RANGOON, BURMA — Rebirth is a major theme in Buddhism. But there is a form of "reincarnation" under way in this Buddhist nation that has international drug investigators working overtime.
Burma's ruling junta is trying to prove there is, indeed, life after being a "godfather" in the Golden Triangle.
Just ask Khun Sa and a host of other opium warlords who are benefiting from a government campaign to embrace the region's criminal underworld as legitimate businessmen, provided they invest their narco-money in Burma.
It is a policy that appears rooted in cold pragmatism, perhaps even desperation. The governing generals are seeking to prop up their wheezing economy by appealing to drug traffickers - both current and former - to bring their money home.
The key phrase is: No questions asked.
"Opium is the one crop that continues to make money for people here," says a Western diplomat. "How much of the money ultimately comes back here and is invested in the economy, nobody knows."
The policy is raising concerns that the military government may become hooked on drug money.
Given the widening Asian financial crisis, continuing international sanctions against Burma, and less-than-friendly economic conditions inside Burma, the regime has few options for attracting fresh capital.
Narco-investment as rehab?
Government officials defend their policy, justifying it as an attempt to rehabilitate criminals by weaning them away from lives of crime.
But such explanations seem a little convenient to Western diplomats who note that much of the opium and heroin profits are a direct result of lax law enforcement in the Golden Triangle by Burma's government.
Analysts point to one Rangoon-based business powerhouse with investments in real estate, finance, mining, tourism, and trade. The company is viewed as the commercial arm of the United Wa State Army, a heavily armed militia now considered the largest, most active drug-trafficking group in the Burma sector of the Golden Triangle.
What has some Western analysts in Rangoon concerned is that Burma's drug-money reinvestment policy dovetails with a series of cease-fire agreements reached in 1989 with the same ethnic militias that protect and run the opium and heroin operations.
Under the terms of the cease-fire agreements, the ethnic groups pledged to eventually work toward creation of opium-free zones throughout their regions. Deadlines for an absolute halt to all opium trade have been suggested (some as early as 2000), but it is doubtful they will be honored.
In the meantime, the region's drug trade is enjoying what looks to be a tacit agreement by the government to allow the traffickers to continue their lucrative operations as long as the cease-fires are honored.
Khun Sa's 'surrender'
Among the best-known of Burma's new breed of investors is Khun Sa, also known as Chang Chi-Fu, the flamboyant jungle warlord who "surrendered" to the Burma military in January 1996 and has been living comfortably in Rangoon.
At the height of his power, Khun Sa supposedly controlled one-third of the world's opium supplies and commanded 48,000 armed men.
The US government has posted a $2 million bounty on his head. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y., are seeking his capture so he can stand trial on 1994 charges that he smuggled thousands of pounds of heroin into the US over 20 years.
But apparently having Khun Sa as a resident in Rangoon is worth more than $2 million to the Burmese government. The full details of the agreement between Burma and Khun Sa have never been revealed. But officials justify the arrangement, saying his surrender ended a long war.
To coax Khun Sa out of the jungle, Burma's ruling generals offered him safety and the chance to become a tycoon in Rangoon. He was granted a loan by the government to set up a bus and trucking company and was awarded government concessions in jade and gem sales. In addition, he has been offered a lucrative contract to repave the road from Rangoon to Mandalay.
Part of the government's benevolent treatment of Khun Sa may be sincerely rooted in the Buddhist faith and the understanding that good deeds never go unrewarded.
But part is also rooted in his value as a source of intelligence information. "We could just shut him up with one bullet but we are trying to keep him alive because he is a walking encyclopedia," says Lt. Col. Hla Min, deputy director of the Office of Strategic Studies at the Ministry of Defense. "This [opium trade] is a multibillion-dollar business," he adds. "He knows who is involved. And now what he knows, we know."
Some government officials liken the arrangement with Khun Sa to a plea bargain, a common arrangement in the US justice system.
Although his living conditions are said to be comfortable in a guarded military housing compound in a quiet Rangoon neighborhood, he is nonetheless under surveillance. And he still faces the prospect that someone might try to turn him in for the US reward.
"Khun Sa is stuck. He can't move around. If he goes to any third world country, we're going to grab him," says an American official stationed in the region.