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The UN’s annual day against drugs is usually celebrated with claims of great strides in the campaign to eradicate the worldwide production of narcotics and fanciful reports on how governments around the globe are successfully cooperating in this noble effort. This year, however, it seems that at least some realism has seeped into the largely fictitious picture of the situation in the drug-producing countries that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) usually presents to the outside world.
Burma’s drug production has surged over the past year, Gary Lewis, a representative of the UNODC, told reporters in Bangkok two days before the annual event. Burma, he said, had experienced a “steep and dramatic” increase in opium cultivation, with 31,700 hectares, or 78,300 acres, of land under poppy cultivation in 2009, up by almost half since 2006.
At the same time, the production of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle has increased equally dramatically. According to Thai military sources, between 300 and 400 million pills will be produced this year, or almost double the amount in 2009. The main market for all these drugs is Thailand, but significant quantities are also smuggled into China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and India. Some Burmese heroin, but very little methamphetamine, can also be found in Australia and North America.
The reason for this surge, Lewis told reporters, is that ethnic armies which once fought the Burmese army and now have entered into ceasefire agreements with the government, are coming under pressure to convert themselves into Border Guard Forces under central command. Most drugs in Burma are produced in areas controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its allies, some of whom are smaller groups which also once formed part of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The UWSA and its allies are preparing for war: “They are getting ready to fight. They are selling more and more drugs so they can buy weapons to fight the government,” the Guardian last week quoted Lewis as saying.
Statements such as these show that the UNODC may have changed its previous, glossy image of the UWSA and its allies — and so has the Burmese government. It is often forgotten that the first huge increase in Burma’s production of opium and its derivative heroin occurred after the collapse of the CPB in 1989. In the wake of the 1988 uprising in the Burmese heartland, and the subsequent massacres in the then capital Rangoon and elsewhere, more than 8,000 pro-democracy activists fled the urban centres for the border areas near Thailand, where a multitude of ethnic insurgencies not involved in the drug trade were active. Significantly, the main drug gang operating along the Thai border, Khun Sa and his private army, refused to shelter any dissidents; his main interest was business, not to fight the Burmese government.
The Burmese military now feared a renewed, politically dangerous insurgency along its frontiers: a possible alliance between the ethnic rebels and the pro-democracy activists from Rangoon and other towns and cities. But these Thai-border-based groups – Karen, Mon, Karenni, and Pa-O – were unable to provide the urban dissidents with more than a handful of weapons. None of the ethnic armies could match the strength of the CPB, which then fielded more than 15,000 soldiers and controlled a 20,000-square-kilometre territory along the China-Burma border in the northeast. Unlike the ethnic rebels, the CPB had vast quantities of arms and ammunition supplied by China from 1968 to 1978, when it was Beijing’s policy to support communist insurrections in Southeast Asia. Although the aid had almost ceased by 1980, the CPB still head enough munitions to last for at least ten years of guerrilla warfare against the central government.
Despite the Burmese military’s claim of a “communist conspiracy” behind the 1988 uprising – which then intelligence chief Khin Nyunt concocted in a lengthy speech on 5 August 1989 – there was at that time no linkage between the anti-totalitarian, pro-democracy movement in central Burma, and the orthodox, Marxist-Leninist leadership of the CPB. However, given the strong desire for revenge for the bloody events of 1988, it is plausible to assume that the urban dissidents would have accepted arms from any source. Thus, it became imperative for the ruling military to neutralise as many of the border insurgencies as possible, especially the CPB’s.
A situation which was potentially even more dangerous for the military regime arose in March and April 1989 when the hill-tribe rank-and-file of the CPB, led by the military commanders who also came from the various ethnic minorities in the northeastern base area, mutinied against the party’s ageing, mostly Burman political leadership. On 17 April 1989, ethnic Wa mutineers stormed party headquarters at Panghsang and drove the old leaders and their families, about 300 people, across the border into China.
The former CPB army split along ethnic lines, and formed four different, regional resistance armies, of which the now 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) was by far the most powerful. Suddenly, there were no longer any communist insurgents in Burma, only ethnic rebels, and the junta worried about potential collaboration between the new, well-armed forces in the northeast and the minority groups along the Thai border – and the urban dissidents who had taken refuge there.
Within weeks of the CPB mutiny, Khin Nyunt helicoptered up to the northeastern border areas, met the leaders of the mutiny, and made them an offer. In exchange for ceasefire agreements with the government, and to sever any ties with any other rebels, the UWSA and other CPB mutineers were granted unofficial permission to engage in any kind of business to sustain themselves – which in Burma’s remote and underdeveloped hill areas inevitably meant opium production.
According to estimates by the US government, Burma’s opium production soared from 836 tons in 1987 to 2,340 tons by 1995. Satellite imagery showed that the area under poppy cultivation increased from 92,300 hectares to 154,000 during the same period. For the first time, heroin refineries, which previously had been located only along the Thai border, were established along the Chinese frontier, and the ceasefire agreements with the government enabled the traffickers to move narcotics freely along major roads and highways.
