By Sean Healy
A videotape smuggled out of Burma by Thai drug investigators has provided further evidence of the close links between Burma's military regime and heroin traffickers.
The videotape shows an October 1 meeting between intelligence chief Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt and Burma's most powerful drug baron, Wei Xuegang, in a village controlled by Wei's United Wa State Army (UWSA).
According to the November 3 Bangkok Post, Khin was on an inspection tour of Wei's new military headquarters and was seen in the video pointing at building works and asking questions. "The general clearly was at ease in the company of the drug lord and his commanders", stated the Post report.
The regime denied any sinister undertones to the meeting, saying that it was part of regime's efforts to convince the drug lords to change their ways.
Burma is the world's second largest producer of heroin, after Afghanistan. The United Nations Drug Control Program claimed that, during the last poppy growing season (September 1998 to February), 1085 tonnes of opium gum were produced in Burma, enough to produce more than 100 tonnes of heroin.
This figure is 38% less than the previous year's crop, a reduction that the regime claims was a result of its programs but which the UNDCP claims was due mainly to poor weather.
The reduction was in any case more than offset by a dramatic increase in the production of amphetamines; according to an official of Thailand's Narcotics Control Board, 300 million amphetamine pills are produced annually in areas controlled by the drug lords.
The videotape is not the first report of a meeting between Khin and Wei. The Bangkok Post reported on April 10 that they were to meet the following day in the village of Yawn on the Thai-Burma border.
Since the ruling junta led by Khin took direct power in 1988, opium production in Burma has doubled. Since 1989, the regime has sought cease-fire agreements with former insurgent groups, granted them local autonomy and encouraged — even participated in — the drug trade.
Wei's UWSA is the dominant force in the drug trade in the "Golden Triangle", centred on Shan state in north-west Burma.
The Wa are amongst the poorest of Burma's many ethnic minorities, living in nearly inaccessible mountains on the Burma-China border. Only 10% of Wa households have access to electricity, and schools, hospitals and roads are almost non-existent. For many Wa farmers, the pittance paid by drug lords for their poppy crop is the only possible source of cash.
The UWSA originated in mass defections from the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, which had controlled large portions of Shan state from the 1970s. The UWSA immediately sought a cease-fire with the regime, and its leaders turned to the drug trade.
By 1996, the UWSA had been able to displace Khun Sa and his Mong Tai Army as Burma's largest drug traffickers and had seized control of Khun Sa's former strongholds on the Thai-Burma border. The regime then negotiated a deal with Khun Sa to allow him to "retire" to Rangoon and launder his wealth through Burmese state banks.
Since then, the UWSA has been given a free hand by the regime. In 1995, the regime recognised the UWSA's control of Mong Yawn, proclaiming it a "special administrative zone" for the next five years.
On July 29, the Bangkok Post reported that the regime had extended this recognition for a further five years.
The regime's interest in the drug trade has been twofold. Drug money has funded major economic developments in Burma, which have enriched the regime and enabled it to get around international trade sanctions and restrictions.
According to a report by Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein in the spring 1998 edition of the US magazine Covert Action Quarterly, Khun Sa has invested US$250 million in a new highway between Rangoon and Burma's second largest city, Mandalay, in the north.
Another drug lord, Lo Xinghan, has also invested millions in a deepwater port in Rangoon, an express bus line into northern Burma and a US$33 million tollway from the heart of Burma's poppy-growing region to the China border, all of which can support expansion of the drug trade. Lo Xinghan is Khin Nyunt's special adviser for ethnic affairs.
Much of the funding for Lo's projects has come from private and public firms in Singapore, firms which have also been involved in arms sales and infrastructure deals with the regime. For instance, Singapore Technologies, a publicly owned conglomerate, built a new communications centre for Burma's regime which allows it to intercept incoming telephone calls, faxes, e-mails and computer data transmissions.
The regime's other motive for promoting the drug trade is to split the many armed ethnic groups and suppress those still committed to struggling against its rule.
On July 8, the Bangkok Phuchatkan reported that a Thai intelligence unit had monitored negotiations between the UWSA and a Burmese army colonel for joint operations against the insurgent Karen National Union. In exchange for helping to deny the KNU re-entry to areas captured by the Burmese military, the UWSA would be allowed to operate buses between Myawaddy, Paan and Moulmein on the Andaman Sea and to set up amphetamine production facilities in Myawaddy.
The negotiations also determined the sharing of amphetamine profits from the area: the UWSA would receive 40%, the Burmese military would get 30%, and the remaining 30% would go to the regime-backed Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which has fought against the KNU.
On July 24, the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) reported that the Burmese government had launched a scorched-earth campaign against the Shan State Army South led by Yord Serk. The SSA is part of a five-party alliance including the KNU which has vowed to overthrow the regime.
According to SHAN, the Burmese Army's north-east command has issued orders to liquidate any villager or headman suspected of sympathising with the SSA or who fails to report its movements. The operation is being conducted by six junta battalions and by elements of Khun Sa's former Mong Tai Army, which was supposedly disbanded in 1996.
On August 25, SHAN reported comments by Yord Serk on Thai and United States efforts to cooperate with Rangoon in an anti-drugs campaign: "That's like trying to destroy a poison tree by pruning it and not uprooting it.
"The Was are only the arrow. The bow is Rangoon. You can break the arrow but not stop the shooting until the bow is under your control.
"What should be done is to stop the junta from violating the people and waging a proxy war, through drugs, against Thailand. They should help us non-Burmans win our right to determine our destiny and the Burmans to win their democracy."