Tue 31 Aug 2004
Filed under: Drugs,News
All eyes will be on the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle come next year when an ethnic army controlling a sizeable portion of the region is due to turn the opium-rich area into a drug-free zone.
Many in the international community dismissed the announcement as a ploy to obtain legitimacy on the part of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). But a very significant number of people will be watching to see what direction
Burma’s decades-old opium politics will take and what kind of impact this will have on the poor farmers trapped in the vicious, but lucrative, drug trade.
Almost immediately upon coming into being, the group entered into a cease-fire agreement with the Rangoon government in return for limited self-rule.Â But in recent years, the 20,000-strong outfit, dubbed the world’s largest armed drug-trafficking group by the US State Department,
has worked hard to present itself as a trustworthy organisation. The UWSA claims to champion the well being of its own people.
Shortly after driving out opium warlord Khun Sa from the Thai border in 1997, the UWSA took on the daunting task of expanding their territory, from the Chinese to the Thai borders. The forced relocation of tens of thousands villagers was necessary, insisted UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang,
because he wanted to end opium cultivation. Or so he claimed.Â The Thai military and security agencies see their expansion as a strategic move.
Shaking off the drug stigma, it seems, has proven to be a difficult task. But a much needed morale booster for Bao came just two months ago with the release of an annual drug report from the UN that said Burmese opium production has continued to decline steadily, thus suggesting that the country as a whole and the UWSA, for that matter is moving in the right direction.
Some in the Thai security agencies have also suggested that they are willing to let bygones be bygones if they are convinced the UWSA is serious about turning over a new leaf and stopping the drug trade.Â Others say the verdict is still out on how the politics of opium and insurgencies in Burma will unfold.
Yang Fengrui, chief of the narcotics bureau in China’s Ministry of Public Security, recently stated publicly that drugs coming out of the Golden Triangle continue to pose a serious threat for his country. China has also vowed to do more to curb the flow of precursor chemicals produced in its labs and illegally diverted to the clandestine ones in the Golden Triangle where heroin and methamphetamines are produced.Â Beijing announced a plan in June to double resources to stop the spread of drugs at their origin.
Thailand, meanwhile, has taken a very confusing position in regard to its unwanted neighbour.Â Amid condemnation of the Wa army from certain quarters in the country, the government has tried being nice to the UWSA.Â Late last year, the commander of the Thai Third Army was sent to the
UWSA’s southern stronghold, Mong Yawn, to take part in the opening ceremony of a Thai-funded school.
Many Burma-watchers said they were dazed at what appeared to be an attempt to whitewash the drug army.Â To them, the picture looked rather odd, Thai and Burmese military top brass holding hands with warlords they suspect of supplying countries around the region with millions of methamphetamines weekly and the world with tonnes of opium and heroin annually.
Thai security forces on the ground said they could not afford to let the diplomatic feel good between Bangkok and Rangoon overshadow security problems and maintained that the northern border would continue to be tightly guarded.
Heroin and methamphetamines, they said, continued to pour out of the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle in all directions.
China continues to be the hardest hit. The South China Morning Post recently quoted a Chinese narcotics official as saying that most of the 70-plus tonnes of heroin produced annually in the Golden Triangle makes its way to China. Another popular route is the Andaman Sea, where cargo
ships help deliver white powder to various ports in major cities throughout the world.
Analysts say that so long as the drug armies are permitted to operate freely, and so long as restrictions on the precursor chemicals needed to make heroin and methamphetamines are not properly enforced, illicit drugs
will continue to flow out of the Golden Triangle.