Hacking At Heroin's Mother Lode

Skirting a high ridge just west of the Chinese border, the military helicopter banks hard left as the Burmese pilot scans the steep mountainside for a safe place to land.

Below, row upon row of green stalks topped by buds the size of Ping-Pong balls come into view across the rugged terrain. They are opium poppies. Acres upon acres of them cling to a slope 6,000 feet above sea level in a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia.

Welcome to the Golden Triangle, a remote region where the borders of Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet. Here is the starting point of a trail of human misery that stretches from isolated fields like this one to the streets of America, where some 600,000 addicts crave the region's only significant export - heroin. There is no place on earth that makes more heroin than this jagged corner of northeastern Burma. The estimated 230 metric tons it produced in 1997 represents more than half the world's supply.

Now, after decades of lax law enforcement and international condemnation, the military junta that rules this country, also known as Myanmar, says it is getting serious about battling opium and heroin traffickers. As proof, three journalists - including this correspondent - were given unprecedented access to this once forbidden land.

Some areas are still too dangerous for government troops. But this poppy field - accessible only by foot, mule train, or helicopter - is within territory covered by one of 17 cease-fire agreements negotiated with former ethnic insurgent groups and their leaders. It is a major accomplishment that government officials - let alone American journalists - are able to travel here openly and safely.

We arrive in the dusty field near a makeshift helicopter pad prepared to witness firsthand government efforts to get tough with international opium and heroin traffickers. But as we stumble with our cameras and notebooks across row upon row of budding poppies it becomes obvious that something is terribly wrong.

The opium traders have apparently been here and gone. All the tens of thousands of bulbs covering the mountainside bear the tell-tale slits from which local growers have scraped the opium-rich sap, the raw material of heroin. In effect, the entire crop of opium has already been harvested and sold to smugglers and heroin refiners.

So what is the point of destroying a field that has already yielded its full potential of opium?

The episode demonstrates the central dilemma - some say hypocrisy - of Burma's anti-opium campaign.

On one hand, the country's ruling generals want to convince the world that they are serious about making a contribution to the international war on drugs. But on the other hand, they know that the vast majority of peasants living in the Golden Triangle section of Burma rely heavily on income from opium to feed and clothe their families. The government is reluctant to cut off that supply of cash until economic alternatives to opium production are in place.

How this schizophrenic policy will play out in the months and years ahead is a topic of great interest among diplomats and counterdrug experts familiar with Burma. One Western diplomat in Rangoon termed Burma's opium eradication campaign mere "window dressing." Others say the government seems sincere in its desire to eliminate as much opium production as possible. But it remains to be seen how far the government is willing - or able - to go.

For decades a perpetual cycle of drug trafficking and insurgent warfare rendered this one of the world's most wild and lawless regions. The harder government forces pressed to crush local militias fighting for political autonomy, the more those militias struggled to obtain expensive weapons to match the government's firepower.

The easiest way for the militias to buy arms and maintain their guerrilla struggle was to grow more opium and sell more heroin.

The cease-fires, begun in 1989, are an attempt to break that destructive cycle.

But at what price?

Despite the government's declared intent to crack down on the opium trade as it negotiated the cease-fire agreements, certain tribes continued to produce opium unabated. The tribal leaders endorsed in theory the eventual establishment of opium-free zones in their regions. But Western diplomats say so far it is only theory, and there is no indication that the government is prepared to forcefully impose actual opium-free zones in the tribal regions should the local leaders balk at voluntarily adopting anti-opium measures. "The government feels that if they push too hard the cease-fires will collapse," a diplomat says.

In the meantime, opium continues to flood out of the region at near record levels."We ask ourselves, is it theater or is it real?" another Western diplomat says. "We will be looking. We are naturally skeptical."

No more 'PR stunts'

Col. Kyaw Thein is Burma's top antidrug official. He acknowledges that in years past the government has staged antinarcotics offensives that he terms "PR stunts." But he says the current push is different. "We don't want this bad name put on us," he says. "We want to show the world that we can do more even with our limited resources."

He adds: "After three, or four, or five years I can assure you that you will be seeing a very significant result."

But some analysts believe Burma's government has an ulterior motive in launching a high profile campaign to battle the heroin trade. They see it more as a public-relations offensive aimed at undermining US sanctions.

The sanctions were imposed after the military regime engaged in widespread human rights violations to put down antigovernment disturbances in 1988 and refused to turn over power to democratically elected officials in 1990. The US cut off all aid to the country, including equipment and financial support for antinarcotics efforts.

If Burma is able to convince the international community that significant progress can now be made against the world's most productive heroin traffickers, Burmese government officials hope the US and other countries may be willing to consider lifting the sanctions.

Analysts not impressed

Not a chance, say Western analysts. "Although we welcome everything they do in narcotics [enforcement], they will never be off the hook for democratization or human rights [as a result of antidrug efforts]," says a Western diplomat who closely follows political developments in Rangoon. "It is just a fantasy if they think in those terms."

In effect the real test of Burma's resolve to battle heroin trafficking will come in October when local farmers from Par Sin Kyaw and other tribal areas across Burma return to their isolated fields and decide whether to replant poppies or switch to legal crops. The question then will be: If they choose poppies, will the government step in and destroy the fields or, once again, look the other way?

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