Fighting Burma’s drugs trade
Published by BBC News – December, 2002
Copyright: BBC News
Burma’s ruling generals and their Wa allies on the country’s north eastern border have pledged big cuts in opium production, hoping to head off international criticism. Larry Jagan, the BBC’s Burma analyst, reports.
Bao Yuxiang, the notorious drug warlord and commander of the United Wa State Army, says he will dramatically cut production of opium poppy in areas under his control within the next 12 months.
“I have promised to make the Wa areas drug-free by 2005 and I will,” he told the BBC in a recent interview in his home-base of Pangshang, on the border with China.
The Wa are one of the main poppy growers in Burma’s Golden Triangle – situated in the north-west tip of the country bordering, China, Laos and Thailand.
UN drug officials now estimate that most of the world’s illicit heroin originates in this inhospitable and mountainous region.
The Wa have been involved in the drugs trade for decades, largely because of the difficulty of growing any other cash crops, and lack of industry.
Since 1989 the Wa have had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military junta.
During much of that time opium production has sky-rocketed.
But in the last few years poppy cultivation has declined dramatically, say UN drug control officials.
Mr Bao, who along with his three brothers commands the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), says that over the past two years, the Wa have begun to resist the temptation to continue growing poppy.
UN financial assistance has been used for crop substitution projects, including fruit trees and tea plantations, and to set up small-scale industries like tea production and slate manufacturing factories.
“In some areas the Wa have reduced the amount of land under poppy cultivation by up to 80%,” said an independent Australian researcher, Jeremy Milsome, who has just completed several months of detailed surveys in UWSA areas.
“Last year, overall the UWSA managed an average reduction of poppy production of more than 30%,” he said.
Most independent assessments of opium production in the Wa areas also show a major reduction in the amount of poppy that is cultivated.
But despite this, the Wa are still blamed by Thai army chiefs for millions of amphetamines that flood into Thailand every year, and by Western governments like the United States for most of the heroin on the streets of Europe and North America.
These are allegations which Mr Bao vigorously denies.
“It makes me fed up and angry… I’m tired of hearing it. It’s nonsense,” he said.
But the allegations continue, and with the new growing season at its height, there is increasing international concern about the production of opium in Burma’s Golden Triangle.
The Burmese authorities are now insisting that poppy cultivation this season will be half as much as last year.
“We hope to cut opium production by 50% in the current production year [2002-3],” said the head of Burma’s drug suppression committee, police colonel Hkam Awng.
“There will be a dramatic reduction in poppy cultivation in the coming year,” the Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung told the BBC. “You will see!”
‘Too fast, too soon’
But UN officials are worried about the possible impact of this planned rapid decrease in poppy cultivation.
They fear that as a consequence, poor farmers who are dependant on growing the illicit drug will suffer.
“A 50% reduction is revolutionary and we should be happy with that,” said the head of the United Nations Drugs Control Programme in Rangoon, Jean-Luc Lemahieu.
“But it’s too fast, too soon. I don’t see enough income coming in for the opium poppy farmers and I’m concerned that we’ll have a humanitarian crisis on our hands as a result.”
UN officials fear that if there are no viable substitute cash crops or income generating schemes for the poor farmers, the result will be that they have no alternative but to return to poppy production the following year, as happened in Afghanistan.
And while the Burmese authorities continue to insist they are doing all they can to reduce opium production, the reality is that amphetamine tablets, known as crazy medicine or ya baa, continue to flood across Burma’s borders, especially into Thailand.
Thai military officials are warning that Thailand is facing an invasion of more than a billion tablets next year – most of which will be produced in the Golden Triangle.
“The precursor chemicals needed for the manufacture of amphetamines are not produced in Burma and are illegal here,” Win Aung told the BBC.
“They come from India, Thailand and China. More needs to be done to stop the smuggling of these chemicals across our borders.”
But as many experts point out, the only way to effectively combat drug trafficking is to suppress the demand for it as well as cut its production.