in Rakhine State during the reign of King Bagyidaw. But if we study the history of wars waged by the British colonialists in our part of the world, it could be said that one of the main reasons of those wars was always opium. The first Anglo-Myanmar war in 1824 was in fact thirteen years earlier than the notorious opium war waged by the British against China in 1839. It is evident from this that in their plans to colonize the region, the British colonialists took primary steps for the wide-spread use of opium in Myanmar. So in the history of opium, it was found that Myanmar was the second worst hit country after China.
Opium, which never had a place in Myanmar society by tradition in the days of the Myanmar kings, was firmly ensconced and had its roots spread all over the country in a matter of three years after the British had established themselves over the entire country. Thus it is not surprising that in the year 1891, the lower Myanmar broke the record of having the largest number of opium eaters in the entire British domain of Myanmar. In the year 1862, King Mindon of Myanmar and the British Viceroy in India signed a trade Agreement in which the British requested permission for the British subjects to cross Myanmar in their travels. The reason of this request was for the British to have a land route to export their opium cargo from their highly nurtured poppy cultivation in Assam to Yunan in China. But this aim did not materialize as the terrain, which the supposed highway had to pass was mountainous and dense with forests. This road was finally built by the Americans only during the Second World War and named "Lido Road' and was used to transport military cargo including arms and ammunitions from Assam to China. Ironically, after the war, the British had to abandon their major scheme, at a great loss, to export their opium from Assam to China by this cross country Lido Road in the north of Myanmar.
Opium poppy Cultivation came into being in Myanmar in the modern age when opium seeds were illegally brought into Chindwin region, Chin Hills, Kachin State and Shan State in northern Myanmar from Assam in India. Local population in these regions originally grew vegetables or fruits but because of the British colonialists' persuasions and urging, they became opium growers and opium traders. Once they started growing opium, they found that it was easier to cultivate the crop and earned more than their traditional farming.
The State of Opium Cultivation and Consumption under the British Colonial Rule
As stated above, opium cultivation, production and the habit of using opium as narcotic drug came into being in Myanmar on a massive commercial scale, only after the British had colonized the country into their realm. They officially allowed people to cultivate opium in the Shan State and Kachin Region, gave out licenses to operate opium dens and permitted people to smoke opium when duly registered. At one time a British Commission came to Myanmar to investigate the legal trade of opium in the country and stated in their report that illicit use of opium should not be permitted and to restrict the use of opium for scientific and medical purposes only.
During the British rule in Myanmar, the regime continued to use the outdated Opium Act and Rule of 1878 and promulgated the Opium Act of 1909, Amendment Law to that act, and the 1930 Dangerous Drugs Law. Though these laws prohibit the production and opium trading in the country, in practice, they were found to be not effective. Moreover to dilute the promulgated Opium Act, new laws were introduced in the Shan State and Kachin Hilly Region (now Kachin State) in 1923 and 1937 respectively. Because of these new laws, the British Opium Act could not be used and a person could legally posses 6 tola (70 grams) of opium in the Shan State and 25 tola (292 grams) in the Kachin State.
Furthermore the Government gave official permission to cultivate opium on the eastern banks of Thanlwin River and to officially traffic and sell opium at 216 shops in the region. It also sold opium to those opium addicts who were registered officially. Though the government attempted to supervise the opium trade systematically, greedy traders opened clandestine opium dens and sold not only opium but also marijuana and other illegal drugs thereby increasing the number of addicts so that by the time the British left Myanmar, there were totally 48221 registered opium addicts in the country with more unregistered ones who remained closeted.