Burmese drugs fuel regional strife

Under a cloud of drug suspicion, Burma accused Thailand of supporting 'terrorist' groups on Friday.

Burma wants to show the world how hard it's fighting to win the drug war. So last month, it ferried a group of Rangoon-based diplomats by helicopter into Panghsang, a remote town in the Wa Hills along the Chinese frontier, according to a detailed government statement.

Burmese military officials led the diplomats on a tour of crop-substitution programs run by the Burmese government and a briefing by Pauk Yu Chan, whom the Burmese refer to as the "Wa National Race Leader."

Mr. Pauk told the diplomats about his organization's commitment to ending the cultivation of the opium poppy in one of its traditional strongholds, and detailed the financial aid the Burmese government is providing to fight drugs.

But to outsiders, his comments were more than just a little surreal. Pauk is no average politician. He's a senior military leader of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 20,000-member fighting force that the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) calls "the dominant heroin trafficking group in Southeast Asia, and perhaps the world."

As the world's eyes skip past Burma and fix on Kashmir, close ties between Burma's leaders and its alleged drug lords continue to cast a shadow of instability over Southeast Asia. Diplomats, analysts, and political opponents of Burma's military junta – which prefers that the country be called Myanmar – say the drug trade is helping to prop up the regime and fuel simmering insurgencies.

There have been recent reminders of the dangers of the situation. This month, the junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), stepped up attacks on ethnic Shan rebels, who have been fighting for autonomy from central government control since 1949.

The fighting has, at times, spilled across the sensitive border with Thailand, which is angered by the flood of drugs that enter from Burma. Mortars fired by Burmese government troops battling rebels have landed near Thai villages and official border crossings have been closed. The Thai Army has shelled land near Burmese towns in retaliation.

The cross-border tension is due to two factors – Thai anger at the drugs it claims the UWSA pumps into Thailand, and Burmese claims of Thai support for two ethnic rebel groups – particularly the Shan State Army.

On Friday, a Burmese government statement accused Thailand of "breeding, training, and supporting these terrorist groups."

In the midst of the fighting has been the UWSA, which the DEA says controls most of the key smuggling routes into Thailand. The UWSA was once a rebel group, but it signed a cease-fire with the government in 1989 that allowed it to stay armed if it promised to help the SPDC fight the Shan.

Diplomats say a tacit part of that agreement has been permission to tax the opium trade and run the smuggling routes, a charge the SPDC denies.

"The lure of the drug trade has been used by the SPDC to corrupt some rebel groups," says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese politician.

"We were allowed to control the opium trade when we were running the show, and that's the UWSA's deal now," says a former aid to Khun Sa, whom the DEA considered to be the top opium warlord in the Golden Triangle until he retired in 1996. "After the UWSA, it will probably be someone else."

Intelligence officials on the border allege the recent fighting is intertwined with the UWSA's desire to control smuggling routes. The group has been working to shore up its presence close to the border for the past two years.

Heroin comes out of Burma by two main routes: through Thailand's Chiang Mai Province or through China's Yunnan Province. The heroin then works its way down to ports and to the rest of the world. The DEA estimates that about 20 percent of all Golden Triangle heroin makes its way to US markets.

The US pledged $1 million to a UN effort to get farmers to grow substitute crops in Wa areas last year, and DEA agents have maintained contact with the junta, hoping policies will change.

But human rights activists allege the SPDC's policies drive farmers away from legitimate crops. In fact, shortly before the diplomats arrived in Panghsang, the UWSA and the Burmese government wrapped up a resettlement program of 150,000 ethnic Wa from the Chinese border area to southern Shan State, near Thailand.

The Lahu National Development Organization, a human rights group that has interviewed the resettled Wa, says the migration was largely forced. They also say 40,000 ethnic Shan were pushed off their land to make way for the Wa settlers.

While the reasons for the resettlement aren't known, most analysts believe the largely Wa UWSA wanted a more compliant civilian population along the key drug routes into Thailand.

"How are substitution programs going to work when opium is being grown by people who have been driven away from legitimate crops by the regime?" asks a Western aid worker on the border.

Burmese officials declined to comment for this story. Last week, government spokesman Hla Min, said in a statement that the country is committed "to eradicating the production of opium and heroin in our country."

The US State Department disagrees, saying in a statement there are "reliable reports that Burmese government and military officials in outlying areas are either directly involved in drug production ... or provide protection to those who are."

Those struggling for a democratic Burma worry that resettlement programs like the one involving the Wa, and the government policy of allowing opium armies to flourish, are undermining the hopes for a stable Burma when and if a democratic transition takes place.

"The Burmese government says it is keeping order," says Khuensai Jaiyen, who runs the Shan Herald News Agency, a news service run by exiles living in Thailand. "In fact, they are creating disorder."

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