However, by the early 2000s, opium production began to decline after the boom years immediately after the CPB mutiny, but by then huge quantities of methamphetamines – in the past unknown in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle – were produced in laboratories in areas controlled by the UWSA and other former CPB groups. Burma remains one of the world’s biggest producers of illicit narcotics, and its production of opium and heroin is still significant, as the latest figures from the UNODC show.
The political threat from the border areas was thwarted, the regime was safe, and vast amounts of money derived from the drug trade were invested in Burma’s legal economy. Some of Burma’s most profitable business conglomerates and banks were established by drug barons allied with the UWSA and other ceasefire groups. All along, the Burmese military turned a blind eye to the traffic, and benefited from it economically. Apart from being invested in various sectors of the national economy, drug money also ended up in the pockets of many army officers, some of whom became immensely wealthy.
But simply neutralising the border insurgencies was only the first step; today, 20 years later, the government believes that the time has come to integrate the former rebel armies, and the election that is supposed to take place this year provided the ruling military with an excellent opportunity to press this demand. The ceasefire groups have been told to transform their armies into Border Guard Forces before the election so their political wings can form legitimate political parties to take part in the polls. But, as it turned out, the ceasefire groups were not prepared to accept this offer.
In August last year, the Burmese army attacked Kokang in northeastern Shan State, until then controlled by one of the smaller former CPB forces, which had resisted the demand to accept the status as a Border Guard Force. Huge amounts of drugs were seized in the operation against the local militia in Kokang which, until it ceased being an ally and broke with the government, had been praised by the authorities for its “drug-suppression efforts.”
The UNODC and its predecessor, the UNFDAC (the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control), also used to praise the drug armies in similar terms. In January 1991, UNFDAC’s Don MacIntosh was present at a drug-burning show in northern Burma where he declared: “I am pleased to be in Shan state and have the opportunity to [attend] this important drug eradication exercise.” The ceremony was presided over by Peng Jiasheng – the druglord who was chased out of Kokang in August last year.
In more recent years, Jeremy Milsom, a former consultant to the UNODC, has openly defended the UWSA leadership, including some of its most notorious druglords. In his contribution to a book called Trouble in the Triangle: Opium and Conflict in Burma, Milsom stated that “Wei Xuegang [a Wa drugs baron who was close to intelligence chief Khin Nyunt], is an interesting figure with respect to the WSR [Wa Special Region]. Having helped the region immensely both in times of conflict and more recently by being the principal provider of social and economic development assistance to poor Wa farmers in the south, there is considerable respect for him. To add to this view, according to senior Wa sources, a condition of Wei Xuegang joining the UWSA in 1995 was that he not be involved in drug trafficking anymore and work with the WCA [Wa Central Authority] to help phase out drugs.”
The last sentence is puzzling, to say the least, as Wei has been involved with the UWSA since its formation in 1989. And, after giving up his involvement in the drug trade, Wei appears to have became a philanthropist, Milsom contends: “Ironically, Wei Xuegang has done more to support impoverished poppy farmers break their dependence on the crop than any other single person or institution in Burma, and this has been done by putting past drug profits back into the people as he perhaps tries to move into the mainstream economy.” To most others, Wei is the driving force behind most of the drug production in the Golden Triangle. He is wanted by both US and Thai authorities, which have indicted him on drug trafficking charges.
Remarkably, Milsom treats all the leaders of the UWSA as if they were representatives of the governments of Canada or Norway, taking all their outlandish claims at face value. He even questions whether the methamphetamine production in the Golden Triangle is controlled by the UWSA and its officers. The UNODC, it seems, needs to check on its personnel in Burma. Or, at the very least, encourage them to learn more about the country – and the Was and the geopolitical complexities of local insurgencies and the role of the drug trade in those conflicts – before they depart for their “project zone.”
Until recently, the Burmese government routinely praised the same druglords as well. Major General Thein Sein, then commander of the Burmese army’s Golden Triangle Region Command, said in a speech before local leaders at the drug-trafficking centre on Mong La on 9 May, 2001: “I was in Mong Ton and Mong Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa groups are real friends.”
Bao Youri is another UWSA leader who has been indicted by a US federal court. Thein Sein is the current prime minister of Burma and the country’s fourth-highest ranking general. Official complicity in the drug trade is another question that the UN has ignored since it first became involved in Burma in the late 1970s.
It is too early to say whether the new tunes from the UNODC will result in any actual policy changes. But, at long last, the UNODC has publicly acknowledged that Burma’s drug problem cannot be separated from its decades-long ethnic conflicts. The UWSA and its allies may be financing their respective armed forces with income from the drug trade – but their very existence is also the direct result of the ethnic strife and the anarchy that has been tearing Burma apart for decades. It is about time the UNODC now recognises that no anti-drug policy in Burma has any chance of success unless it is linked to a real political solution to the civil war – and a meaningful democratic process in the entire country. The alternative is what we have today: never-ending internal ethnic and political conflicts, which will only keep drugs flowing.